My Second Brother (にあんちゃん, Shohei Imamura, 1959)

vlcsnap-2017-01-07-22h53m01s073Like most directors of his era, Shohei Imamura began his career in the studio system as a trainee with Shochiku where he also worked as an AD to Yasujiro Ozu on some of his most well known pictures. Ozu’s approach, however, could not be further from Imamura’s in its insistence on order and precision. Finding much more in common with another Shochiku director, Yuzo Kawashima, well known for working class satires, Imamura jumped ship to the newly reformed Nikkatsu where he continued his training until helming his first three pictures in 1958 (Stolen Desire, Nishiginza Station, and Endless Desire). My Second Brother (にあんちゃん, Nianchan), which he directed in 1959, was, like the previous three films, a studio assignment rather than a personal project but is nevertheless an interesting one as it united many of Imamura’s subsequent ongoing concerns.

Set in the early 1950s, the film focuses on four children who find themselves adrift when their father dies leaving them with no means of support. The father had worked at the local mine but the mining industry is itself in crisis. Many of the local mines have already closed, and even this one finds itself in financial straits. Despite the foreman’s promise that he will find a job for the oldest son, Kiichi (Hiroyuki Nagato), there is no work to be had as workers are being paid in food vouchers rather than money and strike action frustrates what little production there is. After receiving the unwelcome suggestion of work in a “restaurant” in another town, Yoshiko (Kayo Matsuo) manages to find a less degrading job caring for another family’s children (though she receives only room and board, no pay for doing so). With younger brother Koichi (Takeshi Okimura) and little sister Sueko (Akiko Maeda) still in school, it seems as if the four siblings’ days of being able to live together as a family may be over for good.

Based on a bestselling autobiographical novel by a ten year old girl, My Second Brother is one of the first films to broach the Zainichi (ethnic Koreans living in Japan) issue, even if it does so in a fairly subtle way. The four children have been raised in Japan, speak only Japanese and do not seem particularly engaged with their Korean culture but we are constantly reminded of their non-native status by the comments of other locals, mostly older women and housewives, who are apt to exclaim things along the lines of “Koreans are so shiftless” or other derogatory aphorisms. Though there are other Koreans in the area, including one friend who reassures Kiichi that “We’re Korean – lose one job, we find another”, the biggest effect of the children’s ethnicity is in their status as second generation migrants which leaves them without the traditional safety net of the extended family. Though they do have contact with an uncle, the children are unable to bond with him – his Japanese is bad, and the children are unused to spicy Korean food. They have to rely first on each other and then on the kindness of strangers, of which there is some, but precious little in these admittedly difficult times.

In this, which is Imamura’s primary concern, the children’s poverty is no different from that of the general population during this second depression at the beginning of the post-war period. The film does not seek to engage with the reasons why the Zainichi population may find itself disproportionately affected by the downturn but prefers to focus on the generalised economic desperation and the resilience of working people. The environment is, indeed, dire with the ancient problem of a single water source being used by everyone for everything at the same time with all the resultant health risks that poses. A young middle class woman is trying to get something done in terms of sanitation, but her presence is not altogether welcome in the town as the residents have become weary of city based do-gooders who rarely stay long enough to carry through their promises. The more pressing problem is the lack of real wages as salaries are increasingly substituted for vouchers. The labour movement is ever present in the background with the Red Flag drifting from the mass protests in which the workers voice their dissatisfaction with the company though the spectre of mine closure and large scale layoffs has others running scared.

One of the most moving sequences occurs as Koichi and another young boy ride a mine cart up the mountain and talk about their hopes for the future. They both want to get out of this one horse town – Koichi as a doctor and his friend as an engineer, but their hopes seem so far off and untouchable that it’s almost heartbreaking. Sueko skipped school for four days claiming she had a headache because her brother didn’t have the money for her school books – how could a boy like Koichi, no matter how bright he is, possibly come from here and get to medical school? Nevertheless, he is determined. His father couldn’t save the family from poverty, and neither could his brother but Koichi vows he will and as he leads his sister by the hand climbing the high mountain together, it almost seems like he might.


 

Lullaby of the Earth (大地の子守歌, Yasuzo Masumura, 1976)

lullaby-of-the-earthYasuzo Masumura is best remembered for his deliberately transgressive, often shockingly grotesque critiques of Japanese society and its conformist overtones. Lullaby of the Earth (大地の子守歌, Daichi no Komoriuta) is one of his few completely independent features, filmed after the bankruptcy of Daiei where Masumura had spent the bulk of his early years. As such, it is quite an exception in terms of his wider career both in terms of its production and in its earthy, spiritual themes. Adapted from the 1974 novel by Kukiko Moto, Lullaby of the Earth is the story of an abandoned and betrayed woman but one who also draws her strength from the Earth itself.

13 year old Rin (Mieko Harada) has been living with her adopted grandmother in a remote mountain community. Returning home one day triumphantly carrying a rabbit for dinner, Rin discovers that her grandmother has passed away. Being just a child and now alone and frightened, Rin does not know what to do and later receives harsh treatment from the villagers from whom she temporarily conceals her grandmother’s death. With no one to look after her, Rin is approached by a kind seeming man in Western dress who offers her a good job on a nearby island which, he says, pays well and offers a much better quality of life than Rin’s current survivalist setup in the mountains. Rin has heard tales of men like him before and is not taken in by his arguments, even when he suggests she could use the money to buy a proper grave for her grandmother. She is, however, caught when he mentions taking her to see the sea – something she has been longing for for most of her life.

However, Rin’s pure joy at the waves and endless horizons of the shoreline is short lived when reality hits home and she realises she has been sold to a brothel. The brothel owners are not a bad sort, considering, and intend on using her as a servant until she comes of age but Rin is not having any of it. Refusing to eat, work, or wear her new clothes, Rin is proving to be a very bad investment but changes her tune when she strikes up a friendship with a girl who works at a local store who convinces her that her rebellion is misplaced. Work hard and pay off your debt, she says, and they’ll let you go home. Rin decides to do just that, and with her characteristic energy, but her journey home is not to be such a straight forward experience.

Lullaby of the Earth maybe unusual in Masumura’s filmography due its period setting and gentler, more spiritually orientated progression but Rin is, in many ways, a typical Masumura heroine. A true child of nature, Rin is athletic, at home in the forests and woods trapping rabbits and building fires. Her downfall is brought about precisely because of her desire for total freedom. Longing to see the sea with all of the freedom and possibilities that it suggests, Rin allows herself to be taken in by the false promises of a procurer (presumably alerted by a less than helpful villager), little knowing that she’s damned herself for a period of at least three years.

Made to suffer numerous degradations from the humiliation of her servitude, to a beating that leaves her half dead and her final forced prostitution, Rin maintains her resistance in whichever way she can. Striving for control, Rin takes on a masculine quality defined by strength and agility rather than elegance and beauty. Once again longing for the sea, Rin begs to be allowed to row the boat that takes the girls out to find business from passing ships. “If you take my oar you’ll be in trouble” she later exclaims, clinging to her source of male power even whilst being forced into the gaudy brothel kimono. Displaying her own ability for active choice even within her controlled environment, Rin takes the scissors to her own hair, cutting it short like a man’s.

Given the chance to escape the brothel for a comfortable life as the mistress of a wealthy man, Rin refuses. A decision which seems bizarre to many of the other girls, but Rin will have her freedom back in its entirety – she will not swap one cage for another as the prized possession of a some other authority. Meeting a man who claims he may be able to help her, Rin starts working overtime to save the money to escape with the consequence that her health suffers, leading to almost total blindness followed by listless depression. Only at this point does her inner fire start to waver, but it is never extinguished allowing her to finally make a break for it even if she literally cannot see where she is headed.

Rin’s guiding voices come from the Earth itself as mediated by the kindly internal presence of her grandmother. The soil is sacred, as her grandmother told her. Rub soil into your wounds and you’ll soon be healed. In times of trouble, lie against the Earth’s surface and you will know what to do. Rin wants to find the way back to her mountain, but it may no longer exist for her. Nevertheless, the Earth itself is singing and will tell her where to go, so long as she can find the strength to listen.

Masumura begins the film with Rin at prayer, dressed in the white clothes of a pilgrim and dutifully following the temple paths around the island of Shikoku. Suffering a final PTSD flashback of all she’s suffered since her grandmother’s passing, Rin is once again comforted by the sounds of the Earth, beginning with her grandmother’s voice to which more are slowly added, cheering her on with chorus of support as she walks towards the end of her journey. A wonderful, early leading performance for Mieko Harada, Lullaby of the Earth is a far more new age exercise than Masumura’s generally cynical approach to human spirituality would usually allow but neatly tallies with his primary concerns in its heroine’s eternal quest for her own autonomy, body and soul, as she traverses a cold and unforgiving world.


 

A Woman’s Story (女の歴史, Mikio Naruse, 1963)

woman's storyMikio Naruse made the lives of everyday women the central focus of his entire body of work but his 1963 film, A Woman’s Story (女の歴史, Onna no Rekishi), proves one of his less subtle attempts to chart the trials and tribulations of post-war generation. Told largely through extended flashbacks and voice over from Naruse’s frequent leading actress, Hideko Takamine, the film paints a bleak vision of the endless suffering inherent in being a woman at this point in history but does at least offer a glimmer of hope and understanding as the curtains falls.

We meet Nobuko Shimizu (Hideko Takamine) in the contemporary era where she is a successful proprietor of a beauty salon in bustling ‘60s Tokyo. She has a grown up son who works as a car salesman though he’s often kept out late entertaining clients and has less and less time for the mother who gave up so much on his behalf. Her life is about to change when Kohei (Tsutomu Yamazaki) suddenly announces that he wants to get married – his lady love is a bar hostess to whom he’s become a knight in shining armour after saving her from a violent and persistent stalker. Needless to say, Nobuko does not approve both for the selfish reason that she isn’t ready to “lose” her son, and because of the social stigma of adding a woman who’s been employed in that line of work to the family.

All of this is about to become (almost) irrelevant as tragedy strikes leaving Nobuko to reflect on all the long years of suffering she’s endured up to this point only to have been struck by such a cruel and unexpected blow. An arranged marriage, her husband’s infidelity, the war which cost her home, possessions and also the entirely of her family, and finally the inescapable pain of lost love as the man who offers her salvation is quickly removed from her life only to resurface years later with the kind of pleasantries one might offer a casual acquaintance made at party some years ago. Life has dealt Nobuko a series of hard knocks and now she’s become hard too, but perhaps if she allows herself to soften there might be something worth living for after all.

Women of a similar age in 1963 would doubtless find a lot to identify with in Nobuko’s all too common set of personal tragedies. They too were expected to consent to an arranged marriage with its awkward wedding night and sudden plunge into an unfamiliar household. Nobuko has been lucky in that her husband is a nice enough man who actually had quite a crush on her though there is discord within the household and Nobuko also has to put up with the unwelcome attentions of her father-in-law. This familial tension later implodes though fails to resolve itself just as Japan’s military endeavours mount up and Nobuko gives birth to her little boy, Kohei. Husband Kouichi becomes increasingly cold towards her before being drafted into the army leaving her all alone with a young child.

All these troubles only get worse when the war ends. Though Kouichi’s former company had been paying his salary while he was at the front, they care little for his widow now. Left with nothing to do but traffic rice, Nobuko comes back into contact with her husband’s old friend, Akimoto (Tatsuya Nakadai), who wants to help her but is himself involved in a series of illegal enterprises. Nobuko is molested twice by a loud and drunken man who accosts her firstly on a crowded train (no one even tries to help her) and then again at a cafe where she is only saved by the intervention of Akimoto, arriving just in the nick of time. Nobuko sacrifices her chances at happiness to care for Kohei, caring about nothing else except his survival and eventual success.

Of course, Kohei isn’t particularly grateful and feels trapped by his mother’s overwhelming love for him. Nobuko’s sacrifices have also made her a little bit selfish and afraid of being eclipsed in the life of her son. It’s easy to understand the way that she later behaves towards Kohei’s new bride, but if she wants to maintain any kind of connection to the son that’s become her entire world, she will need to learn to allow another woman to share it with her.

Naruse is a master at capturing the deep seated, hidden longings that women of his era were often incapable of realising but A Woman’s Story flirts with melodrama whilst refusing to engage. The awkward flashback structure lends the film a degree of incoherence which frustrates any attempt to build investment in Nobuko’s mounting sorrows, and the voiceover also adds an additional layer of bitterness which makes it doubly hard to swallow. This is in no way helped by the frequently melodramatic music which conspires to ruin any attempts at subtlety in favour of maudlin sentimentality. The endless suffering of mid-twentieth century women is all too well drawn as grief gives way to heartbreak and self sacrifice, though Naruse does at least offer the chance to begin again with the hope of a brighter and warmer future of three women and a baby building the world of tomorrow free of bombs and war and sorrow.