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

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

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

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

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

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


Kaisha Monogatari: Memories of You (会社物語 MEMORIES OF YOU, Jun Ichikawa, 1988)

Kaisha monogatari dvd coverJapanese corporate life is a strange thing – sometimes more cult than job, the company demands absolute dedication from its devotees though it promises them little more than a guaranteed life of toil. Being cast out from one’s company is akin to being robbed of one’s identity. Retirement is therefore not quite so much of a reward as an excommunication – especially to those who have given so much of themselves to an employer that they don’t quite know who they are when the suit comes off. This is especially true of the hero of Jun Ichikawa’s 1988 existential drama, Kaisha Monogatari: Memories of You (会社物語 MEMORIES OF YOU). The title is deceptively romantic – in fact there was an identically titled idol starring melodrama released the same year, but it is in a way a love story of an old man who finally gets a chance to reunite with the dreams he abandoned in youth while coming to terms with his old age and the various ways the world has moved past him.

Very early one morning, veteran salary man Hanaoka (Hajime Hana) stares into the empty screen of his television set from the comfort of his kotatsu, examining his own tearful face before his wife gets up to prepare breakfast. Hanaoka is set to retire soon, after 34 years of corporate life. His career has been unremarkable and he has few friends at the office – he feels he most likely will not be missed when he goes. Home life is not too successful either. Hanaoka’s grown-up daughter has come home with a daughter of her own after a divorce, and Hanaoka’s son is currently a NEET would-be-student supposedly studying to retake entrance exams though his mother is convinced he’s just messing around and avoiding getting a job.

Though Hanaoka is a section head, it’s clear he’s not rated by his colleagues who gossip about him behind his back while his mild and timid nature sees him sitting quietly forgotten in the back of meetings. He does however have admirers including one of the older ladies in the admin staff who has always been comforted by Hanaoka’s gleeful laughter, suddenly feeling the world expand as she watched him beavering away earnestly. Despite this, nobody is very excited about his leaving party. Discussing things among themselves, the office ladies lament that planning farewell parties is either too depressing to just too much hassle, while gossiping guys in the men’s room complain that Hanaoka was never very good at his job anyway and his leaving do will be a “pitiful” affair. All of this proves too much for the kind hearted, shy, Hanaoka who eventually decides to have a goodbye note distributed around the office in which he tells everyone that there’s no need to bother with yet another office party in the overly festive December to the relief (and consternation) of all.

Hanaoka does, however, have to write his official goodbye for the company newsletter (1000 characters due by Dec. 15). Struggling to find the words, he writes a first draft in which he declares the deep sorrow he feels on having to leave his corporate family behind – after all these are people he’s dined and gone drinking with for 34 years, through good times and bad, company picnics, and away days. He’s spent longer with the office ladies than his wife, had more conversations with his subordinates than with his son. The company has been his life, and leaving it is a kind of death. Embarrassed he screws up the draft and throws it away, only to encounter another salaryman returning late (and more than a little the worse for wear) who lets him have a go on the very high tech laser guns he’s just won at bingo.

Yet Hanaoka does manage to find a solution in reconnecting with his younger self and makes a few new friends in the process. In his youth, Hanaoka was a jazz drummer – sophisticated as it is, jazz was the music of his glory days and so he finds many of the other men in his position share his love of music and were also forced to abandon their musical dreams for corporate careers. Now freed of the burdens of the salaryman, they decide to form a band of their own and even to give a special concert in place of Hanaoka’s leaving do.

Meanwhile, Yumi (Yumi Nishiyama), the office lady who reminds Hanaoka of his younger self, is undergoing something of a crisis when she realises that her boyfriend is not as serious about the relationship as she is and has been seeing someone else behind her back – the CEO’s daughter whom he intends to marry to further his career. Kaisha Monogatari is, in many ways, the passing of a baton from the post-war generation to the bubble era though getting ahead through advantageous arranged marriage is apparently still a viable option. Those of Hanaoka’s age had to work hard, rebuilding the nation after crushing wartime defeat from bombed out ruins to the economic miracle of the East. Their children, by contrast had things easy – they hardly have to worry at all. Hanaoka’s son, apparently a delinquent lost and confused by the comparative freedom of economic stability, has no need to submit himself to the insane demands of life as a company man but millions like him will, because that’s just what you do.

Hanaoka finds a way to break out of the corporate straightjacket through re-embracing his love of jazz, proving there is something left inside him when you strip the company man away but there is nevertheless something sad in having wasted so much time slaving away for a organisation that is ultimately so ungrateful for the sacrifice. A gloomy picture of bubble era Japan in which families are fragmenting, young men choose career over love, and old men are made to feel worthless once their economic function is spent, Kaisha Monogatari: Memories of You does offer the faintest glimmer of hope in the goodness of men like Hanaoka, no matter how they may have failed those around them, whose lives may be brighter when finally allowed to be themselves again.


Eclipse (金環蝕, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1934)

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Strangers Upstairs (二階の他人, Yoji Yamada, 1961)

strangers upstairsLate into his career, veteran Japanese director Yoji Yamada has become synonymous with a particular brand of maudlin comedies and tearjerking dramas often starring veteran actress and long standing collaborator Sayuri Yoshinaga. He is, however, most associated with the iconic long running Tora-san series which revolved around the heartwarming adventures of the titular travelling salesman. Tora-san does indeed epitomise Yamada’s general philosophy which leans towards realistic humanism, finding resolution in kindness and decency yet accepting that oftentimes the rules may need to be bent in order to accommodate them. In this respect his Shochiku debut, featuring a script written by his mentor Yoshitaro Nomura, is a good indicator of Yamada’s future career in its humorous tale of a newlywed couple filled with ambitions of social mobility in the rapidly modernising post-war economy.

Salaryman Masami (Kazuya Kosaka) has taken out a huge loan to build a new house for himself and his new wife, Akiko (Kyoko Aoi), but, to keep costs manageable, they’ve decided to do without a bathroom (there’s a bathhouse across the street) and added an extra floor with the intention of renting it out for a little extra money. So far, married life is going pretty well – Masami and Akiko are a nice, well matched young couple happy in each other’s company and committed towards forging a harmonious future.

The problem is their lodgers are a little, well, difficult. Not having anticipated any “difficulty”, Masami and Akiko are becoming worried that their upstairs neighbours are already a few months behind on the rent and seeing as their contract also includes food, they’ve been eating for free. Not really wanting to broach this difficult subject, Masami and Akiko try gentle prodding to remind their lodgers they need to pay their dues only for the couple to act embarrassed and claim they’d forgotten because they’d always lived with their parents in the past. Finding out that the central concern is that the husband, Hisao (Masaaki Hirao), is currently unemployed, Masami decides to help him find a job but quickly finds out that working is just not Hisao’s thing. Meanwhile, Hisao’s wife, Haruko (Chieko Seki), is picking up extra money working as a hostess in a bar, rolling in roaring drunk in the middle of the night and singing loudly as she does so.

With their patience wearing thin, Masami and Akiko ponder the best way to evict lodgers who refuse to leave but they have another problem on their hands in the form of Masami’s cantankerous mother, Tomi (Toyo Takahashi), who has arrived from the country without warning for an “indefinite” visit after falling out with another of her daughter-in-laws. An unsophisticated country bumpkin with a wicked tongue and serious hanafuda habit, Masami’s mum does not quite fit with the couple’s upwardly mobile aspirations and, annoyingly, immediately sides with Hisao and Haruko whose self-centred laziness is more in keeping with her backstreet ways.

If Masami and Akiko disliked Hisao and Haruko essentially for being too common, their second set of lodgers present the opposite problem. Taizo (Tatsuo Nagai) and Yoko (Reiko Hitomi) seemingly have money to burn, so why are they renting an upstairs room in an “up and coming” area of the city? Akiko is quickly taken with their small luxuries, in awe of her lodgers’ sophistication and upperclass elegance and obviously happy that they won’t be having the same kind of troubles that they had with Hisao and Haruko. When Taizo and Yoko offer to front the money to build a bathroom, Masami and Akiko are surprised but eventually grateful even if taking a “loan” from the people who are renting from you presents a definite shift in power dynamics.

The dynamic shifts even further with another crisis sparking the return of Masami’s mum who has once again been kicked out by a disgruntled relative. Masami’s older brother, who put up some of the money for the house, insists that he honour a vague promise he made that family members in need of refuge would be free to stay with him by kicking out his lodgers and letting his mother live in the upstairs room. Not really wanting to take responsibility for his troublesome mother, and feeling friendly with Taizo and Yoko, Masami refuses and promises to pay his brother back instead – ironically borrowing the money from Taizo.

As predicted Taizo and Yoko are not quite all they seem, but like Masami and Akiko, they are a fairly new couple trying to make a go of it in the often cruel post-war world. On finding out the scandalous secret about their lodgers, Masami and Akiko are torn – they like Taizo and Yoko, plus they’re massively indebted to them thanks to the loan and the money for the bathroom, but they also worry about becoming an accessory or being accused of aiding and abetting. Their first reaction is to feign politeness and carry on as normal pretending not to know whilst asking around to see if they can borrow more money from other friends to pay back Taizo and Yoko before asking them to leave quietly.

Masami and Akiko, like many of their peers, have aspirations beyond their current pay level and have put themselves at a huge disadvantage trying to live up to the salaryman dream. Yamada opens with an ironic title sequence featuring a series of “Lego” model houses – something which Masami later plays with while lamenting the seemingly small possibility of hanging on to his new home. Homeowning is unexpectedly complicated and becoming a landlord even more so. Masami and Akiko wanted their own mini castle – a status symbol (the policeman’s wife from behind is very jealous), but also a space to call their own which reflects their individual hopes, dreams, and aspirations. They’ve forgone the convenience of a bathroom for the impact of a second floor all while hoping it will pay for itself until they’re ready to use it to expand their family. Until then, they’re content to live in one room and share a kitchen, even providing communal meals if necessary.

The money, however, is a constant worry – the original debt which they accrued to build the house quickly brings its own share of troubles, shifting from one creditor to another as the couple try to invest their fortunes with “nicer” or “worthier” people. Not everyone is nice, as Akiko finds out when she asks Masami’s lecherous boss if he’d mind lending them the money only for him to hint at an extremely indecent proposal. Though Masami seems to be a decent and honest sort who wants to work hard and get on, he is still subject to the salaryman chain of command which means doing his boss’ bidding out side of work hours which turns out to entail further “alibi” duties when he discovers they’re virtually neighbours (though the boss’ house is obviously far more impressive).

Despite all their difficulties, the goodness of Masami and Akiko eventually pays off, their one and only row quickly resolving itself without rancour. Taizo and Yoko, neatly matched in kindness with their former landlords, are grateful for the brief time they spent in the upstairs room and resolved not to bring any trouble into the lives of the nice young couple from downstairs. Masami and Akiko, equally grateful for the consideration, commit themselves to moving forward with a little more temperance, saving the money to pay back Taizo and Yoko and help them in turn when they might need it. Hard work, honesty, and a kind heart, it seems, are what you need to be happy in the burgeoning post-war economy and Masami and Akiko are happy indeed.


Original promo roll (no subtitles)

The Ballad of Narayama (楢山節考, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1958)

ballad of narayama kinoshita 1958 posterMany naughty children running low on filial piety have probably been told the folktale about a man who took his son along when he abandoned his senile father on a mountain to die only to have his son later do the same thing to him. In Japan, the mythical practice of “obasute” or “ubasute” is a kind of Logan’s Run equivalent in which elderly people elect to remove themselves from society in order to reduce the burden on the young. The Ballad of Narayama (楢山節考, Narayama-bushi Ko) has, perhaps, taken on an additional degree of pathos in ageing Japan in which many elderly people find themselves metaphorically cast out from a society in which they have become the majority, but the idea of “obasute” is intended to be a lesson to the young to treasure their elders and accept the responsibility to care for those who can no longer care for themselves in the knowledge that they too will one day be old.

Keisuke Kinoshita is sometimes criticised for his supposed sentimentalism but his central concern was always in the redemptive power of the relationships between people, that there is always kindness even in the worst of circumstances and that this is enough for hope to survive. In telling the sorry tale of Narayama in which those of over 70-years-of-age are forced into a ritual suicide by social convention, Kinoshita opts for alienation in deliberately shifting into a theatrical register inspired by kabuki featuring obvious studio sets, stylised action, and traditional narration, but his decision to pull back makes the message all the more painful, as does the insistence on the timelessness of his tale.

Long ago in the distant feudal past, 69-year-old Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka) knows that it will soon be time for her widowed son, Tatsuhei (Teiji Takahashi), to carry her to Narayama where she hopes to die of exposure in the New Year snows. She has made her peace with this, it is the will of the gods and she has no call to disobey. Her son, however, is distraught to think of the time he will be expected to carry his elderly mother to a remote spot in the mountains and leave her there, alone, to die of cold and starvation. When a messenger arrives from Orin’s home village to propose a match for Tatsuhei, a recently widowed woman of exactly the same age – Tama (Yuko Mochizuki), Orin is overjoyed – she can go to Narayama without fear or worry, her son and grandsons will be looked after even after she is gone.

The tradition began because the villages in this region are extremely poor. Tatsuhei and Orin will be enjoying their one and only bowl of white rice for the year in celebration of Bon. Orin’s self-centred grandson Kesakichi (Danko Ichikawa) has made up a horrible song about his grandma in which he criticises her for still having all her own teeth at 70 – implying that, as she is not malnourished enough to have lost them, she must have been greedy and taken more than her fair share of food. Unable to bear such reproach, Orin smashes out her own front teeth to better conform to the conventions of her society and make herself a more acceptable sacrifice to the gods as a good and pious woman.

This early horrific act is perhaps the key in illuminating Kinoshita’s gentle critique of social conformity as a tool of social control – something which had become increasingly apparent during the militarist era. Orin, a kind and decent woman, is herself complicit in this abhorrent custom – her acceptance of it is part of her goodness, a sign of her altruistic self-sacrificing nature, but her own unwillingness to challenge the darker aspects of the society in which she lives leads only to their perpetuation and an ongoing descent into unkindness and cruelty.

Tatsuhei, a good and pious son, cannot reconcile himself to his mother’s fate, while his own son, Kesakichi, openly mocks his grandmother for not going sooner and Kesakichi’s pregnant girlfriend (Keiko Ogasawara) looks on enviously at the extra beans on offer if there were one less mouth to feed. Old and bent, Orin still plays a vital part in her community – she harvests the rice while Kesakichi lounges in trees, and she alone knows the best place to catch trout, a valuable skill in a village where food is scarce. Despite the possibility for disaster, Orin and Tama bond instantly as kindred spirits, both kind people in an often unkind world. It’s to Tama that Orin finally divulges her knowledge – something the village will be poorer for when she is gone, having passed her familial responsibilities to another woman and seen her son happily settled with a perfectly suited second wife.

When Tatsuhei returns, broken, after having performed the dreaded ritual he watches his own cruel son laughing and joking from within their shared home, caring only for himself and his easy pleasures. Tama, equally upset over the loss of Orin with whom she had bonded as mother, tries to comfort her husband but is eventually overcome by the tragedy of life, taking comfort only in the fact that, when they are 70, she and Tatsuhei will climb Narayama together.

Hardship, far from bringing people together in the famous harmony that Japanese society praises itself for, has forced them apart, infected them with a sense of mutual distrust and a them or us mentality. Orin feeds the senile old man cast out from his own unfeeling family, but she also urges him towards making a sacrifice of himself on Narayama, genuinely believing that both of their existences have become inappropriate, a greedy usurpation of time which rightfully now belongs to others. Kinoshita respects Orin for her stoicism and righteousness, but pities her for the cruelty of the world in which she lived and was so powerless to resist that it never occurred to her that she should. There is a painful sensitivity around those who willingly went to their deaths in service of something they believed to be right because their society said it must be so, never daring to consider the ways in which their society may be mistaken.

Heavily stylised and markedly experimental for a mainstream Shochiku melodrama of the late 1950s, Kinoshita’s The Ballad of Narayama is a heartrending tale of transience and inevitability, but it’s also one of the various ways a stringent society erodes the bonds between people. The intense love of Tatsuhei for his mother is destroyed by a terrible custom that no one is brave enough to defy, leaving the family rudderless and the village poorer for having been robbed not only of Orin’s wealth of experience but of her warmth and kindness. Kinoshita ends on an ambiguous image showing us the modern train station which stands on the former village of “Obasute”, demonstrating the passage of time and arrival of “modernity” but also that ancient customs are never quite as “ancient” as they seem.


Scene from near the end of the film (English subtitles)

The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine (マダムと女房, Heinosuke Gosho, 1931)

Neighbor's wife and mine flyerThere’s an especial irony in the fact that Japan’s first talkie is essentially all about how annoying sound can be. Directed by Heinosuke Gosho, pioneer of the shomingeki and a longstanding devotee of melancholy comedy, The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine (マダムと女房, Madame to Nyobo) is another in a long line of contemporary farces set in an idealised middle-class world but as much as Gosho goes out of his way to include as much soundplay as humanly possible he never lets the gimmick get the better of him.

Gosho opens with a brief prologue sequence otherwise detached from the main narrative in which down on his luck playwright Shibano (Atsushi Watanabe) gets into an argument with a precious artist busily painting a canvas of the house opposite him and gleefully admiring his own work. The painter likes this spot because of its silent serenity – an atmosphere quickly broken when Shibano struts up, whistling loudly, humming, making conversation. Unfortunately Shibano doesn’t rate the painter’s work and is also non-plussed that he doesn’t know who Shibano, apparently a “famous” playwright, is and doesn’t seem to respect writers as fellow artists anyway. A fight breaks out and all because of some unwanted noise pollution. Eventually the two men end up friends again after bonding in their mutual appreciation of the charms of “madame” (Satoko Date) the woman who lives in the house next to the one Shibano has just decided to rent on a whim with the intention of getting some “peace and quiet” in the countryside to finish his overdue manuscript.

The country is, as it turns out, not as quiet as you’d think. No sooner has Shibano moved in than he’s assailed by noise – mostly from within his own household as he’s a father of two, a little girl of perhaps four or five, and a bawling infant son. He doesn’t help matters by winding up his exhausted wife Kinuyo (Kinuyo Tanaka) by loudly impersonating a distressed cat during the middle of the night but a bigger problem is about to present itself in the form of the Mammy Jazz Band who, led by the woman Shibano was so smitten with after bumping into her during his altercation with the painter, use the house next-door as their rehearsal studio.

The house of Shibano is, apparently, a fairly happy one though long suffering wife and mother Kinuyo has reason enough for exasperation as her husband wastes his time drinking and playing mahjong while the deadline for the manuscript he’s supposed to be writing draws ever closer. In charge of the household finances, Kinuyo is keenly aware the family are low on funds – something presumably not helped by Shibano’s impulsive decision to rent a cottage in the country. He’s left himself a dozen inspirational notes reminding himself that manuscripts don’t write themselves, but still Shibano can’t buckle down. Having come to the country to escape the noise of city life, he finds himself assaulted by a silence differential in dealing first with his noisy children and responsibilities as a father, and then the constant intrusion of unexpected sounds which, in the city, might hardly be noticed against the constant background hum.

Trying everything from plugging his ears to tying a scarf around his head and finally jumping inside a cardboard box, Shibano decides to enlist Kinuyo to tell next-door to keep it down but she, an elegant Japanese wife, would hardly dare to disturb the “peace”. She tells her lazy husband to sort it out himself only to regret her decision when she spots him laughing away with the sophisticated modern woman next-door, drinking in the party atmosphere of her Bohemian home and enjoying a private concert as the “noisy” jazz band rehearse their latest numbers.

Despite his occupation which might imply a little Bohemianism in itself, Shibano is a traditionally minded sort. He may have turned up in swanky hat and pinstripe suit carrying a cane, but in his new home he dresses exclusively in kimono, as does his dutiful wife, who can only trail behind her husband in exasperation offering the occasional barbed comment as her only form of mild resistance. His household demands quietude, but cannot attain it. He is, therefore, naturally led away to the woman next door like a time traveller suddenly given a glimpse of the new and exciting future. The musical repertoire of the Mammy Jazz Band is all about “speed”, they move fast and with no thought to the disturbance they trail through the air around them. They are going somewhere, in contrast to Shibano who has been in a state of inertia for quite sometime.

It is, however, a little sad that it’s “madame” that finally speeds on Shibano rather than his wife and children even if there is nothing improper in their relationship – Madame is not particularly interested in Shibano in anything other than a neighbourly fashion, her people pleasing friendliness and genuine kindness perhaps running in contrast to the conventional depiction of a “modern” woman as Kinuyo later points out in jealousy when she remarks that women like that are all “100% sex delinquents”.

The film’s Japanese title is certainly drawing a contrast between the modern “madame” and the traditionally minded “nyobo” though it comes down on neither side, allowing room for both sorts of women in this rapidly changing society. Shibano maybe a lazy, easily distracted sort of man but he’s knows what’s good for him and when all’s said and done his relationship with his wife is as solid as they come despite their frequent financial woes, childcare spats, and momentary pangs of jealousy or anguish. The family, repaired and in motion once again, finally get their day in the sun enjoying a rare moment of blissful happiness as they break into a chorus of “My Blue Heaven”, positively rupturing the silence with their own joyful voices as they join the “noisy” cavalcade heading towards the exciting “speed era” waiting for them in the future.


Sing My Life (あやしい彼女, Nobuo Mizuta, 2016)

Sing my life posterWhen Miss Granny was released in Korea back in 2014, it became an instant smash hit with remake rights quickly bought by a host of Asian countries and Chinese (20 Once Again), and Vietnamese (Sweet 20) versions already proving popular in their respective nations. Sing My Life (あやしい彼女, Ayashii Kanojo) shifts away from the Korean film’s pervasive misery for a more typically Japanese determination to grin and bear one’s troubles. Structured like a classic musical, Sing My Life may only hint at the hardships of life in post-war Japan, but co-opts the classic “hahamono” for a musical tribute to motherhood in all of its complexities and complications.

Katsu Seyama (Mitsuko Baisho) is a 73-year-old woman who likes to sing and dance her way through life while making a point of haggling over her purchases and boasting loudly about how proud she is of her daughter who is the editor-in-chief of a famous fashion magazine. Her daughter Yukie (Satomi Kobayashi) has, however, unbeknownst to her been demoted in favour of a flashy, younger candidate. After getting caught by an ore ore scam and blaming Yukie for preventing her from doing all the things she wanted to do in life, Katsu runs away from home and finds herself at a strange photo studio from which she emerges as her 20-year-old self (Mikako Tabe). Suddenly given the chance to experience the youth she never knew, Katsu ends up joining her grandson’s punk band as the lead vocalist singing a number of her favourite retro hits in new, modern versions.

Unlike the Korean version, Katsu’s story is less one of resentment at a fall in social status than an ongoing struggle born of constant hardships. A war orphan with childhood friend Jiro (Kotaro Shiga) her only “familial” connection, Katsu has had to fight all her life just to survive. A shotgun wedding was followed immediately by widowhood and a serious illness for her child who she was told would not survive past infancy. Yet unlike the granny of Miss Granny, Katsu is not actively mean as much as she is irritating and occasionally petulant. Loving to boast of the successful career woman daughter she managed to raise alone, Katsu is not above playing the martyr in reminding those around her of everything she sacrificed to make it happen.

A single mother in the ‘60s, Katsu had to work day and night to support herself and her daughter leaving her with a lifelong love of thriftiness and a kind of no-nonsense bluntness that is occasionally (if accidentally) hurtful. In the original Korean version, a widowed mother pours all of her ambition and desires into her son who she hopes will become a successful member of society able to return the favour by supporting her in her old age. Katsu’s child is a girl but has also become a successful career woman and later a single mother herself following a brief marriage followed by divorce. There may be tension in the relationship between the two women, but Katsu’s returned youth provides the opportunity for greater intimacy and a return to the less complicated mother-child relationship of early childhood brokered by greater mutual understanding.

Though Katsu had not revealed any great dream of being a singer, her beautiful voice soon gets her noticed by the music biz and producer Takuto Kobayashi (Jun Kaname) who is sick to the back teeth of soulless teenage idols who lack the life experience to truly connect with the material they’ve been given. Encompassing a host of Showa era hits from the Kyu Sakamoto tune Miagete Goran Yoru no Hoshi wo, to Hibari Misora’s Makkana Taiyo, and the central performance of the depression themed Kanashikute Yarikirenai originated by Folk Crusaders, Sing My Life takes a (slightly) more cheerful run through ‘60s Japan emphasising the fortitude and determination of struggle rather than the misery and hardship of difficult times. Fun and touching, Nobuo Mizuta’s adaptation improves on the Korean version in adding a subtle commentary on the ironic invisibility of the elderly in ageing Japan whilst also refocusing the tale onto a deliberately female perspective, examining how two women from different generations have dealt with a similar problem, and allowing them the opportunity to repair their fractured relationship through a process of mutual understanding.


 Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.

Screening again:

  • ICA – 8 February 2018
  • QUAD – 11 February 2018
  • Showroom Cinema – 20 February 2018
  • Firstsite – 25 February 2018
  • Depot – 27 February 2018
  • Phoenix Leicester – 10 March 2018
  • Midlands Arts Centre – 13 March 2018
  • Broadway – 18 March 2018

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Kyu Sakamoto’s Miagete Goran Yoru no Hoshi wo

Hibari Misora & The Blue Comets – Makkana Taiyo

Folk Crusaders – Kanashikute Yarikirenai