What Did the Lady Forget? (淑女は何を忘れたか, Yasujiro Ozu, 1937)

Japan was in a precarious position in 1937. Ozu’s What Did the Lady Forget? (淑女は何を忘れたか, Shukujo wa Nani wo Wasureta ka) was released in March of that year but by July the Second Sino-Japanese War would be in full swing and on the home front increasing censorship would render this kind of inconsequential comedy a much less easy sell. True enough, the film includes no “patriotic” content though it does eventually reinforce a set of patriarchal values in the remasculinisation of a henpecked husband while quietly sniggering at a new bourgeois social class.

The drama unfolds in the home of a medical professor, Komiya (Tatsuo Saito), and his austere wife Tokiko (Sumiko Kurishima). The couple have no children and mostly lead separate lives. Tokiko spends her days with two close friends, widowed single-mother Mitsuko (Mitsuko Yoshikawa), and wealthy older woman Chiyoko (Choko Iida) who is married to her husband’s friend, Sugiyama (Takeshi Sakamoto). The three women gossip about the usual things from fancy department store kimonos to new ways to laugh so you don’t get wrinkles along with the bizarrely difficult maths problems Mitsuko’s son has been studying in preparation for middle-school that none of them can answer. To help with the embarrassingly taxing homework, Tokiko offers to find a tutor, press-ganging her husband’s best student, Okada (Shuji Sano), into spending time with Mitsuko’s son Fujio (Masao Hayama) though it turns out that he too, a college graduate, is unable to solve these middle-school level problems. 

The real drama occurs when the couple’s neice, Setsuko (Michiko Kuwano), whom Tokiko had described as “proper” and “wholesome” rocks up from Osaka having become the epitome of a modern girl. Setsuko’s arrival further strains the Komiyas’ already fraying relationship as her surprising habits which include driving, smoking, drinking, and hanging out with geisha, continue to exasperate her aunt whose main objection to all of those things is that they aren’t appropriate because Setsuko is not yet married. To get away from his nagging wife who forces him to go golfing as usual when he doesn’t really want to, Komiya stashes his clubs with Okada and goes to a bar in Ginza where he meets Sugiyama who has also been forced outside by his wife. Sugiyama really does go golfing, promising to mail a previously written postcard to Tokiko on Komiya’s behalf, while he is eventually joined by Setsuko who has tracked him down to the bar despite being told to stay home and mind the house (the Komiyas have two live-in maids so the instruction seems unnecessary at best).  

As a “modern gal” Setsuko has some strangely old fashioned ideas even as she behaves like a 1930s ladette, striding around like man while drinking, smoking, and generally being almost as intimidating as Tokiko just in a more likeable fashion. Setsuko finds Komiya’s deferral to his wife embarrassing, encouraging him to be more masculine and stand up for himself even advising that he use violence to reassert his position as the man of the house. He seems uncomfortable with the idea but eventually does just that after a climactic argument once his lying about the golf and Setsuko’s nighttime adventures have been exposed. Caught in a moment of frustration, he slaps Tokiko across the face, leaving her to retreat in shock apparently “beaten”. The thing is, however, Tokiko likes it. She sees his slapping her as a sign of his love, as if she’s been needling him all this time in hope of a reaction while frustrated that perhaps he doesn’t care for her. Once he hits her, the marriage is rebalanced and repaired with traditional gender dynamics restored. She becomes more cheerful and deferent to his male authority, he acknowledges that he enabled her “arrogance” with his weakness as a man.  

Setsuko however, continues to shout at her uncle, disappointed that he apologised for his reaction and accusing him of giving away the victory he’d just won. He tells her that he’s simply using reverse psychology because wives like to believe they’re in charge and in the main it’s best to let them. Setsuko seems satisfied, but jokes with her new love interest Okada that he better not use reverse psychology on her. Or, he can, but she’ll just use reverse reverse psychology to get the upper hand, which perhaps undercuts the central message in praise of traditional gender roles. Nevertheless, What Did the Lady Forget? is full of Lubitschy late-30s charms from an unexpected sighting of real life star Ken Uehara at the Kabuki to Setsuko’s movie magazines featuring Marlene Dietrich and repeated references to Frederich March and William Powell proving that Ginza is open even in 1937, while the Komiya household descends into an oddly peaceful harmony of delayed marital bliss. 


Currently streaming in the UK via BFI Player as part of Japan 2020. Also available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel.

Burden of Life (人生のお荷物, Heinosuke Gosho, 1935)

Despite being at the forefront of early Japanese cinema, directing Japan’s very first talkie, Heinosuke Gosho remains largely unknown overseas. Like many films of the era, much of Gosho’s silent work is lost but the director was among the pioneers of the “shomin-geki” genre which dealt with ordinary, lower middle class society in contemporary Japan. Burden of Life (人生のお荷物, Jinsei no Onimotsu) is another in the long line of girls getting married movies, but Gosho allows his particular brand of irrevent, ironic humour to colour the scene as an ageing patriarch muses on retiring from the fathering business before resentfully remembering his only son, born to him when he was already 50 years old.

Rather than focussing on the main narrative right away, Gosho gives us a crash course in marital relations as we meet middle sister, Itsuko (Kinuyo Tanaka), who is currently posing for a raunchy portrait her starving artist husband is painting. Itsuko dresses in Western style, smokes openly and often, and her home is a bohemian one of the kind you’d imagine a (well to do) artist from the ‘30s would live in. The couple are interrupted by their brother-in-law who has come in search of his wife, Takako (Yoshiko Tsubouchi), with whom he’s had yet another argument causing her to storm off somewhere or other in a huff.

Takako has indeed stormed off, but has gone to her mother’s where her younger sister, Machiko (Mitsuyo Mizushima) is preparing for her own wedding and now feeling quite nervous hoping that it won’t be as tempestuous as Takako’s. The three sisters also have a little brother, Kanichi, who is doted on by the women of the family but has a strained relationship with his father, Shozo (Tatsuo Saito). The main conflict occurs once Shozo has successfully married off Machiko and begins happily contemplating a burden free life only to remember that little Kanichi is only eight and so there are twelve more years of fatherhood ahead of him and he’ll be 70 before he gets any peace. In order to speed up the process, he tells his wife Tamako (Mitsuko Yoshikawa) that maybe Kanichi doesn’t need to go school and should go out and get a job instead. Tamako, rightly outraged at her husband’s persistent coldness towards their son brings things to a head by leaving the family home.

The themes are common ones as a family faces the successful marriage of its youngest daughter but the pattern is complicated by the loose end that is Kanichi. Much younger than his sisters, it’s easy to believe Shozo’s assertions that his arrival was somewhat unexpected but far from a joyous surprise Shozo still seems to regard him with a degree of mild horror. Fearing becoming an elderly father Shozo’s concerns are fair given the additional burdens placed on him in having to find good husbands for three women and then pay for their weddings and dowries never mind a college education for a son he never wanted. Kanichi seems to be aware on some level of the way his father feels about him as a poignant scene implies when he begs some of the other neighbourhood children to keep playing with him even though it’s past tea time because he doesn’t want to go home if his dad is there.

Shozo fails to reform his opinion even after his wife leaves him. Almost delighting in a late life slice of batchelorhood, Shozo heads into the bar district for a night out where he ends up drinking with some younger guys, surrounded by students singing the Keio University song. His attention is momentarily taken by a small boy of around Kanichi’s age who is selling flowers to amorous patrons but it’s only once a hostess calls him “papa” that he seems to feel aged fatherhood reassert itself. Enquiring about her age he discovers she is only 19 – much younger than any of his daughters, and consequently Shozo begins to feel more like a ridiculous old man than a young buck on the prowl.

Gosho draws a number of contrasts within his “ordinary” family from the three sisters who seem to represent the changing times in their differing attitudes to the husband and wife and the division of their home. Itsuko, Westernised and brassy, is living well beyond her means and touching her parents for money in order to do it. Talking things over with the kimono’d Takako who offers to recommend a traditional hairstylist for Machiko’s wedding, Itsuko has some advice for dealing with men which she calls “reverse psychology”. Takako and her husband may not have children and fight all the time, but she is in other ways a model wife even if she thinks married life ought to be simpler than it is. Machiko is caught on the brink, though we never see her husband, wondering what her own married life will entail. Her father, Shozo, lamenting on his responsibilities remarks that women are like products for sale, requiring investments which will eventually pay off in terms of successful marriages but any investment in a son is, in a sense, a waste. Family, for him, is less a social unit and more a mini business enterprise from which he was looking forward to retiring.

In the end of course he changes his mind though more out of loneliness or a sense of mortality than any less selfish emotion. Slight at 66 minutes, Gosho packs in as much detail as possible whilst maintaining a broadly comic, almost screwball tone filled with selfish husbands and calculating wives all making the most of the relatively stable times. Life has many burdens but sometimes it’s better to rebrand those burdens joys and make the most of them before someone else decides to carry them for you and all you’re left with is an empty sort of lightness. You’re only old once, after all.