Three Sisters with Maiden Hearts (乙女ごころ三人姉妹, Mikio Naruse, 1935)

Three sisters with maiden heart title card“From the youngest age, I have thought that the world we live in betrays us” Mikio Naruse is often quoted as saying, and it’s certainly an idea which informs much of his filmmaking. 1935’s Three Sisters with Maiden Hearts (乙女ごころ三人姉妹, Otome-gokoro  Sannin-shimai), adapted from a short story by Yasunari Kawabata, is indeed a tale of the world’s cruelty as its saintly heroine attempts to escape her austere mother’s icy grip through kindness alone but finds her efforts frustrated by the world in which she lives.

Osome (Masako Tsutsumi) is the middle of three sisters raised by a cold woman (Chitose Hayashi) who forced her daughters to earn their keep by playing the shamisen on the streets of Asakusa. Oldest daughter Oren (Chikako Hosokawa) left the family some time ago after falling in love with a salaryman and hasn’t been heard from since, and while Osome is still expected to ply her trade, youngest daughter Chieko (Ryuko Umezono) has been spared, becoming a “modern girl” currently working as a dancer in a revue. Unbeknownst to her family, Chieko has also got a boyfriend – the handsome and seemingly quite wealthy Aoyama (Heihachiro Okawa) who runs into Osome by chance in the street and offers her a handkerchief to help fix her broken geta. This is not the story of a love triangle, however, so much as cruel fate accidentally bringing the sisters back together through a shared destiny.

While Chieko idly muses that it might have been better if her mother had opted for group suicide (joking with her lover about dying together as was apparently a fad at the time), Osome tearfully asks her to “please accept us as we are” but her pleas largely fall on deaf ears. Having taken in a series of apprentices, Osome’s mother continues to treat them cruelly, berating them for not picking up the shamisen, and insisting on “discipline” when she discovers one of the girls has had the temerity to buy a magazine with some of the money she herself has earned. Osome, in a characteristic act of kindness, insists she bought the magazine as a morale booster only to receive her mother’s scorn. “I put so much effort into raising you, but you still haven’t become people who’ll give an honest day’s work” she complains, commodifying them once again. “You don’t know how much easier it would be to go out and earn money myself”, she adds unconvincingly, telling her daughter she can always leave if she doesn’t like it despite having irritatedly complained about Chieko’s increasingly late return home and the possibility she may leave just like Oren did.

As Osome tells us, she and her sister were forced to play the shamisen in unsavoury Asakusa from only eight years old. As they got older, Osome was worried about the attention Oren seemed to be getting from “rough” men in the streets. Eventually Oren stopped carrying her shamisen at all and fell in with a bad crowd, only escaping when she met her husband Kosugi (Osamu Takizawa). Kosugi, however, is ill with TB and finding it difficult to hold down a job. Increasingly jealous and paranoid, he is afraid Oren will hook up with her old gangster friends and fall back into bad habits. Meanwhile, Osome is still playing her shamisen and putting up with rough treatment from the drunken clientele who sometimes try to manhandle her or make unreasonable requests. An irritated bar owner eventually knocks on a record to drown her out as if signalling her impending obsolesce.

Nevertheless, the older two sisters have largely remained traditional. Oren’s fall into the gangster underworld is signalled by a sighting of her in Western clothes, looking like a well to do young lady as Osome puts it, but once with Kosugi she soon reverts to kimono and fully embraces the role of a conventional housewife supporting her husband with all her strength. Chieko, however, is a “modern girl”, dancing in a nightclub revue and dressing exclusively in Western fashions. Some horrible boys who make a point of singing the rather vulgar song back at the girls through the window yell “modern girl” at her in the street, indicating just how shocking and unconventional her appearance was back in 1935 even in the backstreets of Asakusa. Nevertheless, Chieko appears to have found a satisfying romance with a “modern boy” in Aoyama who dresses in suits and seems to have a bit of money but is undeterred by a possible class difference and just as nice as his potential sister-in-law.

Despite Osome’s attempts to reunite the sisters, fate conspires against her. Oren hooks back up with her lowlife friends who use her in a plot to extort Aoyama while she remains completely unaware that she’s targeting her sister’s young man. Osome tries to tries to stop them but is stabbed by thugs in the process and, figuring out what’s happened, keeps Aoyama and Chieko away from the station where she has arranged to bid Oren goodbye on the last train out of Ueno. Poignantly, Oren seems happy that her sister has found someone nice, saying that she’d have liked to meet him still unaware she already has. The sisters know they likely won’t meet again, and Osome is content only in knowing that in theory at least she has saved the memory of the bond they once shared through preventing Oren’s involvement in the incident with Aoyama from coming to light.

Osome’s kindness is her undoing. Her world betrays her, she is simply too good, too pure-hearted to be able to survive in it. The three sisters struggle to overcome neglectful parenting, but their mother has at least survived if unhappily, suggesting the world is kinder to those whose hearts are colder. Oren and Chieko go their separate ways, into the past (on a train) and the future (by car), but Osome remains stubbornly in the waiting room with only the inevitable awaiting her.


Avalanche (雪崩, Mikio Naruse, 1937)

Naruse Avalanche title cardDespite his broadly progressive outlook, it would perhaps be unfair to describe Mikio Naruse as a political filmmaker. Yet filmmaking in the late 1930s was an inherently political act if only by omission. 1937’s Avalanche (雪崩, Nadare), adapted in collaboration with left-wing intellectual Tomoyoshi Murayama from a serialised novel by the quietly anti-authoritarian Jiro Osaragi, seems to be almost in dialogue with its times as its hyper-individualist “hero” engages in a series of discussions with his humanist father about the new philosophies which for him at least spell the future.

Naruse opens, however, with the heroine – sweet and innocent bride Fukiko (Noboru Kiritachi ), dressed in kimono and sporting a traditional married woman’s haircut as she gazes lovingly on her wedding photo sighing softly that a year has gone by already. Flashing back, we realise that Fukiko eloped with wealthy scion of the Kusaka family, Goro (Hideo Saeki), who apparently forced the disapproving parents to accept the union by persuading Fukiko to accompany him to a hotel in Nagoya from which they were collected by Goro’s kindly father (Yo Shiomi). Though Fukiko remains deeply in love with Goro, it is obvious to everyone else that the marriage is not happy. Having reconnected with childhood sweetheart Yayoi (Ranko Edogawa), Goro wants a divorce, justifying his actions with the rationale that it will be better for Fukiko to end things now rather allow her to suffer years of a loveless marriage that is destined to end in separation.

Goro’s father, a little fed up with his wayward, increasingly psychopathic son, feels differently. He thinks that Goro has made his bed and must now accept his responsibility, committing to caring for Fukiko as a husband should regardless of whether or not he has romantic love for her. Goro, however, insists that this is a matter which only concerns himself and rejects any responsibility towards Fukiko, insisting that would be cowardly and dishonest to go on living with a woman he doesn’t love under the pretence that he does. Exasperatedly pointing out that one lives as a member of a society and cannot always be free to do as one pleases, Goro’s father tries to awaken him to social responsibility by reminding him that he only thinks he has the luxury of choice because he is the heir to the wealthy Kusaka family and would likely feel differently if he were just a regular salaryman. Goro doesn’t quite deny it, but (ironically) also condemns the hypocrisy of social propriety, avowing that he will not live a life of lies like those respectable married couples with lovers on the side.

Goro’s father asks if he’s not being overly literal, seeing as life is rarely as black and white as he’s painting it for the purposes of his argument but Goro counters that his father is “bound by old morality” of which he believes himself to be free. Later, trying to win back the heart of Yayoi, he reveals himself to be a hyper-individualist who believes that the only true path to happiness lies in indifference to the suffering of others. It seems that Goro’s decision to elope with Fukiko was part rebound, his ego bruised by a minor rejection by Yayoi who is also in love with him and had always believed that they would marry only to find herself disillusioned with the institution of marriage. Her sickly brother Keisuke (Akira Ubukata) worries that she turned down Goro because of him, knowing that should he die she would need to find someone to marry into their family and continue its name – something impossible for the oldest son of a noble family like the Kusakas.

That was not, however the reason. Yayoi resents her lack of options, that when a woman’s marriage is arranged people say “it’s settled” as if an unmarried woman is a problem in need of a solution. She resents that she is obliged to entrust her future to a stranger, wondering how it is she is supposed to trust one man for the rest of her life. It is this feeling that created distance between herself and Goro despite her obvious love for him. He accuses her of being “condescending” and hiding her true feelings, blaming her for the predicament they now find themselves in despite the fact that it appears to be entirely his own fault. Yayoi thinks it’s now too late for them, immediately sympathising with Fukiko who has been unfairly dragged into an awkward situation, but Goro scalds her again by insisting that she thinks too much about others when they need to be “strong” and think only of themselves.

Yayoi is half won over by Goro’s frighteningly fascist world view, but finds herself conflicted. She recognises her privilege and originally feels nothing but guilt because of it, that lack of purpose has left her with nothing but emptiness. Goro has her wondering if she’s got things backwards, that she ought to embrace the fact that she is allowed the luxury of life without worry. Putting it to Keisuke he partially agrees, affirming that happiness is only possible when one wilfully ignores the suffering of others. Yet Yayoi is dragged back towards humanism, remembering the “people left behind in the darkness” but fearful that Goro’s philosophy may win her over in the end.

Goro seems to be a perfect encapsulation of the growing evils of the age in his hyper-individualist desire to disregard the thoughts and feelings of others. The opening text, taken from Jiro Osaragi’s novel, paints Goro as the “hero” as it over-explains the film’s title by insisting that the “avalanche” we are talking about is “some sudden unknown force” present in this “precarious world” which can knock even the strong willed off their feet. The “hero” of Naruse’s film, by contrast, is clearly Goro’s kind hearted father who finds an unexpected fan in Fukiko’s dad (Sadao Maruyama) who claims to hate rich people and had no intention of marrying his daughter to one but thinks Goro’s father is one of the good ones and proves that there were some good things in the old feudal system.

Strangely reactionary as it may be, he has a point. Goro’s father is the soul of benevolent paternalism. He worries for his “desperate” son, and laments that the misfortune of the younger generation is “knowing things without understanding them”. He baits Goro, making him a mild ultimatum that if he wants to go on with his “immoral” philosophy then he’ll have to do it on someone else’s dime. Cowardly, Goro relents and chooses his wealth over his freedom but his psychopathy only deepens. To get back at his dad, he decides on a double suicide with Fukiko, before realising that there is no need for him to actually die so long as it looks like he meant to and he makes sure Fukiko goes first. This is the avalanche the film has been building to, but it’s not the one the titles teased in that it drags Goro back from an abyss towards something more human. He gives up on his plan when Fukiko, innocent as she is, is overcome with emotion on realising that she has been “wrong” about his feelings for Yayoi seeing as he has chosen to die with her. Is it love, or perhaps innocence, or just pure communication that is that “sudden unexplained force” which knocks Goro off his feet and drowns him in human feeling?

It’s a strangely “upbeat” ending for a Naruse film considering Avalanche’s overriding darkness, providing an awkward resolution as Yayoi, in an abrupt closing scene, claims something like independence in stating that she intends to remain with her brother rather than waiting for Goro or looking for a marriage. As such it reads as a rebuke of the fascistic ideology which played into, if not quite aligning with, militarist austerity as its various heroes find themselves once more returned to more responsible philosophies and authentic human connections. Cutting against the grain of the times, Avalanche is nevertheless a strange piece which seems entirely at odds with the opening statement, allowing the hero to find salvation rather than destruction in the sudden onrush of emotion.


The Actress and the Poet (女優と詩人, Mikio Naruse, 1935)

Actress and the Poet title cardAmong the directors most closely associated with the golden age of Japanese cinema, Mikio Naruse is not usually remembered for his sense of humour but his pre-war work often saw him making uncomfortable forays into the shomin-geki comedy. The Actress and the Poet (女優と詩人, Joyu to shijin), Naruse’s second film after leaving Shochiku for P.C.L, is among the more successful but also tinged with characteristic irony that says this is funny because it’s not funny at all.

The generic shomin-geki setup finds us in a small community of suburban houses where mild-mannered poet Geppu (Hiroshi Uruki) lives with his successful actress wife Chieko (Sachiko Chiba). Amusingly enough, and in a motif which will be repeated, the film opens with an high impact scene of a woman screaming after being threatened with a knife, but thankfully it turns out that Chieko and her friends are simply rehearsing for a play. The actors dispatch Geppu to fetch them some cigarettes, which brings him into contact with his no good “friend” Nose (Kamatari Fujiwara), a struggling writer who is absolutely sure his latest work is going to win a big prize which is why it’s not a big problem that he’s so behind on his rent that he’s been coming and going through the upstairs window so he doesn’t attract the attention of his landlady.

When we first meet Geppu he’s wearing a pinny and cheerfully hanging up the washing. A young man passes by on a bicycle and seems surprised, asking if he himself really did all that laundry to which Geppu somewhat improbably replies that it’s all second nature when you’ve been in the army. Even though this is obviously a very “normal” day for Geppu, the questions keep coming. Ohama (Haruko Toda), the nosy woman from next-door, remarks that everyone in the neighbourhood loves Geppu because he’s just so nice but he’s also become a hot topic with the ladies at the bathhouse because no one’s quite sure what it is he “does”. In the modern parlance, Geppu is a basically househusband who dabbles in “poetry”, or as Ohama later explains “songs for children”.

In this fiercely modern environment, it’s Chieko who wields the financial power while her husband appears not to mind trailing behind. She wears kimono but often with luxurious furs which might lead to us ask why they live in this modest suburban house rather than in the bright lights of the city, but even so the marriage appears to be a happy and progressively equal one. In fact, as we later discover, there’s never been a cross word between Geppu and his wife, which is a problem because Chieko’s latest role involves a marital tiff and she’s struggling to get to grips with it because she doesn’t know what it’s like to fall out with your spouse. To figure it out she gets Geppu to read lines with her in a situation which eventually repeats in their real life when Nose bamboozles Geppu into letting him stay in the upstairs room rent free, leading to an almost identical fight watched calmly by Nose and Ohama who think they’ve got ringside seats to a play they could never afford to see.

Nose’s intervention unbalances the couple’s relationship in that it forces Geppu to reassert his masculinity. “A promise between men is a serious thing”, Geppu affirms “I can’t just go back on it because my wife says no”. Chieko reminds him, however, that this is technically her house – she pays all the bills, while his “writing” career is good only for the odd box of sponge cake. She doesn’t like it, perhaps understandably, that he’s “invited” a ne’er do well to come and live with them without even bothering to talk to her about it. She tries to put her foot down, but Geppu remains as irritatingly passive as ever only slightly putout to have his subjugated status suddenly used against him.

Naruse ends the picture with a comic sequence in which Chieko sees the light. Thanks to her real life argument with her husband, she’s figured out how to perfect her performance but she’s apparently so method that she also begins to embrace her role as a conventional wife off stage too. Rather than Geppu letting her sleep in and cooking the breakfast himself, this time it’s Geppu wrapped up in a futon while Chieko chops veg downstairs. Nevertheless, there is a minor irony in this moment of domestic bliss in that it directly follows the news that the nice young couple who just moved in across the road have committed double suicide because of his embezzlement and subsequent debts. Neatly underlining the consumerist trends of the age, the couple wanted to die in their own home even if it was only “theirs” for a few moments. Meanwhile, Ohama and her insurance salesman husband are busy having a blazing row next-door which just goes to show that old-fashioned marriages aren’t so happy either.

Chieko superficially plays the conventional wife, engaging in a little role-play with her husband while Nose listens on from the stairwell, but theirs remains a very modern marriage in which she is free to fulfil herself outside the home and her husband is seemingly unbothered (to a point at least) by the mild censure of the local ladies who both love him for his niceness and perhaps dislike him for it too. Naruse undercuts the conventionally “happy” ending in which traditional gender roles are restored and the family rebalanced by ending on a note of irony as the home of Ohama, a traditional wife dominating her henpecked husband in a comic yet socially accepted fashion, is thrown into violent discord while all is peaceful in the decidedly modern house of Geppu.


Wife! Be Like a Rose! (妻よ薔薇のやうに, Mikio Naruse, 1935)

Wife be like a rose posterIt’s tempting to view the cinema of the 1930s as a gloomy affair, facilitating the rise of militarism and increasingly at mercy of the censors, but the early sound era was nothing if not playful and generously open to international influences. It was also often surprisingly progressive, evidencing the fact that pre-war Japan was also changing or, at least, that there was an appetite for change especially among the young. Mikio Naruse’s delightfully charming (perhaps uncharacteristically so) comedy, Wife! Be Like a Rose! (妻よ薔薇のやうに, Tsuma yo bara no yo ni) dramatises just this change as its modern girl heroine tries to process the definitive end of her parents’ relationship as she prepares to marry.

Kimiko (Sachiko Chiba) has a job in an office which is more or less supporting herself and her mother seeing as her father, Shunsaku (Sadao Maruyama), left the family over 15 years previously and has been living with former geisha with whom he has two other children. Despite his long absence, Kimiko’s mother Etsuko (Toshiko Ito) has continued to pine for her absent husband and makes a little money on the side writing sad love poems for the newspapers. A request to stand as a go between at a wedding, traditionally a role only performed by married women, forces Etsuko to accept that she has been abandoned but the snag is that Kimiko and her boyfriend Seiji (Heihachiro Okawa) want to get married themselves and so his father wants to meet Kimiko’s dad which is obviously a problem.

Despite her “modern girl” appearance, Kimiko has some quite old fashioned ideas. She looks down on her maudlin mother, believing that she’s brought her apparent romantic heartbreak on herself through being a bad wife. Etsuko never seemed very interested in Shunsaku when he was around and never did any of the little wifely things Kimiko thinks a wife ought to do like vacuous chat and helping her husband change out of his work clothes. Kimiko thinks a good wife “acts childish and cajoling, or jealous sometimes, or motherly and protective”, believing that Etsuko knows this and has the ability to play the part of the ideal spouse but refuses to and therefore has only herself to blame. Kimiko’s uncle (Kamatari Fujiwara), however, corrects her. He piles the blame on the irresponsible Shunsaku who ran out on a wife and daughter to shack up with geisha.

Shunsaku, meanwhile, may be irresponsible in one sense, but perhaps it’s equally irresponsible to stay in an unhappy marriage. Now a gold prospector in the mountains, he is poor and unsuccessful but has built a happy family home with a kindly wife and two sweet children. Kimiko’s desire to drag him back to the city is partly practical in that she needs him to be her father so she can marry Seiji, but there’s also a part of her that thinks that her father’s transgression must be corrected by forcing him to resume his paternal role. Unlike Etsuko, however, Oyuki (Yuriko Hanabusa) is the classically “good” wife and Kimiko can’t deny she’s good for her father. Seeing him in the mountains and remembering him at home, Kimiko begins to realise that it would be wrong to take him away from his new family even if she thinks she has the better claim, especially when she finds out that it’s Oyuki who’s been sending her mother maintenance cheques every month for the past few years.

In fact, Oyuki feels so guilty about stealing Shunsaku away that she’s been putting money aside to pay for Kimiko’s wedding/education while keeping her own daughter home from school. Far from the gold digger Kimiko had assumed her to be, she’s been the one supporting the feckless Shunsaku as he pursues his get rich quick dream of gold prospecting. Realising that the pair of them “act in perfect harmony”, Kimiko comes to the conclusion that her father belongs in the mountains but finds her resolve wavering after returning to civilisation. She begins to wish he’d stay and hatches a plan to get her parents back together only to see how out of sync they are after 15 years apart. They swap pleasantries like strangers, and the mild-mannered Shunsaku visibly shrinks in the presence of the shrewish Etsuko who allows her pride to ruin any attempt at reconciliation.

What the modern girl Kimiko discovers is that sometimes things don’t work out like they’re supposed to, and that’s OK. Though it is in one sense a “happy” ending in that it obeys a justice born of human feeling, it’s also a melancholy moment of defeat both for the lovelorn Etsuko who has, as Kimiko says “lost”, and the now resigned Kimiko who harbours a degree of contempt towards her mother for not fighting harder for love. Standing at a crossroads of modernity, Kimiko looks both forward and back. She vows to be a “good wife” but her foundations have been shaken. Is this tragedy, or farce? She asks herself. It’s almost impossible to say.