Director Yasushi Sasaki is most likely best remembered for his post-war work at Toei where he specialised in jidaigeki and musicals, frequently working with tentpole star Hibari Misora on her period drama vehicles. He began his career, however, at Shochiku in 1929 as an assistant to Hiroshi Shimizu, later working with Yasujiro Ozu before being promoted as a director in his own right and gaining a reputation as a skilled producer of musical dramas with the release of Lovers’ Duet in 1939 which starred a young Mieko Takamine as an aspiring singer.
Released in the same year, New Woman Question and Answer (新女性問答, Shin Josei Mondo) is by contrast a high-minded melodrama and rather surprising for the world of 1939, playing much more like the new constitution films appearing after the after such as Victory of Women which would unfortunately prove the last appearance from star Michiko Kuwano who sadly passed away on set during filming. At heart a female friendship drama, the film takes aim at the snobbery and lack of compassion among a group of upper-middleclass women while offering a slightly contradictory yet progressive view of the place of women in a changing society.
As the film opens, seven former high school friends are having a small party with one member, Michiko (Kuniko Miyake), set to resign from their club intending to give up her university studies in order care for her ailing father and prepare to get married. Michiko’s marriage scandalises her friends in part because it’s a love match, but Toki (Michiko Kuwano) is horrified to realise on seeing her fiancé’s photo that the man Michiko intends to marry is her sister’s boyfriend, Murakawa. Murakawa indeed breaks up with Oyo (Hiroko Kawasaki), a geisha, brushing off their relationship as casual and meaningless while insisting that he has to think of his future which is why he’s marrying the wealthy Michiko. Toki first talks to her sister who is stoical and self sacrificing before having it out with an unrepentant Murakawa and then directly with Michiko who refuses to break the engagement viewing it only as a trivial matter of his having broken up with another woman to be with her.
What she says, however, is less forgivable bluntly stating that she doesn’t think a geisha’s life should be equal to her own. It apparently rings no alarm bells for her that Murakawa frequents the red light district, or that if he can treat another woman so callously he might not be good husband material, she simply sees a geisha as not worth worrying about. Michiko had kept her sister’s occupation a secret from her friends fearing just such judgement, telling them that Oyo works in a beauty parlour, and is therefore unable to explain why she and Michiko have fallen out or why she chooses not to attend the wedding. While they think Oyo is a working woman they universally admire her, yet on accidentally discovering the truth they soon change their tune, one young woman having an intense prejudice against geishas for having “deceived” her father for some reason never thinking perhaps that’s something she should have taken up with him. While some are only disappointed that Michiko kept the truth from them, the group eventually disowns her after making a series of offensively judgemental remarks only to be taken to task by Oyo’s less patient friend who returns that “no geisha could be so heartless” as to break a friendship over such trivial prudery.
Even so the film sees the need to offer additional justifications for Oyo’s decision to become a geisha in order to put her sister through college, insisting that her goal of becoming a lawyer is also necessary in order to satisfy the dying wish of her father who died in prison after being deceived in business. Nevertheless the women are eventually forced to face their unfair prejudices, if only through the education they receive on entering the work force and finally understanding how the “real world” works, restoring their sense of female solidarity and extending it also to the ranks of geisha as they join in with the girls’ club song while celebrating Toki’s promotion to the bar.
This does seem to be an age in which it becomes possible for a woman to become independent, earning a university degree and entering a profession which will allow her to support herself though this more progressive message is somewhat walked back during the closing moments in which Toki herself ponders getting married, her companions reminding her that “the duty of a housewife matters most of all” even while affirming that there is no problem with her continuing to work as a married woman. Meanwhile, as Michiko’s friendly neighbour later laments a woman is sunk with an unreliable husband as Murakawa turns out to be having married her for her money only to discover there was none and leave her only with note explaining he intends to go travelling for a couple of years. She first states that she intends to work and support herself waiting for her husband’s return only to discover she is pregnant and thereafter reliant on the goodwill of her former servants. She discovers that the only viable line of work open to her is as a bar hostess, ironically adjacent to the geisha whose lives she had previously believed to have been so unequal to her own.
Nevertheless, the rather neat conclusion sees her reunited with Murakawa who had not only abandoned her but returned and asked for money, attempting to kidnap their baby when she objected to his attempt to install himself in her new life and thereafter landing her with a murder charge against which she is defended by the newly qualified Toki despite what appears to be a fairly massive conflict of interest. The triumph is both a victory of female friendship overcoming even the most unbridgeable of rifts and an awkward concession to the conservative status quo which demands a restoration of the traditional marriage insisting that Murakawa has now reformed in accepting his responsibilities while also reinforcing the class barriers against which the film had otherwise argued in the eventual union of the two servants one of whom had long been in love with Michiko. In any case despite its contradictions, New Woman Question and Answer provides a surprisingly progressive view of women’s rights and opportunities in the contemporary society affording them not only agency but the possibility at least of independence and personal romantic fulfilment of their own choosing.