Law in Ghost Island (幽霊島の掟, Yasushi Sasaki, 1961)

The post-war world was one of increasing globalisation which brought with it anxiety as well as hope as Japan readied itself to step back onto the world stage. The populist cinema of the early ‘60s is marked by ambivalent attitudes to international influences, not just towards creeping Americanisation and its perceived costs but perhaps somewhat uncomfortably towards the wider world and Asia in particular with the same old prejudices which had marked the previous 20 years rearing their heads once again. Voice of the post-war era, the films of Hibari Misora are, by contrast, about as forward looking and progressive as it was possible to be but Law in Ghost Island (幽霊島の掟, Yurei-jima no Okite) in which she plays a noticeably smaller part, is a bizarre exception in which a “lawless” melting pot outpost must be “civilised” by Japanese influences else the creeping rule of thuggish Asian gangs finally reach Japan “proper”.

We’re deep in the Bakumatsu. The Black Ships have already arrived and there is considerable political trouble brewing back in Japan. That’s not our immediate concern however because we’re on a creepy boat with slovenly ronin Yagi Hanzo (Hashizo Okawa) and a mysterious woman wearing a cheongsam (Hibari Misora). Fellow petty gangster and slave trafficker Bunji (Chiyonosuke Azuma) is suspicious of Hanzo, but decides he’s probably just an unlucky retainer on the run from something or other and might prove useful. Therefore, on arrival at Dragon Island, Bunji starts on trying to recruit Hanzo for his boss Chou Yang Po (Isao Yamagata), but Hanzo’s his own man and he hasn’t come here looking for a job. Fearing Hanzo is a government official here to bring the law down on all their heads, Chou tries to force him to harm a man they have in custody and believe to be working for the state. Hanzo gets round this by breaking a chair over the man’s back but leaving him otherwise unharmed, keeping his cover (if that’s what it is) firmly intact.

During his stay on Dragon Island, Hanzo will meet several other shady characters, many of them dressed in outfits more usually associated with the Chinese, Indians, nondescript “islanders”, and strange movie pirates, but what must be assumed is that though Japan “owns” this distant island it is unable to police it and as such it has become a den of scum and villainy in which various tribal gangs vie for hegemony and control over the lucrative smuggling hub which has unwittingly formed in direct response to Japan’s unwise policy of internal isolation which is itself at breaking point thanks to Perry’s Black Ships which we later hear are also on their way to Dragon Island.

Our key into this conflict is the crazed child of the leading gangster, Isakichi (Hiroki Matsukata), who dresses like a cowboy and likes to showoff his hard-won saloon credentials as sharpshooting libertine and all round party animal. Hanzo is not as impressed by this as Isakichi was hoping though an awkward sort of camaraderie eventually arises between them. Meanwhile, Isakichi has fallen in innocent love with the sister of his childhood best friend who is deep into a putative resistance movement hoping to end the stranglehold the smugglers have placed over the previously peaceful island.

Misora’s Madame Song, for some reason posing as a Chinese sex worker, hints at the various ways nothing is quite as it seems in her astute observations of the world around her, sensing that Hanzo is hiding something but also assuming that he is on the “right” side. There is conspiracy everywhere – the putative revolution at home is sending its shockwaves all the way out here as our unscrupulous gangsters try to procure guns to send to various sides on the mainland, while Madame Song ironically laments that what Dragon Island needs is to be more like Japan which is to say ruled less by law itself than an internalised acceptance of the proper order of things. Uncomfortably, it also probably means sending the people who aren’t wearing kimono somewhere else and trying to stop them tricking nice women from Kyushu into coming to tropical islands where they discover they’ve been trafficked into sex work and are unable to leave.

Among Toei’s lower budgeted efforts, Law in Ghost Island bills itself as a supernatural tale and does indeed open with a creepy scene of a misty boat but Hanzo doesn’t end up anywhere like the isle of the dead only a fantasy tropical “paradise” filled with zany movie pirates. Somewhere between pirate fantasy and western, Law in Ghost Island is closer to the kind of spy spoofs Toho would start producing in a few years’ time and even ends with a strangely comic scene in which just about everyone reveals themselves as spy for the same side during the climactic final shootout having been too busy playing spy games to figure any of it out before.

The final messages too are uncomfortable and ambivalent as Hanzo affirms that if there were more “good samurai” Japan would not become lawless like it is here while also claiming Dragon Island for the mainland in fear external forces may use it as a base to attack Japan. The smugglers pay heavily for their “treachery” in contributing to internal mainland chaos while the revolutionary islanders declare their intentions to make the island a better place, which mainly seems to mean making it more “Japanese” which is a fairly ambivalent message whichever way you look at it. Misora only sings two songs and is relegated to a minor mystery in the strange goings on of Ghost Island which features absolutely no ghosts or supernatural intrigue. It does however perhaps shine a light on a strange moment of cultural flux however how unflattering that mirror may turn out to be.


Brief clip of some of Hibari’s songs (no subtitles)

The Love of the Actress Sumako (女優須磨子の恋, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1947)

vlcsnap-2019-03-27-01h39m45s435The Taisho era was, like that of the post-war, a time both of confusion and possibility in which the young, in particular, looked for new paths and new freedoms as the world got wider and ideas flowed in from every corner of the globe. In The Love of the Actress Sumako (女優須磨子の恋, Joyu Sumako no koi), the second of a loose trilogy films about female emancipation, Kenji Mizoguchi took the real life story of a pioneering actress of Western theatre and used it to explore the progress of lack there of in terms of social freedoms not only for women but for artists and for society as a whole.

We begin in late Meiji as theatre director Shimamura (So Yamamura) fights to establish a foothold of Western-style “art theatre”, moving away from the theatricality of kabuki for something more immediate and naturalistic. He has, however, a problem in that as women were not allowed to take to the kabuki stage all of his students are male and casting a man to play a woman’s role would run counter to his desires to create a truly representative theatre. It is therefore lucky that he runs into Sumako Matsui (Kinuyo Tanaka) – a feisty, determined young woman who had divorced her first husband for infidelity and then left the second when he complained about her desire to pursue a career on the stage. In Sumako, Shimamura finds a muse and the ideal woman to portray the extremely controversial figure of Nora in his dream production of Ibsen’s incendiary A Doll’s House.

Shimamura casts Sumako because he sees in her some of Nora’s defiance and eventual desire to be free from illusionary social constraints, but it is in fact he who ends up embodying her spirit in real life. Somewhat feminised, Shimamura is in a difficult position in having married into his wife’s family, leaving him without real agency inside his own home as evidenced by his mild opposition to his daughter’s arranged marriage. While he wishes that his daughter be happy and if possible marry for love, Shimamura’s wife is very much of the old school and wants to make the best possible match in terms of financial gain and social status, viewing emotional compatibility as a low priority (the daughter herself as relatively little say). Unwisely falling in love with Sumako, it is he who eventually decides to follow Nora’s example by walking out not only on his family but also on the theatre company. He does this not quite because the scales have been lifted from his eyes – he was never under any illusion that his arranged marriage was “real” and there is of course an accepted degree of performance involved in all such unions, but because he finally sees possibility enough in his love for Sumako and the viability of emotionally honest Western art to allow him to break free of outdated feudal ideas of familial obligation.

Nevertheless, making a career as an artist is a difficult prospect in any age and Shimamura’s emotional freedom quickly becomes tied up with that of his art. Sumako’s Nora proves a hit (in the last year of Meiji), but he is ahead of his times both in terms of his liberal, left-wing philosophy and his determination to embrace modern drama in a still traditional society. The roles we see Sumako perform, including that in Tolstoy’s Resurrection which was another of those that helped to make her name, are all from proto-feminist plays which revolve around women who, like herself, had chosen to challenge the patriarchal status quo in pursuit of their own freedom and agency. Shimamura’s wife makes no secret of her outrage to her husband’s desire to stage A Doll’s House, viewing Nora’s decision as “selfish” and perhaps of a subversion of every notion she associates with idealised femininity. Though not so far apart in age, Sumako is a woman of Taisho who left not one but two unfulfilling marriages and is determined to forge her own path even if that path eventually leads her to subsume her own desires within those of her lover as the pair attempt to put their social revolution on the stage.

The revolution, however, does not quite take off. Despite good early notices, Shimamura’s Art Theatre company quickly runs into trouble. Faced with financial ruin, he does what any sensible theatre producer would do – he begins to prioritise bums on seats and acknowledges that if he’s to keep his company afloat and facilitate his dream of making Western theatre a success in Japan he’ll have to compromise his artistic aims  by putting on some populist plays. Of course, this sudden concession to commercial demands does not go down well with all and some of his hardline actors begin to leave in protest not just of his selling out but of his twinned desire to make Sumako his star.

Tellingly, the pair are eventually forced out of Japan entirely to tour the beginnings of empire from Korea to China and on to Taiwan. Their ideas are too radical and their society not quite ready for their messages even if not initially as hostile as it would later become. Shimamura works himself to the bone trying to keep his dream alive, eventually damaging his health. Sumako remains somewhat petulant about being forced into an itinerant lifestyle while her onstage personas come increasingly to influence her offstage life until it is said of her that her performance is “no longer an interpretation but an extension of reality”. In this, Sumako has, in a sense, achieved Shimamura’s dreams of a truly naturalistic theatre, but it comes at a cost, as perhaps all art does, and, Mizoguchi seems to suggest, becomes a kind of sacrifice laid down to a society still too rigid and unforgiving to appreciate its sincerity. Nevertheless, their boldness, as fruitless as it was, has started a flame which others intend to keep burning, eventually becoming a beacon for another new world looking to rebuild itself better and freer than before.


Short clip featuring Sumako’s performance as Carmen.

Victory of Women (女性の勝利, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1946)

Victory of Women cap 1Female suffering in an oppressive society had always been at the forefront of Mizoguchi’s filmmaking even if he, like many of his contemporaries, found his aims frustrated by the increasingly censorious militarist regime. In some senses, the early days of occupation may not have been much better as one form of propaganda was essentially substituted for another if one that most would find more palatable. The first of his “women’s liberation trilogy”, Victory of Women (女性の勝利, Josei no Shori) was released in 1946 and expressly embraced the democratic philosophy espoused by the American authorities which necessarily included a motion towards female emancipation.

Played by Mizoguchi’s muse Kinuyo Tanaka, our heroine is Hiroko – a young woman working as a lawyer defending women against the cold and hard face of the law. Her family situation is, however, complicated. Her father having passed away, Hiroko’s sister Michiko (Michiko Kuwano who sadly passed away during shooting after collapsing on set) married the prosecutor Kono (Kappei Matsumoto) who financially supported Hiroko so that she might become the lawyer she is today. Meanwhile, Kono is also responsible for the arrest and incarceration of Hiroko’s fiancé Yamaoka (Shin Tokudaiji), a liberal intellectual. The political situation having changed, Yamaoka is to be released from prison after five years but is now in extremely poor health. Hiroko intends to return to him, resume their former relationship and marry once his health recovers. This is anathema to Kono who still objects to his liberalist views and views himself as having a hold over Hiroko’s future as the head of her family and in having supported her financially.

Financial support is a cornerstone if not the full foundation of Kono’s position of entitled superiority over Hiroko and her family. Despite the melodramatic underpinning of the case at hand, the real questions are the ones defining the direction of the post-war world in pitting the feudal values of “duty” and “womanliness” against a modernising liberality that prizes freedom and equality above hierarchy and obligation.

Kono, perhaps to his credit, does not appear object to the idea of female lawyers and has indeed facilitated Hiroko’s rise to just such as position but otherwise affirms that “a woman’s duty is easy. All that is required of her is self-sacrifice”. The idea of “self-sacrifice” is one which is brought up in the closing speeches of the trial in which Hiroko makes an impassioned plea in the case of a mother, Moto (Mitsuko Miura), who, mad with grief, held her baby too closely and may have suffocated it. Kono’s argument is that Moto’s transgression is against nature and the social order, that she has “failed” as a woman in rejecting her maternity by murdering her child. He rejects the “extenuating circumstances” of her grief and desperation by painting her “crime” as a selfish one in choosing to save her own life rather than sacrifice herself on her child’s behalf. Insisting that she has “disgraced the morals of women”, Kono requests she be punished severely as an example to the others.

In refuting Kono’s argument, Hiroko not only restates the extenuating circumstances of the intense strain on Moto’s mental health but attacks his entire way of thinking in positioning “motherhood” as the primary female “duty”. She does not deny that there have been many wonderful stories of women who valiantly sacrificed their own lives for their families, but reminds the court that these stories have often been misused as a kind of propaganda in service of female oppression, that under the feudal system which militarists prized so highly women were little more than slaves to men with no rights or agency. Further more, she points to the corruption of the hierarchical society which has left Moto in such a difficult position following her husband’s early death as a result of an accident at the factory for which the factory paid but only until the end of the war at which time he was cruelly cast away like so many of his generation who had perhaps been similarly exploited to serve a similar idea of “duty” only this time to the state. Kono blames Moto, insisting that her “crime” occurred because her character is “weak”. Hiroko does not blame Moto at all but the society which placed her in such an impossible position and has all but broken her spirit.

The argument is between a fair and just society in which the law exists for the protection of the people, and an austere and cruel one in which the law exists to oppress and tyrannise. Kono, an arch and unreconstructed militarist, believes in the primacy of the law. He is rigid and uncompromising, branding Hiroko’s summation as “sentimental” and “romantic”, dismissing an “irrational” woman’s logic from his elevated position on the podium. As others point out to him, his way of thinking is outdated and his tendency towards an entitled assumption that it will eventually prevail through being the proper order of things is extremely misguided yet he clings fiercely to feudalistic values which have ensured power remains in the hands of people like him since time immemorial, uncompromising to the last.

Rather than focus on Moto and her trial, Mizoguchi and his scriptwriters Kogo Noda and Kaneto Shindo, return to the realms of melodrama in shifting into the domestic as Hiroko’s older sister Michiko struggles between the feudal duty to her husband (however much she appears to dislike him) and her love for her sister whose modern liberal way of thinking still strikes her as immoral. Michiko, it seems, was forced to sacrifice herself for her family in marrying Kono for financial support. The sisters’ mother, now committed to Hiroko’s way of thinking, willingly married her daughter off telling her never to return believing it to be the proper way of things. Having suffered so long in service of an ideal no longer current, Michiko gradually comes to the realisation that she now has a choice – she does not have to stay with a husband who she does not love and does not love her, she is free to leave him and live as a full and independent woman if that is her individual will.

Nevertheless, the slightly awkward framing perhaps casts the choices of Hiroko and her sister as being defined by their respective men – Hiroko swept along by Yamaoka’s socialist politics and Michiko by her husband’s conservatism. Both men are in different senses problematic – Yamaoka vindictive and unsympathetic to Michiko’s attempts to make peace, no more forgiving than Kono while also patronising in his last impassioned speech which places such great responsibility in Hiroko’s “tiny hands”. Nevertheless, Hiroko’s clearsighted fight not only for her own freedom but for a fairer, more compassionate society founded on the idea of a literal social justice in which the law exists in service of its people rather than to oppress them is remarkably forward thinking, moving beyond “propaganda” for the new regime to the better world so often envisaged by the post-war humanists.


Woman of the Mist (朧夜の女, Heinosuke Gosho, 1936)

vlcsnap-2019-01-21-00h29m30s692The 1930s are often thought of as an era of social rigidity and implacable conservatism, yet even before the war things were changing. The young wanted something different than their parents often had and dared to dream of getting it even if their hopes were often dashed by the times in which they lived. Heinosuke Gosho’s Woman of the Mist (朧夜の女, Oboroyo no Onna) is the story of two youngsters who find themselves in a difficult situation and are offered a solution by elders acting kindness which they are persuaded to take only to find themselves progressively more miserable, burdened by the weight of the sacrifice their society has asked them to make.

Set in the jovial working class world of Shitamachi, Woman of the Mist opens with the hero of the tale, Fumikichi (Takeshi Sakamoto), enjoying a historical lecture regarding Edo era sacrifice for the common good during which his wife, Okiyo (Mitsuko Yoshikawa), comes to fetch him. Members of a local association he belongs to have come looking for him, it turns out for a favour. They want him to assist with some fundraising for a stone lantern to mark the association’s anniversary. Much to his wife’s exasperation, Fumikichi is only too happy to comply. It might seem that Fumikichi is a much respected pillar of the community only it is also true enough that he basks in the flattery of being regarded as someone to be depended upon and is therefore a soft touch (something undoubtedly well known to all around him).

Nevertheless, despite his slight tendency towards narcissistic attention seeking, Fumikichi is a salt of the earth type and willing to help those who need it for largely altruistic reasons. He therefore finds himself a surrogate father (though childless himself) to the son of his widowed sister Otoku (Choko Iida) who enlists him to talk some sense into his law student nephew, Seiichi (Shin Tokudaiji), who has apparently been “disrespecting” his mother and neglecting his studies by reading too many novels. Fumikichi has a word but counsels Seiichi that there’s nothing wrong with reading novels save that it obviously upsets his mum who has worked herself to the bone for the last 20 years dreaming of the day Seiichi becomes a fully fledged lawyer, which is to say a member of the middle classes.

Fumikichi, as he often will, becomes the conciliatory voice at the centre of generational conflict. Seiichi is a young man at the crossroads of life and finds himself torn between youthful idealism and a duty towards his family. He has become disillusioned with the law and would rather transfer to literature, secure in the knowledge that only in novels can you find the truly humane. Fumikichi is careful not to patronise but gives him a knowing look, realising that his confusion is partly born of resentment towards his well meaning yet accidentally possessive mother who has railroaded him into a career he doesn’t want to buy him a future which is her only dream. What he wants is control over his life, but when it comes to it he is still a boy and woefully unprepared for the demands of adulthood.

This becomes obvious when he falls in love and gets his girlfriend into trouble. Teruko (Toshiko Iizuka), a former geisha apparently known to Fumikichi in his younger days now working as a bar hostess, is not exactly the kind of wife his mother might have had in mind. The pair are careful to keep their relationship a secret for just this reason as Seiichi remains conflicted – one moment declaring that he no longer cares if everyone finds out and lying to his mother about her the next. Pregnancy forces the issue. Teruko, mindful of Seiichi’s bright future, declares that she can raise the child alone, glancing sadly at a picture of herself in her former life as a sex worker as if accepting what future sacrifices might be expected of her while half hoping Seiichi will rush forward to save her from such a fate. Seiichi doesn’t exactly rush but does tentatively accept his responsibility in reassuring her that he will soon come of age and is ready to become a father with all of the joys and obligations that entails.

Lost he turns to Fumikichi who hatches a plan which might be accounted a neat solution but is also another instance of the older generation making decisions on behalf of the young without really asking them. Despite being a rather feckless old man, Fumikichi tells his wife the child is his and asks for her forgiveness while also suggesting that they adopt the baby as their own. As expected, Okiyo is not exactly enthused but as Fumikichi calculated she would eventually comes around, ironically enough after a conversation with Otoku who has no idea the baby is really her grandchild. Once the decision is made, everyone rallies round to look after Teruko who finally becomes a (temporary) member of Seiichi’s family even whilst barred from ever becoming his wife and in fact of ever seeing him again as a result of the bargain which has been struck by Fumikichi. Nevertheless, Seiichi vacillates and attempts to change his mind by asking Teruko to marry him only for her to urge him to study hard and live well, sacrificing her happiness for his future.

Uncomfortably enough, it is Teruko who must pay for a series of transgressions against the norms of her society – for being a young woman with a past who seduced a nervous young man and dared to dream of a happier future with a person of her own choosing, though the very fact of her suffering is in itself an attack on these rigid and unfair social codes which do their best to destroy the happiness of ordinary, basically good people who have done nothing wrong other than attempt to live their lives. Fumikichi and his wife are doing their best and they too are good, compassionate people who have made good compassionate choices hoping for the best in a difficult situation even if their choices are defined by the prevailing conservative morality which places Seiichi’s future above a young woman’s life and love.

Then again, Fumikichi’s objections are largely practical – it’s hard to keep a family with no money coming in and Seiichi is still a student with no prospect of immediate employment that would pay enough for a wife and child. Could they be happy after a shotgun wedding and years of penury? Seiichi’s diffidence hints at no, but Teruko’s “purity” hints at yes as she vows to make the kind of sacrifice that proves her “goodness”. The youngsters find themselves beholden to the demands of their elders, torn between their personal desires and duties to those they love. Whatever they do, they lose and are destined to remain unhappy, unable to seize their individual chance of happiness in an oppressive, conformist society. Gosho may leave them at the mercy of such a system, but he does so with immense sympathy and not a little anger as we watch these good people making the best of things while asking ourselves if all of this is really for the best.


Actress vs. Greedy Sharks (小判鮫 お役者仁義, Tadashi Sawashima, 1966)

actress vs greedy sharks soundtrack albumA studio director at Toei, Tadashi Sawashima is best remembered for his work in the studio’s ninkyo eiga genre – prewar tales of noble gangsters, and samurai movies but he also made the occasional foray into the world of musical drama, teaming up with top name singing star Hibari Misora on a few of her historical action musicals. In 1966’s Actress vs. Greedy Sharks (小判鮫 お役者仁義, Kobanzame Oyakusha Jingi) Hibari once again plays a dual role though this time her casting is entirely arbitrary and the visual similarity of the legit actress and the acrobatic outlaw is never explicitly remarked upon.

The action opens with Shichi (Hibari Misora), an acrobat and member of a Robin Hood style band of outlaws (they don’t so much give to the poor as “share” with the less fortunate) interrupting the plot of Yamitaro (Yoichi Hayashi) – a nobleman in disguise to pursue revenge against corrupt lord Doi (Eitaro Shindo) who exiled his father to Convict Island when he began to raise questions about judicial corruption. Meanwhile, Yuki (also played by Hibari) is a top stage actress who is plotting against Doi for sending her father to Convict Island 20 years previously on a trumped up charge. Just as the “tomboyish” Shichi is beginning to fall for the mysterious Yamitaro, he teams up with Yuki to pursue their mutual quests for revenge which has Shichi feeling (needlessly, as it turns out) betrayed and vengeful.

Once again, the samurai order is shown to be corrupt beyond redemption. Doi, a greedy lord, is planning to sell off his only daughter, Ran (Yumiko Nogawa), as a concubine to the shogun. Meanwhile, he is also engaging in a rice profiteering scheme in order to bolster his financial resources. He is also still misusing his influence, just as he did when he had Yuki’s father sent to prison and got rid of Yamitaro’s so he couldn’t expose him.

As in her other movies, Hibari cannot allow this corruption to continue and becomes a thorn in the side of authority. However, the situation this time around is further complicated by her double casting in which she plays two visually identical characters who are, nevertheless, entirely unrelated and the resemblance between them entirely unremarked upon. The “tomboyish” Shichi, apparently falling in love for the first time much to the confusion of herself and others who regarded her lack of traditional femininity as a barrier to romance, becomes awkwardly resentful of the graceful Yuki whose charms she assumes will sway the handsome Yamitaro. Shichi does not seem to consider a class barrier between herself and Yamitaro as a problem but fears his natural affinity with a woman she perceives as superior to herself in her refinement, yet Yuki proves herself as staunch a fighter as Shichi and just as feisty. She appears to have little romantic interest in Yamitaro even if she resents Shichi’s rather blunt instructions to back off, and aside from concentrating on her revenge, spends the rest of the film dealing with the rescue of Doi’s daughter Ran who has drawn inspiration from her stage performances to rebel against her cruel fate and father.

Ran is just another symptom of her father’s corruption in his obvious disregard for her feelings as he prepares to send her off as a concubine to buy himself influence with only the mild justification that her ascendence to the imperial court is an honour even if she will never be a wife, only one of many mistresses. Unlike Ran, Yuki and Shichi have managed to seize their own agency, living more or less independently and as freely as possible within the society they inhabit. Experiencing differing kinds of bad luck and betrayal, they find themselves at odds with each other yet on parallel paths despite their obvious dualities.

With less space for song, Hibari’s dual casting does at least offer twice the fight potential as the outlaw and the actress finally find themselves on the same side to tackle the persistent injustice of Edo era society as manifested in the corrupt Doi and his slimy cronies gearing up for the mass brawl finale in which the wronged take their revenge on the wicked lord by proving him a villain in the public square and earning themselves not a little social kudos in the process. All of which makes the strangely melancholy ending exiling one aspect of Hibari to the outer reaches somewhat uncomfortable but then it does provide an excuse for another song.


Hibari’s musical numbers

The Lights of Asakusa (浅草の灯, Yasujiro Shimazu, 1937)

Lights of Asakusa posterThe lights of Asakusa (浅草の灯, Asakusa no Hi) still shone bright before the war. In this tiny corner of Tokyo well known for “low” entertainment, actors mingle with gangsters, lonely owners of amusement stalls, starving artists, bar girls, and wealthy industrialists each just trying to survive in an increasingly jittery city. Yasujiro Shimazu had been a pioneer of the “shomingeki” – stories of ordinary lower middle class people, and brings his characteristic wit and humanity to a tale of backstreet life where danger and ruin lurk on every corner and the only way to ensure one’s safety is to ensure you have the right defenders.

The main stage, if you will, is that of the Nippon-za “opera” company. This is, however, no great opera house but a run down little theatre presenting classical European opera for vaudeville audiences. The currently running show is Carmen, which will turn out to be appropriate for the events at hand. The trouble starts (or perhaps merely intensifies) when a young chorus member, Reiko (Mieko Takamine), begins attracting a range of wanted and unwanted male attention. Reiko, an orphan, had been taken in by a local bar mistress who later pushed her into the opera company but still expects her to make good on her investment by becoming a casual prostitute and taking on “customers” who present themselves at the bar (Reiko is around 16 or so, and therefore has just reached the age her foster mother thinks appropriate to join the business). The complication is that the man who’s taken a fancy to Reiko, Handa (Shunro Takeda), is a steel magnate who also finances the opera troupe meaning it’s not just the bar owner who’s coming under pressure but the financial security of the troupe too.

Being so young, Reiko finds her foster mother’s demands hard to refuse but is rescued by Sasaki (Seiji Nishimura) – the leading actor, married to leading lady Marie (Haruko Sugimura). The situation with Reiko exposes cracks already present in the group when Handa sends his goons in to disrupt the show, irking Sasaki to the point he takes off in a fit of artistic temperament. Meanwhile, another actor Yamagami (Ken Uehara), gets together with the rest of the troupe to ensure Reiko’s safety by hiding her with a feeble minded fan, Pokacho (Daijiro Natsukawa), so that she won’t be forced into a potentially life ruining situation.

Reiko’s plight is perhaps all too common on the streets of Asakusa. Having been orphaned she feels herself indebted to the bar mistress who took her in even if the relationship between them is not especially warm. She also feels grateful to have found a third family in the opera troupe and is afraid to lose her place there. Nevertheless, she is under extreme pressure to submit herself to this system of reciprocal arrangements and sleep with Handa solely to save making trouble for everyone else. Meanwhile her (sometimes) sympathetic roommate Beniko (Kayako Fujiwara) knows exactly what’s at stake through having been in a similar situation herself. She’s long been in love with the pure hearted Yamagami and is harbouring a degree of jealously in believing that Yamagami has a soft spot for Reiko, but she also half wants things to work out between them seeing as she has lost the “right” to love a man like Yamagami because she is no longer a virgin.

Shimazu had often been of a progressive mind, but sadly Beniko falls by the wayside, merely a sacrificial lamb prepared to give up on her dreams on Reiko’s behalf, so we never find out the limits of Yamagami’s justice loving heart or if he would be as bothered about Beniko’s past as she seems to fear he might be. Yamagami, brooding but righteous, would become one of matinee idol Ken Uehara’s best known roles though he too is teetering on the brink in Asakusa. Committed to defending the innocent, he tries to save Reiko’s honour but fails to declare a personal interest, entrusting her to the rather odd painter Pokacho who claims that his love for Reiko is of a spiritual, rather than carnal kind. Yamagami may succeed in his primary goal but still ends up in defeat, running away from the most important fight by retreating from Tokyo completely with a rebound girlfriend in tow, hoping to find kinder light in Osaka than he had on the dog eat dog streets of Asakusa.

Based on a novel by Hiroshi Hamamoto, Shimazu’s portrait of backstreet life sparkles with authenticity but also with a kind of hopelessness as each of these down on their luck “opera” stars laments their sorry fates and longs for a better gig somewhere less down and dirty. Meanwhile, the spectre of war lingers – when Carmen comes off the next show is to be “Two Honourable Soldiers”, filled with maudlin anthems of war which push the messages of patriotism and the glorification of offering one’s life for one’s country. The slimy Handa may have been defeated for now, but his kind are in the ascendent and the streets of Asakusa are unlikely to improve with only war and depression on the horizon.


The Boss’ Son at College (大学の若旦那, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1933)

vlcsnap-2016-09-25-01h32m39s471It’s tough being young. The Boss’ Son At College (大学の若旦那, Daigaku no Wakadanna) is the first, and only surviving, film in a series which followed the adventures of the well to do son of a soy sauce manufacturer set in the contemporary era. Somewhat autobiographical, Shimizu’s film centres around the titular boss’ son as he struggles with conflicting influences – those of his father and the traditional past and those of his forward looking, hedonistic youth.

Fuji (Mitsugu Fujii) is the star of the university rugby team. In fact his prowess on the rugby field has made him something of a mini celebrity and a big man on campus which Fuji seems to enjoy very much. At home, he’s the son of a successful soy sauce brewer with distinctly conservative attitudes. Fuji’s father has just married off one of his daughters to an employee and is setting about sorting out the second one despite the reluctance of all parties involved. Everyone seems very intent on Fuji also hurrying up with finishing his studies so he can conform to the normal social rules by working hard and getting married.

Fuji, however, spends most of his off the pitch time drinking with geisha, one of whom has unwisely fallen in love with him. Like many teams, Fuji’s rugby buddies have a strict “orderly conduct” rule which Fuji has been breaking thanks to his loose ways. His top player status has kept him safe but also made him enemies and when an embarrassing incident proves too much to overlook he’s finally kicked off the team.

The times may have been changing, but Fuji’s soy sauce shop remains untouched. Gohei (Haruro Takeda), the patriarch, grumpily rules over all with a “father knows best” attitude, refusing to listen to his son’s complaints. In fact, he tries to bypass his son altogether by marrying off another employee to his younger daughter, Miyako. Though Miyako tries to come to the employee’s defence (as well as her own) by informing her father that “this way of treating employees is obsolete”, she is shrugged off by Gohei’s authoritarian attitude. He’s already tried this once by arranging a marriage for his older daughter but his son-in-law spends all his time in geisha houses, often accompanied by Fuji, and the match has produced neither a happy family nor a successful business arrangement.

Fuji is a young man and he wants to enjoy his youth, in part because he knows it will be short and that conformity is all that awaits him. His dalliance with a geisha which contributes to him being kicked off the rugby team is in no way serious on his part (caddish, if not usually so). However, when he befriends an injured teammate and meets his showgirl sister, Fuji falls in love for real. This presents a problem for the friend whose main commitment is to the rugby team who were thinking of reinstating Fuji because they have a big match coming up and need him to have any chance of not disgracing themselves. This poor woman who has apparently been forced onto the stage to pay her brother’s school fees is then physically beaten by him (if in a childishly brotherly way) until she agrees to break things off with Fuji for the good of the rugby team.

Fuji is finally allowed onto the pitch again, in part at the behest of his previously hostile father who thinks rugby training is probably better than spending all night drinking (and keeping his brother-in-law out all night with him). The loss of status Fuji experienced after leaving the team rocked him to the core though his central conflict goes back to his place as his father’s son. At one point, Fuji argues with a friend only for a woman to emerge and inform him that his friend had things he longed to tell him, but he could never say them to “the young master”. Fuji may have embraced his star label, but he doesn’t want this one of inherited burdens and artificial walls. Hard as he tries, he can never be anything other than “the boss’ son”, with all of the pressures and responsibilities that entails but with few of the benefits. Getting back on the team is, ironically, like getting his individual personality back but also requires sacrificing it for the common good.

In contrast with some of Shimizu’s post-war films which praise the importance of working together for a common good but imply that the duty of the individual is oppose the majority if it thinks it’s wrong, here Fuji is made to sacrifice everything in service of the team. At the end of his final match, Fuji remarks to his teammate that this is “the end of their beautiful youth”. After graduation, they’ll find jobs, get married, have children and lose all rights to any kind of individual expression. Fuji is still torn between his “selfish” hedonistic desires and the growing responsibilities of adulthood, but even such vacillation will soon be unavailable to him. Ending on a far less hopeful note than many a Shimizu film with Fuji silently crying whilst his teammates celebrate victory, The Boss’ Son Goes to College is a lament for the necessary death of the self as a young man contemplates his impending graduation into the adult world, but it’s one filled with a rosy kind of humour and an unwilling resignation to the natural order of things.