Shitamachi no Taiyo (下町の太陽, Yoji Yamada, 1963)

(C) Shochiku 1963

Shitamachi no Taiyou DVD coverYoji Yamada’s debut feature, The Strangers Upstairs, was very much of its time as it attempted to capture the aspirational fighting spirit of the post-war era through the struggles of a nice young couple who are trying to “get on” and escape their humble origins for the salaryman dream through achieving the goal of home ownership as quickly as possible. His second film, Shitamachi no Taiyo (下町の太陽, also known as The Sunshine Girl / Sunshine in the Old Neighbourhood), takes a slightly different look at a similar issue as a young woman from Shitamachi – a working class industrial area on the outskirts of Tokyo, agonises over her future prospects as she considers a marriage to her longterm boyfriend who has ambitions to join the salaryman revolution.

Yamada opens with shots of Shitamachi and its prominent smokestacks while the now famous song plays in an instrumental version over the credits, before abruptly shifting to visions of the upscale Ginza where Machiko (Chieko Baisho) and her boyfriend Michio (Tamotsu Hayakawa) are enjoying a demonstration of an extraordinarily expensive, state of the art radio before retreating to a cafe where they agree that sometimes its more fun to “aspire” to things than actually obtain them. After all, there’s no way they could ever afford the diamond rings they walked past on their way out of the department store unless they decided to rob the place. Both Machiko and Michio are residents of Shitamachi and work in a local soap factory. Michio, however, has his sights firmly set on the path to a middle-class life and is planning to take the exam for a promotion to head office – though he lacks qualifications, Michio is confident because he’s studying hard (though more so because his dad and his section chief served together in the war so Michio is sure a good word will be put in for him).

Despite her fondness for Michio, Machiko has her doubts about his overriding ambition to get out of Shitamachi. Since her mother died, Machiko has been the lady of the house and primary caregiver for her naughty little brother Kenji (Joji Yanagisawa) while her older brother Kunio (Toshio Suzuki) is the family brainbox and also planning to bust out only through the path of education rather than advancement. Having left education behind, Machiko is happily contributing to the family finances with her job on the packing line at the soap factory which is, all things considered, not too bad – the work may be dull and methodical but also relatively quiet and stress free, not to mention sweet smelling. Nevertheless, Machiko does not necessarily want to work on the shop floor all her life but knows her opportunities are limited.

This fact is one cruelly brought home to her by a moody Michio when descends into a major sulk on learning that he hasn’t passed the test for head office because another of his colleagues outdid him – both in terms of his study ranking and in one upping him in having a direct connection to the director. While Machiko tries her best to sympathise and put up with his moody petulance, Michio chooses to throw her sympathy back in her face by abruptly announcing that she can’t understand the pain he’s going through because careers are irrelevant to women who only use them as a stopgap until they get married. Thoroughly annoyed, Machiko leaves Michio to his wallowing before things get any worse but she can’t argue with the fact that he’s only said what most people think.

Still, Machiko isn’t even sure she wants to get married. One of her friends, Kazuko (Kyoko Aoi), recently won the jackpot – she married a nice man who did get a promotion to head office and won the housing lottery for a home on one of the shiny new “danchi” – brand new apartment complexes for upwardly mobile young couples and the very embodiment of post-war aspiration. However, when Machiko and a friend visit the new bride they find that she is not quite as happy as one might expect. Though married life is peaceful enough and she and her husband evidently get on, Kazuko is also intensely lonely. With her husband away at work all day and often out playing golf with colleagues on Sundays too (not to mention after hours drinking and miscellaneous get togethers), there’s precious little for Kazuko to do, stuck at home all day cooking and cleaning while waiting for her husband to return. Having moved to the danchi she’s also lost her community and is no longer close enough to her friends to see them very often.

Meanwhile, Machiko is also somewhat disturbed by Kazuko’s collection of expensive cosmetics which her husband has instructed her to buy because he’s “very particular” about her appearance. Kazuko makes sure her makeup is on point before her husband gets home because that’s apparently what he likes. Machiko, however, does not like this – to start with, she thinks Kazuko looks better without. Not that there’s anything wrong with wearing makeup because you want to wear it, but the idea of wearing it because someone told you to and you’re worried they’ll “get bored” with your face doesn’t strike her as a particularly healthy relationship dynamic. If this is what a love marriage is like, perhaps Machiko would rather do without.

Despite her otherwise close relationship with Michio, it quickly becomes obvious that she does not love him and if she decides to marry him it will be because it’s the “sensible” decision rather than any great romantic desire. Annoyingly enough, Michio hasn’t really even asked her, he just assumes they will marry once he gets his promotion. He also assumes that Machiko, like him, will want to shake the dust of Shitamachi off her feet for good for the bright lights of Tokyo. Machiko, however is not so sure. “Getting on” is one thing and there’s nothing wrong with “aspiration”, but that doesn’t mean you need to look down on the people who come from the same place as you – after all, the sun still shines even in Shitamachi and there’s nothing wrong in choosing to be happy here rather than always chasing an unattainable dream of conventional success.

Another possibility presents itself when Machiko meets an unrefined boy who has an ordinary job in the steelworks. Though their first meeting did not make a good impression – he creepily chased her off a train and then made a mess of trying to explain why, they later bond when she realises he has befriended her troubled little brother and the pair then end up spending a pleasant evening together which is far more romantic than any of her dull and conventional outings with Michio. Then again the choice she faces isn’t between two men but whether or not to embrace her own ability to make a definitive choice about her future. What she rejects is cold and selfish path of men like Michio who only want to get ahead and are willing to step on anyone who gets in their way to make it happen. Machiko doesn’t want fancy radios and diamond rings, she just wants to not have to worry too much about money and for someone to actually listen to what she’s saying. She doesn’t want to end up like Kazuko, all alone in a sparkling apartment with nothing to do but knit. When Michio tells her to shut up and do as he says because he’ll definitely make her happy, the choice seems clear. Hard work, community, and maybe the fiery boy who seems determined to get a yes rather than assuming he already has one. Who wouldn’t want to live here?


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Famous title song performed by Chieko Baisho

The Rendezvous (約束, Koichi Saito, 1972)

The Rendezvous poster“If human’s don’t trust each other, it’ll be the end of the world” – so says the cheerful hero at the heart of Koichi Saito’s The Rendezvous (約束, Yakusoku). Saito’s film is, somewhat unusually, a rare example of a Korean film remade in Japan. Inspired by Lee Man-hee’s Late Autumn (now sadly thought lost), The Rendezvous has been remade three times in Korea by such esteemed directors as Kim Ki-young (1975), Kim Soo-yong (1982) and most recently Kim Tae-young in 2010. There is indeed something particularly timeless in its tale of fate frustrating a fated love as each of our protagonists struggles to find the energy to rebel against their own sense of impossibility.

A brief framing sequence begins with a nervous, melancholy woman, Keiko (Keiko Kishi), sitting alone on a park bench, surrounded by the cheerful activity of athletes training, women pushing prams, and families enjoying the crisp sunshine. As she thinks back to what brought her here we travel back with her to a fateful train journey some years previously.

Keiko sits sadly by the window, impassively watching the sea stretch out as the train whizzes by. An older woman (Yoshie Minami) is sitting next to her, though they appear at least not to be on particularly friendly terms. At the first stop a younger man, Akira (Kenichi Hagiwara), gets on and sits down opposite Keiko, throwing a newspaper over his face, presumably to help him get some sleep (or, as we later wonder, perhaps just to better disappear). Intrigued, Keiko nevertheless shivers on catching sight of the paper’s headline – “Drunken Husband Stabbed to Death”. Knocking the paper off his head as she gets up to go to the bathroom, Keiko clips it back on for him with her hairpin – something that later gives him an excuse to talk to her when he eventually wakes up.

Akira, it turns out, is the chatty sort of person who enjoys making conversation with strangers. He makes a nuisance of himself trying to chat to Keiko and the old woman who ignore him, whilst accidentally frightening the bored little girl opposite by trying to entertain her. The ice finally thaws when Akira decides to buy everyone lunch – Keiko accepts and speaks to him if only to insist on paying him back (which the old lady then also feels compelled to do). Though very little actual conversation takes place on this first train journey, Akira is also travelling to the same small town as Keiko and continues to make a nuisance of himself by following her around. Nevertheless a connection begins to form between the pair, such perfect opposites in every way but one, though the time is always ticking and the encounter is one coloured by its impending end.

Keiko’s mysterious behaviour is later revealed to be more than just shyness or existential angst. Akira repeatedly asks for her trust, but she claims herself incapable of trusting anyone because in a sense she is already dead. Indeed, her entire aura is one of deliberate stillness, rarely speaking, and often leaning sadly against a more solid structure as if lacking the energy to fully support herself. Ironically enough, Keiko’s name is written with the character for “firefly” – a creature that burns out bright and then fades away. Keiko not only believes that her light has gone out, but that there are no more fireflies left. Akira, whose name is written not with the character for “bright” but with one for “cheerful”, begins to show her that there could be fireflies still, jokingly pointing to the lights from a nearby boat bobbing on the water.

We’re later told that the root of all Keiko’s suffering is “an absence of love”, that as passion cooled there was only emptiness in its place. “Emptiness” seems to be the force which defines Keiko’s existence, the reason her fire is out and her life apparently over. Though she feels a passionate attraction to Akira, she cannot bring herself to submit to it, both distrusting herself and afraid to face the possibility that it too will end. Both Keiko and Akira are fugitives from themselves, literally railroaded towards an inevitable conclusion they lack the courage to oppose. Akira wants to run, but Keiko knows she belongs on the train, incapable of escaping her self-imposed imprisonment and unwilling to step away from her unchanging destiny.

Fate follows them everywhere – violent headlines, prisoners being escorted, flashes of handcuffs, all reminding them that they are trapped, powerless in the face of an oncoming reckoning. Akira repeatedly asks Keiko to trust him, insisting that as long as she believes in him everything will be alright. Yet Akira is a flustered young man always in a hurry, running as if already late for the future. He makes Keiko a promise of a meeting and even gives her his watch to help her keep it, yet fails to appear. Akira’s heart may be trustworthy, but his body less so and even if he really wanted to come fate may have other plans. Love, it seems, is not enough. Saito returns to Keiko, sitting alone on the bench, waiting as the park empties and all the kids go home for tea. There’s no way to know if Akira can keep his promise even if he meant to, but perhaps there is something even so in the continued faith that he might simply bound in, hours late but as earnest as ever.

The central narrative seems to retain the Korean of sensibility of Lee’s original in its sense of dread and inevitability, and of passion repressed. Saito’s approach leans more towards misty European arthouse than your average Shochiku romance, making the most of its mystery as the time continues to run down for Keiko and Akira before they must prepare to meet their respective fates. Fate, at least, will wait for you and will always be there in the end. Impossibility defines the world of the defeated Keiko and the childlike Akira, but perhaps the most painful thing is hope itself, and the lingering faith that a promise will be kept despite the overwhelming odds.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Farewell to Spring (惜春鳥, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1959)

(C) Shochiku 1959

Farewell to Spring posterFor Keisuke Kinoshita, people are basically good even if the world around them often isn’t. Even so, there are limits to goodness. Can friendship survive if an intimate trust is abused, or will betrayal cut the cord once and for all? Unlike many of his contemporaries, “youth” was not a theme in which Kinoshita was particularly interested – or, at least, not quite in the same way. Farewell to Spring (惜春鳥, Sekishuncho) is in some senses an awkward fit for his usual concerns but then the concerns here are perhaps closer to the personal in examining the changing fortunes of a group of five male childhood friends who find themselves scattered in the complicated post-war landscape, facing their mutual troubles in solitary, manly fashion while their friendship withers under the weight of their individual sorrows.

The drama begins when Iwagaki (Yusuke Kawazu) returns to his Aizu mountain village after being away at university for the previous two years. As Iwagaki’s parents have died and his half-brother moved to Hokkaido with his family, Iwagaki has no “home” in his hometown as he sadly tells a familiar face spotted on the train. Nevertheless, his friends are very excited to see him and have all rallied round without even being asked. Iwagaki will be staying at an inn owned by the family of his friend, Minemura (Kazuya Kosaka). The other boys all stayed in the village – Makita (Masahiko Tsugawa), the illegitimate son of a bar owner is being primed to take over the family business while sort of dating the step-daughter of his estranged father; Teshirogi (Akira Ishihama), the younger son of an impoverished former samurai family, is working at a local factory and heavily involved in the labour movement; while Masugi (Toyozo Yamamoto), who is disabled with a lame leg thanks to a childhood accident, works alongside his parents in a traditional lacquerwork shop but finds his livelihood threatened by political troubles with China.

Once a tight group of small-town friends, none of the boys quite wants to acknowledge how far they have drifted apart – not just from each other, but from the young men they once were even though comparatively little time has actually passed. Nevertheless, the shadow of their old bond still exists – it is obvious to all the boys that Iwagaki has returned in some kind of disgrace. A favourite of their teacher, Iwagaki had been given a valuable opportunity to better himself by going to university in Tokyo but has apparently fallen out with his sponsor and into hard times. The story he tells his friends is dark – they’d heard it had to do with a “dalliance” with a maid which annoyed his patron but the way he describes it sounds more like a rape revenge followed by an unwanted romance which he eventually ran away from. Iwagaki is not making himself look good which might suggest that he trusts his friends enough to tell them the truth, or perhaps just doesn’t quite see the various ways in which his conduct discredits him, but either way there is deepening gulf between each of the men in which none is quite being honest with the other.

Iwagaki’s arrival doesn’t so much stir up old troubles as occur alongside them. The central drama revolves around a squaring off between Makita and Teshirogi over a girl, Yoko (Yukiyo Toake), who is the niece of Makita’s biological father – a nouveau riche pawnbroker with a steely wife, Tane (Teruko Kishi), who hates Makita’s mother for obvious reasons. The mistress and the wife are locked into an internecine battle of wills and resentments and so both are opposed to a marriage between Makita and Yoko even though they have fallen in love independently. As there is no son in the family, Makita’s father needs someone to marry in through marrying Yoko – it would obviously be ideal for him if his “real” son could inherit his estate, but Makita’s mother wants him to take over her bar and Tane is directly opposed to suffering the humiliation of a mistress’ son living under her roof and so they are at an impasse. Meanwhile, Tane has been trying to arrange a socially beneficial marriage and has settled on Teshirogi – the impoverished son of an aristocratic family.

A confluence of post-war problems, the first question pits the traditional arranged marriage against the youngster’s right to choose. Yoko doesn’t want the arranged marriage – she’s doing everything she can to fight it even if she ends up alone, but Makita has already given up believing the situation is futile. Teshirogi tries to ask him if it’s OK to pursue Yoko, but Makita doesn’t really answer. What he says is does as you see fit, but Teshirogi hears only what he wants to hear and fails to notice that Makita minds quite a lot and has only said that out of a sense of despondency and a possible romanticisation of his emotional suffering. Yoko is living in the post-war reality – she rejects the idea of arranged marriage and of her adoptive parents’ right to control her future, but she is unable to fully resist alone – she needs Makita to stand with her, but he doesn’t have her courage. Meanwhile, Makita is also consumed by thoughts of romantic impossibility thanks to the sad story of his melancholy uncle (Keiji Sada) who tried to run off with a geisha (Ineko Arima) only for her to be dragged back by her madam because of an outstanding debt.

Debt bondage is something else that’s thankfully on its way out in the post-war world thanks to the prostitution laws which are contributing to a decline in the fortunes of Minemura’s inn. Feudalism, however, is doing its best to cling on – especially in tiny mountain backwaters. Teshirogi may now be a proletarian factory worker flying the red flag and taking an active part in the labour movement as a striker protesting for better pay and conditions, but at heart he’s still a nobleman and has a natural sense of entitlement and superiority towards his friends which is only deepened by his resentment over his comparative financial inferiority. Yoko asks him to turn down the marriage proposal because she’s in love with Makita and fears her family won’t listen to her alone, but Teshirogi roughly tells her he doesn’t care much for her feelings and will make his own decision. Later he insists on giving his answer “the proper way” by going through his father, and submits himself entirely to the processes of the pre-war society. Making a half-hearted justification to Makita, Teshirogi confesses that his decision to push for the marriage was motivated by his poverty and a desire to regain his status if also partly because he too is attracted to Yoko and admires her spiky spirit even if it otherwise seems to contradict his conservative views.

Teshirogi breaks the bro code in favour of self interest, not actually caring very much if it costs him friendships which he appears not to value. As openly gay as it was possible to be in the late 1950s, Kinoshita creates an intensely homosocial world of male honour-based bonding, but makes a tragic hero of the innocent Masugi who is in a sense feminised by his disability which prevents him from participating in the manly rituals of the other boys – most notably in the coming of age sword dance in which he becomes narrator rather than sword bearer. Teshirogi, in an early instance of smug insensitivity, throws a mildly barbed comment at Masugi in tersely suggesting that his affection for Iwagaki runs beyond friendship – something which the group seems to be aware of but does not want to go into, or at least not really like this. Masugi and Minemura emerge as the most pure hearted and the most hurt among the friends, clinging on to the idea of their friendship even as they are betrayed by those closest to them while Makita wonders if betrayal is an essential component of connection or merely its inevitable end.

Despite the central betrayal, the boys eventually manage to salvage something of their friendships, leaving the field of battle together and alive if also wounded and sorrowful. Unlike the tragic White Tigers in the song which recurs throughout the film who elected mass suicide on believing their battle was lost, the boys move forward – Makita, at least, spurred on by his uncle’s tragic romance decides that love is worth fighting for after all and that he doesn’t have to blindly accept the profound inertia of small-town Aizu life or the natural authority if the hypocritical Teshirogi who shouts socialist slogans but insists on his social superiority. Friendship may not survive the compromises of adulthood, but perhaps the bonds between people aren’t so easily broken after all even if they consistently break your heart.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

So Goes My Love (愛より愛へ, Yasujiro Shimazu, 1938)

(C) Shochiku 1938Yasujiro Shimazu had been a pioneer of the “shomingeki” – naturalistic stories of ordinary lower middle class life, and his early career included several forays into the world of the “tendency film” which carried strong left-wing messages. By the late 1930s however his films have shifted upwards a little and often deal with the lives of the upper middle classes as they find themselves at another moment of transition during the turbulent militarist years. In contrast with many contemporary films, Shimazu’s may seem curiously apolitical but speak volumes solely through their subtlety and direct refusal to engage with the propagandist concerns of the ruling regime.

In So Goes My Love (愛より愛へ, Ai yori Ai e), our lead, Shigeo (Shuji Sano), is a struggling writer living with his girlfriend, Miyako (Sanae Takasugi), who supports them both with her meagre earnings as a bar hostess. As we later discover, Shigeo is the eldest son of a prominent family who have (temporarily) disowned him because they don’t approve of his relationship with Miyako. Realising his dreams of becoming a successful writer are unlikely to be fulfilled, Shigeo has become moody and taciturn. He wants to find a job but isn’t exactly equipped to get one especially when the times are as hard as they are. He asks his uncle for help and gets an interview at a newspaper, but quickly realises that his uncle has set him up – he can only have the job if he “legitimises” his living arrangements. Shigeo leaves in a huff but there’s no denying he’s in a financial fix.

Things start to change when Shigeo runs into his younger sister, Toshiko (Mieko Takamine), by chance at a cafe. Toshiko insists on coming back with him to his lodgings “for future reference” but also out of morbid curiosity as a kind of touristic exercise in surveying the lives of those less fortunate. Shigeo thought Miyako would have already gone out but walks in just as she’s leaving. Though Miyako is shy and quiet, a little perturbed over being suddenly ambushed with a visitor, she does her best to ease the awkwardness between herself and her potential sister-in-law with black tea (foregoing a cup herself) until Toshiko finally consents to sit on their floor cushion. Toshiko looks around the bare, depressing flat and spots Miyako’s sewing box with a pair of freshly darned socks sitting on top. It’s immediately clear to her that Miyako is not, as her parents had suggested, some kind of gold digger (no self-respecting gold digger darns their socks, after all). More than that, she seems “nice”, which is perhaps why she’s able to put up with the petulant Shigeo with so little complaint.

The central problem is a two fold one – Shigeo has attempted to choose his own bride and therefore “modernity” over the “traditionalism” of an arranged marriage. He doesn’t particularly care about being the head of a household or about living in relative squalor save for guilt and wounded male pride that he’s condemned Miyako to live there with him (not to mention sending her out to the degrading world of hostess bars and cabarets just so they can survive). The parents have reacted badly and produced a stand-off. Shigeo’s uncle is trying to manipulate the situation to his advantage by convincing Shigeo to leave Miyako and come home, but Shigeo is a proud young man, even if he leaves Miyako there’s no way he’ll come home with his tail between his legs. If the older generation wants to win the younger one over, it will have to compromise and learn to play by less stringent rules.

Making a knee-jerk judgment, Shigeo’s father and uncle have decided that Miyako is just a passing fad, a floozy or a gold digger best worked out of one’s system young and then forgotten about (preferably so that it wounds you so badly you’re ready to accept the cold comforts of a proper arranged marriage). Rather than the uncle, it’s Toshiko who becomes the bridge when she realises how kind and devoted Miyako really is. Shigeo’s mother is also sympathetic but, sadly, it’s still the men who have the final say and it’s not until uncle pays a Miyako a visit to try and persuade her to leave Shigeo that he too begins to see how “sweet” she is and that allowing her into their family wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all. In fact, as we later realise, Shigeo’s father perhaps wasn’t so opposed as he pretended to be and was simply playing his son at his own game, planning to consent to the match once he proved that it was really “serious” and not just a passing fling. Nevertheless, Miyako’s own meekness proves the final barrier as she finds herself suddenly afraid that Shigeo’s family might think her inherent goodness is some kind of trick and she’s been plotting all along. Only when Toshiko comes to fetch her and Shigeo himself calls her to come does she finally understand it’s going to be alright.

For 1938, this rather frivolous story might seem decadent especially with its warmhearted liberalism as the union of a lower-class woman and upper-class man is finally blessed through nothing more than common sense and empathy. Though Shimazu otherwise steers clear of political concerns, he does send Shigeo, Miyako, and Toshiko to the pictures where they end up watching part of a film made by Leni Reifenstahl featuring beautifully photographed visions of lithe young men in swimming trunks after which Shigeo gets up in a huff to smoke a cigarette. Toshiko didn’t seem to enjoy it much either and tries to improve Shigeo’s mood by insisting that the next one will be better but the message is clear – Shimazu didn’t like that film and he doesn’t think you did either. Among fans of Shimazu, at least, modernity is winning. It may not be perfect (Shigeo is an obvious prig whose self-conscious masculine posturing is almost a self parody), but it’s getting there and if everyone would just forget about the “rules” and treat others with respect, decency, and understanding then perhaps things wouldn’t be in such a mess.


Short scene in which the trio go to the cinema

The Portrait (肖像, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1948)

vlcsnap-2018-09-06-01h35m07s763The immediate post-war period was one of fear and hardship. You might survive, but you might not like the person you’ll have to become in order to do so. The (unexpected) heroine of Keisuke Kinoshita’s The Portrait (肖像, Shozo) thought she’d made her peace with her choices, only to be confronted by a vision of her essential self as seen through the eyes of a cheerfully innocent artist. Despite the harshness of the times, there are those who’ve learned to be happy in their lot, but is their talent for happiness inspiration or irritation for those who’ve chosen a different path?

Kinoshita opens with a comic scene in which two shady real estate brokers take a look at a local property. Deciding it’s overpriced and impractical, the pair nevertheless decide to buy it together with the intention of flipping it once they convert the downstairs workspace into more practical living accommodation. There is, however, a slight hitch in that there are sitting tenants – a painter and his family who live in the room upstairs and use the rooms below as a studio. Thinking it will be easy enough to evict them, the men aren’t bothered but the the family are all so relentlessly nice that no one has yet been able to tell them to go. As a last resort, one of the men, Kaneko (Eitaro Ozawa), decides to move into the upstairs with his mistress, Midori (Kuniko Igawa), in the hope that the family will feel so awkward and in the way they will decide to vacate. Innocent and unworldly, the Nomuras all assume Midori is her lover’s daughter rather than his mistress, and start treating her like a well to do young lady. Such sudden and unexpected respect starts to weigh on Midori’s mind as she finds herself playing along, pretending to be “nice” and “respectable” while knowing that the life she’s living is anything but.

The problem is that the Nomuras are so essentially kind and welcoming that they really don’t mind sharing the house. Mr. Nomura (Ichiro Sugai), the middle-aged painter, feels guilty that he doesn’t earn more money and is too poor to move, but he’s also the sort to get over excited about having grown a giant pumpkin that he can’t resist showing to absolutely everyone. As it turns out the Nomuras are also living with a private tragedy – their eldest son Ichiro (Toru Abe) whose wife Kumiko (Kuniko Miyake) and son Koichi also live with the family has not yet returned home from the war and his whereabouts are unknown. Still, they don’t mind talking about it and are as happy as they can be, dancing away under the light of the moon – an unexpected upside to constant power outages. Meanwhile, Kaneko complains loudly as he attempts to finish his accounts in the evening gloom.

Midori half envies, half resents her new neighbours. The longer she lives with the Nomuras the guiltier she starts to feel in deceiving them. Matters begin to come to a head when Mr. Nomura asks permission to paint her portrait. He thinks Midori has a very “interesting” face, in part because he can see a sadness in her eyes that is totally absent in those of his daughter, Yoko (Yoko Katsuragi). Midori agrees and swaps her usual Western attire for the kimono her mother once gave her, but the picture Mr. Nomura paints begins to bother her. The portrait is of a pure young woman, innocent and honest, which is about as far from the way she sees herself as it’s possible to be.

As a friend of Midori’s puts it, you have to survive somehow and Midori thought she’d made her peace with the way she has decided to live but the portrait reminds her that she wasn’t always like this and now she’s not sure which version of herself she ought to despise. She wishes she could paint herself over, but feels her fate is sealed and there’s no way back. Kumiko, a little more worldly wise than her in-laws, is perfectly aware of what’s been going on upstairs but isn’t at all bothered by it. She doesn’t blame Midori for the choices that she’s made and thinks the picture is accurate in capturing her true soul, advising her that it is possible to be that woman again if that’s what she really wants.

The Portrait was scripted by none other than Akira Kurosawa whose belief in the essential goodness of humanity was perhaps not quite as strong as Kinoshita’s but the Nomuras are nevertheless typical Kinoshita heroes and it’s their unguarded warmth and kindness which begins to change the world for those around them. Even the cynical Kaneko is eventually moved by their cheerful selflessness, forced to accept their accidental moral victory rather than continue with his nefarious plan. Midori, forced into a reconsideration of herself, stands in for a generation attempting to make peace with the compromises of the past, learning that they don’t need to define the future and that it isn’t too late to strive for a more authentic life of simple happiness even if you feel you may have already sunk too far.


The Nomuras dancing in the moonlight

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.


Okayo’s Preparedness (お加代の覚悟, Yasujiro Shimazu, 1939)

Okayo's Preparedness title cardYasujiro Shimazu had been the pioneer of the “shomingeki” and a fierce chronicler of the lives of ordinary lower middle class people. The growing presence of the militarist regime, however, demanded a slight shift of focus. 1939’s Okayo’s Preparedness (お加代の覚悟, Okayo no Kakugo) has its share of propaganda content, but it’s also mildly subversive. In the conventional narrative, a woman must get married and a man must find a purpose. Shimazu turns this upside-down – a man becomes a husband and a woman finds artistic fulfilment in the midst of heartbreak.

In the contemporary era, Osumi’s (Kuniko Miyake) husband has been drafted and is away fighting at the front leaving her alone at home where she makes ends meet running a traditional dance school while looking after their small daughter Mitsuko (Kazue Hayashi). Okayo (Kinuyo Tanaka) is the star pupil at school and also a live-in apprentice, functioning almost as a servant but regarded as a member of the family. The trouble begins when a Osumi gets a visit from her brother-in-law who has received a letter from her husband in which he requests some photographs of his wife and family going about their daily lives while he is unable to be with them. The amateur photographer he’s brought along is a young man of quality and the older brother of one of the school’s pupils. Okayo has developed a fondness for Shunsaku (Ken Uehara) during her time walking his little sister home and secretly hopes he returns her affections. Shy and nervous, she is nevertheless overjoyed when he takes her for tea while they wait for the photographs to be developed. Shunsaku, however, was just being kind. He actually has his eye on another pupil at the school (someone more of his social class) and Okayo is destined to experience her first real heartbreak.

Shimazu gets his propaganda obligations out of the way fairly quickly. We cut to a picture of a man in uniform proudly hanging on the wall whom we later realise to be Osumi’s absent husband. Though Osumi worries about him, his enlistment was regarded as a cause for celebration – Okayo felt obliged to have a rare cup of sake, and it’s clear Osumi is proud to be married to a man defending the nation. Nevertheless, it is also clear that he is experiencing suffering – Okayo and Osumi wonder if he too can enjoy the simple pleasures of warm sake and boiled tofu so far away from home, and Osumi also makes sure to send him a pair of of geta in her care package fearing that he may be missing the small but essential facets of his Japaneseness. Though this is only 1939 and the situation is not yet “serious” there is the betrayal of a mild anxiety in Osumi’s fears as well as in her husband’s letter which states the anxiety he feels after learning that a friend was told of trouble at home only after the fact. After all, it’s hard to put unpleasant news in a letter to someone you know to be already experiencing hardship. Hence the request for the photographs – real visual evidence that his wife and daughter are healthy and happy, rather than mere words which may be offered in the interests of comfort.

Meanwhile, Shimazu is secretly building a second argument behind the scenes. We expect the simple love story of Okayo and Shunsaku will proceed along the usual lines. He will come to appreciate her and they will marry despite the class difference and the difficulty of the times. That is not, however, what happens. Okayo’s attraction is apparently one-sided. Osumi’s brother-in-law warns her that Shunsaku is popular with the ladies, even if he also points out his rather stiff, respectable nature. Shunsaku’s mother has apparently had difficulty finding a suitable match for him which increases Okayo’s hopes, but the reason turns out to be that he has developed at attraction for another pupil at the school, as Okayo finds out listening at the door when Shunsaku’s mother comes to Osumi for an additional character reference. All at once Okayo’s world collapses. She remembers that she is a servant, forever separated from the “nice young ladies” who take classes at the school, and that her youthful romance has been little more than a distracting fantasy.

Earlier on, while taking tea with Shunsaku, Okayo had remarked on how important Osumi had told her her dancing training was as a means of achieving independence and self-sufficiency. The ability to dance well enough to teach (and acquire such well regarded pupils) is after all how Osumi has been able to support herself with a husband away in the army. Osumi’s brother-in-law also tells her something similar when he reminds her that it’s important for her to concentrate on her art rather than getting lost in a romantic daydream. Osumi, realising how hurt Okayo has become after overhearing her conversation with Shunsaku’s mother tries to comfort her with the same logic, convincing her that her infatuation in an entirely normal part of being young and that it will pass. Encouraging her to concentrate on her dancing so that she can turn it into a valid career, Osumi provides both a shoulder to cry on and a valid plan for the future, remaining both sympathetic and supportive in witnessing her pupil’s suffering.

Making a bold formal switch, Shimazu dramatises Okayo’s moment of self-actualisation as a dance sequence taking place in parallel to Shunsaku’s wedding. Sadly picking up a bow she slowly moves to the stage and begins to sing, eventually moving into dance before the scene dissolves and Okayo is in full costume, mid-performance playing the part of a brokenhearted woman watching her beloved marry another. Having danced through her pain and doubly experienced the suffering of her romantic disillusionment, Okayo collapses in exhaustion on the bare stage of the studio, gazing out at the windows and weeping once again as they remain empty yet perhaps open.