The Straits of Love and Hate (愛怨峡, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1937)

straits of love and hate poster“Tokyo is a dangerous city that traps innocent people like you” the heroine of Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1937 melodrama The Straits of Love and Hate (愛怨峡, Aien kyo) is told, but it’s not so much the darkness of the city streets as the world’s cruelty which threatens to consume her soul. Loosely inspired by Tolstoy’s Resurrection, then particularly popular in Japan and a frequent source for adaptation in the silent era, Straits of Love and Hate is a familiar tale of an innocent maid seduced and betrayed by the weak willed son of her social superiors, but rather than see her beaten by a broken heart Mizoguchi allows to her to find new strength in the determination to move forward in a direction of her choosing.

Kitchen maid Ofumi (Fumiko Yamaji) is in love with Kenkichi (Masao Shimizu ), the son of local hotel owners. Now that he’s finished his studies, his parents were expecting him to take over the inn so they’re not exactly pleased when he tells them he plans to go to Tokyo to become a teacher, nor would they be very happy about the idea of him marrying a lowly maid. After arguing with his father, Kenkichi more or less gives up on the idea of leaving, deciding to postpone until his parents come round or perhaps going on his own and sending for Ofumi when he’s financially stable. Twin pressures, however, force him to accept that it’s now or never. Ofumi is a few months pregnant and will soon be showing so his hand is in a sense forced. Meanwhile, Ofumi is keen to leave as soon as possible because her uncle, Murakami (Seiichi Kato), has turned up extremely drunk and is talking to her employers about taking her away to join his troupe of travelling players which she is desperate to avoid because she remembers her mother telling her he was no good and would sell her to a brothel as soon as look at her.

Kenkichi relents and the pair elope to Tokyo, but once there his general fecklessness resurfaces. The couple have begun to outstay their welcome at the apartment of a friend whose wife is becoming thoroughly fed up with Kenkichi who lounges about all day not looking for work, while an increasingly pregnant Ofumi is out job-hunting alone in the unforgiving city. A naive bumpkin, she’s nearly scammed by a street pimp who claims to be saving her from someone in fact just like him, but is rescued by Yoshi (Seizaburo Kawazu) – a wandering accordion player regarded by all as a petty thug. Kindhearted by nature, Yoshi takes pity on her and sets Ofumi up with a job in a cafe but is soon arrested for stabbing the pimp who was bothering her. Meanwhile, the irritated wife of Kenkichi’s friend has wired his dad who promptly arrives to retrieve his son. Spineless, Kenkichi walks out on his pregnant girlfriend leaving her only with a note that says “sorry, good luck with the rest of your life”, and an insultingly small amount of compensation money.

It’s easy enough to think that Kenkichi wasn’t really invested in his romance, got cold feet, or simply rejected adult responsibility, but the truth is more that he’s just as trapped by patriarchal social codes as Ofumi is and no more free even with his comparatively comfortable class background. He lacks the will to defy his father, and is simply too lazy to consider living an ordinary life in the city with a regular job where no one calls him “young master”. Ofumi, by contrast, fights for love. She breaks the class barrier, naively believes that Kenkichi’s parents will accept her because they cannot reject their grandchild, and forgives Kenkichi’s fecklessness because she truly believes in him. One word from his father, and he crumbles. Left alone Ofumi is forced to send her son out to foster parents and has no other choice than to become a bar hostess.

Unlike Kenkichi, Yoshi is patient and kind. He truly means to protect Ofumi and her son, but also has a self-destructive violent streak as manifested in his over the top attack on the pimp and later altercation with a remorseful Kenkichi. Ironically enough, Uncle Murakami whom she so feared becomes an unlikely source of salvation, inviting Ofumi and Yoshi to join the company as a standup double act. Witnessing Ofumi reenact her romantic tragedy on stage as part of a routine forces Kenkichi to confront his moral cowardice. While the intervening years have seen Ofumi become cynical and bitter, still angry and resentful, Kenkichi has become weary and resigned. His parents have moved to the country, and he now runs the hotel, but he’s still not free. Hoping to convince Ofumi to come back, he invites his dad to meet their son but it becomes clear to her that Kenkichi will never change. He lacks the strength to reject his father’s authority, and as he’s abandoned her before he will likely do so again.

Kenkichi, perhaps meaning well, offers to take the child, pointing out that growing up among travelling players is an inauspicious start in life whereas he can bring the boy up with all the advantages of middle-class comfort. Ofumi is guilty in her immediate refusal, acknowledging that she may be denying her son a “better life” than she can give him, perhaps selfish in her reluctance to be parted from her child, but equally certain that she doesn’t want her son to grow up like Kenkichi, a spineless product of a patriarchal social order unable to stand up to his father or seize his own agency. She tells Kenkichi that she’s fallen in love with Yoshi because theirs is a partnership of equals, they understand and support each other, moving forward as one. He won’t abandon her by choice, but he isn’t perfect either and his foolish self-destructive impulses and selfless nobility threaten his new hope for the future as he embarks on a high risk strategy to prompt Ofumi to accept the “better life” that Kenkichi can offer her. Nevertheless, the point is that the choice is finally hers – no man is going to make it for her, not even her son. What she chooses is a kind of independence, stepping boldly forward into a future that’s entirely of her own making.


Here’s to the Young Lady (お嬢さん乾杯!, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1949)

Here's to the young lady DVD coverLove across the class divide is a perpetual inspiration for melodrama, but what if the problem is less restrictive social codes and more emotional inertia and frustrated desire? Many things were changing in the Japan of 1949, racked by post-war privation and burdened with a scrappy desire to remake itself better and kinder than before. Keisuke Kinoshita, the foremost purveyor of post-war humanism, looks back to the 1930s for his 1949 cheerfully superficial romantic comedy Here’s to the Young Lady (お嬢さん乾杯!, Ojosan Kampai!). A tale of changing social codes and youth trying to find the courage to break free, Kinoshita’s easy romance is as breezy as they come but also hard won and a definitive step towards the freer, fairer world he so often envisages.

Keizo Ishizu (Shuji Sano), a 34-year-old self-made man and successful garage owner, is still single and seemingly pestered by his well meaning friends who keep finding matches for him that he doesn’t really want. Reluctantly, he acquiesces to the demands of his good friend Mr. Sato (Takeshi Sakamoto) who is desperate to introduce him to a pretty young woman from a wealthy family and agrees to meet Yasuko (Setsuko Hara) – a demure 26-year-old apparently keen to get married. Ishizu is instantly smitten, dumbstruck by her beauty and elegance. He begins to think all this marriage talk isn’t so silly after all, but then he is only a country bumpkin made good in the scrappy post-war economy. Yasuko is old money. How could he ever be permitted to enter her world and would she ever truly fit in his? Ishizu falls hard but his dreams of romance are eventually crushed when he discovers that the Ikedas, once a noble family, have hit upon hard times following half the family’s repatriation from Manchuria and the unwise business relations of Yasuko’s father which have landed him in jail as a co-conspirator in large scale fraud.

Despite his misgivings, Ishizu is talked into “dating” Yasuko for a few months during which he plans to find out if she could fall in love with him for real or if the marriage is likely to be an eternally one-sided affair which will make them both miserable. Ishizu resents being thought of as the cash cow, the classless nouveau riche upstart roped in to breathe new life into the fading aristocracy, but can’t let go of the hope that Yasuko might fall for his down to death charms even if not all of her family are very happy with this particular means of survival.

Yasuko’s grandparents are at great pains to emphasise (repeatedly) the immense gap in social class between Ishizu and their cultured, refined ingenue of a granddaughter who enjoys such elegant hobbies skiiing, tennis, and the ballet. Ishizu is into boxing and drinking at his favourite bar. He has no idea what the tune is that Yasuko plays on the piano that he bought for her and somewhat gauchely had delivered direct in front of the mildly scandalised family who can’t help feeling belittled by his generosity, but he finds it charming all the same even if his lack of refinement also stings with embarrassment. Nevertheless, the youngsters end up finding their own way – she takes him to the ballet where he is bored and then somehow moved, and he her to the boxing where she is frightened and then thrilled. They grow closer, but also not as Ishizu becomes increasingly frustrated (if in his characteristically good natured way) by Yasuko’s continuing aloofness.   

Perhaps unusually, it is Yasuko who struggles to move on from the idealised pre-war past in which she lived the romanticised life of a wealthy noblewoman who had not a care in the world and no need to worry about anything. The war has destroyed the nobility but this no Cherry Orchard-style lament for a declining world of elegance and rise of the unrefined in its place but a plea for rational thinking and a desire to move forward into a more egalitarian future. Yasuko’s grandparents cannot accompany her on this journey even if her parents and siblings are minded to be pragmatic, but it’s she herself who will need to make the decision to abandon her rigid ideas of what it is to be a fine lady and learn to embrace her own desires if she is to find happiness (as her father urges her to do) in the rapidly changing post-war world.

Then again, Ishizu is not entirely free of petty prejudice and the mild conservatism of the upwardly mobile as he shows in his intense hostility towards his best friend’s (Keiji Sada) tempestuous relationship with a club dancer (Naruko Sato). Nevertheless, after a good old fashioned case of fisticuffs and a proper consideration of all the obstacles he faces in winning the heart of Yasuko, Ishizu eventually reconsiders and urges his friend to chase happiness wherever it may lie. He vacillates and doubts himself, finds it impossible to approach the icy lady of the manor because of a feeling of social inferiority and finally decides to give up on an unrealistic idea of romance to spare them both pain, but then the obstacles were not all his to overcome and if there is a choice to be made it is Yasuko’s to make. A joyous throwback to the screwball ‘30s, Here’s to the Young Lady, banishes the darkness of the postwar world to the margins while its melancholy youngsters use romantic heartbreaks as a springboard to free themselves from the restrictive social codes of the past in order to choose happiness over misery and despair.


Titles and opening scene (no subtitles)

I Was Born, But… ( 大人の見る絵本 生れてはみたけれど, Yasujiro Ozu, 1932)

I was born but stillWhen one thinks of the classic examples of children in Japanese cinema, Hiroshi Shimizu is the name which comes to mind but family chronicler Yasujiro Ozu also made a few notable forays into the genre. I Was Born, But… (大人の見る絵本 生れてはみたけれど, Otona no miru ehon – Umarete wa mita keredo) stars one of the premier child actors of the silent era in Tokkan Kozo (later known as Tomio Aoki) who also worked repeatedly with Shimizu (Children in the Wind, Star Athlete) and Naruse (No Blood Relation, Apart from You, Street Without End, Forget Love for Now) among many others. Like Children in the Wind, I Was Born, But… is the story of two young boys and their well meaning dad only this time the boys’ faith in their father is not entirely justified. Ozu would also revisit this theme some years later with the genial comedy Good Morning which also sees a pair of cute as a button brothers going on strike though theirs is one of silence rather than hunger and provoked by the desire for a television rather than just shock and disillusionment on discovering the unfairness and hypocrisy of the adult world.

Mr. Yoshi (Tatsuo Saito) has moved his family into a nice house in the suburbs not far from that of his boss, Mr. Iwasaki (Takeshi Sakamoto). His two sons, Keiji (Tomio Aoki/Tokkan Kozo) and Ryoichi (Hideo Sugawara) quickly make enemies of some of the neighbourhood kids and start playing truant from school in order to avoid them. Making an ally of the delivery boy from the local sake shop, Keiji and Ryoichi enlist his efforts to get back at the head bully landing themselves top of the local pack.

However, one of the boys, Taro, is none other than the son of their dad’s boss, Mr. Iwasaki. Furiously engaging in a battle of my dad’s better than your dad, the boys are dismayed to see how their father obsequiously greets his superior. Their faith is well and truly crushed when Mr. Iwasaki invites all the kids over to watch some home movies (cutting edge technology for the time) which features some of the employees goofing off, including Yoshi who enthusiastically gurns and performs silly walks for his boss’ benefit. To Keiji and Ryoichi, Yoshi had been a kind of superhero – austere, but strong, honest and inspiring. Realising he’s just another corporate stooge betraying his true self for commercial gain, the boys are thrown into a period of acute existential confusion.

Yoshi’s mantra dictates that he wants his sons to grow up to become “someone”. Keiji and Ryoichi ironically turn this back on him with the charge that he himself is a “no one”. Yoshi cannot argue with their judgement, he is “no one”, in his own mind at least, and harbours a sense of disappointment in his dull and ordinary middle class life. Checking in with his sons after they’ve fallen asleep, Yoshi offers a different kind of mantra during a speech to his wife in that he hopes neither of his sons become company men like he has. He truly wants them to be “someones” but more than that, he wants them to be their own men, living their lives on their own terms and finding a greater sense of fulfilment than he has been able to in willingly debasing himself to curry favour with a boss he doesn’t particularly like to put food on the table for his family.

Keiji and Ryoichi, in a gesture of defiance, go on a hunger strike to prove that they don’t need their father to humiliate himself daily on their behalf. Yoshi can’t get through to them, his authority is significantly damaged and the boys are stubborn but then again their mother’s rice balls are just so tasty they might eventually be persuaded to abandon their mini protest by the power of a rumbly tum. The lesson they learn is one familiar to Ozu’s general philosophy, that battles must be picked and compromises made in the name of pragmatism even if they may uncomfortable to bear.

Ozu shoots with his characteristic naturalism, allowing the boys to goof off as only children can as they pull faces, dance, and strike poses to poke fun at the other boys but also engage in a strange “resurrection” gimmick rather than a secret handshake to bond with their new frenemines. Forgiveness and reconciliation are all around as the boys learn to accept their slightly less black and white world, embrace their new friends, and stride forward towards their eventual destinies. The children occupy one world, and the adults another but perhaps they aren’t so different after all.


Short scene from the film (English subtitles)

Flunky, Work Hard (腰弁頑張れ, Mikio Naruse, 1931)

flunky work hardMikio Naruse is often remembered for his female focussed stories of ordinary women trying to do they best they can in often difficult circumstances, but the earliest extant example of his work (actually his ninth film), Flunky, Work Hard (腰弁頑張れ, Koshiben Ganbare), is the sometimes comic but ultimately poignant tale of a lowly insurance salesman struggling to get ahead in depression era Japan.

Okabe is the lowly insurance agent of the title. He works hard for his money, but there are slim pickings round here to begin with and a lot of competition from rival agents so Okabe struggles to provide for his wife and his little boy, Susumu, in the way that he would like. Okabe subjects himself any sort of humiliating behaviour on offer to try and get a contract including engaging in leap frog with a well to do lady’s children to try and seem more “friendly” than his rival broker.

Susumu, by contrast is a rebellious little boy and is aways getting into scraps with the neighbourhood kids who tease him because of his parents’ money problems. This wouldn’t usually be too much of a problem and Okabe even tells him it’s OK to defend himself when the other kids start in on him. Only this time Susumu has been fighting with the well to do lady’s sons which is going to make Okabe look bad and make it more difficult to convince her to take out a policy with his firm over another.

Okabe loses his temper and scolds the boy who runs off in anger and confusion only to get into a serious accident. His father, not knowing it’s his son that’s been injured, uses the news of a little boy getting hurt to try and convince the other mothers to take out insurance policies on their children. Later he feels bad about shouting at Susumu and decides to buy him a present, only he might already be too late…

Flunky, Work Hard starts out like the nonsense comedies Shochiku were known for at the time with a little of their common man approach thrown in, but quickly heads into melodrama territory as Susumu meets with his unfortunate destiny. This sequence is the most notable in the film as it’s far more experimental in nature than anything found in Naruse’s later work. Dipping into a montage of kaleidoscopic images, diagonal splits and the awful momentum of a train hurtling along a predetermined track only to meet with a horrifying, unexpected obstacle, this extremely complex sequence is the perfect cinematic expression of the blood draining from a father’s face as he contemplates the fact that he might have just lost his son through having lost his temper over something as trivial as a few shiny coins. Okabe is not a bad man, or even a bad father, but just another ordinary guy trying to make it through the depression. Even so, he may be about to pay a terrible price for failing to side with his son in favour of businesses prospects.

Like many silent films from this era, almost all of Naruse’s early work appears to be lost. Flunky, Work Hard is somewhat atypical when considered alongside his later career which had a strong female focus and leant more towards social commentary than the slapstick humour seen here. However, its tale of a father desperately trying to find a way to support his son in difficult economic circumstances only to find that his efforts may cost him the very thing that he was trying to protect all along is one which is instantly recognisable in any era.


Flunky, Work Hard is the first and earliest of the five films included in Criterion’s Eclipse Series 26: Silent Naruse box set.