The Dancing Girl of Izu (恋の花咲く 伊豆の踊子, Heinosuke Gosho, 1933)

“Happiness is waiting for you” the melancholy heroine of The Dancing Girl of Izu (恋の花咲く 伊豆の踊子, Koi no Hana Saku Izu no Odoriko) is told by a man who truly loves her, though with his words all her hopes are dashed. Shot on location, Heinosuke Gosho’s 1933 silent is the first of several adaptations of the well-known Yasunari Kawabata story from 1926 and takes a number of liberties with the source material which are partly in keeping with the demands of contemporary cinema and partly an attempt to anchor it more firmly to the increasingly chaotic world of 1933 beset with both economic and political instability thanks to the global depression and Japan’s imperialist ambitions. The price of “happiness” it seems may be love, but perhaps stability as is much as you can ask for in an infinitely unstable world. 

Nominally speaking, the hero of this tale is a young student, Mizuhara (Den Ohinata), through whose eyes we view the transitory nature of young love and the rigidity of a society which will in the end not permit its fulfilment. The “dancing girl” however is our primary focus. Kaoru (Kinuyo Tanaka) is the orphaned younger sister of Eikichi (Tokuji Kobayashi) who inherited a literal goldmine but squandered his inheritance and forced the whole family on the road to earn their keep as travelling players. Such people occupy a kind of underclass, victims of a prejudice against those who have no fixed abode and cannot easily be identified through association with a place or people. Kaoru admits that though she has learned to bear her way of life because at least she’s with her family, signs such as the one they find in a ditch to the effect that beggars and itinerant actors are not welcome in the town fill her with despair. 

Mizuhara meets the actors when they have been unfairly accused of dumping the sign out of frustration (a child later vindicates them after confirming that it was a wandering priest who passed through shortly before). He wades into the fray to urge the angry farmers to exercise a little more patience and ends up agreeing to travel with the family to their next destination as he is himself engaged in a kind of holiday wandering around the picturesque countryside of the Izu peninsula (a popular activity for well to do students of the time). Unbeknownst to him they are already connected by mutual acquaintances in that a friend of Mizuhara’s, Ryuichi (Ryoichi Takeuchi), from the same university also lives in this town and is the son of the man, Zenbei (Arai Atsushi), who bought the goldmine from Eikichi after he went bankrupt. 

The economic subplot concerns an amoral mining engineer, Kubota (Reikichi Kawamura), who apparently has a reputation as a “slave driver” and was responsible for starting the mine which Eikichi’s father owned, the implication being that it failed because of his exploitative business practices and has flourished under Zenbei’s more compassionate ownership in contrast to the picture Kubota is about to paint of him. Having apparently failed at several other endeavours, Kubota has sworn off mines but has convinced himself that he is “owed” something seeing as Zenbei’s mine is now a success and he was the one who found it. He tries to get something out of Ryuichi, but he is unconvinced and eventually offended, accusing of Kubota of blackmail when he insinuates that there was something improper about his buying the mine from Eikichi for much less than it was worth. 

The film’s opening sequence which set up a subplot never resolved about a runaway geisha, however, showed us that Zenbei is as his name suggests a kindhearted man. He reported the geisha’s disappearance to the police not because she took off without clearing her debts but because he was worried for her safety, believing she may have been tricked into running off with an unscrupulous client. Kubota plants the seeds of resentment by convincing Eikichi that he was cheated out of the mine and is owed compensation. Eikichi, feeling humiliated, is determined to “negotiate”, but Zenbei tells him to give them his sister. 

As will be revealed later, Zenbei’s intentions are honourable and he has no thought of replacing the geisha who ran away with Kaoru but wants to take her into his household as an adopted daughter. Eikichi, however, misunderstands but is prepared to sell his sister in order to pursue a pointless revenge against Zenbei by getting money to buy another mine and thereby become even richer. Mizuhara berated him for even considering the idea of trading his sister for money, but in the end even Eikichi only sees her as capital in his rage-fuelled desire to avenge his wounded male pride and sense of impotence. He failed as head of household in losing the family fortune and now has no intention of protecting his sister from the vagaries of the world. 

Mizuhara once again intervenes and learns the truth from Zenbei, that he had been a friend of Eikichi’s father’s and has always been trying to look out for them but has recently lost patience with Eikichi who has already borrowed a lot of money from him. Zenbei is minded towards tough love, convinced his well-meaning attempts to help have only enabled Eikichi’s financial fecklessness. He doesn’t see why Kaoru should pay for his mistakes and has been putting some of the proceeds from the mine into a savings account in her name, hoping also that she may one day marry his son Ryuichi. Mizuhara is at once crushed by the painful goodness he sees in front of him, knowing that his love for Kaoru is now not only impossible but perhaps selfish. All he can do for her now is get out of the way so that she can be saved from the harsh life of an itinerant player, restored to her previous class status, and given the most elusive of all prizes in this chaotic age, stability. 

Zenbei’s plan for Kaoru is in itself a kind of miracle, the best she could ever hope for, but it’s also a minor tragedy in that it both robs her of any kind of agency to make her own choices and destroys the possibility of a romantic future with Mizuhara. To accept everyday comfort and safety, she must resign herself to giving up her love. Mizuhara asks her to do just that in an altruistic act of selflessness which recognises that without money he is powerless to help her. He’s not the one she loves (and we have no idea how he might feel about it), but Ryuichi seems to be a good and kind man, like his father Zenbei who is perhaps the face of compassionate, paternalist capitalism. The world is too chaotic for romance, but there is kindness enough if you’re lucky enough to find it, and if stability is all there is perhaps sorrow is easier to bear than hunger. 


A Woman Crying in Spring (泣き濡れた春の女よ, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1933)

woman crying in spring still 1The later legacy of Hiroshi Shimizu has largely been one of melancholy humanism shot through the unjaded eyes of children who have found themselves for one reason or another excluded from mainstream society. His first talkie, 1933’s A Woman Crying in Spring (泣き濡れた春の女よ, Nakinureta Haru no Onna yo, AKA The Lady Who Wept in Spring) is among his more pessimistic efforts, adopting the trappings of the classic melodrama but repurposing them as a coming of age tale for a woman who is already a mother herself set against the backdrop of the precarious contemporary economy among migrant workers and self-trafficking women. Though the overall tone is one of defeat and resignation in which the only possible salvation lies in learning to accept one’s fate, Shimizu does at least allow his heroines the possibility of a brighter future having actively decided on its course.

The film begins with a collection on men being counted onto a ship, onto which they are eventually followed by a collection of women. The men are going north to Hokkaido to work in the newly opened mines, while the women are following them to work in the newly opened bars. This is not a western, but it is a frontier town being made anew by the ongoing economic flux of ‘30s Japan.

The foreman reads out some rules for migrant workers arriving at the mines which boil down to – no women, no sake, no gambling, and the foreman’s word is law. The first two of these will turn out to have been good advice which was not followed, but it is the foreman himself who kicks off the drama by taking two of the miners, Kenji (Den Obinata) and Chuko (Shigeru Ogura), to the local bar run by one of the boat’s female passengers, Ohama (Yoshiko Okada). Ohama has a small daughter, Omitsu (Mitsuko Ichimura), whom she often neglects while she operates her slightly taboo business. Meanwhile, bar girl Ofuji (Akiko Chihaya) has taken a liking to the handsome and sensitive Kenji who tried to comfort her while she was crying on the boat. Ohama, however, has also taken a liking to him which has created an awkward situation among the women at the bar, though Kenji himself is a solitary sort and perhaps not really thinking of taking up with either woman.

The dilemmas are romantic, largely, but their implications wider. The first “issue” stems from the running of the mine itself which is shown to be inefficient and unsafe. The owners care only for money and not for the men who are all poor migrants unable to secure other, safer work in more palatable industries. The same is largely true of the women at the bar who have “fallen” into this line of work through poverty and lack of other options. Ofuji, possibly new to this world of casual prostitution, weeps on the boat despite having come to terms with her decision while a letter from home letting her know that her mother is seriously ill continues to weigh on her mind. She is touched by Kenji’s kindness and perhaps sees in him a possible escape from the increasingly oppressive nature of her life as a lowly bar girl.

Ohama, however, thinks something similar though her conflict is a slightly different one. Already a mother, Ohama is a middle-aged woman and the bar’s owner, which is to say she is in part the oppressor of these other women and in the business of marketing them to the local miners. Demonstrating his continuing sympathy for lonely children, Shimizu lets Ohama’s daughter Omitsu take centrestage through her mother’s continuing emotional distance. Ohama continually shuts Omitsu out of her bedroom (which is, technically, a place of work) as somewhere which is “unfit for children”, but ignores the inconvenient fact that this world is completely unfit for raising a child. Cast out, Omitsu wanders alone around the physically dangerous mine while she is surrounded by rough men who are often drunk and violent – all dangers her mother refuses to see in being entirely self-involved and overly conscious of the illicit nature of her business.

Ofuji and Ohama both see Kenji as a way out of their dead end lives, but Ohama is gradually made to realise that her opportunity for escape through romance has already passed. Like the later A Mother’s Love, Shimizu seems to suggest that a woman must cease to be a woman when she becomes a mother and that Ohama’s salvation is not a man but in accepting her role as Omitsu’s guardian and protector. Thus, chided by Kenji who has befriended the lonely little girl and noticed how keenly she feels her mother’s coldness towards her, Ohama begins to abandon her romantic fantasies and accept herself as a middle-aged woman with a child. Though this evidently means that she has both the right and the duty to continue on “alone” as a single woman raising a daughter, it is also a mild endorsement of the notion that single women with children must dedicate themselves entirely to childrearing and have lost all rights or hopes for future romantic fulfilment through the slightly taboo idea of “second” marriage.

The Japanese title is noticeably ambiguous and could as easily be a general statement on the unhappy state of 1930s women told through the melancholy tale of two trapped in the Hokkaido snows long after “spring” has supposedly sprung. Ohama, accepting her fate, sacrifices herself for Ofuji, enabling Ofuji’s flight in the knowledge that for her the ship has already sailed. His first talkie, Shimizu makes interesting use of sound in his frequent musical motifs but makes sure to leave space for the mournful sound of the boats departing as a woman watches sadly from an open window while the snow continues to fall silently before her.