Woman of Tokyo (東京の女, Yasujiro Ozu, 1933)

Most closely associated with his family dramas, the films of Yasujiro Ozu while often deeply moving are generally safe spaces filled with warmth and love. He was never, however, afraid to explore the darkness of his society as the uncharacteristically bleak silent Woman of Tokyo (東京の女, Tokyo no Onna) makes plain. A tale of disintegrating families, Ozu substitutes a loyal sister for a self sacrificing mother but once again places her at the mercy of a conservative society which refuses to accept the nature of the sacrifice she has chosen to make on its behalf. 

The heroine, Chikako (Yoshiko Okada), is better off than most during these years of depression in that she has a steady full-time job as a typist with which she is able to support her younger brother, Ryoichi (Ureo Egawa), who is a student. Somewhat unusually, Ozu shows us a fairly progressive working environment in which Chikako is one of many women working alongside men in an open plan office which is arranged in a far less stressful manner than the one we later observe in the American film which Ryoichi and his girlfriend Harue (Kinuyo Tanaka) see at the cinema (If I Had a Million, 1932, the segment directed by Ernst Lubitsch, “The Clerk”) in which the desks are laid out in regimented style and staffed entirely by identically dressed men.  

In any case, the job apparently does not quite pay enough to cover Ryoichi’s fees and so Chikako has taken on a part-time gig assisting a professor with translation at his home in the evenings, or so she said. Unbeknownst to her, a policeman turns up at her office and asks to see her attendance records. Again surprisingly, Chikako’s boss is calm and supportive, telling the policeman she’s a model employee of four years’ standing and obviously confused as to how she could be the subject of any criminal investigation. The policeman does not explain, shutting the interview down as soon as the boss motions to ask Chikako about the mysterious professor presumably not wanting her to know she is under investigation. 

Rumours, however, will start and it is those rumours more than the truth of them which will prove the most fatal. Harue’s brother (Shinyo Nara) is a policeman and he’s heard that Chikako has been moonlighting as a bar girl and engaging in sex work. Harue decides to put the matter to her boyfriend, but he is immediately offended, brought to tears by anger, and throws Harue out for slandering his sister. The issue is that, as a woman and most particularly as a sister in place of a mother, Chikako is expected to sacrifice herself on her brother’s behalf. Her career, and implicitly the reason she is not yet married, is not for her personal fulfilment or financial security but only for her brother’s future. She has given up everything for him, and now apparently has also surrendered her body yet he rejects and shames her for it. He does not thank her, nor does he feel guilt for being the cause of her supposed degradation but again foregrounds his own suffering as the brother of a fallen woman. 

Harue, by contrast, is presented as a the soul of properness, not unkind but disapproving. In a difficult conversation with Chikako, she admits it’s not the right thing to say but immediately pities Ryoichi rather than sympathising with another woman who has found herself making difficult choices solely on his behalf. Ryoichi rejects her suffering and sees only the shame. Yet Chikako is not ashamed. She does not seem unhappy with her choices and is defiant in the face of censure. She hoped that Ryoichi would one day understand, but the decision he makes is cruel and selfish, ruining all her hope and rendering her long years of suffering void. She resents his cowardice in being unable to face and accept the truth in the depth of her love for him. 

In this instance, the family fails but only because of an oppressive social structure that is inherently unequal and refuses to accept either female agency or sacrifice. Chikako lives in a world of film noir despair, haunted by ominous shadows – policemen’s swords, gloves against the shoji, nooses in shadows on the walls, a boiling kettle giving way to a pillow shot of smoke pouring from a chimney in funereal foreshadowing that forever traps her in impossibility. Frustrated, Ryoichi tries to reassert his manhood through physical violence but remains impotent, dependent on his sister but resenting her for shaming him in transgressing against an oppressive society. Meanwhile, Chikako is one of many women of Tokyo enduring the same old tragedies, her suffering barely registers. Reporters leave her door giggling after concluding there’s nothing to see here before taking to the streets in search of greater scandal in a readily devolving city filled with only emptiness and despair. 


Currently streaming in the UK via BFI Player as part of Japan 2020. Also available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel.

Street of Love and Hope (愛と希望の街, Nagisa Oshima, 1959)

“You must sell your pigeons or you can’t survive in this world” a less progressive figure than he first seemed eventually admits in Nagisa Oshima’s ironically titled debut feature Street of Love and Hope (愛と希望の街, Ai to Kibo no Machi). As might be expected given the director’s later trajectory, there is precious little love or hope on offer and it seems his particular brand of grumpy pessimism ruffled studio feathers from the very beginning earning him a sixth month directing ban with a top executive complaining “this film is saying the rich and poor can never join hands”. The executive may have had a point in the increasing inequalities of the post-war society in which humanist hypocrisy offers only entrenched division and inevitable class conflict. 

As the film opens, the hero, Masao (Hiroshi Fujikawa), is selling his sister’s beloved pet pigeons because, as his social worker later explains, welfare payments are not enough to live on and his mother Kuniko (Yuko Mochizuki), who usually shines shoes for a living, has TB which leaves her unable to work. Kuniko is keen for Masao to stay in education and attend high school, but he acutely feels the burden on his mother and intends to work while attending evening classes. The trouble begins when Masao sells his pigeons to a wealthy young lady, Kyoko (Yuki Tominaga), who is the teenage daughter of an electronics factory boss. 

Well-meaning as she is, Kyoko tries to give Masao the change from her purchase after he explains he’s selling the birds because he needs money. Ironically she gives one of them to her sickly younger brother, but the problem is that Masao is effectively running a scam. The birds are homing pigeons. Assuming the new owners don’t cage them in properly, the birds will fly right back home and he can sell them again. He’s already done this a couple of times and is at least conflicted about it, especially as it upsets his sister Yasue (Michio Ito) so much, though what else really is he supposed to do?

This central question is the one that eventually comes between Masao’s progressive schoolteacher Miss Akiyama (Kakuko Chino) and Kyoko’s sympathetic older brother Yuji (Fumio Watanabe) who works in HR at his father’s factory. Another of Oshima’s mismatched, ideologically opposed frustrated couples, Miss Akiyama and Yuji find themselves on either side of a divide. It seems that the factory does not ordinarily employ city boys, preferring to recruit from the countryside and house employees in dorms because the boss is convinced rural youth is less corrupted by amoral urbanity. Hoping to help Masao, Kyoko and Miss Akiyama team up to convince him to change his mind and give Masao a chance, but they eventually fail him during the exam because it accidentally uncovers his pigeon scam and therefore proves the boss’ point. 

That isn’t all it exposes, however, as even the seemingly progressive Yuji expresses some extremely outdated, quite offensive prejudices even as he insists they didn’t fail Masao because he comes from a single-parent family. According to the boss, children of “broken families” become “twisted human beings” which is unfortunate because “corporations value stability”. Even while not disagreeing with his father’s logic, Yuji explains that he can’t employ Masao not because of his fatherless status but because he’s fundamentally dishonest as proved by his pigeon scam. Miss Akiyama who’d previously described him as the kind of boy who never lies, is shocked but later reflects on his circumstances and her own. In its own ways, her life is also hard and she can see how it might happen that she too may have to “sell her pigeons” (a handy piece of wordplay hingeing on the fact the Japanese for pigeon, “hato”, sounds similar to the English word “heart”) in order to survive. She can forgive Masao for doing the same in the knowledge he had no other choice, but believes Yuji wouldn’t nor would he forgive her if he discovered that she too had sold herself. She cannot be in a relationship with a man who is so “heartless” and unforgiving and it is this which creates the unbreachable gulf between them itself informed by their differing socioeconomic circumstances. 

These differences in standing are also brought out in the youthful idealism of Kyoko who wholeheartedly believes she can help Masao by giving him money and then trying to improve his circumstances by getting him a job in her father’s factory. Both her father and her brother dismiss her altruistic desire to help as childish, Yuji pointing out that there are millions of poor people not just one and you can’t help them all, while their cynicism is eventually validated in the exposure of Masao’s “fraud” which accidentally brands those living in difficult economic circumstances as duplicitous criminals even as it directly implies that it is an unfair society which turns honest boys like Masao who never lie and just want to take care of their mothers into “heartless” bird traffickers. You can see why Shochiku didn’t like it, the hope of the post-war era shot down by the gun of a conflicted industrialist. 


Record of a Tenement Gentleman (長屋紳士録, Yasujiro Ozu, 1947)

There are no real villains in the world of Ozu, though the immediate post-war world does its best to create them despite the best efforts of those quietly trying to live amidst the devastation. The misleadingly titled Record of a Tenement Gentleman (長屋紳士録, Nagaya Shinshiroku), the Japanese title a more ironic “a tenement who’s who”, is, like Hen in the Wind, a kind of manifesto statement for the postwar era only a much warmer one which looks forward to Ozu’s celebrated family dramas as its decidedly frosty heroine finds her emotional floodgates breached by the unexpected arrival of a problematic little boy. 

The little boy, Kohei (Hohi Aoki), is brought home by tenement gentleman Tashiro (Chishu Ryu) who found him wandering around in the town after becoming separated from his father. Tashiro’s roommate Tamekichi (Reikichi Kawamura) is unwilling to shelter the boy and so they decide to foist him on the grumpy old woman opposite, Tane (Choko Iida), who doesn’t want him either but is left with little choice. Tane is quickly angry with the boy because he wets the bed, ruining her spare futon, and tries to convince another neighbour who already has three children to take him in instead but is tricked into taking him back to the place he was previously living after Tamekichi rigs a game of straws. Travelling with him in the hope of finding his father, Tane wanders bombed out Tokyo and comes to the conclusion that Kohei’s dad has most likely abandoned him. 

A widow with no other family, or so it would seem, Tane is a cold and wily woman supporting herself with a small tenement shop. A sharp contrast is drawn when a childhood friend of hers, Kiku (Mitsuko Yoshikawa), arrives to ask about the best way to acquire a hose and shares some dorayaki sweets which have become a rare luxury in an age of rationing and privation. Kiku has married well and become a fine lady, not quite boasting but obviously very pleased with the walnut dressing table she had made with the mirror Tane helped her get on a previous occasion. Still, Tane is not embittered or especially unhappy just cynical and used to practicality. She didn’t see herself as the maternal type and had been intent mainly on ensuring her own survival.

Even so, she is touched and saddened to think a man might abandon his child even if she herself did not want to be burdened with him. She often scolds Kohei, frightening him with her stern expression, but later apologises when Tameshiro takes the blame for supposedly eating some of the persimmons Tane was drying at the window, even handing him the remaining fruit from the line. Talking with Kiku she recalls her own childhood as happy and carefree, tugging on her parents’ sleeves asking for pocket money while Kohei’s pockets are filled with cigarette butts and nails for the carpenter father Tane is sure has abandoned his son. This last fact is the one that finally touches her heart. Despite his fear and his hurt, Kohei has continued to think of his father and has been selflessly collecting little presents on his behalf to give to him when they are reunited. 

The innocence and selflessness of children is further emphasised by the son of a neighbour winning a prize in the lottery leading some of the other residents to insist that children are more likely to win precisely because they enter with a pure heart not with the intention of winning or monetary gain. Tane tries the theory out by making Kohei buy a lottery ticket with money Kiku had given him as a treat but of course he doesn’t win and Tane is upset, blaming him for not being as goodhearted as she’d assumed, but later giving him the money back when he bursts into tears (which is something he does often, perhaps understandably but out of keeping with the mentality of the times). Nevertheless, despite herself Tane becomes fond of the boy and even begins to think about adopting him as her own son. 

Eventually Kohei’s father returns, but Tane’s conversion is so complete and absolute that the tears she cries are not in lament for herself but in happiness to know that the boy’s father was not the awful man she thought he was but a doting parent distraught at the thought of his missing son. She is moved by the happiness they must feel in their reunion and realises that her time with Kohei has taught her many things, not least among them that she has allowed the times to cool her heart. The post-war world, the ruins and devastation we can glimpse beyond the tenement, has forced people to become self-interested, little caring if others starve so long as they aren’t hungry. She regrets that she wasn’t warmer to the boy when he arrived, and wishes we could all be more like children kind to others without thinking of ourselves. Cementing what would come to be his iconic signature style, Ozu ends, somewhat uncharacteristically, on a melancholy scene of street children, a crowd of war orphans abandoned by the society which created them through militarist folly. As much a chronicle of everyday life in the ruins of a major city, Record of a Tenement Gentleman is also an unsubtle argument for post-war humanism in a society it sees as in danger of failing to learn from past mistakes. 


Tokyo Bay (東京湾, Yoshitaro Nomura, 1962)

Yoshitaro Nomura is most closely associated with the thriller and particularly with its lower end as a purveyor of B-movie noir, yet look a little closer and his films are perhaps not really about crime at all but about the complicated relationships between people in the ever changing post-war society. Just as Stakeout is really about a policeman’s marriage, Tokyo Bay (東京湾, Tokyowan) is less concerned with the radiating corruption of the smuggling ring at its centre than with frustrated male friendship and the wartime legacy.

Opening with an aerial pan over post-war Tokyo, a title card informs us that this is just one frame in the “intense struggle for existence” in a city of 10 million before we arrive at the titular bay and a boat which is presumably carrying drugs later passed from one hand to another. The fixer, Takeyama (Kei Sato), talks to a man in a car and instructs him to be in front of the Taiyo building before 10am to pick up a golf bag from his contact. Gazing up at a post-war construction site, however, the man, Saeki (Jun Hamamura), is shot in the head and killed by a bullet piercing the roof of his car, Nomura suddenly switching to a disorientating POV shot as he twists in a sudden death spiral. 

As it turns out, Saeki was a plant, an undercover cop with the drugs squad sent to expose the smuggling ring the shadowy owners of which will predictably turn out to have Chinese connections in another echo of post-war cinema’s continuing Sinophobia. Two officers are assigned to the case, the young and earnest Akine (Jiro Ishizaki), and the veteran Sumikawa (Ko Nishimura) who acts largely on a series of inexplicable policeman’s hunches. Their major lead, however, comes as a stroke either of dumb luck or dark fate as Sumikawa, dodging into a dodgy mahjong parlour while tailing Takeyama, runs into an old army buddy, Inoue (Isao Tamagawa), who just happens to be a left-handed sniper perfectly matching the profile of the man they’ve been looking for. 

While Sumikawa keeps tabs on his old friend, somehow feeling he has something to do with all this but ambivalent in his torn responsibilities, Akine travels to Inoue’s hometown of Onomichi and sympathetically concludes that he was merely “rather unfortunate”. His life derailed by the war, Inoue returned to discover the girl he hoped to marry had married someone else. Giving evidence at Inoue’s trial for pulling a knife on her husband, the young woman remarks that she never promised him anything and did not consider their relationship to be serious, merely treating him with the politeness due to someone about to leave for war. In any case, she asks, even if she had been in love and intended to wait for him, as an orphaned woman there were only two choices open to her to survive, marriage or sex work, what else could she have done?

Back in Tokyo, Sumikawa begins to catch up with his old friend, realising that his romantic disappointment set him on a dark course of bad relationships and a drift towards crime but that he seems to have turned himself around. He is now happily married to a woman he describes as “simple” who seems devoted to him and if he did this, he did it to start again. His one last job intended to take him back to Onomichi, a pleasant coastal town the bay of which he describes as far more beautiful than that of the grimy, industrial Tokyo and largely untouched by urban corruption. Sumikawa feels himself torn, not least on account of the debt that exists between the two men because Inoue once saved his life, but also knowing that he may have to arrest this man and destroy his attempt to return to a more innocent world leaving his wife alone. Disapproving of the nascent relationship between his younger sister Yukiko (Hiromi Sakaki) and his partner, Sumikawa worries Akine may be becoming the kind of man who cares more for making an arrest than friendship, a conflict presumably weighing on his mind, even as he agrees he’s a good man and a good police officer. Yukiko meanwhile fires back that Sumikawa’s wife left him not because he is a policeman but because he is selfish and arrogant, and more to the point incapable of understanding a woman’s feelings. 

Nevertheless, he’s acutely aware of the effect his actions or inactions may have on Inoue’s wife Yoshiko (Kyoko Aoi), especially as it’s suggested she may need a degree of looking after. Inoue, careful to admit nothing, reveals that the man who carried out the hit may not have known he was killing a police officer but may have assumed the target was fair game being, like themselves, a denizen of the underworld. Largely a MacGuffin, the smuggling ring is not as important as one might assume, the two men locked into a cycle of guilt and retribution each marked by wartime trauma and in a sense unable to claim their place in the post-war society. Twin betrayals lead to a fateful, train-bound showdown shot with fraught claustrophobia as each man engages in an intense struggle for his survival but also perhaps already defeated in a shared sense of fatalistic nihilism. Trekking through the half-constructed streets of the post-war city with shaky handheld Nomura hints at the radiating corruption exemplified by the growth of the trade in drugs, but perhaps one corruption is merely the result of another which may in turn be far less easy to cure. 


That Night’s Wife (その夜の妻, Yasujiro Ozu, 1930)

Most closely associated with his late career family dramas, Yasujiro Ozu has acquired a reputation for geniality which may in a sense be slightly unfair. He was always an astute chronicler of his times, often choosing to view them through the frame of family, and was never as blind to the issues of the day as some would have it. Ozu’s ‘30s work, that which survives at least, is in a sense fiercely political in its critique of the inequalities of the depression-era society. One of his early crime movies, the silent That Night’s Wife (その夜の妻, Sono yo no Tsuma) insists that justice must be done but does so with compassion in its full and total empathy for a man driven to extremes by the depth of his paternal love. 

Indeed, the early part of the film is tense noir chase as the hero, desperate father Shuji (Tokihiko Okada), attempts to evade a police dragnet to make his way home after robbing a bank to get money to pay for his sick daughter Michiko’s (Mitsuko Ichimura) medical care. Meanwhile, loyal wife Mayumi (Emiko Yagumo) has been patiently waiting at home tending to the child who refuses to sleep because she only wants her father and constantly asks where he is. Shuji eventually makes it back and tells his horrified wife what he has done, agreeing that he will turn himself in to the police once Michiko is well, but he’s already out of luck. The taxi he darted into was being driven by an undercover cop (Chishu Ryu) who installs himself in the apartment but agrees to wait until the doctor comes in the morning before taking Shuji in. 

Out of keeping with the rest of Ozu’s career but very much in the vein of his depression-era silents, That Night’s Wife concerns a poor but happy family mustering what little resources they have in the face of despair. Filled with tension as the policeman waits impatiently, the camera pans around the one room apartment where the family live and finds it to be a homely, bohemian space, apparently an artist’s studio with foreign film posters and travel souvenirs hanging from the walls. By all indications a starving painter, Shuji is a poor man brought to ruin by accidental tragedy. His daughter is deathly ill and doctors cost money. We can see that, by the standards of the time, he is a very hands on father beloved by his little girl and is obviously willing to sacrifice himself and his future to ensure her survival

It’s Mayumi, however, to whom the film’s title refers and in her role as wife rather than mother. The doctor (Tatsuo Saito) worries that she has not slept in the last few days, how could she when her child is so ill, but it’s she who eventually picks up the gun to protect the family by disarming the policeman and, essentially, keeping him hostage until the morning when, she claims, Shuji will willingly go with him after confirming Michiko’s survival. The world is turned upside down, no one quite plays the role they’ve been assigned. The loving father, an effete artist, turns unconvincing master criminal, the loyal wife gangster’s moll, and the policeman a calm and compassionate guardian deeply moved by the family’s predicament but also knowing that the law must be served. 

In a typically Ozu touch, the policeman pretends to be asleep with the intention of letting Shuji escape, but he once again makes an atypical choice. He refuses to run, swearing off “crazy ideas” but unrepentant in his crime. Shuji determines to pay his debt to society so that he can return home as a redeemed father and hold his daughter as a man unburned by his transgression. The message isn’t so much that crime doesn’t pay as that crime must be paid for. Shuji is acquitted in the moral courts of the audience’s hearts and not even the policeman blames him for what he has done which is all he could do as a father in an oppressive and indifferent society. A strange complicity develops between the two men who are restored to their original roles, both acknowledging that of the other and sorry for what they each know must happen next but already resigned. The father saves his family only through accepting his exile from it, but unlike Ozu’s wandering fathers of the 1930s, seems destined to return after redeeming himself in the eyes of a society which had long since abandoned him. 


Currently streaming in the UK via BFI Player as part of Japan 2020. Also available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel.

The Scarlet Camellia (五瓣の椿, Yoshitaro Nomura, 1964)

Little known outside of Japan, Yoshitaro Nomura is most closely associated with post-war noir and particularly with adaptations of Seicho Matsumoto’s detective novels, yet he had a wide and varied filmography directing in several genres including musicals and period dramas. The son of silent movie director Hotei Nomura, he spent the bulk of his career at Shochiku which had and to some degree still has a strong studio brand which leans towards the wholesome even if his own work was often in someway controversial such as in the shocking child abuse drama The Demon or foregrounding of leprosy in Castle of Sand. Part of the studio’s series of double-length epics, 1964’s Scarlet Camellia (五瓣の椿, Goben no Tsubaki) is nevertheless an unusual entry in Nomura’s filmography, adapting a novel by Shugoro Yamamoto essentially setting a policier in feudal Japan and perhaps consequently shot largely on stage sets rather than on location. 

Nomura opens with artifice as Shino (Shima Iwashita) stares daggers at an actor on the stage but later returns to his rooms every inch the giggling fan before finally offing him with her ornate silver hairpin leaving behind only the blood red camellia of the title. The first in a series of killings later branded the Camellia Murders, we later realise that the actor had to die because of his illicit relationship with Shino’s mother whom he brands a “nympho” and as we later discover had several extra-marital lovers. Extremely close to her father who, as we’re told, perished in a fire while resting in the country due to his terminal tuberculosis, Shino is apparently on a quest for revenge against the faithless men who humiliated him though her feelings towards her mother seem far more complex. 

Indeed, Shino regards her mother’s carrying on as “dirty” and seems particularly prudish even as she wields her sex appeal as a weapon in her quest for vengeance. Yet it’s not so much the free expression of sexuality which seems to be at fault but excess and irresponsibility. Shino resents her mother primarily for the ways in which she made her father suffer, off having fun with random men while he shouldered the burden of her family business which, Shino might assume, has contributed to his illness. Aoki (Go Kato), the Edo-era policeman to whose narrative perspective the second half turns, advances a similar philosophy in that there’s nothing wrong with having fun, he has fun at times too, but people have or at least should have responsibilities towards each other which the caddish targets of the Camellia Killer have resolutely ignored. He can’t say that he condones the killer’s actions, but neither can he condemn them because her motivations are in a sense morally justifiable. 

Realising the end is near, Shino indulges in a very modern serial killer trope in leaving a note for Aoki alongside one of her camellias in which she claims that she is exacting vengeance for “crimes not punishable by law”. There was nothing legally wrong in the way these men treated her mother or any other woman, but it is in a sense a moral crime. “You’re a woman and I’m a woman too” she later tells another scorned lover, a mistress thrown over by her patron with two small children after he tired of her, as she hands over a large sum of money and encourages her to return to her family in the country. Shino’s quest is essentially feminist, directed against a cruel and patriarchal society in which the use and abuse of women is entirely normalised, yet it is also slightly problematic in her characterisation of her mother as monstrous in her corrupted femininity for daring to embrace her sexuality in exactly the same way as her male counterparts though they, ironically, mainly seem to have been after her money rather than her body. 

Shino’s mother’s death is indeed regarded as “punishment from heaven” presumably for her sexual transgressions and neglect of her family, rejecting both the roles of wife and mother in a ceaseless quest for pleasure. Yet even in her resentment, Shino’s ire is directed firmly at the men taking the last of her targets to task when he justifies himself that women enjoy sex too and are therefore equally complicit by reminding him that he gets his moment of pleasure for free but the woman may pay for it for the rest of her life. Just as Shino’s mother neglected her family, the men harm not only their wives in their illicit affairs but cause concurrent damage to the mistresses they may later disown and the illegitimate children they leave behind. Abandoning the naturalism of his contemporary crime dramas for something much more akin to a ghost film with his eerie lighting transitions and grim tableaux of the skewered victims, Nomura crafts a melancholy morality tale in which the wronged heroine turns the symbol of constrained femininity back on the forces of oppression but is eventually undone by the unintended consequences of her quest for vengeance even as she condemns the architect of her misfortune to madness and ruin. 


I, the Executioner (みな殺しの霊歌, Tai Kato, 1968)

Nephew of Sadao Yamanaka, Tai Kato joined Toho as an apprentice in 1937, returning after the war training under Daisuke Ito and Akira Kurosawa, but later moved to Toei where he became closely associated with ninkyo eiga yakuza movies and jidaigeki. From the mid-1960s, however, he made several movies at Shochiku which had, it has to be said, a house style that was almost the polar opposite with a clear focus on polite, family-friendly melodrama. 1968’s I, the Executioner (みな殺しの霊歌, Minagoroshi no Reika) meanwhile is a surprisingly dark affair even among the grittier examples of Shochiku’s similarly themed B-movie thrillers, an avant-garde noir and proto-giallo in which the fugitive, serial killer antihero sees himself as an agent of divine justice in a hellish and immoral post-war landscape. 

Kato opens with a shocking scene of sexualised violence in which a woman is knocked unconscious, stripped, bound with telephone cord, and finally revived, forced to write down the names of four other women before being brutally raped and murdered by a killer whose voice we have not yet heard nor face seen. The police are mystified, attributing the woman’s death to the fact that she had worked as a bar hostess and maybe things like this are an occupational hazard for women who are surrounded by too many men. Her landlord, however, laments that hers is the second death to occur recently after a laundry boy threw himself off the roof. All things considered, he wishes the boy had picked somewhere else. 

The police have no reason to connect the two unfortunate events and so remain largely clueless, but we gradually become aware that the killer, Kawashima (Makoto Sato), is targeting the women because he holds them directly responsible for the boy’s death. He is the inspector that calls, avenging the death of this young man who, he has learned, like him hailed from Hokkaido and had come to the city at only 16 years old to earn money to support his family, saving almost all of his wages in the hope of opening a shop. Kato shows us scenes of a city under construction, a land of girders casting shadows on the ground like prison bars trapping men like these who are building the new Japan but will be discarded as soon the job is done and their labour no longer so much in demand. Kawashima has another reason for living like this, but he perhaps admires something pure and innocent in the desire of a young man leaving home to seek his fortune so that he might take care of those he loves and that this world betrayed that desire is something he finds impossible to forgive.

The five women have apparently done quite well for themselves, despite the fact that more than one of them has worked on the fringes of the sex trade. Their treatment of the boy is attributed to their boredom in the relative ease of their lives as monied women with little to occupy their time other than getting their kicks abusing the less powerful. It’s an uncomfortable role reversal that places women in a position of power and then sees them abuse it in the exact same way that men do, slinging back the same pithy justifications that men offer for sexual violence while the police meditate on the relative connotations of rape when the word is applied to a man at the hands of women rather than the other way around. If it were their sister, they could understand the desire to kill the men who had done it but a part of them struggles to see that a teenage boy may still find unwanted sexual contact a traumatic enough experience to push him towards suicide. 

Yet Kawshima appears to have no real connection to the boy, and his “revenge” is also a product of his misogyny in that as we later learn he also has reason to feel betrayed by womanhood and is already on the run from previous crime. Nevertheless, he is drawn to the innocent Haruko (Chieko Baisho), a girl-next-door type who works in his favourite ramen restaurant, only to discover that she too has a dark and violent past which may be why she seems to be drawn to him. He struggles with himself, but believes that he is taking revenge on a brutalising society defined by violence and abuse while sublimating his sense of emasculation in the face of women’s growing social and sexual freedoms in the post-war era. It is perhaps the post-war era which is cast as the major villain, one of the women later escaping her protective custody to dance furiously a hip nightclub only to return to the scene of her crime while refusing to see that she has done anything so “wrong” as to merit this kind of persecution. 

“The cycle of divine punishment must be fulfilled” Kawashima finally laments, acknowledging his grim place within this series of post-war tragedies. Surprisingly avant-garde, Kato experiments with blown out negatives, extreme close up, and deep focus mixed with his characteristic low angle composition to add to the sense of noirish dread which paints the modern city as an inescapable hellscape while even the romantic place of refuge shared by Kawashima and Haruko is a gothic moorland lit by moonlight and filled with eerie mist. Lurid and sweaty, the film has a grim sense of humour even in its oppressive atmosphere with a running gag devoted to the lead investigator’s painful case of piles, but its overriding fatalism nevertheless offers the hero a sense of redemption if only in acceptance of his narrative destiny. 


Tokyo Twilight (東京暮色, Yasujiro Ozu, 1957)

Closely associated with the family drama, Yasujiro Ozu is perhaps the most socially conservative of golden age directors. Unlike Naruse or Mizoguchi, he cheerfully reinforces patriarchal social norms and foregrounds the paternal experience while upholding the primacy of the traditional family in a rapidly modernising society. In his later career he’d come to sympathise more strongly with the young, but 1957’s Tokyo Twilight (東京暮色, Tokyo Boshoku), perhaps his bleakest take on familial failure, is essentially a treatise on the legacy of corrupted motherhood and rebuke to growing post-war freedom in which a young woman is made to feel that her future is impossible because of maternal betrayal while her sister is forced back into an unhappy marriage to an abusive husband in order to avoid the same fate befalling her own daughter. 

Unlike most Ozu families, the Sugiyamas do not seem to be particularly happy in each other’s company, living in superficial politeness rather than true intimacy. This may partly be because the sisters had a brother who passed away young in a mountain climbing accident, but it also seems that Mr. Sugiyama (Chishu Ryu), though kind and polite, is a typically authoritarian, distant father. Oldest daughter Takako (Setsuko Hara) has returned home declaring herself unable to go on living with her professor husband Numata (Kinzo Shin) who, she says, has become increasingly erratic, taking out his petty professional disappointment on their small daughter Michiko whom he seems to resent. Younger sister Akiko (Ineko Arima) meanwhile is sullen and introverted. Unmarried, she lives at home and is studying to become a stenographer. 

As we later discover, the girls’ mother Kikuko (Isuzu Yamada) left the family during the war after falling in love with the junior officer Mr. Sugiyama enlisted to look in on the family while he was away in Seoul. Akiko was only three when their mother left and barely remembers her. Takako attributes her wayward behaviour to “loneliness”, that she has been forever corrupted through never knowing a mother’s love. Mr. Sugiyama admits he tried his best, but both agree that children need two parents and no matter how much he wants to a father cannot make up a mother’s share. 

This atmosphere of alienation is perhaps why Akiko feels as if she has no one to turn to in her own moment of maternal crisis. She has become pregnant by her college student boyfriend who has been avoiding her and even has the audacity to ask if the baby’s his when Akiko finally manages to pin him down. Trying to borrow money for an abortion, Akiko visits her aunt who declines to give it to her without knowing why, eventually turning to a family friend who apparently provides no questions asked. The woman at the clinic assumes she is a bar girl, as does a policeman who eventually “arrests” her for loitering in a sleazy cafe where her boyfriend has obviously stood her up which is quite openly being used as a place for men to pick up call girls. All of this contributes to Akiko’s increasing sense of shame and worthlessness. She sees herself as a fallen woman, convinced that she is all her mother’s child contaminated by her “bad blood” which makes a conventionally successful life as an ordinary wife and mother an impossibility. 

Akiko’s aunt wants to set her up with arranged marriage matches, but Akiko declares she has no intention of marrying or having children. Without knowing anything of Akiko’s circumstances, Takako assumes this is because of her obviously unhappy marriage, trying to convince her sister that there are plenty of happy couples she is merely unlucky. Mr. Sugiyama attempts to talk to his son-in-law but finds him strange and indifferent, offering treatises on familial love while implying that he has little of it. He regrets pressuring Takako to marry him when he knew that she preferred someone else while Takako is once again haunted by the spectre of corrupted maternity in her mother’s decision to leave the family for emotional fulfilment and is fearful of making the same mistake creating another troubled daughter just like Akiko in denying her a father’s love (which seems a moot point given that Numata does not care for the child). 

Neither woman is able to escape paying for their mother’s transgression. Akiko is punished firstly for embracing her sexuality and secondly for the rejection of motherhood in choosing to have an abortion. Alone and humiliated by her unreliable boyfriend, she is denied the opportunity to start over, while Takako meditates on female failure and believes that her only option is to live in misery with a cruel and narcissistic husband because that is the “proper” thing to do and the only way to bring her daughter up “right”. The absent mother, meanwhile, is denied reconciliation and left only with the painful separation from her daughter who finally rejects her in order to reclaim the image of the good wife and mother by returning to her unhappy home. Bleak as it is, all of this is presented as a kind of happy ending in that it restores the idea of the traditional family, increasingly threatened by post-war modernity, to its original primacy. We leave with Mr. Sugiyama rehiring his maid and heading cheerfully back to the male world of work, making the fresh start that his daughters have been so cruelly denied.  


Currently streaming in the UK via BFI Player as part of Japan 2020. Also available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel.

Cash Calls Hell (五匹の紳士, Hideo Gosha, 1966)

“Life is made of gambles” according to the villain of Hideo Gosha’s 1966 Shochiku Noir Cash Calls Hell (五匹の紳士, Gohiki no Shinshi). Sometimes dismissed by contemporary critics for the wilful vulgarity of his late career yakuza films, Gosha was most closely associated with jidaigeki but here makes a rare foray into B-movie crime, a genre which perhaps aligned with the so-called “manly way” philosophy which imbued much of his work. Led by frequent star Tatsuya Nakadai the men of Cash Calls Hell are indeed all suffering manfully, each desperately floundering in the post-war society while quietly resentful in being locked out of its growing prosperity. 

The hero, Oida (Tatsuya Nakadai), is the son of a meek civil servant whom he resented for his passivity. Oida was determined to make something of himself, and so he invested his efforts not in hard work and dedication but in personal relationships, seducing the boss’ daughter in order to win her hand and thereby advancement and security. Meanwhile, he was preparing to unceremoniously ditch the bar hostess who’d been supporting him while he made his way to the top, only after arguing with her on a car drive home he gets into an accident in which a father and his little girl are killed. Oida’s bright future is ruined in an instant. He’s asked to backdate a resignation letter, his engagement is cancelled, and he also owes compensation to the widowed mother Natsuko (Miyuki Kuwano) whose face, filled with rage and resentment, he is unable to forget. With no money to pay her, he winds up in prison which is where he meets soon-to-be released Sengoku (Mikijiro Hira) who has a proposition for him but refuses to give any further details, instructing him to find a woman named Utako (Atsuko Kawaguchi) as soon as he’s released. 

As Utako relates, the job involves knocking off the three men on her hit list for which he will be paid a cool 15 million yen (5 million each). Advised to not to ask any further questions, Oida decides to go along with it after all he has nothing left to lose, but as he begins his investigations he becomes increasingly confused and conflicted. As we discover, the men were all part of a gang that robbed a syndicate of Hong Kong drug dealers, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Sengoku wants them out of the way so he won’t have to divide the loot when he gets out. The money is many ways beside the point, what the men wanted was a way to kick back against the various forces which oppressed them and took their revenge on society through crime. The first, Motoki (Hisashi Igawa), is a former policeman who ran off with a gangster’s wife and subsequently went all the way to the dark side. Umegaya (Kunie Tanaka) is the son of a career criminal who wanted some control over his life and to care for the woman he loved. Embittered former boxer Fuyujima (Ichiro Nakatani) had his dreams shattered when gangsters crushed his hand because he refused to throw a fight. 

Sengoku, who was left lame after being injured in the aerial bombing during the war, recruited them all by exploiting their resentment. Fuyujima describes the men as wandering like ravenous dogs. They are already imprisoned, framed by the chainlink fence which divides them from the well-to-do salarymen killing time at the driving range. “Life is half made of luck and circumstances” Sengoku tells them, echoing his words to Oida, handing them agency in crime in asking them to “bet” on him. “We can’t sink any lower” he rationalises, “now we must get back on our feet”. Oida is much the same. He’d sunk as far as he could and thought nothing of taking these men’s lives to save his own, but resents being used by Sengoku and is probably figuring out that a man who doesn’t want to split his loot in four won’t be keen to split it in half either. He is also burdened by a sense of guilt and responsibility, both to the widow of the man he killed in the accident and to Motoki’s small daughter Tomoe (Yukari Uehara), about the same age as the little girl who died with him. 

Natsuko, it turns out, has since become a bar hostess, herself sinking in the cruelty of the post-war landscape, now wearing a sparkly cheongsam in echo of the “Golden Dragon” syndicate running the club where Umegawa works and the Hong Kong gangsters hot on Oida’s trail. Indulging in a stereotypical B-movie Sinophobia, the implication is that crime is a foreign phenomenon, the threat lurking in the shadows dressed oddly more like a 30s bootlegger from a Hollywood gangster flick than a triad drug trafficker and killing with the point of his umbrella. Oida’s redemption is sparked by his sense of responsibility towards the orphaned little girl who continues to follow him around, latching on to him as a sympathetic figure entirely unaware of his relationship to her father. In the end he declares that he wants the money in order to buy back his soul having sold it to Sengoku in agreeing to take on the job without knowing what it was, but also wants to make restitution to Natsuko which he later does in a poetic if perhaps insensitive fashion that implies he can in a sense restore the child he killed by substituting it with another. 

Oida is one of Gosha’s “manly” heroes, surviving at all costs but finally defending his sense of honour in regaining his humanity. Nevertheless, Gosha is also keen to demonstrate the various ways the women suffer at the hands of irresponsible men, each of the wives endangered by their husbands’ transgressions and Natsuko forced onto the fringes of the sex trade by Oida’s thoughtless crime. Opening in a bold negative with the heist that started it all, Gosha shoots in true noir style all shadows and canted angles through a series of episodic set pieces including a chase pregnant with symbolism through a “purification station” scored by moody jazz before ending on a fatalistic POV shot. Life is a gamble after all, but is this a loss or a victory? With the world the way it is, who could really say.


What Did the Lady Forget? (淑女は何を忘れたか, Yasujiro Ozu, 1937)

Japan was in a precarious position in 1937. Ozu’s What Did the Lady Forget? (淑女は何を忘れたか, Shukujo wa Nani wo Wasureta ka) was released in March of that year but by July the Second Sino-Japanese War would be in full swing and on the home front increasing censorship would render this kind of inconsequential comedy a much less easy sell. True enough, the film includes no “patriotic” content though it does eventually reinforce a set of patriarchal values in the remasculinisation of a henpecked husband while quietly sniggering at a new bourgeois social class.

The drama unfolds in the home of a medical professor, Komiya (Tatsuo Saito), and his austere wife Tokiko (Sumiko Kurishima). The couple have no children and mostly lead separate lives. Tokiko spends her days with two close friends, widowed single-mother Mitsuko (Mitsuko Yoshikawa), and wealthy older woman Chiyoko (Choko Iida) who is married to her husband’s friend, Sugiyama (Takeshi Sakamoto). The three women gossip about the usual things from fancy department store kimonos to new ways to laugh so you don’t get wrinkles along with the bizarrely difficult maths problems Mitsuko’s son has been studying in preparation for middle-school that none of them can answer. To help with the embarrassingly taxing homework, Tokiko offers to find a tutor, press-ganging her husband’s best student, Okada (Shuji Sano), into spending time with Mitsuko’s son Fujio (Masao Hayama) though it turns out that he too, a college graduate, is unable to solve these middle-school level problems. 

The real drama occurs when the couple’s neice, Setsuko (Michiko Kuwano), whom Tokiko had described as “proper” and “wholesome” rocks up from Osaka having become the epitome of a modern girl. Setsuko’s arrival further strains the Komiyas’ already fraying relationship as her surprising habits which include driving, smoking, drinking, and hanging out with geisha, continue to exasperate her aunt whose main objection to all of those things is that they aren’t appropriate because Setsuko is not yet married. To get away from his nagging wife who forces him to go golfing as usual when he doesn’t really want to, Komiya stashes his clubs with Okada and goes to a bar in Ginza where he meets Sugiyama who has also been forced outside by his wife. Sugiyama really does go golfing, promising to mail a previously written postcard to Tokiko on Komiya’s behalf, while he is eventually joined by Setsuko who has tracked him down to the bar despite being told to stay home and mind the house (the Komiyas have two live-in maids so the instruction seems unnecessary at best).  

As a “modern gal” Setsuko has some strangely old fashioned ideas even as she behaves like a 1930s ladette, striding around like man while drinking, smoking, and generally being almost as intimidating as Tokiko just in a more likeable fashion. Setsuko finds Komiya’s deferral to his wife embarrassing, encouraging him to be more masculine and stand up for himself even advising that he use violence to reassert his position as the man of the house. He seems uncomfortable with the idea but eventually does just that after a climactic argument once his lying about the golf and Setsuko’s nighttime adventures have been exposed. Caught in a moment of frustration, he slaps Tokiko across the face, leaving her to retreat in shock apparently “beaten”. The thing is, however, Tokiko likes it. She sees his slapping her as a sign of his love, as if she’s been needling him all this time in hope of a reaction while frustrated that perhaps he doesn’t care for her. Once he hits her, the marriage is rebalanced and repaired with traditional gender dynamics restored. She becomes more cheerful and deferent to his male authority, he acknowledges that he enabled her “arrogance” with his weakness as a man.  

Setsuko however, continues to shout at her uncle, disappointed that he apologised for his reaction and accusing him of giving away the victory he’d just won. He tells her that he’s simply using reverse psychology because wives like to believe they’re in charge and in the main it’s best to let them. Setsuko seems satisfied, but jokes with her new love interest Okada that he better not use reverse psychology on her. Or, he can, but she’ll just use reverse reverse psychology to get the upper hand, which perhaps undercuts the central message in praise of traditional gender roles. Nevertheless, What Did the Lady Forget? is full of Lubitschy late-30s charms from an unexpected sighting of real life star Ken Uehara at the Kabuki to Setsuko’s movie magazines featuring Marlene Dietrich and repeated references to Frederich March and William Powell proving that Ginza is open even in 1937, while the Komiya household descends into an oddly peaceful harmony of delayed marital bliss. 


Currently streaming in the UK via BFI Player as part of Japan 2020. Also available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel.