Okoto and Sasuke (春琴抄 お琴と佐助, Yasujiro Shimazu, 1935)

Okoto to SasukeYasujiro Shimazu had been a pioneer of the “shomin-geki” – naturalistic tales of ordinary working people in the contemporary era, but 1935’s Okoto and Sasuke (春琴抄 お琴と佐助, Shunkinsho: Okoto to Sasuke) sees him step back from the modern world in adapting a soon to be classic novella by contemporary novelist Junichiro Tanizaki. Published in 1933 under the title Shunkinsho and set in late Meiji, Okoto and Sasuke is another in the author’s long series of dark erotic dramas which aim to explore the baser elements of the human heart while engaging in a kind of cultural soul searching. The first of many adaptations, Shimazu’s scales back on Tanizaki’s taste for the perverse as well as his wry sense of humour, spinning a tender tale of love which finally finds its home only in the shared darkness of two becoming one in self imposed exile from the visible world.

Okoto (Kinuyo Tanaka) has been blind since she was nine and, though her parents appear to dote on her, has a proud and imperious manner which sees her mistreat those who only seek her friendship. Fearing that, due to her disability, Okoto will never find a suitable husband, the family have decided to let her study the koto and shamisen (traditionally strong areas for the blind) so that she might be able to support herself and have some degree of accomplishment. Sasuke (Kokichi Takada), a young servant at the pharmacy run by Okoto’s father, began escorting Okoto to her classes for no especial reason but as he is one of the few who can cope with Okoto’s moods, and is one of the few Okoto seems to tolerate, he quickly became her personal companion.

Sasuke remains completely devoted to Okoto even when she treats him cruelly. So many areas of their relationship are an inversion of the customs of the time – Okoto is the mistress, while Sasuke is the servant, she is strong while he is weak, she is cruel and he is kind. She has all the power, and he has none but seems to revel in his degradation, obeying each and every one of Okoto’s commands and rarely minding even when she strikes him. Nevertheless, despite her outward contempt for him Okoto is also dependent of Sasuke – not only for the assistance he provides, but for the gentle touch of his hands and his willingness to place himself entirely under her authority in worshipful devotion.

The relationship between the pair is one of (seemingly) chaste sadomasochism in which both reject the “normal” romantic affectations of their time. Despite the obvious class difference, Okoto’s family are secretly hoping Okoto and Sasuke will someday marry – an idea floated with intense seriousness when it is discovered that Okoto has become pregnant though she refuses to name the father of the child, denying that her lover is Sasuke and vowing that she would find it “humiliating” to be married to a mere servant.

There is something, as uncomfortable as it is, which presents Okoto’s pride as a kind of rebellion born of her blindness, a rejection of the world which has rejected her as “imperfect” and which she literally cannot see. Despite her family’s reservations Okoto does acquire a suitor, but he is only interested in her precisely because of her blindness. A playboy, Ritaro has fetishised Okoto’s “difference” and sees her almost as a trophy, captivated by her intense beauty and only spurred on by her haughtiness. A friend of Sasuke’s, by contrast, hearing the rumour of Okoto’s pregnancy, expresses horror at the idea of a “disabled” woman with a child, avowing that society would never stand for such a thing, rejecting and salivating over the salacious rumour at the same time. Okoto will pay a heavy price for her violent rejection of Ritaro’s attempt to reduce her to a mere conquest, ironically allowing him to rob her of something, but eventually leading her towards the destiny which will bind her forever to her devoted servant, Sasuke.

Okoto, having suffered facial disfigurement, comes to realise the true nature of her feelings for Sasuke but cannot bear for him to see her ruined face, and he, dutifully, resolves to keep his eyes closed as if blind. Ultimately Sasuke opts for the traditionally female act of sacrifice in deciding to shift from his own world into that of Okoto. Together they cut themselves off from the outside world, electing to live in a world made for two alone in which none else may enter. Their act is one of intense individualism taken as a pair who have become one in their mutual devotion, rejoicing in a love born of darkness. Shimazu undercuts Tanizaki’s need for discomfort to present the final union of Okoto and Sasuke as the uncomplicated realisation of a love deep and true – concluding with an intertitle rather than succumb to the inherently melodramatic resolution of Tanizaki’s eroguro love story. Nevertheless through the powerful performance of Kinuyo Tanaka as the increasingly conflicted Okoto, Shimazu manages to capture something of the “pure” love of equals who find their place in a changing world only by removing themselves from it.

The Trio’s Engagements (婚約三羽烏, Yasujiro Shimazu, 1937)

vlcsnap-2017-09-08-02h54m10s546Yasujiro Shimazu may not be as well known as some of his contemporaries such as the similarly named Yasujiro Ozu and Hiroshi Shimizu, but during in his brief yet prolific career which was cut short by his early death just before the end of the war, Shimazu became the father of one of the most prominent genres in Japanese cinema –  the “shomingeki”, which focussed on the lives ordinary lower middle-class people. Shimazu’s early films were noted for their unusual naturalism but 1937’s The Trio’s Engagements (婚約三羽烏, Konyaku Sanbagarasu) is pure Hollywood in its screwball tale of three silly young men and their respective romantic difficulties which are sorted out with the amusing kind of neatness you can only find in a 1930s cinematic farce.

Shuji Kamura (Shuji Sano) has been looking for a job in Japan’s depression hit Tokyo for some time and his long suffering girlfriend, Junko (Kuniko Miyake), has finally gotten fed up with his listlessness and decided it might be better if she left him on his own for a while to sort himself out. Slightly panicked, Shuji heads off to see about a job at a department store specialising in rayon fabrics. Undergoing a rather odd interview, he meets two other men in the same position – well to do Ken Taniyama (Ken Uehara), and down on his luck chancer Shin Miki (Shin Saburi). Luckily all three are employed that day and start working in the store but trouble brews when they each fall for the charms of the boss’ daughter, Reiko (Mieko Takamine).

Despite the contemporary setting and the difficulty of finding work for even educated young men providing a starting point for the drama, Shimazu creates a truly “modern” world full of neon lights and Westernised fashions. The trio work in a department store which sells rayon – a cheap substitute for silk being sold as the latest sophisticated import from overseas, and the store itself is designed in a modernist, art deco style which wouldn’t look out of place in any Hollywood film of the same period. Likewise, though the store is largely staffed by men catering to a largely female clientele, it maintains a sophisticated atmosphere with staff members expected to provide solicitous care and attention to each and every customer.

The guys do this with varying degrees of commitment as Shin and Ken pull faces at each other across the floor and Shuji wastes time on the roof. Shimazu packs in as many quick fire gags as possible beginning the the bizarre job interviews in which Shuji ends up doing some very in-depth role play while Shin expounds on the virtues of rayon as if he were some kind of fabrics genius. Shin Miki is your typical chancer, turning up to his job interview with a thick beard which he later shaves making him all but unrecognisable, and even cheating Ken out of a few coins he’s been using to show off his magic tricks before bamboozling his way into Shuji’s flat.

The central, slapstick conceit is that each of the guys is about to jettison their previous partners for a false infatuation with the beautiful Reiko. Shuji is mostly on the rebound from Junko who may or may not come back to see if he’s sorted himself out, while Ken is uncertain about an arranged marriage, and Shin has a secret country bumpkin girlfriend he doesn’t want anyone to know about. Their respective crushes nearly spell the end for their friendship but then Reiko has her own ideas about marriage which don’t involve shop boys or a future in the rayon business. Eventually the guys realise they’ve all been a little silly and run back into the arms of the women they almost threw over, finding happiness at last in their otherwise ordinary choices.

Shimazu makes brief use of location shoots as Shin and Reiko walk along the harbour but mostly sticks to stage sets including the noticeably fake cityscape backdrop on the shop’s roof. The major draw is the “trio” at the centre which includes some of Shochiku’s most promising young leading men who would all go on to become huge stars including 30s matinee idol Ken Uehara, Shuji Sano, and Shin Saburi. Light and filled with silly, studenty humour The Trio’s Engagements is a deliberately fluffy piece designed to blow the blues away in increasingly difficult times, but even if somewhat lacking in substance it does provide a window onto an idealised 1930s world of Westernised flappers, cheap synthetic products, and frivolous romance.

Victory Song (必勝歌, Masahiro Makino, Kenji Mizoguchi, Hiroshi Shimizu, Tomotaka Tasaka, Tatsuo Osone, Koichi Takagi, Tetsuo Ichikawa, 1945)

vlcsnap-2017-08-01-00h21m20s082Completed in 1945, Victory Song (必勝歌, Hisshoka) is a strangely optimistic title for this full on propaganda effort intended to show how ordinary people were still working hard for the Emperor and refusing to read the writing on the wall. Like all propaganda films it is supposed to reinforce the views of the ruling regime, encourage conformity, and raise morale yet there are also tiny background hints of ongoing suffering which must be endured. Composed of 13 parts, Victory Song pictures the lives of ordinary people from all walks of life though all, of course, in some way connected with the military or the war effort more generally. Seven directors worked on the film – Masahiro Makino, Kenji Mizoguchi, Hiroshi Shimizu, Tomotaka Tasaka, Tatsuo Osone, Koichi Takagi, and Tetsuo Ichikawa, and it appears to have been a speedy production, made for little money though starring some of the studio’s biggest stars in smallish roles.

The first scenes make plain the propagandistic intentions by starting in 660BC with a pledge of protection for the descendants of Amaterasu – ancestral mother goddess of Japan. Flash forward to 1941 and her sons are doing their best. Stock footage gives way to soldiers in the Asian jungle, taking a brief respite from the fighting to console each other with thoughts of home which is presumably where most of these small stories of resilience come from.

The soldiers appear to come from all backgrounds, the youngest of them seeming to be just a young boy whose strongest memory of home is his mother’s face. They chat cheerfully about their hometowns, never betraying any sense of fear, boredom or fatigue but the commander suddenly announces that they’re all “going home” until the next attack – taking a brief voyage of memory back to the motherland.

Within this framing sequence, the ordinary people of Japan go about their ordinary lives with cheerful forbearance. A young man cares for his parents after his older brother has given his life for the Emperor, serving on the home front by working himself so hard there’s a danger of going overboard and rendering himself out of action. His father argues that as long as everyone in Japan works as hard as they can, they can never be defeated. Community comes to the rescue again when a train gets stuck in the snow and the entire village gets out of bed to free it.

While the adults are giving it their all, the children are preparing to become fine subjects of the Emperor, training their minds and bodies to be of the most use whilst singing patriotic songs and performing military drills. Another segment finds the children praising their parents for their bravery, playing and roughhousing like any children would, but a hint of darkness emerges when a group of boys plays at war with their toy aeroplane. One little boy, Yuichi, has applied for the young pilots school without talking it over with his parents because he didn’t want them to be sad about him going away. His father, at least, is proud of him but upset at not being consulted. Practically measuring him up for the uniform, Yuichi’s father marvels at all the “young pilots” in the village – a chilling note seeing as none of these boys can be more than ten years old.

While the men go to war the women are at home waiting. Another persistent question relates to the fate of unmarried women – a positive motion for an arranged engagement is disrupted by the receipt of a draft card, prompting the male side to suggest they call the whole thing off. The woman, however, points out that every young man is in this position and she doesn’t see the point in expecting the worst. Life must go on, women must get married, and men must go to war. All of these things must be accepted without thinking too hard about it or there will be nothing for these gallant men to come home to.

The difficulties of wartime life extend to the fear and destruction of air raids, though a news report of the fire bombing of Tokyo reminds us that it could all have been much worse if it weren’t for the valiant efforts of the pilots and ground based defence forces keeping the threat from the skies at a minimum. Other reports detail dive bombing of hospital convoys while the wounded die happily knowing they’ve done their duty. Likewise the “special attack squad” prepare to meet their fates with stoicism and determination while their relatives are treated with especial esteem.

Interspersed with the vignettes and stock footage there are songs and dances bringing both entertainment and inspiration. The final message is one of resilience and unity, that Japan stands together to defend its ancient homeland in devotion to its Emperor, but then such a message would hardly be necessarily if the situation were brighter. Brief allusions are made to rationing, to the destruction and constant loss of life but these are all things which must be born for the glorious future. There is, however, much more stock put in remaining positive than there is in trying to deny the ongoing desperation. As propaganda films go, this one may backfire but does perhaps shine a light on the unspoken anxieties of ordinary people facing an extraordinary situation.

Final scenes including the “Victory Song” itself

Aizen Katsura (愛染かつら, AKA The Tree of Love/Yearning Laurel, Hiromasa Nomura, 1938)

aizen katsura posterJapan’s political climate had become difficult by 1938 with militarism in full swing. Young men were disappearing from their villages and being shipped off to war, and growing economic strife also saw young women sold into prostitution by their families. Cinema needed to be escapist and aspirational but it also needed to reflect the values of the ruling regime. Adapted from a novel by Katsutaro Kawaguchi, Aizen Katsura (愛染かつら) is an attempt to marry both of these aims whilst staying within the realm of the traditional romantic melodrama. The values are modern and even progressive, to a point, but most importantly they imply that there is always room for hope and that happy endings are always possible.

The heroine, Katsue (Kinuyo Tanaka), has found herself in a difficult position for a woman of 1938. Married off at a young age in payment of a family debt yet rejected by her husband’s family, Katsue’s fortunes fall still further when her husband passes away suddenly leaving her alone and eight months pregnant. Her daughter, Toshi (Kazuko Kojima), is now five years old and Katsue has a good job as a nurse at a local hospital. The job allows her to support herself, her daughter, and her older sister but the problem is that the hospital has a strict policy of not employing married women. Katsue isn’t married anymore, she’s a widow, but the fact that she has a daughter she is raising alone makes her familial status a grey area. She’s been hiding her daughter’s existence from her colleagues in case it costs her the job she needs to survive, but a chance encounter in a park threatens to ruin everything.

Thankfully, Katsue’s colleagues at the hospital turn out to be nice, reasonable people who respond sympathetically on hearing Katsue’s explanation about why she’d avoided telling them the truth about her daughter (and that, crucially, she had been married and the child was conceived legitimately). Her next problem occurs when the son of the hospital’s chief doctor, Kozo (Ken Uehara), returns after graduating university and the pair strike up a friendship which eventually blossoms into romance. Kozo’s father, however, is intent on arranging his marriage to a girl from another medical family – a long held tradition and, in an odd mirror of Katsue’s situation, the marriage is a way of getting additional investment for the rapidly failing clinic. Kozo asks Katsue to run away with him to Kyoto but she still hasn’t told him about Toshi or her previous marriage out of fear of losing not only her new love but her position at the hospital if he rejects her. Just as Katsue is about to go to meet Kozo at the station, Toshi falls ill.

Despite the austerity and conservatism of the times, Aizen Katsura is a very “modern” story in which Katsue’s pragmatic solution to her difficulties is praised and even encouraged. Her life has been an unhappy one in many ways – sold into an arranged marriage at 18, forced out of her hometown after rejection by her husband’s family, and finally widowed in the city, Katsue has been let down at each and every juncture. Alone with a baby, her choices were few and her only support seems to come from her older sister who has no husband of her own (at least, not one that is present), and takes care of Toshi while Katsue has to go out and earn the money to support the family.

Society does not quite know what to do with an anomaly like Katsue who cannot rely on extended family. She needs to support herself and her child but many jobs still have a marriage bar which extends to widows with children. The only options for women who can’t find a solution as elegant as Katsue’s aren’t pleasant, the hospital is a dream come true as it both pays well and is a respectable profession, but if the management found out about Toshi, Katsue could be left out in the cold with little prospect of finding more work despite her nursing qualifications.

The times may be harsh, but the world Katsue inhabits places her on the fringes of the middle classes. Kozo, as young doctor and heir to the clinic (Japanese hospitals are often family businesses) is far above her but is, in some ways, equally constrained. Whilst recognising a duty to his father, Kozo is resolute in refusing the idea of an arranged marriage conducted for financial purposes. He determines to set his own course rather than be railroaded into something which is for his father’s benefit and not his own. Deeply hurt by Katsue’s actions but not attempting to find out why she acted as she did, Kozo enters a depressive spell, sitting around resentfully and not doing much of anything. Luckily for him, the woman his father has picked out, Michiko (Sanae Takasugi), is a thoroughly good person who, once she finds out about Katsue, becomes determined to see that true love wins rather than being shackled to a moody young man and spending the rest of her life in a one sided relationship with someone still pining for a first love.

Katsue’s dreams come true only once she begins to give up on them. Leaving the hospital and returning to her home town with no firm plans, Katsue gets herself a career through luck and talent when a song she enters in a competition is picked up by a leading record label. Music rewards her financially but also gives her a sense of confidence and a purpose which puts her on more of an even footing with Kozo even if he sits in the stalls while her colleagues fill the balcony. Her salvation is both self made and something of a deus ex machina, but the broadly happy ending is intended to give hope to a hopeless age, that miracles can happen and second chances appear once two meet each other openly with full understanding and forgiving hearts.


Four Seasons of Children (子どもの四季, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1939)

vlcsnap-2016-12-08-00h10m14s613Isn’t it sad that it’s always the kids that end up hurt when parents fight? Throughout Shimizu’s long career of child centric cinema, the one recurring motif is in the sheer pain of a child who suddenly finds the other kids won’t play with him anymore even though he doesn’t think he’s done anything wrong. Four Seasons of Children (子どもの四季, Kodomo no Shiki) is actually a kind of companion piece to Children in the Wind which also makes use of this motif, as they’re both based on works by the same author, Joji Tsubota, and feature the same cast playing characters with the same names. Four Seasons differs slightly in its form as it originally played as two films released at the same time with the piece split into four sections following the two central brothers across the course of a particularly traumatic year.

Beginning in spring, younger brother Sampei (Bakudan Kozo now known as Jun Yokoyama) is excitedly waiting for the arrival of an old man (Takeshi Sakamoto) who brings masks for the children and rides a fine horse. Unfortunately, Sampei takes a tumble and arrives last when only a noh style mask of a lady’s face remains which really doesn’t appeal to him (later he asks his older brother Zenta (Masao Hayama) to draw a moustache on it to make it look ”stronger”), so the old man offers to give him a ride on his horse to make up for it. Sampei and Zenta don’t think they have any grandparents, but Sampei thinks it would be nice if the old man were his grandpa for real.

After he does a typical Sampei thing and falls off a cow, Sampei’s mother (Mitsuko Yoshikawa) arrives and realises that, yes, mask man really is her estranged father who disowned her after she got married without his consent. Happy that perhaps her parents have finally forgiven her, Sampei’s mother is also a little bit worried as they’ve never explained to the children why they weren’t in contact with her parents and she’s afraid it might upset them. There’s also another problem. The boys’ father (Reikichi Kawamura) is currently very ill, and their dairy farm isn’t doing well either. The family have large debts secretly taken out with the father-in-law’s company behind his back, so all of this could quite easily backfire. More drama erupts when an ambitious underling, Rokai (Seiji Nishimura), realises there’s a possibility the old man will take his daughter’s family as his direct heirs rather than promote from within the company and starts on a series of fiendishly machiavellian plans to oust his rival.

The boys, however, know very little of this. They love their cows and life on the ranch, and the thing they’re most sad about is when they end up having to move in with grandpa for a while to avoid some of Rokai’s scheming. Having been very popular in their old town, the boys are slower to make friends and quickly run into a problem with the son of the man who’s causing their family so much bother. A typically melancholy episode sees little Sampei wandering off on his own to make friends with the carp in the local lake because there’s no one else for him to talk to. However, the boys later bond with their would be arch nemesis, Kintaro (Teruo Furuya), in defiance of the ongoing feud between their families, even going so far as to carry him on their back all the way home after he breaks his leg falling out of a tree when his father stupidly “repossesses” the backyard where the kids have been playing together safely.

Gradually, as time wears on, the allegiance of Kintaro and his mother starts shift away from Rokai and towards the boys and their family who have never been anything other than kind to them. In a nice piece of symmetry, it seems the two women were also close childhood friends who have been kept apart thanks to the ongoing pettiness instigated by the menfolk. The grandfather, having fully patched things up with his daughter, is doing his best to remain on the side of decency despite Rokai’s underhanded tactics but finds himself increasingly cornered by his finagling. The boys’ commitment to their friend and refusal to give in to Rokai’s attempts to use the children to perpetuate his feuding only serve to remind everyone how petty and self serving Rokai’s actions really are.

Rokai is several times described as “a real villain” by the disbelieving grandpa, constantly exasperated by the dishonourable conduct of someone he’d employed on his staff for several years. Yet aside from Rokai himself, it’s greed and pettiness that are the true villains of of the piece. The boys’ father gives them some very important advice for their future lives when he tells them not to strive to have more things than other people but to be generous in its place. Rokai, afraid and resentful, eventually gets his comeuppance, ending a long year of torment for the Ono family and restoring justice to an unjust world.

The boys themselves know little of the details of the feuds between their families, worrying about normal things like whether they’ll be able to go on to middle school and wondering how the cows are doing back at their old ranch. It’s these details at which Shimizu excels as usual, perfectly capturing the reality of childhood even whilst giving more space to adult concerns than he often did in many of his other, more purely child centred films. Once again making great use of location shooting, Shimizu captures the fast disappearing rural paradise the boys inhabit which is entirely divorced from the political tension of the day. Another warm and humorous tale of kids and the way they often become the accidental victims of a grown up dispute, Four Seasons of Children perfectly unifies all of Shimizu’s ongoing themes right up to its necessarily just, compassionate, ending.


Children in the Wind (風の中の子供, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1937)

vlcsnap-2016-12-06-23h27m52s218It would be a mistake to say that Hiroshi Shimizu made “children’s films” in that his work is not particularly intended for younger audiences though it often takes their point of view. This is certainly true of one of his most well known pieces, Children in the Wind (風の中の子供, Kaze no Naka no Kodomo), which is told entirely from the perspective of the two young boys who suddenly find themselves thrown into an entirely different world when their father is framed for embezzlement and arrested.  Encompassing Shimizu’s constant themes of injustice, compassion and resilience, Children in the Wind is one of his kindest films, if perhaps one of his lightest.

Brothers Zenta (Masao Hayama) and Sampei (Bakudan Kozo) live a fairly comfortable life in a small town with their accountancy clerk father (Reikichi Kawamura) and doting mother (Mitsuko Yoshikawa). Older brother Zenta is the stereotypically good boy who studies hard, gets good grades, and causes no trouble. Sampei, by contrast, is a handful. Running out of the house to play Tarzan with the other neighbourhood kids even though he’d promised his mother he’d stay home to study to improve his awful performance at school, Sampei is the loveable rascal that no one quite knows what to do with. Despite their mother’s protestations, the boys’ father is content to let Sampei run riot for now, he’s only young after all.

When their father is accused of embezzling company funds, sacked, and later arrested, the boys’ world begins to crumble. The other kids won’t play with them anymore, their dad isn’t home, and their mother is worrying about money now that her husband has lost his job. Sampei is packed off to an uncle’s while Zenta stays behind to try and get a job to help out. Unfortunately, Sampei does not take well to his new environment and starts misbehaving even more than usual by disappearing up trees, riding a bucket down a river, running off to meet kappa, and even trying to run away with the circus!

All of this is told more or less from Sampei’s point view meaning that the facts of his father’s case recede into the background while Sampei’s worry and confusion comes to the fore. Having been in the office to deliver his father’s lunch when the coup occurred, Sampei can tell something awful has happened and tries to comfort his dad by closing all the blinds to block out the nosy kids’ faces peeking in from outside, and grabbing his father’s hat to get him to come home. Reassuring his dad that it’s all fine because he can just start a better company of his own, Sampei puts a childishly brave face on things while his ashen faced father walks home in silence. Of course, because Sampei is a child, no one explains to him exactly what’s happened, so no one explains it to us either, but we can perhaps infer a little more from the adults’ passing conversation than the still innocent Sampei.

The boys’ relationship with their father is one of the film’s warmest elements as, in contrast to the stereotypically austere salaryman dad, he delights in playing with his children, even breaking off from worrying about his impending doom by launching into a game of sumo. Sampei and Zenta know their father couldn’t have really done anything bad, so they aren’t really worried and though they miss him, they are sure he’ll be home soon. It’s not until fairly late on that they start to realise the gravity of the situation and how difficult things are for their mother, but once they do they become determined to support her too.

This being a (happy) Shimizu film, the injustice is finally undone and everything goes back to normal which what all children always want. Children, more than adults, are apt to forget quickly and so it’s not long before the other neighbourhood kids start responding to Sampei’s Tarzan call once again. In a typically nice touch, Sampei even invites his arch rival, Kinta – the son of the man who framed his dad for embezzlement in the first place, to come and see the approaching circus with him. A final gesture of reconciliation signals the end to hostilities as a possibly life changing event becomes a humorous summer interlude in the boys’ early lives. Warm and lighthearted, Children in the Wind is perhaps not as cutting or incisive as some of Shimizu’s more socially conscious efforts, but is filled with his characteristic compassionate humanism in its childlike certainty in justice and the willingness to forgive and forget.


Notes of an Itinerant Performer (歌女おぼえ書, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1941)

notes-on-an-itinerant-performerFilmed in 1941, Notes of an Itinerant Performer (歌女おぼえ書, Utajo Oboegaki ) is among the least politicised of Shimizu’s output though its odd, domestic violence fuelled, finally romantic resolution points to a hardening of his otherwise progressive social ideals. Neatly avoiding contemporary issues by setting his tale in 1901 at the mid-point of the Meiji era as Japanese society was caught in a transitionary phase, Shimizu similarly casts his heroine adrift as she decides to make a break with the hand fate dealt her and try her luck in a more “civilised” world.

At 25 years old, Uta (Yaeko Mizutani) jumps ships from one acting company to another having been promised better work by a roguish fellow performer. Tired of the strenuous life of travelling from village to village, putting on folk plays and street performances, Uta is thinking of quitting the business and looking for a job as a maid or something similar which is at least in the same place everyday. In a stroke of luck, she comes into contact with a kindly tea merchant who takes pity on her and suggests she come to live with him where she can teach his teenage daughter how to dance.

Uta becomes a member of the Hiramatsu household but not all of the inhabitants are as generous of spirit as Mr. Hiramatsu (Hideo Fujino) himself. The oldest son is away at college but the daughter, Nuiko (Kyoko Asagiri), has no interest in learning to dance and resents her father’s “adoption” of such a “common” woman. Youngest son Jiro (Haruhiko Tsuda) is similarly unimpressed with Uta’s presence, making her new home less than welcoming. To make matters worse, Mr. Hiramatsu abruptly dies leaving his business and household in disarray. Oldest son Shotaro (Ken Uehara) returns and feels as if he ought to abandon his studies and take over the company, but as a student he has no experience of running a business and lacks his father’s knowledge of the tea industry. Uta encourages him to return to university and finish his studies if only so that the prestige of a degree might help him later if he decides to restart the business. She also volunteers to act as a guardian for Jiro and Nuiko though Shotaro is wary seeing as they know each other so little. He then makes a surprising suggestion – that he and Uta marry, making it perfectly natural that she take care of everything at home while he’s away studying in the city.

Like many a Shimizu hero, Mr. Hiramatsu is a good hearted man but perhaps lacking in practical skills. Though he seemed to be prosperous and successful, the business was on the rocks and he dies leaving a number of debts behind him and total admin chaos for Shotaro as there is no clear successor to keep the business running in Mr. Hiramatsu’s absence. Luckily for Uta, Shotaro is also a kindhearted man like his father (in contrast to his siblings) and has no desire to suddenly throw her out when his father promised to look after her. He is, however, at a loss as of how to take care of everyone with no money coming in.

Even before Mr. Hiramatsu died, not everyone was happy about his decision to take in a travelling performer and an old friend begins to warn him about the danger of rumours. Friend of the family Kajikawa feels he has a stake in this as he intends his daughter Ayako to marry Shotaro and thinks it’s a done deal (though Mr. Hiramatsu does not seem particularly wedded to the idea). Ayako and Nuiko are also good friends and Ayako does seem like the ideal bride for Shotaro as a member of his own social class and a business connection for the family. Shotaro, however, proposes to Uta without really thinking things through. It is, in one sense, a purely practical decision but one that is likely to meet with a degree of social opposition.

Uta left her life as a travelling performer because she wanted something more conventional. Her mother died when she was six and she never knew her father. Her only happy memory of family is the time spent with her grandmother who died when she was twelve. Uta resents her lack of status as a member of a lowly order of entertainers and longs for something grander but has also internalised a deep seated sense of inferiority. Hence when Jiro and his school friends refer to her as a “monster” living in the house, she half accepts their prejudiced view of her. Nevertheless, she wants to honour the kindness that Mr. Hiramatsu offered her and also deeply respects his son, Shotaro, possibly even developing romantic feelings for him. Despite continuing to feel herself unworthy, Uta does the unthinkable by almost singlehandedly resurrecting the tea business when presented with an opportunity from a foreign company. Even after becoming a formidable business woman and winning the respect of Nuiko and affection of Jiro, Uta still feels herself out of place in the mercantile world and ultimately opts to leave in order to pave the way for the “proper” union of Ayako and Shotaro.

When Shotaro and Uta meet again she tells him that she left because she found his middle class world of “decency” too rigid and full of dull formality. Her “housewife” life was a hard one – getting up early, no smoking, no drinking. At least as a travelling performer she can sleep in and have her share of fun. This produces a quite shocking and strange scene in which Shotaro strikes Uta violently, knocking her to the floor. He repeats his earlier promise to marry her and invites her to come home as his wife, a “decent” woman, and full member of his social class whatever anyone else might have to say about it. Shotaro is apparently a man of his word but there is real feeling implied in his actions as opposed to duty or obligation. Nevertheless, this quite surprising scene of domestic violence used as a tool of coercion does not speak to Shotaro’s otherwise kindly personality and undercuts the “romantic”, if melodramatic, quality of the scene. This may be another instance of Shimizu’s aversion to romantic resolutions or romance as a solution to crisis, but one expects better from a director generally so keen to underline the hardships faced by women in his society.

Despite being filmed well into the era of the talkies and long after Shimizu himself had made the jump to sound, Notes of an Itinerant Performer makes use of frequent intertitles setting the scene or providing explanatory background material. Conversely, it also anticipates a more recent trend by allowing the discussions between the “American” (actually heavily accented European) and his interpreter to take place in English with Japanese sidetitles for parts not subsequently translated in the dialogue. In fact, this broadly positive foreign presence seems an odd inclusion for the fraught political world of 1941 (the film was released in March, just nine months before outright hostilities would commence with the USA which had been effecting a series of trade sanctions with the expansionist nation since 1938) even if the deal itself is taking place in the comparatively more open society of 1901.

In many ways about transitionary periods both in terms of society and of the self, Notes of an Itinerant Perfomer seems conflicted right up until its “Reader, I married him” inspired intertitle. Uta crosses a class border, transcending her lowly origins through selfless sacrifice, pure heartedness, and perseverance yet finally she is dragged across by violence and condescension rather than self acceptance or personal transformation. Filled with ambiguity, Notes of an Itinerant Performer reflects the uncertainties of its times and is noticeably less forgiving than Shimizu’s general outlook as its problematic finale demonstrates.