Love Letter (恋文, Kinuyo Tanaka, 1953)

Love-Letter-1953-film-images-d67cf443-345f-409e-9cdb-26f20177f50Kinuyo Tanaka was one of the most successful actresses of the pre-war years well known for her work with celebrated director Kenji Mizoguchi including several of his most critically acclaimed works such as Sansho the Bailiff, Ugetsu, and The Life of Oharu. However, post-war Japan was a very different place and Tanaka had a different kind of ambition. With 1953’s Love Letter (恋文, Koibumi) she became Japan’s second ever female feature film director, though her working and personal relationship with Mizoguchi ended when he attempted to block her access to the Director’s Guild of Japan. No one quite knows why he did this and he tried to go back on it later but the damage was done, Tanaka never forgave him for this very public betrayal. Whatever Mizoguchi may have been thinking, he was very wrong indeed – Tanaka’s first venture behind the camera is an extraordinarily interesting one which is not only a technically solid production but actively seeks a new kind of Japanese cinema.

Based on the novel by Fumio Niwa and scripted by another of Tanaka’s frequent collaborators Keisuke Kinoshita, Love Letter takes place around 1950 just as the post-war chaos was beginning to settle down allowing individual trauma to come to the surface for the very first time. Our “hero” is Reikichi Mayumi (Masayuki Mori) – a melancholy naval veteran living with his brother Hiroshi (Juzo Dosan) and eking out a living as a translator of French literature. He spends his days hanging round train stations looking for a familiar face and constantly rereading a letter from his childhood sweetheart which informs him that, against her own wishes, she is shortly to be married to someone else. Michiko is apparently now a war widow, but despite his best efforts Reikichi has not been able to find her since being repatriated.

One day he runs into an old naval friend, Yamaji (Jukichi Uno), who has an interesting job. He drafts love letters in English and French from Japanese girls to the faithless foreigners who have abandoned them and returned home. Yamaji has developed an affection for some of these desperate women and tries to help them as much as he can with fatherly advice as he writes heartrending messages designed to get that guilt cash rolling back to Japan. Reikichi is not as well disposed the girls who he feels have sold themselves to the enemy but soon begins working there too. One fateful day, he hears a familiar voice.

Whereas you might expect this to be the end of a conventional movie, it’s only really the beginning. After a desperate chase to the train station Reikichi catches up with Michiko (Yoshiko Kuga) in a beautifully filmed, emotionally powerful scene which frames them both in a closing train door, momentarily eclipsed as it moves away. However, the elation soon fades as Reikichi’s rather backward thinking kicks in and he dwells on the reason Michiko was in the shop in the first place. After having longed for her, searching endlessly for five years, he can’t bring himself to accept this Michiko who he sees as “polluted” by her relations with an American soldier. He says some extremely cruel, and in fact unforgivable, things which Michiko accepts with a deeply internalised sense of guilt and shame. It looks as if the long awaited romantic reunion is not to take place after all.

Tanaka’s point of view is about as progressive as it was possible to be, but there is an ongoing conflict in the film in regards to its portrayal of the post-war “pan-pan” phenomenon. Great pains are taken to separate Michiko from the ranks of other desperate women who found themselves reliant on the occupying forces for their survival. Michiko became the mistress of an American man, bearing and losing his child, and though she wonders herself if it makes a difference that it was one American man and not several, the film definitely thinks it does. Later on she meets a group of women who are more obviously prostitutes and former friends whom she tries to avoid but the attitude to these women is far less sympathetic. At once we’re told that we shouldn’t judge Michiko for having done what she needed to do to survive, but we are being invited to judge these other women, all the while being reminded that Michiko is not like them.

Reikichi, however, is firmly painted as being in the wrong especially when compared to his cheerfully pragmatic brother and down to earth friend. Everybody tells him he’s being unreasonable and attempting to punish himself by also punishing Michiko for a series of things that are no one’s fault, but Reikichi persists in his oddly romanticised, absolutist way of thinking. It is he who will need to change, become less rigid and more empathetic but there is still the idea that Michiko’s past is something to be “forgiven”, and therefore a pre-determined view that she has acted in a morally incorrect way and is paying for it now.

Interestingly, Tanaka undermines the film’s inherently melodramatic quality by choosing to end on a note of ambiguous anxiety. A decision seems to have been reached, yet it is a tentative one and there will be difficulties along the way. This is new and different world, filled with broken and damaged people. A better one is possible but won’t happen with a heartfelt apology over a hospital bed, it will require a long process of mutual understanding and empathy though the wounds themselves may never be entirely healed. Tanaka’s debut is a daring wonder filmed with true visual flair and an unusual degree of assuredness. A sympathetic look at the bubbling trauma of the post-war environment, Love Letter approaches its subjects with extreme sensitivity and the hope that love and forgiveness are possible, but they will require hard work and a willingness to embrace them.


The first Japanese feature film to be directed by a woman was completed by Tazuko Sakane in 1936. Mizoguchi actually gave her a start in the industry and she was able to keep working during in the war by making documentaries as part of the Manchurian Film Association. Once the war ended she was barred from further directorial opportunites because she didn’t have a university degree and returned to continuity and editing roles at Shochiku until she retired in 1962, never making another feature film. Kinuyo Tanaka was a little luckier in this regard and was able to make a few more features becoming the first woman able to have a career in film directing through she also continued acting in other people’s films and on television until the 1970s.

Tange Sazen: The Million Ryo Pot (丹下左膳余話 百萬両の壺, Sadao Yamanaka, 1935)

million ryoSadao Yamanaka had a meteoric rise in the film industry completing 26 films between 1932 and 1938 after joining the Makino company at only 20 years old. Alongside such masters to be as Ozu, Naruse, and Mizoguchi, Yamanaka became one of the shining lights of the early Japanese cinematic world. Unfortunately, this light went out when Yamanaka was drafted into the army and sent on the Manchurian campaign where he unfortunately died in a field hospital at only 28 years old. Despite the vast respect of his peers, only three of Yamanaka’s 26 films have survived. Tange Sazen: The Million Ryo Pot (丹下左膳余話 百萬両の壺, Tange Sazen Yowa: Hyakuman Ryo no Tsubo) is the earliest of these and though a light hearted effort displays his trademark down to earth humanity.

The plot turns on the titular one million ryo pot when the local feudal lord inconveniently discovers that an ugly vase with a weird monkey pattern is actually a hidden treasure map just after he’s palmed it off on his younger brother as a kind of family heirloom. The brother, Genzaburo, is both angry and insulted that his vastly wealthy brother has given him such a worthless gift rather than the money which he feels he is owed. An underling is dispatched to try and get the pot back but Genzaburo is so annoyed about it that the pot gets sold before he finds out its value. The peddlers who buy it don’t know either so they give it to a little boy to keep his pet goldfish in. Eventually the boy comes into contact with Tange Sazen who is a popular character of the time known for the scar across his eye and lack of one arm. Round and round the pot goes but where it stops, no one knows – though in the end, it’s not the pot or even the treasure that really matters.

There’s something quite amusing about the central irony that this whole mess started with a stingy rich old man accidentally cheating himself out of a vast amount of money that he really didn’t need in the first place. Genzaburo does seem more like the impoverished and subjugated kind of samurai, but still he’s not exactly starving and has a large staff to support him. His concern is more with the humiliation he feels in the way he is treated by his brother. Truth be told, Genzaburo is a feckless and clumsy man who knows he has little talent or ability and continues to sulk about it. He’s even subjugated by his wife at one point after she discovers how much time he’s been spending at the local geisha house leading to another embarrassment when he tries to sneak back in late at night and is beaten up by his own servants who assumed he was a thief.

Indeed, Genzaburo repeatedly utters that finding the pot could take ten or twenty years – like a noble quest for justice! The truth being that he loses interest in the idea of actually finding it because it would mean an end to his life of “looking for the pot” which allows him to spend all his time shooting arrows with the ladies at the bar. In essence, Genzaburo is the harmless, childish kind of second tier samurai who complains about harsh treatment and lack of status but at the same time enjoys a life of leisure, indulging his personal whims and ignoring his feudal responsibilities as well as his family home.

Tange Sazen, by contrast, is well known from various other kinds of media as a loose cannon swordsman and wandering ronin gambler but here he’s more of a gruff but goodhearted ne’er do well. He seems to be in a fairly solid but perhaps unofficial relationship with the no nonsense owner of the archery-parlour-cum-geisha-palace, Ofuji, and together (more or less, after a lot of arguing and refusing) they take in the orphaned little boy, Yasu, who, unbeknownst to all, is keeping his prized goldfish inside the very pot which everyone is looking for. In fact, Genzaburo and Tange Sazen have been sitting next to it all along but entirely failed to notice.

This is just one strand of the film’s deeply felt humour as everyone fails to see what is staring them right in the face. Yamanaka proves far ahead of his time employing comedic techniques including frequent uses of what would later become know as a “bicycle joke” in which a character swears they’ll absolutely never do something only for the film to cut to them doing exactly that. Tange Sazen and Ofuji bicker endlessly – particularly about Yasu whom they’ve both become quite attached to despite their claims to the contrary. In addition to the frequent wipes and dissolves, Yamanaka’s direction is resolutely forward looking and inventive which, coupled with a more naturalistic acting style, lend it an oddly modern air for a film completed in 1935. Humorous and heartwarming with a little social commentary thrown in, Tange Sazen: The Million Ryo Pot is a wonderfully put together ensemble comedy which still proves hugely entertaining eighty years later.


Unsubtitled clip:

The Shiinomi School (しいのみ学園, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1955)

vlcsnap-2016-07-09-01h53m10s460Hiroshi Shimizu is well known as one of the best directors of children in the history of Japanese cinema, equalled only by the contemporary director Hirokazu Koreeda. The Shiinomi School (しいのみ学園, Shiinomi Gakuen) is one of the primary examples of his genius as it takes on the controversial themes of the place of the disabled in society and especially how children and their parents can come to terms with the many difficulties they now face.

The Yamamotos are a happy family with two sons. However, their elation at the birth of their first child soon turned to tragedy as the boy became seriously ill with polio. Times being what they were, the treatment is not completely effective and although their son thankfully survived, he did so with a lamed leg. Now an older child, Yudo walks with a crutch and is constantly left out or bullied by his fellow children. After their second son, Teruhiko, also contracts the disease and is left even more seriously affected than his brother, the Yamamotos decide to open a school for survivors of polio where they can play together, learning how to live with the effects of the disease, free of the stigma which plagues them in their everyday lives.

Yudo just wants to play baseball and the other kids tell him he can if he brings a catcher’s mitt of his own but when he does they take it away from him and use it themselves while he sits and sadly watches them play. When his dad arrives and tries to tell them off, the kids form a mob and all leave together, fake limping as they go. Children are monsters, and often far less forgiving of difference than their adult counterparts (though it has to be said that the parents of other children are hardly blameless here). It’s not surprising that Mr. Yamamoto would want to protect his son by taking him out of this harsh environment where he’s constantly reminded of his disability and a target for the other kids’ cruel games.

The Shiinomi School may be at odds with modern thinking, but its heart is definitely in the right place. The Yamamotos are operating from a humanist perspective – they want to provide a place which helps the children to grow up strong and independent, fully able to cope with their various disabilities, where they can also escape the extreme prejudice which infects society in general. This prejudice is best brought out not by Yudo’s treatment by the other boys, but by the sad case of Tetsuo whose father had so little idea what to do with him that he used to tie him to a pole. Tetsuo’s dad has since remarried and his new wife has no intention of looking after a disabled child so they’ve brought him to Shiinomi with the intention of abandoning him there. Mr. Yamamoto is shocked and originally refuses to take the boy in protest at the idea of a father who wouldn’t want to try and do everything for his son, but eventually reconsiders when he thinks about what the boy is going back to.

Unintentionally segregating the children has some benefits in the short term but there are those who may feel that it sends a message that the problem is with the children and not with the society which rejects them. Perhaps by giving these children a happy childhood and protecting them from the cruelty of others it’s also leaving them unprepared to deal with that same cruelty once they come of age. In any case Shimizu shoots with his trademark humanity, valiantly showing the children singing loudly and learning to enjoy their lives despite their many hardships. From tiny acorns mighty oaks do grow, the Yamamotos want nothing more than to raise these children in love and acceptance and, if the final scene of the children walking down the lane alone with a song on their lips is anything to go by, you could say their efforts have been richly rewarded.


 

Where Chimneys are Seen (煙突の見える場所, Heinosuke Gosho, 1953)

vlcsnap-2016-07-07-01h01m06s792Where 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.