Our Neighbor, Miss Yae (隣の八重ちゃん, Yasujiro Shimazu, 1934)

Our Neighbour Miss Yae posterRetrospectively, Japan in the 1930s looks like a time of misery and darkness, permanently overshadowed by oppressive government and coming tragedy. However, life went on much as it had before with all its customary joys and sorrows. The films of Yasujiro Shimazu are indeed among the least politicised of the era (which might make them, in an odd way, among the most politicised) and Our Neighbour, Miss Yae (隣の八重ちゃん, Tonari no Yae-chan) is no exception in its presentation of the everyday easiness between two very close families and the burgeoning romance between the younger daughter and older son of each.

Notably, the film opens with a scene of intense suburbia as the brothers, middle-schooler Seiji (Akio Isono) and university student Keitaro (Den Obinata), play catch in the yard training for Seiji’s big game at which he has a shot at playing at the legendary Koshien stadium. As young men are want to do, they break next-door’s window but luckily Mrs. Hattori (Choko Iida) across the way is a nice woman who hardly minds, especially as this is such a regular occurrence that the families almost have an account with the local glazers.

The Hattoris and the Arais are so close that it’s no problem at all for Keitaro to jump the fence and hang out with Mrs. Hattori, who even offers to feed him, when he arrives home early to find himself locked out while his mother (Ayako Katsuragi) has gone shopping. Despite his ease in the Hattoris’ home, he is flustered when the girl next-door, Yae (Yumeko Aizome), gets back from a school with a friend in tow. Even more so when he overhears the two girls’ typically teenage conversation in which they briefly touch on Yae’s possible feelings for him while somewhat provocatively discussing breast size – something Keitaro awkwardly chastises Yae for when she returns to the living room in more comfortable clothing.

Shimazu dramatises Keitaro’s embarrassment through his ongoing clumsiness – first of all spilling tea on his floor cushion and attempting to hide it by folding the cushion in half and placing it oddly between thighs and calves, and then by tipping pickles everywhere while awkwardly trying to share them with Yae (much to the amusement of her perspicacious friend who has missed absolutely nothing in this series of awkward exchanges). Yae eventually tries to take the cushion back as it’s a good one only meant for “guests” (which she evidently does not regard Keitaro to be) only to discover his mishap with the tea which is something they can all have a good laugh over. Through all of this Keitaro and Yae seem almost like a young couple already, gently bickering but with real affection. It’s all very innocent but also flirtatious to the extent that the offer to darn a pair of socks almost seems like an elaborate metaphor but then really what could say true love better than a willingness to deal with someone’s stinky footwear?

Seiji is forced to recall his brother’s cute and innocent piece of flirtatious banter when commiserating with Yae’s melancholy older sister, Kyoko (Yoshiko Okada), who returns home unexpectedly after having apparently walked out on an unhappy marriage. An act unthinkable to her mother, Kyoko resolves to have a divorce on account of her husband’s improper relations with the maid and generally frivolous character. Keitaro jokingly said that if he had a wife he’d make her put his socks on for him everyday and she’d have to do it. Keitaro might have been joking, but there’s something in what he said and in Kyoko’s insistence that she doesn’t want to be so “submissive”, preferring to be alone rather than spend another second with a man for whom she has no respect.

Kyoko is, after a fashion, the film’s antagonist in that she begins to come between Yae and Keitaro, destabilising the easy relationship between the families by introducing unexpected tension into the otherwise happy Hattori home. Longing to return to a more innocent girlhood but mindful that she can no longer be as “pure” as Yae, Kyoko is torn between two different kinds of being. She takes on the male role, using her status and position in an attempt at seduction. Becoming a third wheel on Yae’s attempt to ask Keitaro out to the pictures, Kyoko buys the whole gang dinner at an expensive restaurant at which she gets roaringly drunk and falls asleep on Keitaro’s shoulder in the cab on the way home. Noticing Keitaro’s discomfort and irritated on a personal level, Yae asks her to move only for Kyoko to state, ironically, that as she’s paid for the evening she’s sure he can put up with it.

In any case, Kyoko becomes an unanswered question. She remains trapped, wanting her independence but unable to access it. She refuses to return to her husband, but finds scant support from her family who remain preoccupied with potential scandal and the difficult future prospects for a divorced woman. Despite Mrs. Arai’s reassurance that perhaps those things no longer matter so much to younger people, which both women seem to view as a positive development, Mrs. Hattori fails to see the effect her disapproval is having on her daughter’s mental state until it is too late. 

Shimazu doesn’t seem to have much of answer for what to do about women like Kyoko save to leave the question dangling. He does not send her back to her (possibly abusive) husband or find a way for her to move past her difficult circumstances but allows her to become another lost woman whose sense of possibility has been gradually eroded by an oppressive society. Nevertheless, counter to her melancholy we have the girlish innocence of Yae who seems to be on a path of natural, easy connection with the straightforward Keitaro. Even so, her brief idyll is then ruptured by political interventions which might take her far away from her putative love. This potential disaster is eventually partially reversed, mimicking the familiar pattern that one family must be broken in order for another to be formed though in a somewhat perverse fashion that sees Yae become a temporary member of the Arai household but as something more like a sister.

This final intervention of the political is the only hint of external darkness. Shimazu’s vision of ordinary contemporary life is a cosmopolitan one filled with Hollywood glamour which references Fredric March and takes the gang to watch a fairly disturbing Betty Boop cartoon on the big screen while the boys dream of baseball glory and the parents look on mystified but happy. Yet despite the generalised happiness of the serene suburban world they inhabit, there is a mild note of disquiet presented by a deliberate lack of resolution which sends Yae, no longer a neighbour, skipping off happily into the future full of childish innocence while others make their way in a much less certain world.


Lumberjack and Lady (與太者と小町娘, Hiromasa Nomura, 1935)

vlcsnap-2019-03-01-23h23m29s757Remembered mostly for his 1938 melodrama Aizen Katsura starring Kinuyo Tanaka and Ken Uehara, Hiromasa Nomura was a prominent studio director at Shochiku in the pre-war period before decamping to Shintoho in 1948 and then to Daiei in the mid-50s before shifting back to Shintoho and then to TV for the final part of his career. Much of his earlier work is presumed lost, but a late silent effort from 1935 Lumberjack and Lady (與太者と小町娘, Yotamono to Komachi Musume, AKA The Layabout and the Town Belle – part of the “yotamono” (layabout) series) seems to showcase a talent for slapstick comedy while perhaps engaging with the concerns of the time in its three heroes’ quest to defend their mountain against an evil upstart from the opposing peak.

The trouble begins when our three “stooges” get themselves stuck on a logging cart and accidentally end up on the other mountain where a rival logging group run by the fabulously moustachioed Torazou (Isamu Yamaguchi) are not exactly happy to see them. Just when things look grim for our heroes, Torazou himself shows up and saves the day, handing them a letter to take back to their boss, Kaheiji (Sojin Kamiyama). The letter, however, contains ill tidings – Torazou wants the hand of Kaheiji’s pretty daughter Kayo (Yoshiko Tsubouchi) and makes plain that he’s not about to take no for an answer.

The early part of the film revolves around the comical exploits of our three bumpkins who are always accompanied by their three adorable dogs. The guys are all, predictably, in love with Kayo but in a dreamy, innocent sort of way – there is no conflict between them over their shared love of the boss’ daughter, only a sort of pure hearted camaraderie and a desire to make sure the best is done for her which means putting paid to the evil Torazou once and for all.

In a mildly interesting twist, it’s clear that the Kaheiji gang are the poor but honest crowd. Our guys dress in torn and battered clothing, remaining unable to pay off their tabs with the wily old lady who runs the local store even after old Kaheiji has given them some money to go out on the town. Torazou’s boys, however, seem to be doing much better. Torazou himself is portly man in early middle age who is always accompanied by his bizarrely tiny henchman who is always ready to repeat whatever it was his boss just said only with additional menace. It’s clear we don’t want Kayo to fall into his clutches lest her innocence be polluted by his grubby little hands. A mustache twirling villain, Torazou is perhaps as close as you might be able to get in 1935 to a personification of the evils of the age as an exploitative capitalist fat cat who thinks he can do as he pleases because he has the most minions and the most friends in handy places. Not much of strategist, he thinks nothing of trying to force himself on the grieving Kayo as she bends over a grave, somehow convinced that this will be a surefire way to win her love and pave the way to a happy marriage.

The action takes an unexpected direction in the second act after a key player mysteriously falls off a cliff in true silent movie fashion. Realising they need to find a “suitable” husband for Kayo (i.e. someone not like them but of a higher social class), the guys run into “Mr. Yamazaki” (Den Obinata) from Tokyo who, unbeknownst to them, is Kaheiji’s chosen successor and a potential fiancé. Kenji brings some Tokyo class out to the mountains along with a little youthful hotheadedness in which he cannot help but refuse to back down in the face of Torazou’s continuous shenanigans – an act which accidentally puts Kayo in danger while he fixates on proving himself the bigger the man.

A light and fluffy escapade, albeit one which perhaps subtly reinforces some of the ideas many maybe seeking escape from, Lady and Lumberjack is largely built around the slapstick adventures of our three idiot heroes which are enlivened by the fresh mountain air and beautiful location shooting. Drawing inspiration from popular Hollywood silent comedies, Nomura perhaps fails to tie his series of set pieces together in a suitably coherent fashion but fully embraces the film’s sense of silly fun (mostly had at the expense of the decidedly dim, if essentially good, lumberjacks) while ensuring a victory for the honest little guy against the forces of selfishness and corruption.


Woman of the Mist (朧夜の女, Heinosuke Gosho, 1936)

vlcsnap-2019-01-21-00h29m30s692The 1930s are often thought of as an era of social rigidity and implacable conservatism, yet even before the war things were changing. The young wanted something different than their parents often had and dared to dream of getting it even if their hopes were often dashed by the times in which they lived. Heinosuke Gosho’s Woman of the Mist (朧夜の女, Oboroyo no Onna) is the story of two youngsters who find themselves in a difficult situation and are offered a solution by elders acting kindness which they are persuaded to take only to find themselves progressively more miserable, burdened by the weight of the sacrifice their society has asked them to make.

Set in the jovial working class world of Shitamachi, Woman of the Mist opens with the hero of the tale, Fumikichi (Takeshi Sakamoto), enjoying a historical lecture regarding Edo era sacrifice for the common good during which his wife, Okiyo (Mitsuko Yoshikawa), comes to fetch him. Members of a local association he belongs to have come looking for him, it turns out for a favour. They want him to assist with some fundraising for a stone lantern to mark the association’s anniversary. Much to his wife’s exasperation, Fumikichi is only too happy to comply. It might seem that Fumikichi is a much respected pillar of the community only it is also true enough that he basks in the flattery of being regarded as someone to be depended upon and is therefore a soft touch (something undoubtedly well known to all around him).

Nevertheless, despite his slight tendency towards narcissistic attention seeking, Fumikichi is a salt of the earth type and willing to help those who need it for largely altruistic reasons. He therefore finds himself a surrogate father (though childless himself) to the son of his widowed sister Otoku (Choko Iida) who enlists him to talk some sense into his law student nephew, Seiichi (Shin Tokudaiji), who has apparently been “disrespecting” his mother and neglecting his studies by reading too many novels. Fumikichi has a word but counsels Seiichi that there’s nothing wrong with reading novels save that it obviously upsets his mum who has worked herself to the bone for the last 20 years dreaming of the day Seiichi becomes a fully fledged lawyer, which is to say a member of the middle classes.

Fumikichi, as he often will, becomes the conciliatory voice at the centre of generational conflict. Seiichi is a young man at the crossroads of life and finds himself torn between youthful idealism and a duty towards his family. He has become disillusioned with the law and would rather transfer to literature, secure in the knowledge that only in novels can you find the truly humane. Fumikichi is careful not to patronise but gives him a knowing look, realising that his confusion is partly born of resentment towards his well meaning yet accidentally possessive mother who has railroaded him into a career he doesn’t want to buy him a future which is her only dream. What he wants is control over his life, but when it comes to it he is still a boy and woefully unprepared for the demands of adulthood.

This becomes obvious when he falls in love and gets his girlfriend into trouble. Teruko (Toshiko Iizuka), a former geisha apparently known to Fumikichi in his younger days now working as a bar hostess, is not exactly the kind of wife his mother might have had in mind. The pair are careful to keep their relationship a secret for just this reason as Seiichi remains conflicted – one moment declaring that he no longer cares if everyone finds out and lying to his mother about her the next. Pregnancy forces the issue. Teruko, mindful of Seiichi’s bright future, declares that she can raise the child alone, glancing sadly at a picture of herself in her former life as a sex worker as if accepting what future sacrifices might be expected of her while half hoping Seiichi will rush forward to save her from such a fate. Seiichi doesn’t exactly rush but does tentatively accept his responsibility in reassuring her that he will soon come of age and is ready to become a father with all of the joys and obligations that entails.

Lost he turns to Fumikichi who hatches a plan which might be accounted a neat solution but is also another instance of the older generation making decisions on behalf of the young without really asking them. Despite being a rather feckless old man, Fumikichi tells his wife the child is his and asks for her forgiveness while also suggesting that they adopt the baby as their own. As expected, Okiyo is not exactly enthused but as Fumikichi calculated she would eventually comes around, ironically enough after a conversation with Otoku who has no idea the baby is really her grandchild. Once the decision is made, everyone rallies round to look after Teruko who finally becomes a (temporary) member of Seiichi’s family even whilst barred from ever becoming his wife and in fact of ever seeing him again as a result of the bargain which has been struck by Fumikichi. Nevertheless, Seiichi vacillates and attempts to change his mind by asking Teruko to marry him only for her to urge him to study hard and live well, sacrificing her happiness for his future.

Uncomfortably enough, it is Teruko who must pay for a series of transgressions against the norms of her society – for being a young woman with a past who seduced a nervous young man and dared to dream of a happier future with a person of her own choosing, though the very fact of her suffering is in itself an attack on these rigid and unfair social codes which do their best to destroy the happiness of ordinary, basically good people who have done nothing wrong other than attempt to live their lives. Fumikichi and his wife are doing their best and they too are good, compassionate people who have made good compassionate choices hoping for the best in a difficult situation even if their choices are defined by the prevailing conservative morality which places Seiichi’s future above a young woman’s life and love.

Then again, Fumikichi’s objections are largely practical – it’s hard to keep a family with no money coming in and Seiichi is still a student with no prospect of immediate employment that would pay enough for a wife and child. Could they be happy after a shotgun wedding and years of penury? Seiichi’s diffidence hints at no, but Teruko’s “purity” hints at yes as she vows to make the kind of sacrifice that proves her “goodness”. The youngsters find themselves beholden to the demands of their elders, torn between their personal desires and duties to those they love. Whatever they do, they lose and are destined to remain unhappy, unable to seize their individual chance of happiness in an oppressive, conformist society. Gosho may leave them at the mercy of such a system, but he does so with immense sympathy and not a little anger as we watch these good people making the best of things while asking ourselves if all of this is really for the best.


Burden of Life (人生のお荷物, Heinosuke Gosho, 1935)

Despite being at the forefront of early Japanese cinema, directing Japan’s very first talkie, Heinosuke Gosho remains largely unknown overseas. Like many films of the era, much of Gosho’s silent work is lost but the director was among the pioneers of the “shomin-geki” genre which dealt with ordinary, lower middle class society in contemporary Japan. Burden of Life (人生のお荷物, Jinsei no Onimotsu) is another in the long line of girls getting married movies, but Gosho allows his particular brand of irrevent, ironic humour to colour the scene as an ageing patriarch muses on retiring from the fathering business before resentfully remembering his only son, born to him when he was already 50 years old.

Rather than focussing on the main narrative right away, Gosho gives us a crash course in marital relations as we meet middle sister, Itsuko (Kinuyo Tanaka), who is currently posing for a raunchy portrait her starving artist husband is painting. Itsuko dresses in Western style, smokes openly and often, and her home is a bohemian one of the kind you’d imagine a (well to do) artist from the ‘30s would live in. The couple are interrupted by their brother-in-law who has come in search of his wife, Takako (Yoshiko Tsubouchi), with whom he’s had yet another argument causing her to storm off somewhere or other in a huff.

Takako has indeed stormed off, but has gone to her mother’s where her younger sister, Machiko (Mitsuyo Mizushima) is preparing for her own wedding and now feeling quite nervous hoping that it won’t be as tempestuous as Takako’s. The three sisters also have a little brother, Kanichi, who is doted on by the women of the family but has a strained relationship with his father, Shozo (Tatsuo Saito). The main conflict occurs once Shozo has successfully married off Machiko and begins happily contemplating a burden free life only to remember that little Kanichi is only eight and so there are twelve more years of fatherhood ahead of him and he’ll be 70 before he gets any peace. In order to speed up the process, he tells his wife Tamako (Mitsuko Yoshikawa) that maybe Kanichi doesn’t need to go school and should go out and get a job instead. Tamako, rightly outraged at her husband’s persistent coldness towards their son brings things to a head by leaving the family home.

The themes are common ones as a family faces the successful marriage of its youngest daughter but the pattern is complicated by the loose end that is Kanichi. Much younger than his sisters, it’s easy to believe Shozo’s assertions that his arrival was somewhat unexpected but far from a joyous surprise Shozo still seems to regard him with a degree of mild horror. Fearing becoming an elderly father Shozo’s concerns are fair given the additional burdens placed on him in having to find good husbands for three women and then pay for their weddings and dowries never mind a college education for a son he never wanted. Kanichi seems to be aware on some level of the way his father feels about him as a poignant scene implies when he begs some of the other neighbourhood children to keep playing with him even though it’s past tea time because he doesn’t want to go home if his dad is there.

Shozo fails to reform his opinion even after his wife leaves him. Almost delighting in a late life slice of batchelorhood, Shozo heads into the bar district for a night out where he ends up drinking with some younger guys, surrounded by students singing the Keio University song. His attention is momentarily taken by a small boy of around Kanichi’s age who is selling flowers to amorous patrons but it’s only once a hostess calls him “papa” that he seems to feel aged fatherhood reassert itself. Enquiring about her age he discovers she is only 19 – much younger than any of his daughters, and consequently Shozo begins to feel more like a ridiculous old man than a young buck on the prowl.

Gosho draws a number of contrasts within his “ordinary” family from the three sisters who seem to represent the changing times in their differing attitudes to the husband and wife and the division of their home. Itsuko, Westernised and brassy, is living well beyond her means and touching her parents for money in order to do it. Talking things over with the kimono’d Takako who offers to recommend a traditional hairstylist for Machiko’s wedding, Itsuko has some advice for dealing with men which she calls “reverse psychology”. Takako and her husband may not have children and fight all the time, but she is in other ways a model wife even if she thinks married life ought to be simpler than it is. Machiko is caught on the brink, though we never see her husband, wondering what her own married life will entail. Her father, Shozo, lamenting on his responsibilities remarks that women are like products for sale, requiring investments which will eventually pay off in terms of successful marriages but any investment in a son is, in a sense, a waste. Family, for him, is less a social unit and more a mini business enterprise from which he was looking forward to retiring.

In the end of course he changes his mind though more out of loneliness or a sense of mortality than any less selfish emotion. Slight at 66 minutes, Gosho packs in as much detail as possible whilst maintaining a broadly comic, almost screwball tone filled with selfish husbands and calculating wives all making the most of the relatively stable times. Life has many burdens but sometimes it’s better to rebrand those burdens joys and make the most of them before someone else decides to carry them for you and all you’re left with is an empty sort of lightness. You’re only old once, after all.


 

No Blood Relation (生さぬ仲, Mikio Naruse, 1932)

No blood relationNaruse apparently directed six other films in-between Flunky, Work Hard and No Blood Relation (生さぬ仲, Nasanunaka) but we’ll likely never see any of them again. Adapting a “Shinpa” play (a new kind of Western style melodrama focusing on the real lives of everyday people), Naruse addresses a theme which later becomes central to his cinematic output – the trials and tribulations of women in contemporary society. This time we have two fully grown women tussling over the affections of a little girl who herself seems to have little input into the situation.

After a brief introductory sequence in which we witness the accidentally humorous escapades of a pair of petty crooks, we meet the sister of one of them who happens to be returning ex-pat and successful Hollywood actress, Tamae. It turns out that Tamae has come back to Japan after making her fortune in the movies hoping to reunite with the daughter she left behind six years ago.

However, her ex-husband, Atsumi, has remarried and the daughter, Shigeko, believes the second wife, Masako, is her real mother. Although the family are very happy together there is tension in the air as Atsumi’s company is running into trouble in this period of economic instability and he’s about to reveal he’s gone bankrupt. Atsumi’s mother does not take this well as she’s used to the upper middle class lifestyle and throws something of a hissy fit at being shamed in this way. Masako, by contrast, remains stoic and says she can bear the worst of what comes only she doesn’t want Atsumi to do anything illegal to try and solve their money problems and she doesn’t want to see Shigeko suffer. Her maternal feelings are further borne out when she is injured diving in front of an oncoming car which threatens to hit her daughter as she stops to pick up her doll in the middle of the road.

The problems continue pile up and Tamae uses her money as a lever to try and prise Shigeko away from her step-mother via the greedy grandma but the little girl was an infant when her birth mother left so she simply doesn’t remember Tamae and repeatedly asks to be allowed to go home to her “mother”. It’s understandable how much this would hurt Tamae who claims she’s only returned to Japan because she’s been unable to forget her daughter, yet her daughter never even knew her. If she was expecting some kind of cosmic connection it does not occur and if she truly wanted to rebuild a relationship with her child, what amounts to a virtual kidnapping was probably not the best way to go about it.

At heart it’s a tug of love between two women – the one who gave birth to a child and then abandoned it (perhaps harsh words, but no concrete reason other than a man and America are ever revealed), and the one who later raised it and came to love it as her own though shares no blood connection. Masako is the faithful Japanese wife, devoted to her family and just a very good, decent person which contrasts nicely with the ferocity of her rival – a modern woman, adulteress and movie star who thinks her money can enable her to take back what she previously gave up. For all that, it’s difficult to not to feel sorry for Tamae as her daughter continues to reject her. Even if the way she’s going about things is not sensible, her maternal emotions and the passion, desperation and even in part grief and regret are all too real.

Of course, what gets forgotten here is the plight of little Shigeko who never had any reason to believe Masako, who obviously loves her dearly, was not her real mother. Extremely confused and probably frightened, she just doesn’t understand why she’s being separated from her mum and being forced to hang out with this strange woman. Masako can’t get to see Shigeko after grandma has removed her from the house, but no one else stops to think about what sort of effect this is all having on a confused little girl who just wants to go home.

The depression is more of a backdrop here and even if Atsumi ultimately ends up feeling the brunt of it, money troubles are only a small part of the question at hand. Naruse doesn’t experiment as much as in Flunky, Work Hard but throws in a few impressive tracking sequences across open rooms and adds some rapid zooms as the two women have silent arguments over their relationships to Shigeko. Without giving too much away, the ending undercuts the degree of nuance Naruse had been trying add in ensuring that both women were drawn in a suitably complex manner, provoking sympathy and understanding for everyone caught up in this complicated situation (well, except perhaps for the bumbling crooks who are a little surplus to requirements).

The finale itself almost feels tacked on from an entirely different film with its sudden cheerfulness and abrupt closure as the original family is repaired thanks to a sudden monetary atonement and subsequent self-exile from the originally corrupting influence of the first wife. In many ways a standard melodrama of the time, No Blood Relation perhaps doesn’t have much more to recommend it than as an early example of Naruse’s development but does offer strong performances from its leading ladies and an interesting take on an age old question.


No Blood Relation is the second of five films included in Criterion’s Eclipse Series 26: Silent Naruse box set.