Family Diary (家庭日記, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1938)

Family Diary posterDespite the unending popularity of the romantic melodrama, Hiroshi Shimizu never quite got the bug. For Shimizu, romance is always abstracted – it either goes unresolved or reaches a point of resolution but only through unpleasant or unpalatable circumstances. There are few unambiguously “happy” couples in Shimizu’s movies, but Family Diary (家庭日記, Katei Nikki) takes things one step further in its twin tales of the romantic destinies of two very different students one of whom took the sensible path and the other the path of foolish love.

First we meet the sensible one. Fuji (Shin Saburi) takes a last twilight stroll with his current girlfriend, Kikue (Kuniko Miyake), after which they burn their letters as a symbol of their parting. Now that his brother’s business has failed, Fuji is marrying into a wealthy family who will pay for the remainder of his studies. Meanwhile his best friend, Tsuji (Ken Uehara), is grumpily drinking with a bar girl he plans to marry despite the objection of his parents. Fuji marries Shinako (Sanae Takasugi) and becomes an Ubukata while Tsuji marries Ume (Michiko Kuwano) and goes to Dalian in Manchuria. Some years later when Tsuji returns to Tokyo along with his wife and son, Ubukata has become a successful, happily married man. Coincidentally, Kikue who had gone to Manchuria to escape her heartbreak has also returned and opened up a small hairdressing shop which runs herself as a single woman looking after her younger sister, Yaeko (Mitsuko Miura).

The contrast between Ubukata and Tsuji is set up early on as Ubukata is repeatedly categorised as cold and unfeeling where as Tsuji is unmanly and oversensitive. Ubukata describes Tsuji as “sentimental”, “too delicate”, “almost the artistic type” for his compassionate desire to avoid awkwardness between their wives who, after all, must at least try to become friends if the relationship between the men is to be maintained. He urges him to “think about simpler things” which is most often the way Ubukata appears to think. That is not to say it didn’t hurt to abandon Kikue, but he comforted himself in the knowledge that he was doing the “best” thing based on a series of practical calculations. Ubukata is not heartless, but he is a committed pragmatist and sometimes insensitive to the suffering of others who might not agree with the way he works things out as his wife suggests when she (cheerfully enough) reproaches him for not paying attention to other people’s feelings.

Tsuji, having chosen to marry for love, at times seems envious of Ubukata’s settled home life with his traditional Japanese wife who trails behind him in kimono and rarely goes out without informing her husband first. Where Ubukata’s match might be seen as a betrayal of love for money, his home is harmonious whereas the Tsujis’ is not. Ubukata, it has to be said, is polite enough to Ume but makes no secret of his distaste for her unrefined character. Tsuji’s parents objected to the match because Ume was a bar girl (and, it is implied, a casual prostitute) and though Tsuji has no problem with her past, the snobbish attitudes of men like Ubukata continue to plague her however much she tries to play by the rules of their society. When Ubukata takes Tsuji to dinner, Tsuji asks him not to tell Shinako about Ume’s past in case she looks down on her to which Ubukata tells him he’s being over sensitive but later consents if only because he finds the subject distasteful in any case and is an old fashioned gallant sort of man.

Ume is however out of place in this upper middle-class environment as she demonstrates by provocatively lighting a cigarette while entertaining Ubukata and Shinako who ends up lighting it for her with a look of mild awe in her eyes. Ume fears this world will reject her – something it ultimately does when Tsuji tries to reconnect with his family, but in reality she has already rejected it herself. Unable to see past her own fears and regrets she doubts her husband’s love and lives in constant anxiety, waiting for the next slight from a hoity toity housewife to remind her that she doesn’t deserve all of this “happiness”. Though the Tsujis are “unhappy” there is also love, even if it is complicated and often misunderstood.

Both marriages are ultimately destabilised by external forces – Tsuji’s by his family’s attempts to expunge Ume by “stealing” her son and later plotting to pay her off on the condition she absent herself, and Ubukata’s by the resurfacing of the romantic love that he sacrificed for material gain. Though Ubukata has no intention of rehashing the past, he does want to be of service to Kikue (again, misreading her feelings and attempting to make himself feel better rather than improve the fortunes of another) – something which places a wedge between himself and his wife when she eventually learns of the circumstances which led to her marriage. Yet the wedge itself is not so much caused by Kikue as by Ubukata’s supreme coolness in which he sees no reason to explain himself to his wife because his actions have satisfied his own sense of righteousness and must therefore also satisfy hers.

Though Shinako is tempted by the sophisticated, westernised ways of “modern girl” Ume, and later pressed by fears her husband has never loved her, she remains a steadfast Japanese wife, effortlessly poised and always polite even under emotional duress. Despite their obvious differences, Shinako comes to care for Ume – even becoming something like her only friend, but Ume is only “accepted” by the world of the film after she “proves” herself as an emotional woman through an act of self inflicted violence which somehow demonstrates her essential purity and goodheartedness. Ume prepares to make an exit before being shown the door, but her act of pure desperation and extreme wretchedness becomes her social salvation and finally earns her a place in the moral universe of practical men like Ubukata who now rate her worthy. Thus the social order is restored, the official bonds of marriage held up, and Ubukata’s callous and calculating way of life found to be the better course, but there’s something less than convincing in Shinako’s assertion that everything will be alright now as she and her husband become another of Shimizu’s figures disappearing over a distant bridge.


So Goes My Love (愛より愛へ, Yasujiro Shimazu, 1938)

(C) Shochiku 1938Yasujiro Shimazu had been a pioneer of the “shomingeki” – naturalistic stories of ordinary lower middle class life, and his early career included several forays into the world of the “tendency film” which carried strong left-wing messages. By the late 1930s however his films have shifted upwards a little and often deal with the lives of the upper middle classes as they find themselves at another moment of transition during the turbulent militarist years. In contrast with many contemporary films, Shimazu’s may seem curiously apolitical but speak volumes solely through their subtlety and direct refusal to engage with the propagandist concerns of the ruling regime.

In So Goes My Love (愛より愛へ, Ai yori Ai e), our lead, Shigeo (Shuji Sano), is a struggling writer living with his girlfriend, Miyako (Sanae Takasugi), who supports them both with her meagre earnings as a bar hostess. As we later discover, Shigeo is the eldest son of a prominent family who have (temporarily) disowned him because they don’t approve of his relationship with Miyako. Realising his dreams of becoming a successful writer are unlikely to be fulfilled, Shigeo has become moody and taciturn. He wants to find a job but isn’t exactly equipped to get one especially when the times are as hard as they are. He asks his uncle for help and gets an interview at a newspaper, but quickly realises that his uncle has set him up – he can only have the job if he “legitimises” his living arrangements. Shigeo leaves in a huff but there’s no denying he’s in a financial fix.

Things start to change when Shigeo runs into his younger sister, Toshiko (Mieko Takamine), by chance at a cafe. Toshiko insists on coming back with him to his lodgings “for future reference” but also out of morbid curiosity as a kind of touristic exercise in surveying the lives of those less fortunate. Shigeo thought Miyako would have already gone out but walks in just as she’s leaving. Though Miyako is shy and quiet, a little perturbed over being suddenly ambushed with a visitor, she does her best to ease the awkwardness between herself and her potential sister-in-law with black tea (foregoing a cup herself) until Toshiko finally consents to sit on their floor cushion. Toshiko looks around the bare, depressing flat and spots Miyako’s sewing box with a pair of freshly darned socks sitting on top. It’s immediately clear to her that Miyako is not, as her parents had suggested, some kind of gold digger (no self-respecting gold digger darns their socks, after all). More than that, she seems “nice”, which is perhaps why she’s able to put up with the petulant Shigeo with so little complaint.

The central problem is a two fold one – Shigeo has attempted to choose his own bride and therefore “modernity” over the “traditionalism” of an arranged marriage. He doesn’t particularly care about being the head of a household or about living in relative squalor save for guilt and wounded male pride that he’s condemned Miyako to live there with him (not to mention sending her out to the degrading world of hostess bars and cabarets just so they can survive). The parents have reacted badly and produced a stand-off. Shigeo’s uncle is trying to manipulate the situation to his advantage by convincing Shigeo to leave Miyako and come home, but Shigeo is a proud young man, even if he leaves Miyako there’s no way he’ll come home with his tail between his legs. If the older generation wants to win the younger one over, it will have to compromise and learn to play by less stringent rules.

Making a knee-jerk judgment, Shigeo’s father and uncle have decided that Miyako is just a passing fad, a floozy or a gold digger best worked out of one’s system young and then forgotten about (preferably so that it wounds you so badly you’re ready to accept the cold comforts of a proper arranged marriage). Rather than the uncle, it’s Toshiko who becomes the bridge when she realises how kind and devoted Miyako really is. Shigeo’s mother is also sympathetic but, sadly, it’s still the men who have the final say and it’s not until uncle pays a Miyako a visit to try and persuade her to leave Shigeo that he too begins to see how “sweet” she is and that allowing her into their family wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all. In fact, as we later realise, Shigeo’s father perhaps wasn’t so opposed as he pretended to be and was simply playing his son at his own game, planning to consent to the match once he proved that it was really “serious” and not just a passing fling. Nevertheless, Miyako’s own meekness proves the final barrier as she finds herself suddenly afraid that Shigeo’s family might think her inherent goodness is some kind of trick and she’s been plotting all along. Only when Toshiko comes to fetch her and Shigeo himself calls her to come does she finally understand it’s going to be alright.

For 1938, this rather frivolous story might seem decadent especially with its warmhearted liberalism as the union of a lower-class woman and upper-class man is finally blessed through nothing more than common sense and empathy. Though Shimazu otherwise steers clear of political concerns, he does send Shigeo, Miyako, and Toshiko to the pictures where they end up watching part of a film made by Leni Reifenstahl featuring beautifully photographed visions of lithe young men in swimming trunks after which Shigeo gets up in a huff to smoke a cigarette. Toshiko didn’t seem to enjoy it much either and tries to improve Shigeo’s mood by insisting that the next one will be better but the message is clear – Shimazu didn’t like that film and he doesn’t think you did either. Among fans of Shimazu, at least, modernity is winning. It may not be perfect (Shigeo is an obvious prig whose self-conscious masculine posturing is almost a self parody), but it’s getting there and if everyone would just forget about the “rules” and treat others with respect, decency, and understanding then perhaps things wouldn’t be in such a mess.


Short scene in which the trio go to the cinema

Family Meeting (家族会議, Yasujiro Shimazu, 1936)

Family Meeting horizontal posterGiven the strident tone of the times, it was perhaps becoming more difficult to avoid politics altogether by the mid-1930s, but Yasujiro Shimazu manages it well enough in Family Meeting (家族会議, Kazoku Kaigi) – a romantic melodrama set in the world of the high stakes family business. Shimazu is best remembered as the pioneer of the shomingeki – stories of ordinary lower-middle class life in the contemporary era, but Family Meeting shifts up a little way in its focus on a young CEO who discovers it’s lonely at the top, not least because of the burden of family legacy and its unexpected impact on his difficult love life.

Shimazu opens on a noisy trading room floor at the Shigezumi Company before shifting to the equally chaotic boss’ office. Young CEO Takayuki (Shin Saburi) is called out by a family friend, Haruko (Yasuko Tachibana), who insists he come to the theatre to meet a young lady, Kiyoko (Michiko Kuwano), with whom she hopes to set him up. Takayuki’s love life is somewhat complicated in that he’s in love with “that woman from Osaka” – Yasuko (Michiko Oikawa) who also happens to be the daughter of a former business associate whose dodgy dealings some say pushed Takayuki’s late father to suicide. Yasuko is coming to Tokyo for the memorial service for Takayuki’s dad in company with her friend, Shinobu (Sanae Takasugi), but is also being pursued by another suitor – Rentaro (Kokichi Takada), a businessman who is secretly attempting to undermine Takayuki’s business through merging with another company.

Difficulties abound for Takayuki as his business suffers and he’s pestered from all sides as regards his romantic inclinations. Despite his personal feelings, he is unable to fulfil his romantic desires with Yasuko because of their difficult family history while Haruko attempts to push him towards Kiyoko. Kiyoko, the daughter of the businessman undercutting Takayuki’s business wouldn’t be such a good match either if anyone but she knew about the machinations, but currently they’re a well kept secret. Having fallen in love with Takayuki she eventually decides to spill the beans which gives him an all important advantage though he has to mortgage his house and approach Shinobu’s father, a wealthy Buddhist monk, for a loan in order to stay afloat. Takayuki isn’t interested in Kiyoko and finally has to resort to bluntness to make her understand but the eventual outcome is as positive as it could be and, in any case, works out well enough once she realises she’s developed an attraction for Rentaro who is finally beginning to go off Yasuko.

The romantic and the corporate increasingly overlap but the general message is that the modern business of commerce is chaotic and messy. The shouting of the trading floor and the backroom dealing of Rentaro’s nefarious plan are not exactly the rarefied world of gentleman’s agreements which often passes for the salaryman life in Japanese cinema, but the central irony is that the wealthiest man of all is the monk who “earns” his money passively through the largely silent practice of donation. The monk’s modern girl daughter, Shinobu, by contrast is a spendthrift with a taste for the spirt of the age – fast cars, feather boas, fancy hats and a confident forthrightness that stands in stark contrast to the shy diffidence of the permanently kimono’d Yasuko. The final irony is that it’s Shinobu who ultimately ends up “in charge” not only of Takayuki’s business arrangements – receiving the debt from her father and deciding to run the company herself with Takayuki as the boss, but also of his romantic life when she engineers a reunion with Yasuko before valiantly driving off alone into the mountains, her work here well and truly done.

Only once Takayuki is freed from his workplace burden is he able to address his romantic difficulties, and only by leaving the city behind is he able to free himself of his father’s legacy. Thanks to the gentle machinations of Shinobu, everyone is able to move forward with a little more certainty and little less preoccupation as she alone decides to shoulder all their burdens without thought for herself. Unlike many ‘30s films, Family Meeting’s central message seems to be slow down, let others help when things get hard, and try to avoid being so noble you make yourself unhappy. All good lessons though perhaps inexpertly delivered and without Shimazu’s usual wit.


Eclipse (金環蝕, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1934)

Shimizu Eclipse 1Though most often remembered for his contribution to the cinema of children, Hiroshi Shimizu was also a practiced chronicler of his difficult times. 1934’s Eclipse (金環蝕, Kinkanshoku), unlike much of his other work from the period, avoids direct reference to Japan’s increasingly global or imperialist ambitions but paints its rapid shift towards “modernity” as dangerous and potentially tragic for the unlucky few who for one reason or another are unable to secure their passage towards a harmonious and prosperous future. Adopting the form of a classic romantic melodrama, Eclipse is a bittersweet exploration of corrupted social virtues which ends on an ironic note of defeated victory.

Shimizu begins in a traditional rural village which is all abuzz because prodigal son Seiji Kanda (Shiro Kanemitsu) – now a big shot lawyer in the city, is set to return and, rumour has it, is on the look out for a good country wife. Regarding a marriage to a promising young man like Seiji as the highest of prizes, the village women gossip about whom he might choose and correctly conclude Kinue Nishimura (Hiroko Kawasaki) is likely to be the front runner given her comparatively high education level, beauty, poise, and kindness. Kinue, however, has long been in love with her diffident cousin, Shukichi Osaki (Mitsugu Fujii), who now finds himself in a difficult position as Seiji’s best friend and the go-between charged with communicating his intention to marry. Called to a secret meeting by an old watermill, Kinue is shocked and offended when Shukichi proposes on behalf of someone else, strongly refusing the proposal and reminding him of all the times they had spent together during which she believed an attachment had been formed. Shukichi, whose family is impoverished, does not reject her affections but claims not to want to stand in the way of his friend’s romantic dreams.

Kinue, perhaps unwittingly setting up the ongoing drama, asks if she is to sacrifice her heart and marry a man she does not love and believes would ultimately be unhappy with a woman who yearns for someone else, in order that Shuikichi may continue to feel noble. In the end, Shukichi tries to make her decision for her by running away to the city in the hope of making a life for himself in the same way that Seiji has done. Kinue, brokenhearted, rejects the idea of marrying Seiji and runs off after him only to end up working as a bar girl under the bright lights of Tokyo. Meanwhile, Shukichi discovers that the bonds of obligation which carry so much weight the village are all but worthless in the city when his various contacts refuse to see him and he finds it impossible to gain promising employment. His big break comes when he is knocked over by the chauffeur of the man who just offered to pay his train fare back to the country and thereafter is taken into the family home as a tutor for the youngest son on the insistence of the forthright “modern girl” daughter, Tomone (Michiko Kuwano). Needless to say, the romantic drama isn’t over as Tomone also has a “cousin” who is in love with her and is also sought by Seiji who was her tutor while he was in college and she in school.

The values of the old world and the new are in constant conflict with each other though ultimately it is the failure to act decisively on one’s emotions which causes the greatest harm. Shukichi, knowing his family is poor and a marriage to Seiji the “better” social and financial option for Kinue, insists on nobly sacrificing himself in what he sees as her interest but in doing so rejects her own agency or right to choose her future, assuming she will simply passively pass into the arms of Seiji with no resistance. Kinue, however, resists by following him to Tokyo but, unable to find him, is forced into the sex trade to support herself. Meanwhile, Shukichi continues to break hearts in the city – firstly that of Tomone who has apparently fallen in love with him despite their class difference, but also that of Kayo (Yoshiko Tsubouchi) – the sister of the chauffeur who knocked him over. Still in love with Kinue he diffidently (but not categorically) rejects the affections of the two women but also refuses to act on his feelings for Kinue until he tries a last ditch attempt to “rescue” her from a fall into a life of prostitution through a worrying act of frustrated physical violence (something which ultimately fails).   

The final resolution is brought about by Seiji who, unlike Shukichi, has been able to reconcile his essential nobility with the forward moving nature of the times. Seiji, figuring out that he’d come between a loose arrangement between Kinue and her cousin, is full of remorse and steps back without a second thought, desiring only happiness for all rather than victory or conquest. Again, at the end, becoming the second choice match for Tomone, he returns to fix what he half feels he has broken by “rescuing” Kinue himself through an act of gentleman’s diplomacy and then giving his friend a good talking to. The problem becomes less of one of East and West, town and country, past and future, but personal integrity. Tomone laments that her “selfishness” has caused pain to others – something for which she is trying to make amends in becoming a “good wife” to Seiji, but this is a lesson Shukichi has been slow to learn. His failure to integrate his conflicting desires coupled with a feeling of social inferiority due to his family’s reduced circumstances and standing in the village has effectively created this web of broken hearts and ruined futures, all of which might have been avoided if he had been braver and chosen to stay at home with the woman he loved at his side, living a life of simplicity but with emotional integrity.

These twin destinies are reinforced by the final scenes which find Seiji and Tomone boarding a boat to the West to immense fanfare and celebration, while Kinue and Shukichi are perched aboard a baggage train, he standing and she sitting dejectedly, silent and apart as the rails speed away behind them. The city recedes and the chance of future happiness for our reunited lovers seems slim despite the conventionally romantic nature of their togetherness as they return home drenched in defeat. Seduced and betrayed by the bright lights of Tokyo, Kinue and Shukichi seem bound for the life they should have lived if they’d only been brave enough to fight for happiness at home rather than succumbing to the false promises of modernity but it remains to be seen if their time in the city can be “eclipsed” by a new hope for a traditional future or will continue to overshadow their simple and honest lives in the days to come.


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.


Elegy of the North (挽歌, Heinosuke Gosho, 1957)

elegy of the north posterHeinosuke Gosho is perhaps among the most neglected Japanese directors of the “golden age”. A pioneer of the “shomingeki”, Gosho’s work is marked by a profound humanism but also a refusal to reduce the complexity of human emotions to the superficially immediate. Elegy of the North (挽歌, Banka) takes him much further in the direction of standard melodrama than he would usually venture, echoing contemporary American or European romantic dramas filled with soaring scores and moments of intense emotion bridged by long periods of restraint and repression. Yet it is also among the most psychologically complex of Gosho’s narratives, telling stories of death and rebirth in place of the usual coming of age and first heartbreak for which the genre is so well loved. In Reiko (Yoshiko Kuga) he presents us with a heroine we can’t be sure we like and certainly are not intended to approve of even as we sympathise with her pain and long for an end to her (often self inflicted) suffering.

Walking along the smoking volcanic soil of frozen Hokkaido, Reiko offers us the first of many voiceovers in which she tells us about her left arm – withered and almost numb due to childhood arthritis. When her withered arm is bitten by a dog, Nellie, owned by a melancholy architect, Katsuragi (Masayuki Mori), she barely feels it but Katsuragi is mortified. “She’s never bitten anyone before”, he tells Reiko by way of explanation, “I’ve never been bitten before”, Reiko fires back but bitten she certainly has been. Captivated by the idea of Katsuragi, she doesn’t immediately take him up on the offer of coming to his house and possibly adopting a puppy but catches sight of him around town and then decides to pay him a visit. He isn’t in, but Akiko (Mieko Takamine), his wife, is. Reiko didn’t want to see Katsuragi’s wife so she makes a speedy escape.

Having caught sight of Akiko, Reiko is equally intrigued. Akiko, as Reiko discovers, is having an (unhappy) affair with a much younger medical student, Tatsumi (Fumio Watanabe). Failing to read the emotional landscape of this sorry scene, Reiko regards this information as a juicy piece of gossip in her ongoing campaign to win over Katsuragi. She spies on the lovers, childishly eavesdropping on them in a local cafe, even suddenly delivering their coffee for them so she can get a proper look at Akiko – not that she really sees her or the distraught look on her face, she merely observes her rival – the wicked woman who has betrayed her beloved Katsuragi.

Reiko is constantly berated by her father and grandmother for her unwomanliness. Compared with the typical Japanese woman of the time and particularly with the stoic yet miserable Akiko, Reiko can certainly be thought unusual. Dressing in androgynous loose trousers, polo neck jumper and overcoat, without makeup and with unkempt hair, her aesthetic is one of rambunctious child or rebellious teenager. Her habit of throwing out awkward, inappropriate questions at first seems like childish ineptness but later seems calculated to unbalance. She is often cruel, perhaps deliberately so, but then remorseful (if only for selfish reasons). Though Reiko seems to feel that it’s her disability that marks her out as an outcast, unfit for marriage or a “normal” life, her family appear much more concerned with her unconventional rejection of femininity in her boldness, masculine dress, and refusal to learn the traditionally feminine crafts of housework and cookery so necessary to becoming the ideal wife.

What Reiko sees in Akiko is an image of her idealised self – beautiful, poised, elegant, and the wife of Katsuragi. As part of her nefarious plan, Reiko decides to “befriend” Akiko while Katsuragi is away on a business trip. What she never expected is that she would come to genuinely care for both Akiko and the couple’s small daughter Kumiko (Etsuko Nakazato), making her position as a potential home wrecker impossible. Reiko’s father blames himself for her unwomanliness, having raised her alone after his wife died, denying her of a maternal influence from whom she would have learned all the essentials of femininity which she now seems to lack. Akiko, a few years older, becomes both friend and surrogate mother – Reiko even begins calling her “Mamma” just as Kumiko does. Akiko’s distant poise begins to thaw when Reiko crawls in through her door one night after contracting pneumonia. Nursing Reiko as a mother would brings the two women closer together but it also unwittingly drives them apart in deepening Reiko’s sense of guilt in being torn between two loves in the knowledge that she must destroy one of them or herself.

Akiko, the tragic heroine of the piece, remains a cypher precisely because of her adherence to the rules of traditional femininity. Reiko is first drawn to her because of her sad smile – something she later brings up again in their fiercely undramatic yet heartrending parting scene as Reiko tries to undo the harm she has just done only for Akiko to mildly reject her by instructing her that she needs to take better care of herself. Her relationship with Katsuragi appears to have floundered and, trapped in a lonely marriage, Akiko has found herself in an emotionally draining entanglement with a younger man whose life she fears she is ruining. Tatsumi, needled, is irritated by Reiko’s buzzing around Akiko, asking her an awkward question of his own in accusing her of being a lesbian, to which Reiko gives one of her infuriately barbed replies with “call it what you want”. Reiko’s intentions probably do not run that way (at least consciously), so much as she longs for the love and affection she missed out on after losing her mother at such a young age. Akiko, however, may see things differently. Her life appears lonely, and her friendship with Reiko, whom she brands “reckless yet somehow cheerful” (again, like an infuriating child), is one of its few bright spots. The betrayal is not so much that Reiko has slept with her husband, but that Reiko has deliberately ruined their friendship by exposing it as a cruel ruse in the most wounding of ways. The last time we see Akiko, she is wearing the necklace that Reiko gave to her – a sure sign that her final decision is, in someway, taken on Reiko’s behalf.

Reiko’s tragedy is that her intense self loathing which she attributes to her withered arm, leads her to suspect each act of kindness is only one of pity and that no one can truly love her, they’re just overcompensating because of her “deformity”. At the beginning of the film she asks herself if her mind is as warped as her body. Her actions are often “warped”, as in she works against herself and ultimately destroys the very thing she wanted most yet there is a kind of settling that occurs through her interactions with Akiko. In the final sequence, Reiko has shed her dowdy, dark coloured, worn trousers and jumpers for an elegant skirt and blouse, and has learned to accommodate a certain level of domesticity. Even if she is merely echoing Akiko, Reiko has at least attempted to move forward in exploring the areas of femininity she had hitherto rejected outright. That it is not to say her “unusual” nature is tamed in favour of conforming to social norms, merely that a side of herself which she had decided to keep locked has been opened up for examination (and may then be rejected with greater self knowledge). Elegy of the North lives up to its name in singing a long and painful song of mourning, but Gosho ends on a note of hopeful, in pained, optimism for his contrary heroine, literally forced to move past the scene of her crime towards a possibly happier future.


Screened at BFI as part of the Women in Japanese Melodrama season.

Women of the Night (夜の女たち, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1948)

Women of the Night still 1Cinema of the immediate post-war period generally leaned towards upbeat positivity, insisting that, yes, the situation is painful and difficult but it wouldn’t always be this way, at least as long as ordinary people kept their chins up and worked hard to build a better future. Mizoguchi’s Women of the Night (夜の女たち, Yoru no Onnatachi) is very much not interested in this rosy vision of future success being sold by a new morale boosting propaganda machine, but in laying bare the harsh and unforgiving nature of a society that was fast preparing to leave a significant part of its population far behind. Women suffer in war, but they suffer after war too – particularly in a society as stratified as Japan’s had been in which those left without familial support found themselves entirely excluded from the mainstream world.

Fusako (Kinuyo Tanaka), a noble, naive woman still hasn’t heard from her presumably demobbed husband and is living with her in-laws. Her young son has tuberculosis and she is desperately short of money. Selling one of her kimonos, Fusako is excited to to hear of an “interesting proposition” but is repulsed when she realises the saleswoman is inciting her to an act of prostitution. After all, she says, everybody is doing it.

After undergoing a series of tragedies, Fusako thinks things are beginning to go right for her when she manages to get a secretarial job through the kindness of a connection, but it turns out that Mr. Kuriyama (Mitsuo Nagata) is not all he seems and his business may not be as legitimate as Fusako believed it to be. Another small miracle occurs on a street corner as Fusako runs into her long lost sister, Natsuko (Sanae Takasugi), formerly living in Korea and now repatriated to Japan, but a return to normal family life seems impossible in the still smouldering ruins of Osaka filled with black marketeering, desperation, and hopelessness.

Inspired by the Italian Neo Realist movement, Mizoguchi makes brief use of location shooting to emphasise the current state of the city, still strewn with rubble and the aftermath of destruction. Osaka, like Natsuko and Fusako, finds itself at a cross roads of modernity, paralysed by indecision in looking for a way forward. Fusako, the kinder, more innocent sister dresses in kimono, does not smoke, and is committed to working hard to build a new life for herself. Natsuko, by contrast, dresses exclusively in Western clothing, smokes, drinks, and works as a hostess at a dancehall with the implication that she is already involved in casual forms of prostitution.

Natsuko’s way of life, and later that of Fusako’s much younger sister-in-law Kumiko (Tomie Tsunoda), is painted as a direct consequence of an act of sexual violence. Having been raped during the evacuation from Korea, Natsuko feels herself to have been somehow defiled and rendered unfit for a “normal” life, relegated to the underground world of the sex trade as an already damaged woman. Fusako disapproves of her sister’s choices and is alarmed by the unfamiliar world of bars and dance halls but eventually ends up in the world of prostitution herself as a result of emotional violence in the form of cruel yet incidental betrayal. Fusako’s “descent” into prostitution is less survival than an act both of revenge and of intense self-harm as she vows to avenge herself on the world of men through spreading venereal disease.

Mizoguchi’s attitudes towards sex work were always complex – despite displaying sympathy for women who found themselves trapped within red light district as his own sister had been, he was also a man who spent much of his life in the company of geishas. Nevertheless Women of the Night veers between empathy and disdain for the hosts of post-war “pan pans” existing in codependent female gangs in which violence and hierarchy were as much an essential part as mutual support. The film opens with a sign which instructs women that they should not be seen out after dark lest they will be taken for prostitutes, respectable women should make a point of being home at the proper hour. Later, when Fusako is picked up by a police raid, she comes across a woman from the “purity board” who wants to hand out some pamphlets to help women “reform” from their “impure” ways and temper their presumably insatiable sexual desire. Fusako quite rightly tells the woman where to go while the others echo her in confirming no one has volunteered to live this way because they like it. Starving to death with a pure heart is one thing, but what are any of these women supposed to do in a world that refuses them regular work when they have already lost friends and family and are entirely alone with no hope of survival?

A third option exists in the form of a home for women which has been set up for the express purpose of “reforming” former prostitutes so that they can lead “normal” lives. The home provides ample meals, medical treatment and work though its attitude can be slightly patronising even in its well meaning attempt to re-educate. Again the home is working towards an ideal which is not evident in reality – there are no jobs for these women to go to, and no husbands waiting to support them. Incurring yet another tragedy, Fusako receives a well meaning lecture from a male employee at the home to the effect that it’s time for women to work together to build a better world for all womankind but Fusako has seen enough of the sisterhood realise that won’t save her either and leaves the man to his platitudes trailing a dense cloud of contempt behind her.

Yet Fusako does change her mind, finally reunited with the missing Kumiko who has also fallen into prostitution after running away from home and being tricked by a boy who pretended to be nice but only ever planned to rob and rape her. In a furious scene of maternal rage, Fusako rails against her plight, enraged by Kumiko’s degradation which ultimately forces her to see her own. Brutally beaten by the other women for the mere suggestion of leaving the gang, Fusako is held, Christ-like, while she pleads for an end to this existence, that there should be no more women like these. The storm breaks and the other women gradually come over to Fusako’s side, depressed and demoralised, left with no clear direction to turn for salvation. Mizoguchi ends on a bleak note of eternal suffering and continuing impossibility but he pauses briefly to pan up to an unbroken stained glass window featuring the Madonna and child. Fusako emerges unbroken, taking Kumiko under her maternal wing, but the future they walk out into is anything but certain and their journey far from over.   


Screened at BFI as part of the Women in Japanese Melodrama season. Screening again on 21st October, 17.10.