Where Chimneys are Seen (煙突の見える場所, Entotsu no Mieru Basho) is widely regarded as on of the most important films of the immediate post-war era, yet it remains little seen outside of Japan and very little of the work of its director, Heinosuke Gosho, has ever been released in English speaking territories. Like much of Gosho’s filmography, Where Chimneys are Seen devotes itself to exploring the everyday lives of ordinary people, in this case a married couple and their two upstairs lodgers each trying to survive in precarious economic circumstances whilst also coming to terms with the traumatic recent past.
Ryukichi Ogata (Ken Uehara) is our primary narrator, introducing us to his humble circumstances and, for the moment, happy home. He’s married to a cheerful and kindly woman, Hiroko (Kinuyo Tanaka), who was widowed during the war, and the couple rent out their upstairs to a man, Kenzo (Hiroshi Akutagawa), and a woman, Senko (Hideko Takamine) , who aren’t a couple but each rent a room separately. They’re desperately poor, so much so that they have complicated measures in place to try and avoid having any children – a luxury which they can in no way contemplate. However, unbeknownst to Ryukichi, Hiroko has taken on a part-time job outside the home by working at the bicycle races. He’s upset by this because he resents feeling as if his wife has been hiding things from him, though his pride is wounded too. The worry planted in his mind by the idea of not knowing everything there is to know about his wife’s past is brought to the fore when a baby is suddenly abandoned on their doorstep with a note claiming to be from Hiroko’s first husband which states this is “her” child and she ought to look after it from now on.
The titular “magic” chimneys belong to a large scale factory and, in truth, there are four of them, but depending on where you stand they blend into each other, increasing or decreasing in number. This rundown, backwater town is a three chimney sort of place – not quite rock bottom, but almost. All anyone can think about is trying to keep their head above the water and food on the table. Upstairs lodger Senko works as a public announcer in the shopping district along with another woman who has a rather different approach to life and is in some kind of compensatory relationship with a businessman whom she’s apparently going to marry. Senko is a little upset about this, possibly envious, but at any rate is going to lose a friend at work and in a way she doesn’t entirely approve of. At one point she declares that she envies the baby in one sense – children are allowed to cry whenever they want and make as much noise as they please, but adults are expected to grin and bear it no matter how painful it might be.
Kenzo, by contrast, is a government official in that he’s a kind of bailiff trying to enforce taxation fines and threatening to seize the property of those that can’t pay. This kind of work contrasts strongly with his sense of social justice as he can see that most of the people he visits just don’t have the means to pay but do have plenty of other problems of their own, what good will it serve turning them out onto the streets? Predictably he’s developed a bit of a crush on Senko though given both of their dire financial circumstances, he’s afraid to pursue it. His need for “justice” sends him out on a quest to track down Hiroko’s former husband and find out what’s really going on though his investigation takes far longer than expected and soon begins to depress him. When eventually uncovered, the facts of the matter shock and upset, leaving Kenzo wishing that he’d never bothered in the first place.
Having gone to so much trouble to avoid having children (they have a very prominently marked calendar hanging on the wall), that Ryukichi and Hiroko should be saddled with an abandoned child is especially ironic though the baby serves as more than a physical burden, becoming a manifestation of a hitherto buried past. Both of the women in the film have suffered heavily in the war. Hiroko lost her entire family and was reduced to stealing scraps of discarded food behind the evacuation centre. After losing everything she came to resent the whole of humanity for becoming involved in this senseless war and just wanted to live alone, but came to feel a life of mere subsistence was not worth living. She got herself a new family register and started again planning not to look back. She didn’t tell Ryukichi much about her former life because she wanted to forget it, it was painful to her.
Senko had similar experiences, losing family members in extremely cruel ways leaving her with a degree of resistance to forming new bonds. The baby, perhaps a temporary visitor, perhaps not, forces them to reconsider their choices, reawakening an emotional connection that had been severed due to the war’s hardships. The past is quite literally visited upon them, but how they decide to deal with it is very much a matter for the present. In the end, this extreme stress test on the various relationships of the central characters proves effective as their bonds eventually strengthen rather than break.
Using the four chimneys as an effective, if occasionally overworked, metaphor, Gosho remains resolutely non-judgemental, reminding us that things often look very different depending on where you stand. Everybody here is struggling, but everyone is trying to survive. If the film has a central message, it’s that you have to let the past go. The “right time” may never come, so you just have to make the best of things now. Happiness is fragile, but possible, if only you can learn to accept the various compromises which necessarily accompany it.