It’s an age old question, but does being a great artist give you the right to treat other people terribly? Hopefully, most people would say no, it does not. Most “great artists”, however, may have a different opinion. The hero of Mikio Naruse’s 1936 biopic Tochuken Kumoemon (桃中軒雲右衛門, AKA Man of the House) is very much of the opinion that inflicting suffering on others, and thereby vicariously suffering himself (but not really because who cares about them), is the source of all his supposedly “great art”.
Tochuken Kumoemon was in fact a real person who died twenty years before the film’s release and had his heyday as a renowned yet scandal ridden performer of “rokyoku” in late Meiji. To brings things full circle and explain why perhaps his life was fit for cinematic exploration in the politically fraught atmosphere of 1936, it’s helpful to remember that Tochuken Kumoemon’s performances of such patriotic fare as the 47 Ronin helped to rouse nationalist sentiment during the Russo-Japanese conflict. “Rokyoku”, also known as “naniwabushi”, is a traditional art of narrative singing accompanied by shamisen which found favour with the militarists for its essential Japaneseness and hearty rustic vulgarity.
In any case, we meet Tochuken Kumoemon (Ryunosuke Tsukigata) on a train drawing closer to his planned return to Tokyo after having been forced to flee it eight years previously because of a sex scandal which led him to separate from his first wife, leaving a son, Sentaro (Kaoru Ito), behind, and marry Otsuma (Chikako Hosokawa) – his shamisen player with whom he is currently travelling. The troupe are supposed to be breaking their journey at Kozu, but for reasons unexplained, Tochuken Kumoemon decides to get off the train at Shizuoka and promptly disappears without a word to anyone.
The disappearance is problematic on several levels, the first being that the stop was only engineered to allow Tochuken Kumoemon to visit his estranged son Sentaro. Some in the group posit that Tochuken Kumoemon has come down with a rare case of stage fright seeing as this Tokyo show will be his biggest to date, while others assume he is embarrassed to go back to the city because of the scandals which previously engulfed him there, and some believe he is simply conflicted about visiting the son he abandoned to run off with another woman.
Anyone who knows him, however, might be better placed to realise that the great Tochuken Kumoemon rarely has a reason for doing anything save that it pleased him to do so at the time. Nevertheless, what we discover about him as he tours the inns of Kozu throwing his money about like some crazed libertine, is that he apparently liked his life better when he was poor but is bravely suffering under the burdens of wealth “for his art”. In fact everything in Tochuken Kumoemon’s life is “for his art”, including the thoughts and feelings of those closest to him.
Tochuken Kumoemon’s story may be intended as a kind of militarist parable about a man who devoted everything of himself to a particular ideal, in his case art but for the militarists perhaps country. The major problem here is that Tochuken Kumoemon never particularly suffers himself, grinning broadly throughout, but forces others to suffer on his behalf while he extracts from them qualities he can use to enhance his performance. Pain may be good for art, but it’s rarely good for life, and most would find themselves questioning why it is those around him remain contented to suffer solely to facilitate Tochuken Kumoemon’s artistic fulfilment.
Loyal wife Otsuma begins to reconsider, bravely challenging Tochuken Kumoemon on the inauthenticity of his performances which, though growing in popularity, she feels to be increasingly hollow. She remembers the early days of their courtship which were apparently marked by a fierce competitive rivalry which proved artistically beneficial to them both before spilling over into other kinds of offstage passion which now appears to have cooled. Otsuma, now weakened as she finds herself succumbing to the later stages of consumption, something Tochuken Kumoemon refuses to acknowledge, fears that she is now unable to inspire him with her playing which is why he’s been up to his old tricks consorting with geishas. Claiming that Otsuma wouldn’t care about his affairs because she’s an artist too and will therefore “understand”, Tochuken Kumoemon has taken up with a pretty little thing, Chidori (Sachiko Chiba), from whom he intends to steal “youth and innocence” for his performances, little caring what he might leave behind.
For Tochuken Kumoemon everything is simply fuel for art and so he’s excused himself from the need to treat others with respect or kindness. Sentaro, his rejected son, rejects this aspect of his father’s philosophy, immediately bonding with his kindly step-mother and resenting his absent father’s treatment of her. In “raising” his son, Tochuken Kumoemon bangs on about traditionally “militarist” values of manliness, explaining that he is imperfect because he is a “great artist” and that his life has been full of problems but that he has overcome them with strength and perseverance. He tells his son that “weakness is the worst thing in a man”, but appears primed to hit the roof on learning that Sentaro may be expelled from school for fighting with his schoolmates because they mocked his unconventional family setup. Worst of all he casts his son away as one of the many who unfairly demand “perfection” from him even though he is an artist and cannot be expected to abide by the rules of “normal people”.
Meanwhile, Otsuma lies dying in a hospital. Tochuken Kumoemon won’t see her because he refuses to view her as “just a woman”, preferring to remember her as “a woman who lived only for art”. The subtext being for “his” art, rather than her own. He betrays himself when he admits that he “doesn’t want to be any more sad” than he is now, simply refusing to deal with the unpleasantness and personal suffering of facing the fact that someone important to you is in pain and will soon be gone. Yet despite a brief rebellion after an ill-advised gift from Chidori, Otsuma eventually agrees to sacrifice herself for Tochuken Kumoemon’s art, to die “quietly” as an artist and not as a woman.
It’s only at this point that Tochuken Kumoemon decides to embrace the romance of the moment, finally travelling to her deathbed in order to sing a song. If Tochuken Kumoemon is a militarist hero, he’s not a particularly sympathetic one. He remains monstrously self-involved, hypocritical, an emotional coward who uses the suffering of others for his own ends with only the justification of the primacy of his art. Naruse undercuts the propaganda potential of the piece by painting his patriotic singer as a ridiculous prig who embodies the militarists’ coldness towards the thoughts and feelings of their fellow humans but displays none of their supposedly romantic heroism in his empty swagger and well worn platitudes. Is naniwabushi really worth all this pain? No. Someone needs to tell Tochuken Kumoemon he’s not as important as he thinks he is. And while they’re at it, they could have a word with the militarists, too.
The real Tochuken Kumoemon