A Legend or Was It? (死闘の伝説, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1963)

A Legend or Was it posterIn 1951’s Boyhood, Kinoshita had painted a less than idealised portrait of village life during wartime. With pressure mounting ranks were closing, “outsiders” were not welcome. The family at the centre of Boyhood had more reasons to worry in that they had, by necessity, removed themselves from a commonality in their ideological opposition to imperialism but newcomers are always vulnerable when they find themselves undefended and without friends. 1963’s A Legend or Was It? (死闘の伝説, Shito no Densetsu, AKA Legend of a Duel to the Death) tells a similar story, but darker as a family of evacuees fall foul not only of lingering feudal mores but a growing resentment in which they find themselves held responsible for all the evils of war.

Beginning with a brief colour framing sequence, Kinoshita shows us a contemporary Hokkaido village filled with cheerful rural folk who mourn each other’s losses and share each other’s joys while shouldering communal burdens. A voice over, however, reminds us that something ugly happened in this beautiful place twenty years previously. Something of which all are too ashamed to speak. Switching back to black and white and the same village in the summer of 1945, he introduces us to Hideyuki Sonobe (Go Kato) who has just come home from the war to convalesce from a battlefield injury. Hideyuki’s engineer father went off to serve his country and hasn’t been heard from since, and neither has his brother who joined the air corp. His mother (Kinuyo Tanaka), sister Kieko (Shima Iwashita), and younger brother Norio (Tsutomu Matsukawa) have evacuated from Tokyo to this small Hokkaido village where they live in a disused cottage some distance from the main settlement.

The family had been getting by in the village thanks to the support of its mayor, Takamori, but relations have soured of late following an unexpected marriage proposal. Takamori’s son Goichi (Bunta Sugawara), a war veteran with a ruined hand and young master complex, wants to marry Kieko. She doesn’t want to marry him, but the family worry about possible repercussions if they turn him down. It just so happens that Hideyuki recognises Goichi and doesn’t like what he sees – he once witnessed him committing an atrocity in China and knows he is not the sort of man he would want his sister to marry, let alone marry out of fear and practicality. Hideyuki, as the head of the family, turns the proposal down and it turns out they were right to worry. The family’s field is soon vandalised and the police won’t help. When other fields meet the same fate, a rumour spreads that the Sonobes are behind it – taking revenge on the village on as a whole. The villagers swing behind Goichi, using the feud as a cover to ease their own petty grievances.

City dwellers by nature, the Sonobes have wandered into a land little understood in which feudal bonds still matter and mob mentality is only few misplaced words away. The village serves a microcosm of Japanese society at war in which Takamori becomes the unassailable authority and his cruel son the embodiment of militarism. Goichi embraces his role as a young master with relish, riding around the town on horse back and occasionally barking orders at his obedient peasants, stopping only to issue a beating to anyone he feels has slighted him – even taking offence at an innocuous folksong about a man who was rejected in love and subsequently incurred a disability. Despite all of that, however, few can find the strength to resist the pull of the old masters and the majority resolutely fall behind Goichi, willing to die for him if necessary.

As the desperation intensifies and it appears the war, far off as it is, is all but lost, a kind of creeping madness takes hold in which the Sonobes become somehow responsible for the greater madness that has stolen so many sons and husbands from this tiny village otherwise untouched by violence or famine. An embodiment of city civilisation the Sonobes come to represent everything the village feels threatened by, branded as “bandits” and blamed for everything from murder to vegetable theft. The central issue, one of a weak and violent man who felt himself entitled to any woman he wanted and refused to accept the legitimacy of her right to refuse, falls by the wayside as just another facet of the spiralling madness born of corrupted male pride and misplaced loyalties.

Kinoshita returns to the idyllic countryside to close his framing sequence, reminding us that these events may have been unthought to the level of myth but such things did happen even if those who remember are too ashamed to recall them. Tense and inevitable, A Legend or Was It? reframes an age of fear and madness as a timeless village story in which the corrupted bonds of feudalism fuel the fires of resentment and impotence until all that remains is the irrationality of violence.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Strangers Upstairs (二階の他人, Yoji Yamada, 1961)

strangers upstairsLate into his career, veteran Japanese director Yoji Yamada has become synonymous with a particular brand of maudlin comedies and tearjerking dramas often starring veteran actress and long standing collaborator Sayuri Yoshinaga. He is, however, most associated with the iconic long running Tora-san series which revolved around the heartwarming adventures of the titular travelling salesman. Tora-san does indeed epitomise Yamada’s general philosophy which leans towards realistic humanism, finding resolution in kindness and decency yet accepting that oftentimes the rules may need to be bent in order to accommodate them. In this respect his Shochiku debut, featuring a script written by his mentor Yoshitaro Nomura, is a good indicator of Yamada’s future career in its humorous tale of a newlywed couple filled with ambitions of social mobility in the rapidly modernising post-war economy.

Salaryman Masami (Kazuya Kosaka) has taken out a huge loan to build a new house for himself and his new wife, Akiko (Kyoko Aoi), but, to keep costs manageable, they’ve decided to do without a bathroom (there’s a bathhouse across the street) and added an extra floor with the intention of renting it out for a little extra money. So far, married life is going pretty well – Masami and Akiko are a nice, well matched young couple happy in each other’s company and committed towards forging a harmonious future.

The problem is their lodgers are a little, well, difficult. Not having anticipated any “difficulty”, Masami and Akiko are becoming worried that their upstairs neighbours are already a few months behind on the rent and seeing as their contract also includes food, they’ve been eating for free. Not really wanting to broach this difficult subject, Masami and Akiko try gentle prodding to remind their lodgers they need to pay their dues only for the couple to act embarrassed and claim they’d forgotten because they’d always lived with their parents in the past. Finding out that the central concern is that the husband, Hisao (Masaaki Hirao), is currently unemployed, Masami decides to help him find a job but quickly finds out that working is just not Hisao’s thing. Meanwhile, Hisao’s wife, Haruko (Chieko Seki), is picking up extra money working as a hostess in a bar, rolling in roaring drunk in the middle of the night and singing loudly as she does so.

With their patience wearing thin, Masami and Akiko ponder the best way to evict lodgers who refuse to leave but they have another problem on their hands in the form of Masami’s cantankerous mother, Tomi (Toyo Takahashi), who has arrived from the country without warning for an “indefinite” visit after falling out with another of her daughter-in-laws. An unsophisticated country bumpkin with a wicked tongue and serious hanafuda habit, Masami’s mum does not quite fit with the couple’s upwardly mobile aspirations and, annoyingly, immediately sides with Hisao and Haruko whose self-centred laziness is more in keeping with her backstreet ways.

If Masami and Akiko disliked Hisao and Haruko essentially for being too common, their second set of lodgers present the opposite problem. Taizo (Tatsuo Nagai) and Yoko (Reiko Hitomi) seemingly have money to burn, so why are they renting an upstairs room in an “up and coming” area of the city? Akiko is quickly taken with their small luxuries, in awe of her lodgers’ sophistication and upperclass elegance and obviously happy that they won’t be having the same kind of troubles that they had with Hisao and Haruko. When Taizo and Yoko offer to front the money to build a bathroom, Masami and Akiko are surprised but eventually grateful even if taking a “loan” from the people who are renting from you presents a definite shift in power dynamics.

The dynamic shifts even further with another crisis sparking the return of Masami’s mum who has once again been kicked out by a disgruntled relative. Masami’s older brother, who put up some of the money for the house, insists that he honour a vague promise he made that family members in need of refuge would be free to stay with him by kicking out his lodgers and letting his mother live in the upstairs room. Not really wanting to take responsibility for his troublesome mother, and feeling friendly with Taizo and Yoko, Masami refuses and promises to pay his brother back instead – ironically borrowing the money from Taizo.

As predicted Taizo and Yoko are not quite all they seem, but like Masami and Akiko, they are a fairly new couple trying to make a go of it in the often cruel post-war world. On finding out the scandalous secret about their lodgers, Masami and Akiko are torn – they like Taizo and Yoko, plus they’re massively indebted to them thanks to the loan and the money for the bathroom, but they also worry about becoming an accessory or being accused of aiding and abetting. Their first reaction is to feign politeness and carry on as normal pretending not to know whilst asking around to see if they can borrow more money from other friends to pay back Taizo and Yoko before asking them to leave quietly.

Masami and Akiko, like many of their peers, have aspirations beyond their current pay level and have put themselves at a huge disadvantage trying to live up to the salaryman dream. Yamada opens with an ironic title sequence featuring a series of “Lego” model houses – something which Masami later plays with while lamenting the seemingly small possibility of hanging on to his new home. Homeowning is unexpectedly complicated and becoming a landlord even more so. Masami and Akiko wanted their own mini castle – a status symbol (the policeman’s wife from behind is very jealous), but also a space to call their own which reflects their individual hopes, dreams, and aspirations. They’ve forgone the convenience of a bathroom for the impact of a second floor all while hoping it will pay for itself until they’re ready to use it to expand their family. Until then, they’re content to live in one room and share a kitchen, even providing communal meals if necessary.

The money, however, is a constant worry – the original debt which they accrued to build the house quickly brings its own share of troubles, shifting from one creditor to another as the couple try to invest their fortunes with “nicer” or “worthier” people. Not everyone is nice, as Akiko finds out when she asks Masami’s lecherous boss if he’d mind lending them the money only for him to hint at an extremely indecent proposal. Though Masami seems to be a decent and honest sort who wants to work hard and get on, he is still subject to the salaryman chain of command which means doing his boss’ bidding out side of work hours which turns out to entail further “alibi” duties when he discovers they’re virtually neighbours (though the boss’ house is obviously far more impressive).

Despite all their difficulties, the goodness of Masami and Akiko eventually pays off, their one and only row quickly resolving itself without rancour. Taizo and Yoko, neatly matched in kindness with their former landlords, are grateful for the brief time they spent in the upstairs room and resolved not to bring any trouble into the lives of the nice young couple from downstairs. Masami and Akiko, equally grateful for the consideration, commit themselves to moving forward with a little more temperance, saving the money to pay back Taizo and Yoko and help them in turn when they might need it. Hard work, honesty, and a kind heart, it seems, are what you need to be happy in the burgeoning post-war economy and Masami and Akiko are happy indeed.


Original promo roll (no subtitles)

Love New and Old (三味線とオートバイ , AKA Shamisen and Motorcyle, Masahiro Shinoda, 1961)

shamisen and motorcycleMasahiro Shinoda’s first film for Shochiku, One-Way Ticket to Love, over which he’d been given a fairly free rein did not exactly set the box office alight. Accordingly, he then found himself relegated to studio mandated projects with set scripts designed with the studio’s house style in mind. Love New and Old (三味線とオートバイ, Shamisen to Otobai, also known as Shamisen and Motorcycle) is just one of these studio pictures, taking him away from the beginnings of a promising collaboration with avant-garde poet and playwright Shuji Terayama begun in Dry Lake (Youth in Fury) and Killers on Parade. Despite the banality of its melodramic tale of mother and daughter strife caused by changing times, secrets and social mores, Love New and Old plays into several of Shinoda’s recurrent themes and allows him to further indulge his tendency for visual flamboyance with a widescreen colour canvas.

Regular teenager Hatsuko (Miyuki Kuwano) hangs around with the “nice” kind of biker gang, clinging onto her upper class boyfriend Fusao (Yusuke Kawazu) as they ride around the city making use of all the new freedoms available to the young people of the day. Hatsuko lives alone with widowed mother Toyoeda (Yumeji Tsukioka), a minor celebrity known for giving lessons in traditional “kouta” singing on local television. Despite Hatsuko’s rather headstrong nature, she and her mother are very close and have a broadly happy life together in the small house they share which doubles as her mother’s studio.

Things change when Hatsuko and Fusao get into an accident on the bike which leaves them both in hospital. It just so happens that the doctor who ends up treating Hatsuko, Kuroyanagi (Masayuki Mori), is an old friend of her mother’s from before the war. During Hatsuko’s extended convalescence the pair rekindle their long abandoned romance but tension soon arises when the still youthful Hatsuko begins to resent this change in her familial relations. Having come to think of her mother as a kind of pure, saintly figure the idea of her as woman with a woman’s needs and desires profoundly disturbs her.

Shinoda frames this twin tale of women in love as series of embedded conflicts – between generations, between eras, and between a mother and a daughter whose relationship must necessarily change as one comes of age. There is also an additional burden placed on the relationship by means of a long buried secret regarding Hatusko’s birth, the man she had regarded as her father, and the newly resurfaced figure of the doctor who, it seems, has always been in Toyoeda’s heart. Despite the fact that one might assume all of the resentment towards a new relationship would come from the maternal side, Toyoeda is generally supportive of her daughter’s right to choose a boyfriend only warning her that the boy’s parents had acted with hostility following the accident and there may be class based trouble ahead given the fact that her mother is “only a kouta teacher”.

The doctor, a melancholy and perceptive figure, is the first to notice the effect his unexpected return is having on the previously happy mother daughter relationship. Correctly remarking that young people of Hatsuko’s age have much more clearly defined ideas about “morality”, especially as it relates to the older generation, Kuroyanagi can see why Hatsuko may have reservations about her mother remarrying. In this he is very much correct. Even setting aside the slight cultural squeamishness concerning second marriages, Hatsuko’s reaction to her mother’s new romance is one of deep disgust and confusion. Though she recognises that her feelings are unfair and will only cause her mother additional suffering, she cannot bring herself to accept the idea of her mother taking a lover and eventually bringing this new element into their extremely close relationship.

Eventually Hatsuko moves out to live with a friend while Fusao, who had been absent from the picture thanks to his parental machinations, finally reappears and seems to want to resume their relationship whatever the final cost to his own familial relations. Ending on a bittersweet note after which secrets are revealed, confessions are made, and hearts are bared, the film seems to want to remind us that life is short and unpredictable – there is no time for the kind of petty discomforts which lead Hatsuko to force her mother to choose between the man she loved and her daughter. After beginning with an innovative title sequence, Shinoda’s approach is more straightforward than in some of his more visually adventurous work of the period but makes good use of dissolves and interesting compositions to bring a little more substance to this otherwise generic Shochiku programme picture.