The Love of the Actress Sumako (女優須磨子の恋, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1947)

vlcsnap-2019-03-27-01h39m45s435The Taisho era was, like that of the post-war, a time both of confusion and possibility in which the young, in particular, looked for new paths and new freedoms as the world got wider and ideas flowed in from every corner of the globe. In The Love of the Actress Sumako (女優須磨子の恋, Joyu Sumako no koi), the second of a loose trilogy films about female emancipation, Kenji Mizoguchi took the real life story of a pioneering actress of Western theatre and used it to explore the progress of lack there of in terms of social freedoms not only for women but for artists and for society as a whole.

We begin in late Meiji as theatre director Shimamura (So Yamamura) fights to establish a foothold of Western-style “art theatre”, moving away from the theatricality of kabuki for something more immediate and naturalistic. He has, however, a problem in that as women were not allowed to take to the kabuki stage all of his students are male and casting a man to play a woman’s role would run counter to his desires to create a truly representative theatre. It is therefore lucky that he runs into Sumako Matsui (Kinuyo Tanaka) – a feisty, determined young woman who had divorced her first husband for infidelity and then left the second when he complained about her desire to pursue a career on the stage. In Sumako, Shimamura finds a muse and the ideal woman to portray the extremely controversial figure of Nora in his dream production of Ibsen’s incendiary A Doll’s House.

Shimamura casts Sumako because he sees in her some of Nora’s defiance and eventual desire to be free from illusionary social constraints, but it is in fact he who ends up embodying her spirit in real life. Somewhat feminised, Shimamura is in a difficult position in having married into his wife’s family, leaving him without real agency inside his own home as evidenced by his mild opposition to his daughter’s arranged marriage. While he wishes that his daughter be happy and if possible marry for love, Shimamura’s wife is very much of the old school and wants to make the best possible match in terms of financial gain and social status, viewing emotional compatibility as a low priority (the daughter herself as relatively little say). Unwisely falling in love with Sumako, it is he who eventually decides to follow Nora’s example by walking out not only on his family but also on the theatre company. He does this not quite because the scales have been lifted from his eyes – he was never under any illusion that his arranged marriage was “real” and there is of course an accepted degree of performance involved in all such unions, but because he finally sees possibility enough in his love for Sumako and the viability of emotionally honest Western art to allow him to break free of outdated feudal ideas of familial obligation.

Nevertheless, making a career as an artist is a difficult prospect in any age and Shimamura’s emotional freedom quickly becomes tied up with that of his art. Sumako’s Nora proves a hit (in the last year of Meiji), but he is ahead of his times both in terms of his liberal, left-wing philosophy and his determination to embrace modern drama in a still traditional society. The roles we see Sumako perform, including that in Tolstoy’s Resurrection which was another of those that helped to make her name, are all from proto-feminist plays which revolve around women who, like herself, had chosen to challenge the patriarchal status quo in pursuit of their own freedom and agency. Shimamura’s wife makes no secret of her outrage to her husband’s desire to stage A Doll’s House, viewing Nora’s decision as “selfish” and perhaps of a subversion of every notion she associates with idealised femininity. Though not so far apart in age, Sumako is a woman of Taisho who left not one but two unfulfilling marriages and is determined to forge her own path even if that path eventually leads her to subsume her own desires within those of her lover as the pair attempt to put their social revolution on the stage.

The revolution, however, does not quite take off. Despite good early notices, Shimamura’s Art Theatre company quickly runs into trouble. Faced with financial ruin, he does what any sensible theatre producer would do – he begins to prioritise bums on seats and acknowledges that if he’s to keep his company afloat and facilitate his dream of making Western theatre a success in Japan he’ll have to compromise his artistic aims  by putting on some populist plays. Of course, this sudden concession to commercial demands does not go down well with all and some of his hardline actors begin to leave in protest not just of his selling out but of his twinned desire to make Sumako his star.

Tellingly, the pair are eventually forced out of Japan entirely to tour the beginnings of empire from Korea to China and on to Taiwan. Their ideas are too radical and their society not quite ready for their messages even if not initially as hostile as it would later become. Shimamura works himself to the bone trying to keep his dream alive, eventually damaging his health. Sumako remains somewhat petulant about being forced into an itinerant lifestyle while her onstage personas come increasingly to influence her offstage life until it is said of her that her performance is “no longer an interpretation but an extension of reality”. In this, Sumako has, in a sense, achieved Shimamura’s dreams of a truly naturalistic theatre, but it comes at a cost, as perhaps all art does, and, Mizoguchi seems to suggest, becomes a kind of sacrifice laid down to a society still too rigid and unforgiving to appreciate its sincerity. Nevertheless, their boldness, as fruitless as it was, has started a flame which others intend to keep burning, eventually becoming a beacon for another new world looking to rebuild itself better and freer than before.


Short clip featuring Sumako’s performance as Carmen.

Here’s to the Young Lady (お嬢さん乾杯!, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1949)

Here's to the young lady DVD coverLove across the class divide is a perpetual inspiration for melodrama, but what if the problem is less restrictive social codes and more emotional inertia and frustrated desire? Many things were changing in the Japan of 1949, racked by post-war privation and burdened with a scrappy desire to remake itself better and kinder than before. Keisuke Kinoshita, the foremost purveyor of post-war humanism, looks back to the 1930s for his 1949 cheerfully superficial romantic comedy Here’s to the Young Lady (お嬢さん乾杯!, Ojosan Kampai!). A tale of changing social codes and youth trying to find the courage to break free, Kinoshita’s easy romance is as breezy as they come but also hard won and a definitive step towards the freer, fairer world he so often envisages.

Keizo Ishizu (Shuji Sano), a 34-year-old self-made man and successful garage owner, is still single and seemingly pestered by his well meaning friends who keep finding matches for him that he doesn’t really want. Reluctantly, he acquiesces to the demands of his good friend Mr. Sato (Takeshi Sakamoto) who is desperate to introduce him to a pretty young woman from a wealthy family and agrees to meet Yasuko (Setsuko Hara) – a demure 26-year-old apparently keen to get married. Ishizu is instantly smitten, dumbstruck by her beauty and elegance. He begins to think all this marriage talk isn’t so silly after all, but then he is only a country bumpkin made good in the scrappy post-war economy. Yasuko is old money. How could he ever be permitted to enter her world and would she ever truly fit in his? Ishizu falls hard but his dreams of romance are eventually crushed when he discovers that the Ikedas, once a noble family, have hit upon hard times following half the family’s repatriation from Manchuria and the unwise business relations of Yasuko’s father which have landed him in jail as a co-conspirator in large scale fraud.

Despite his misgivings, Ishizu is talked into “dating” Yasuko for a few months during which he plans to find out if she could fall in love with him for real or if the marriage is likely to be an eternally one-sided affair which will make them both miserable. Ishizu resents being thought of as the cash cow, the classless nouveau riche upstart roped in to breathe new life into the fading aristocracy, but can’t let go of the hope that Yasuko might fall for his down to death charms even if not all of her family are very happy with this particular means of survival.

Yasuko’s grandparents are at great pains to emphasise (repeatedly) the immense gap in social class between Ishizu and their cultured, refined ingenue of a granddaughter who enjoys such elegant hobbies skiiing, tennis, and the ballet. Ishizu is into boxing and drinking at his favourite bar. He has no idea what the tune is that Yasuko plays on the piano that he bought for her and somewhat gauchely had delivered direct in front of the mildly scandalised family who can’t help feeling belittled by his generosity, but he finds it charming all the same even if his lack of refinement also stings with embarrassment. Nevertheless, the youngsters end up finding their own way – she takes him to the ballet where he is bored and then somehow moved, and he her to the boxing where she is frightened and then thrilled. They grow closer, but also not as Ishizu becomes increasingly frustrated (if in his characteristically good natured way) by Yasuko’s continuing aloofness.   

Perhaps unusually, it is Yasuko who struggles to move on from the idealised pre-war past in which she lived the romanticised life of a wealthy noblewoman who had not a care in the world and no need to worry about anything. The war has destroyed the nobility but this no Cherry Orchard-style lament for a declining world of elegance and rise of the unrefined in its place but a plea for rational thinking and a desire to move forward into a more egalitarian future. Yasuko’s grandparents cannot accompany her on this journey even if her parents and siblings are minded to be pragmatic, but it’s she herself who will need to make the decision to abandon her rigid ideas of what it is to be a fine lady and learn to embrace her own desires if she is to find happiness (as her father urges her to do) in the rapidly changing post-war world.

Then again, Ishizu is not entirely free of petty prejudice and the mild conservatism of the upwardly mobile as he shows in his intense hostility towards his best friend’s (Keiji Sada) tempestuous relationship with a club dancer (Naruko Sato). Nevertheless, after a good old fashioned case of fisticuffs and a proper consideration of all the obstacles he faces in winning the heart of Yasuko, Ishizu eventually reconsiders and urges his friend to chase happiness wherever it may lie. He vacillates and doubts himself, finds it impossible to approach the icy lady of the manor because of a feeling of social inferiority and finally decides to give up on an unrealistic idea of romance to spare them both pain, but then the obstacles were not all his to overcome and if there is a choice to be made it is Yasuko’s to make. A joyous throwback to the screwball ‘30s, Here’s to the Young Lady, banishes the darkness of the postwar world to the margins while its melancholy youngsters use romantic heartbreaks as a springboard to free themselves from the restrictive social codes of the past in order to choose happiness over misery and despair.


Titles and opening scene (no subtitles)