Phoenix (不死鳥, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1947)

“Life is about facing your loneliness” according to the heroine of Keisuke Kinoshita’s Phoenix (不死鳥, Fushicho), a woman who’s known her share of suffering but has learned to endure. She knows not only war widows are lonely, and she’s not the only war widow, so she’s doing her best to be as happy as one can be under the circumstances. As much about its nation’s rebirth from the ashes, Phoenix is also quietly subversive in its critique of outdated social conventions and enthusiasm for a woman’s right to seek her independence rather than rely on the support of the traditional family. 

In 1947, Sayoko (Kinuyo Tanaka) is a much loved daughter-in-law and mother to Ken, who is about to celebrate his fourth birthday. She takes care of the household and looks after the numerous Yasaka siblings while putting up with her sometimes grumpy father-in-law (Isamu Kosugi) who harshly scolds little Ken when he throws a stone through the side window but feels guilty about it afterwards and vows to come home with sweets to make it up to him. Life with the Yasakas is peaceful and happy, though the present crisis, which isn’t really a crisis so much as a matter for consideration, is the potential marriage of younger son Yuji (Akira Yamanouchi) who has been wanting to marry his girlfriend Yoko but had been worried both that his parents would object to him trying to choose his own bride without their input, and that bringing another young woman into the house as a new wife might be insensitive, leaving Sayoko feeling sad and unwelcome. 

Yuji’s mother tells him that he doesn’t need to worry on either point, she and his father have long been in favour of the marriage which hints at something of a sea change in contemporary social attitudes. In Sayoko’s flashbacks to her early courtship, we see Shinichi (Keiji Sada), her later husband, bring her to his family home with the intention of introducing her to his parents as his future bride, but his father won’t even see her, loudly shouting that Shinichi should immediately ask her to leave. His objections are largely feudal in nature, Shinichi is the oldest son and his marriage is therefore of great importance to the family name. Not only does he not know anything about Sayoko, whom he basically calls a loose woman for daring to date while in high school, but he deeply resents that Shinichi has gone behind his back, defied his authority, and tried to arrange his own marriage without his father’s input. 

Despite the clear intention of the pair to continue their association with or without his consent, Mr. Yasaka continues to object. Shinichi insists that “nothing can separate us” despite knowing that he has already enlisted for the army and will shortly be leaving for the war. Sayoko holds the line, resisting even when her father dies and pushy relatives try to railroad her into an arranged marriage which will benefit them financially, and supporting her younger brother who is spared the war but only because he is already in the later stages of incurable TB.

Mr. Yasaka’s objections gain more weight with the war’s intensity. With her brother on his deathbed, he turns up to ask Sayoko not to see Shinichi on his brief leave before he’s shipped abroad during which they plan to get married because he thinks it’s irresponsible for his son to marry a woman knowing there is a good chance he will leave her a widow. Overwhelmed by the scale of her tragedies, Sayoko has had enough, rounding on Mr. Yasaka and letting him know that his concerns are moot because every healthy young man is in the same position and if he’d only given up his stubborn insistence that Shinichi has wronged him by undercutting his authority and given his consent to their marriage at any point during the last six years he wouldn’t have had to come here on this day with her brother dying in the next room to tell her that she shouldn’t marry the man she loves because her marriage is somehow his decision to make. 

Mr. Yasaka is clearly moved by Sayoko’s distress, moving to comfort her but then withdrawing and getting up to leave without saying anything. Petitioned again by Sayoko’s faithful housekeeper, he catches sight of the blooming flowers Sayoko has grown in adversity and is minded to reconsider. Several years later we can see that Mr. Yasaka has grown fond of Sayoko and his grandson even if he has a bit of temper, while she is very happy as a member of their family and not at all minded to remarry despite their desire for her to lead a fulfilling life. That is, as she tells Yuji encouraging him not to feel bashful about his bride, not because of a romantic notion of faithfulness or being hung up on old memories, but for the practical reason that she has nowhere else to go, or at least she is certain there is nowhere where she would be so happy. Later, however, she hopes to open a shop of her own and strive for her independence together with her son rather than remaining dependent on her husband’s family or marrying again for practical rather than emotional reasons.

Shinichi had been fond of talking about the life they’d lead once the war was over, that they’d only be apart for a few years and then never again, but the war stole their future from them as it did for so many other young people whom the film was doubtless intended to comfort. Nevertheless, Sayoko is forever telling people how happy she is. Mr. Yasaka seems to have relented, is going to let his younger son marry a woman of his choosing, and the younger siblings are all bright and cheerful. The future looks rosy, and Sayoko is going to do her best to enjoy it, striving for independence in a now less restrictive society. 


Titles and opening (no subtitles)

The Wandering Princess (流転の王妃, Kinuyo Tanaka, 1960)

Wandering Princess posterAs in her third film, The Eternal Breasts, Kinuyo Tanaka’s fourth directorial feature, The Wandering Princess (流転の王妃, Ruten no Ouhi), finds her working with extremely recent material – in this case the memoirs of Japanese noblewoman Hiro Saga which had become a bestseller immediately after publication in 1959. Tanaka’s filmic adaptation arrived mere months later in January 1960 which was, in an ironic twist, a year before the real life tale would meet something like the conventional romantic ending familiar from classic melodrama. Nevertheless, working with Daiei’s top talent including Kon Ichikawa’s regular screenwriter (and wife) Natto Wada, Tanaka attempts to reframe the darkness of the preceding 20 years as the defeat of compassionate idealism at the hands of rigid austerity and unstoppable oppression.

Tanaka opens with a scene taking place in 1957 which in fact depicts a somewhat notorious incident already known to the contemporary audience and otherwise unexplained on-screen in which the older Ryuko (Machiko Kyo) tenderly bends over the body of lifeless schoolgirl. The camera then pulls back to find another girl in school uniform, Ryuko, twenty years earlier. A young woman with innocent dreams, Ryuko’s life encounters the usual kind of unwelcome disruption in the unexpected arrival of a marriage proposal but this is no ordinary wedding. Ryuko, as the oldest daughter of a prominent noble family, has been selected as a possible bride for the younger brother of the former Qing emperor now installed as the symbolic leader of the Japanese puppet state of Manchuria. Against the odds, Ryuko and her new husband Futetsu (Eiji Funakoshi) are well matched and endeavour to build a happy home together just as they intend to commit themselves to the creation of a new nation born from the twin legacies of the fallen Chinese empire and the resurgent Japan.

Foregrounding Ryuko’s experience, the film does its best to set “politics” aside but the inescapable truth is that each of our protagonists is a prisoner of the times in which they live. The second scene finds Ryuko in 1937 as an innocent schoolgirl gazing at the young men in uniform as they march past her. She remains out of step with them, walking idly and at her own uneven rhythm while they keep rigorous and seemingly unstoppable time. The family are understandably wary of the implications of the marriage proposal, especially as it comes with a military escort, with Ryuko’s beloved grandmother the only one brave enough to ask to see whoever’s in charge of this outrage only to be told that their fates are in the hands of the nebulous concept known as “army” which knows no individual will.

Assured by her family that the decision rests with her, Ryuko consents – not only to becoming a stranger’s wife (which would have been her fate in any case) but to being a kind of ambassador, the presentable face of imperial ambition. On her marriage she’s presented with a deep red cheongsam and continues to dress in Chinese fashion for remainder of her life in Manchuria where she learns to speak Mandarin and devotes herself to becoming as Chinese as it’s possible to be. Meanwhile, her husband Futetsu busies himself with a complementary desire to become Japanese, intensely worried that the sometimes degrading treatment he and his family receive is exclusively caused by his problematic nationality. When their daughter, Eisei, is born, the couple determine to raise her as the child of a new world, the embodiment of idealised cultural integration.

The world, however, is not so kind and the blunt force of militarism continues to present a barrier to familial harmony. Futetsu is prevented from seeing his brother by the officious forces of the military police while the lonely, paranoid “emperor” suspects that Ryuko is nothing more than a Japanese spy sent to undermine his rule. Ryuko was sent to Manchuria to be the bridge between two cultures. Her, in a sense, feminine energy which attempts to build connection through compassion and understanding is consistently contrasted with the prevailing male energy of the age which prizes only destruction and dominance. Filled with the naivety of idealism, she truly believes in the goodness of the Manchurian project and is entirely blind to the less altruistic actions of her countrymen engaged in the same endeavour.

Confronted by some children in a park while pushing the infant Eisei in a pram, Ryuko is identified as a Japanese woman by her accent while conversing in Mandarin. She assures the children that Eisei is Manchurian like them, and that seeing as she married a Manchurian she is now too despite her Japanese birth. The kids are satisfied, so much so that they warn her that some Manchurians were killed recently in this park by Japanese soldiers, adding a mild complaint that it upsets their parents when Japanese people come to their restaurant and leave without paying. Mortified, Ryuko decides to use some of her (meagre) resources to buy all of the kids and everyone else in the park some sweets from a nearby stand, fulfilling her role as a Japanese ambassador even while insisting that she is a proud citizen of the newly born state of Manchuria.

Nevertheless the Manchurian project is doomed to fail, the kind of idealism fought for by Ryuko and Futetsu crushed under the boot of militarism. Despite everything, Ryuko still wants to be the bridge if only to prevent a catastrophe of this kind happening again (while perhaps refusing to engage with some of the reasons it happened in the first place) but in Eisei’s eventual death, foreshadowed in the melancholy opening, a deeply uncomfortable implication is made that the kind of cross-cultural harmony that Ryuko dreams of may not be viable. In contrast to the salaciously reported real life events (somewhat alluded to by presence of a schoolboy’s cap next to the body) which hinted at a suicide pact or murder, Ryuko attributes Eisei’s decision to end her life to an inability to reconcile her twin heritage coupled with the heavy burden of being the last descendent of the Qing Dynasty. Despite this minor misstep of tying the fate of Eisei to the failure of the Manchurian dream and the loss of its misplaced idealism, Ryuko ends her account on a hopeful note in admiring the flowers she planted finally in bloom and looking forward to a more hopeful age governed by warmth and compassion rather than violence and austerity.


The Wandering Princess was presented by Japan Foundation London as part of a series of events marking the publication of Tanaka Kinuyo: Nation, Stardom and Female Subjectivity.