Fallen Blossoms (花ちりぬ, Tamizo Ishida, 1938)

By the late 1930s, film censorship had tightened and it was perhaps all but impossible to rebuke the militarist regime through the silver screen. Nevertheless, as always setting your film in the past can make the impossible possible through thinly veiled allegory. This may not have been its primary intention, but it’s impossible to ignore the subtext of Tamizo Ishida’s Fallen Blossoms (花ちりぬ, Hana Chirinu) which sets itself entirely within the confines of a geisha house on the night of the Kinmon incident or Hamaguri Gate Rebellion in 1864 during which anti-Shogunate forces from Choshu marched on Kyoto with the intention of kidnapping the emperor in order to restore imperial rule. The incident ended in devastating defeat for Choshu with rebel forces setting fire to the city as they bid their retreat. 

There is therefore an uncomfortable anxiety in the context of the Japan of 1938 as the women trapped inside the teahouse remark on the chaos outside with unfamiliar soldiers on the streets and townspeople deciding to remain at home which is of course very bad for their business. Aside from the sense of danger, the major problems inside the house are economic with constant talk of declining revenues and the recent closure of similar establishments while even the guests that have come have done so to drown their sorrows as their own business is also going badly because of the rumours of imminent unrest. The situation is all the more acute for Akira (Ranko Hanai), daughter of the house’s madam, because she’s secretly fallen in love with a young man of Choshu she fears may be marching on the city which is one reason she deflects her mother’s attempts to encourage her to accept an offer of marriage from a wealthy associate. 

As Akira later puts it, her mother was born in the teahouse, became a geisha and then its madam. She sees herself sharing the same fate but wants to experience a different kind of life, curious about what lies outside the pleasure district. Maid Miyako (Kimiko Hayashi) was sold to the geisha house as a child because her family was poor, she doesn’t think the life outside is anything worth seeing. Yet she too wonders what her fate might be, believing herself to be too plain to make it as a geisha and particularly to attract the kind of wealthy patron who could provide an escape route. Matsuba (Ayako Ichinose), a former geisha, did just that but now she’s come back apparently regretting her decision because she’s neither wife not maid in her new home but also occupies a liminal status in the teahouse, her actions deliberate or otherwise reinforcing the idea that she is no longer a geisha in her inability to tie Akira’s obi and claims to have forgotten the words when asked to rehearse a piece of music with another of the women. “Surely it’s OK for a girl to dream, even in the Kuruwa” Akira fires back but perhaps on some level knowing that her mother has a point when she says that samurai don’t marry young women of the pleasure district. 


Even so Akira’s romantic fantasy takes on even greater import when a man begins loudly banging on their door and demanding to be let in, presumably in fear for his life. Akira rushes forward to open it, but is held back by her mother and the other women. After a while the sound of fighting stops and it’s assumed the man has been killed. Akira doesn’t know if the man was her lover or not, but it makes no difference. Someone called for her help and she refused it. Guilt and shame overwhelm her. Her mother’s decision may prove to be a prudent one, though she is in any case later arrested by the pro-shogunate Shinsengumi police presumably suspicious the geisha house may have harboured rebel soldiers. Akira’s double sense of guilt that what’s happened to her mother is partly her own fault prevents her from leaving with the others when it becomes certain that their only choice is to evacuate the city. Her only point of refuge is on the watchtower, apparently unique to her geisha house and said to be haunted by someone murdered by the Shinsengumi, where she sees the smoke of fires glowing on the horizon. Her lover’s poem falls from her hand as if in admission that her dream is ended and there will be no escape for her from the environs of the Kuruwa.

The moment is therefore one of eclipse and endings, a city a falling but not as the invaders are beaten back and defeated. Prophetic and chilling in its import as bells strike ominously in the background while the city burns, the film paints a bleak prognosis for a Japan of mounting imperialist ambitions. Drunken geisha Tanehachi (Reiko Minakami), herself trapped in the Kuruwa apparently because of a bad man she cannot escape, reveals that her father was beheaded in the street for disrespecting a samurai and if this is the beginning of their end then so be it, but even so “Kyoto is finished. No matter who loses it will make no difference.” Adapted from a stage play by Kaoru Morimoto, Ishida’s increasingly anxious drama never leaves the geisha house or repeats a shot and situates itself entirely within a world of women where men are heard but never seen, but finally leaves its heroine all alone watching helplessly as the fires creep closer. 


Ginza Cosmetics (銀座化粧, Mikio Naruse, 1951)

1951’s Ginza Cosmetics (銀座化粧, Ginza Kesho) is often said to mark a kind of rebirth in the career of director Mikio Naruse whose output in the 1940s was perhaps unfairly denigrated not least by Naruse himself. As in much of his golden age work and in anticipation of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, Ginza’s heroine is a resilient bar hostess whose brief hopes of escape through romance are doomed to failure, but it’s also, like the slightly later Tokyo Profile (Hiroshi Shimizu, 1953) and Tales of Ginza (Yuzo Kawashima, 1955) an ode to the upscale district and all the defeated hopes of its illusionary glitz and glamour. 

Yukiko (Kinuyo Tanaka), the heroine, is a single-mother approaching middle age and working as a hostess in a Ginza bar. Her landlady who runs a nagauta school on the ground floor and constantly complains about her feckless though goodnatured unemployed husband seems to think she could do better, pointing out that she is an educated woman who seems slightly out of place in the rundown backstreets of this otherwise aspirational area. Even for educated women, however, there may not be many other opportunities in the straitened and socially conservative post-war economy especially for those without connections, and Yukiko also needs to provide for her young son Haruo (Yoshihiro Nishikubo), born out of wedlock after an affair with a customer with whom she had fallen in love but abandoned her when she became pregnant. 

As a slightly older woman who has been working at the Bel Ami bar for many years, seemingly from war to occupation, Yukiko is both looked up to by the younger women and resented as a stern older sister who does not approve of the way some of them ply their trade. She’s taken one, Kyoko (Kyoko Kagawa), who often babysits for her, under her wing, cautioning her against making the same mistakes that she once made in taking the kinds of men that come into the bar at their word. “Men are all animals” she warns her, supporting her desire not to give in to her parents’ attempts to arrange for her not a marriage but a “position” as a mistress. Unlike Yukiko, Kyoko still has hope of leaving the Ginza bar world behind to become a respectable wife even if those hopes are fading with the relative unlikelihood of finding a “good” man with a salary good enough to support a wife who is not already married and can be understanding of her bar girl past. 

The bar world may be on the fringes of the sex trade, but the bar girls are not necessarily sex workers even if some of the younger women are clearly engaging in the kinds of casual sex work of which Yukiko clearly disapproves even while not against consensual romantic liaisons. For her own part, she finds herself in the awkward situation of a continuing non-relationship with a failed businessman, Fujimura (Masao Mishima), who was fairly wealthy during the war but apparently no longer. Yukiko attributes this to him being in someway too good to prosper, though having money in the war which disappeared afterwards perhaps implies the opposite. She does not love him and seems to find his presence a little irritating, but feels indebted because he stood by her when she was pregnant and alone. In any case, he has a wife (whom he apparently resents) and children (whom he claims to adore) and so she feels at best conflicted, especially as the tables have turned and it’s him now constantly asking her for money. Money is not something Yukiko has a lot of, but she isn’t mean and often consents to losing it with a resigned shrug as she does by taking on Kyoko’s bar debt after a customer runs out on the bill and then tricks Yukiko into buying more drinks while waiting for a “friend” to arrive. 

Men, it seems, will always be predatory and unreliable. On hearing from her boss and longtime friend that the bar is in trouble and may have to close, Yukiko ends up acting on an introduction from an acquaintance, Shizue (Ranko Hanai), to meet a “stingy” industrialist who had expressed an interest in her. Shizue has escaped the bar world by becoming a wealthy man’s mistress and with it has claimed a kind of independence. He splits his time between Tokyo and Osaka, leaving her free to do whatever she likes (including meeting other men) for most of her time with none of the strings that go with being a wife. Yukiko is perhaps too “pure” for that kind of arrangement, hinting at the Ginza paradox that only those who learn to accept a certain level of complicity can ever truly be happy there. She agrees to meet Kanno (Eijiro Tono), the businessman, in order to ask him to “invest” in the bar, suggesting they talk things over in a coffeeshop while he tries to pull her into various shady establishments before pushing her into a warehouse and attempting to rape her to get his money’s worth. Yukiko escapes and resolves not to see him again. After all, the point of getting the money to keep the bar open was precisely to avoid having to make arrangements with men like Kanno. 

It’s Shizue, however, who later gives her a last shot at escape when she introduces her to her “true love”, Ishikawa (Yuji Hori), making a brief trip into the city. Shizue can’t entertain him herself because her patron is in town and so entrusts him to Yukiko with the strict instruction not to try it on. Despite herself, however, Yukiko becomes fond of him, reassuming something of a past persona in engaging in intellectual conversation, once again an educated, middle-class woman rather than a bar hostess used to telling men what they want to hear. She has been warned, however, that Ishikawa hates anything “low culture” which is why Shizue has told him they are both war widows and discovers that he has a strong dislike for Ginza which sees him longing for the wholesome charms of home. 

The crisis occurs when Yukiko has to break a promise to Haruo to take him to the zoo in order to look after Ishikawa, causing him to go temporarily missing when he wanders off on his own roaming all over the endless construction site of the contemporary city standing in for the makeshift, in-progress reconstruction of the post-war society. She perhaps feels she’s being punished for choosing to disappoint her son in order to pursue a dream of romantic escape she might also feel is somehow undeserved, but pays in quite a different way after accidentally setting Ishikawa up with Kyoko whom she introduced as her “sister”. Originally angry and resentful, proclaiming herself disappointed with Kyoko in assuming she is the same as the other young women at the bar, Yukiko’s good nature eventually wins out as she realises that Kyoko and Ishikawa seem to have fallen in love in a single night. She has told him everything, and he apparently wants to marry her anyway. Kyoko, at least, is getting out, and Yukiko can be happy about that while privately internalising defeat. Acknowledging that Haruo is the only one on whom she can depend, she resolves to live on as a mother only, trapped in the deceptive diminishing returns of a Ginza bar life even while knowing it has increasingly little place for her.  


Marital Relations (夫婦善哉, AKA Meoto Zenzai, Shiro Toyoda, 1955)

Marriage is not always simple, but when you aren’t actually married (and one of you is technically still married to someone else) the difficulties can be all the more pronounced. Often neglected in comparison with some of his contemporaries, Shiro Toyoda is best remembered for his often humorous literary adaptations. Marital Relations (夫婦善哉 Meoto Zenzai), based on a 1940 novel by Sakunosuke Oda and runner up to Naruse’s Floating Clouds in Kinema Junpo’s top ten for 1955, is a prime example of his style as it examines the unconventional relationship between a spoilt younger son of a wealthy family and a feisty geisha who nevertheless remains devoted to him despite his often insensitive treatment.

In the early 1930s, the oldest son of a wealthy family has scandalised his conservative father by continuing to consort with a local geisha. Irritated, Ryukichi (Hisaya Morishige) elopes with Choko (Chikage Awashima) assuming that he will eventually get his own way only to find his father is just as stubborn as he is. Ryukichi is already married though living apart from his wife who has a serious illness and has returned to her family with their only child, Mitsuko. Nevertheless, Choko and Ryukichi manage to live together as man and wife even without the official paperwork, installing themselves at her parents’ tempura shop. Though the couple are happy enough, Ryukichi is unused to living without his family money and Choko soon has to go back to work.

Even in early Showa things were changing. Ryukichi, spoilt and made useless by access to his family fortune and previously secure path to succession, pouts and whines about his arranged marriage and the wife he’s abandoned, emphatically demanding a free choice of mate even if she happens to have been a geisha. Choko, a working class daughter of shopkeepers, seems to have been sold to the geisha house to fund her parents’ store – in fact, Choko’s abrupt decision to leave the geisha house will also have financial consequences which Ryukichi claims he will take up with his father. Even if Choko were not a geisha, she would likely not have been accepted by the traditional upper middle class family and her constant battle is always for recognition as Ryukichi’s significant other (or perhaps primary carer). Geisha she was though, and will be again thanks to Ryukichi’s recklessness and mistaken assumption that he will regain his former status simply by being his father’s son.

Not having had the luxury of a wealthy upbringing, Choko is (financially, at least) a realist and prepared to work hard for what she wants. Heading back into the geisha world as a hostess and entertainer, Choko is the sole breadwinner of their technically illegitimate union though Ryukichi cannot entirely break with his former habits, casually burning Choko’s carefully balanced housekeeping accounts book, and eventually spending all her savings on a night of debauchery. Nevertheless, it’s Choko who eventually takes the initiative and goes into business with a friend opening a successful night spot which cleverly caters to her internationalist clientele with a “traditionally Japanese” theme. Like many of Toyoda’s women, Choko is a hardworking, practical lady determined to make a success of everything she does even if she’s had the misfortune to find herself shackled to the inconvenient man child that is Ryukichi.

Eventually it all gets too much and Choko takes a drastic decision after receiving a cruel and thoughtless slight from Ryukichi’s brother-in-law who has been adopted as the heir to the family. This shocking incident aside, the tone is largely one of comic knowingness as Ryukichi continues with his various schemes to wheedle his way back into his elite social circle while Choko spends her time working hard to create something new. Ryukichi is the worst of the old world – lazy, entitled, often selfish and thoughtless (if well meaning and resolutely devoted to Choko), whereas Choko is the best of the new – resilient, hardworking, honest and kind. Towards the end, having settled some of their differences, Choko and Ryukichi appear to have cemented their coupledom for good but are suddenly confronted with another ugly aspect of class legacy when a former servant (and sort of friend) of Ryukichi’s passes them in the street now obviously raised in status, and blanks them even as they call out to him.

Ryukichi’s sister comments at one point that her brother’s personality has been warped by his strict upbringing and the pressure to conform to social conventions has meant that he doesn’t quite know himself, though at heart he is good and kind. She may indeed have a point, honest in his love, at least, both for his daughter and for Choko, Ryukichi finds he lacks the moral compass which comes with needing to live in an interconnected society rather than the deference associated with being “the young master”. Subtle political commentary aside, Marital Relations is a wry, humorous look at an unconventional family life as its put upon heroine does her best to rescue her consistently disappointing (if often amusing) unofficial spouse.