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.

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.


 

A Japanese Tragedy (日本の悲劇, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1953)

A Japanese Tragedy 1A Japanese tragedy, or the tragedy of Japan? In Kinoshita’s mind, there was no greater tragedy than the war itself though perhaps what came after was little better. Made only eight years after Japan’s defeat, Keisuke Kinoshita’s 1953 film A Japanese Tragedy (日本の悲劇, Nihon no Higeki) is the story of a woman who sacrificed everything it was possible to sacrifice to keep her children safe, well fed and to invest some kind of hope in a better future for them. However, when you’ve had to go to such lengths to merely to stay alive, you may find that afterwards there’s only shame and recrimination from those who ought to be most grateful.

After opening with a series of genuine newsreel segments overlaid with newspaper clippings which tell of nothing other than crime, corruption and suicides, Kinoshita shifts focus to our ordinary mother, Haruko, currently working in an inn. Her son, Seiichi, has something he wants to tell her and will be staying with his sister, Utako, if she’d care to call. Neither of the children seems very excited about seeing their mother and, in fact, Seiichi’s news is that he wants to be adopted into a wealthy medical family so he can eventually take over their hospital. Utako is studying dressmaking and learning English but has also developed an attraction to her married English teacher which is threatening to develop into quite a difficult situation.

Kinoshita makes it plain that everybody suffered during the war which generally brought out the worst in people and even afterwards it was every man for himself as each tried desperately to climb out of the deepening hole that was Japan’s wartime defeat. Haruko lost her husband in the conflict, leaving her alone with two young children to feed and no one to help her. She did what she had to do whether that was a spot of black-marketeering, hoarding, or even casual prostitution but she put her children first every time. Unfortunately, she also falls for some bad self serving advice from her brother-in-law who offers to take over her husband’s land and look after the children while she earns more money out of town. Of course, he didn’t exactly keep his promises and both of the children suffered as a result.

Far from feeling grateful for their mother’s sacrifice, what the children feel is a mixture of shame and resentment. They’re embarrassed by their mother’s hardline personality and rural earthiness which no longer match their postwar upwardly mobile aspirations and force them to remember the unpleasantness of their upbringing. Seiichi is particularly disgusted by his mother’s having prostituted herself, branding her a “loose woman” and calling into question her character even before the disruptive effects of the war. Utako suffered a far greater betrayal at the hands of her relatives which has coloured her entire world view and left her with nothing but lingering resentment towards the mother who placed her in this situation.

Kinoshita intercuts the present day action with completely silent scenes of the family escaping from the military police, or memories of the various traumas each of the family members encountered in the chaotic period immediately after the end of the war. We see them travel from the warm letters sent by the children to their mother which lament the way their aunt and uncle are treating them to the outright hostility of the contemporary era. Haruko may not be the easiest of women, she’s certainly had a difficult life by any standards and it’s understandable why the relationship with her children might be strained, but in this case blood is not enough to overcome all the years of hardship and neither Seiichi nor Utako is willing to fulfil their filial obligations towards their mother.

Haruko substitutes the relationship she’s missing with her own children by offering maternal advice to the chef who works in her inn and a sad wandering guitarist who often comes by to serenade the guests. Not much older than her own son, the guitarist also has a mother in the country whom he rarely sees – Haruko gives him some money that he tearfully promises to use to send his mother a present, though he confesses at the end of the film that he drank it himself in the end. He feels guilty about it and he’s moved by Haruko’s kindness towards him but in the end he’s forgotten his own mother too and even if he isn’t treating her with the same level of disdain that Seiichi and Utako display for Haruko, he isn’t doing much better in the filial piety stakes.

An extended metaphor with a series of tightly packed layers, A Japanese Tragedy is a lament for a homeland that’s lost its way. Haruko, like the idealised mother, has given her own life in sacrifice for those of her children only to find that her children disown her for it. Everything she has ever done, good and bad, has been in their name yet they refuse even to acknowledge her suffering but rather apportion blame for their own hardships. Kinoshita litters Haruko’s story with news reports bearing out the depths to which the country has fallen – corrupt politicians, rioting, violence on the streets and mothers who commit suicide taking their children with them. At a moment near the end of the film, Haruko remains motionless on the train station steps as a crowd of passengers surges past her. Left alone, uncertain, and believing herself to have lost the only thing that has ever mattered to her, Haruko becomes a casualty of a society that is so intent on marching forward that it’s lost sight of where it’s going. An enraged state of the nation address, this bleak and tragic tale is nevertheless filled with genuine human feeling and naturalistic detail which only deepen the impact of the desperately sad ending.


Opening sequence of the film:

Reviewed at the 2016 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme, ICA 7th February 2016.