Twilight Story (濹東綺譚, Shiro Toyoda, 1960)

Director Shiro Toyoda, closely associated with high minded literary adaptations, nevertheless had a talent for melancholy comedy and for capturing the everyday reality of ordinary people. A fierce condemnation of the patriarchal society at a moment of intense masculinity, Twilight Story (濹東綺譚, Bokuto Kitan), an adaptation of the novel by Kafu Nagai, follows an ambivalent author as he covertly observes the life and love of a former geisha daring to dream of romantic salvation while fully aware of the world’s cruelty.

Set in 1936, the film opens with an author on a research trip who guides us into the world of the Tamanoi pleasure quarter which he seems to disdain but is drawn to all the same. Whilst there he runs into a nervous middle-aged man, Junpei (Hiroshi Akutagawa), who is later accosted by sex worker Oyuki (Fujiko Yamamoto) for use of his umbrella during a violent storm. A mild-mannered sort, Junpei is unused to the ways of the red light district and quickly makes his escape after being invited into Oyuki’s home. After a swift drink, however, he returns and the pair begin an awkward semi-romantic relationship.

Despite his affirmation that he is single, Junpei is in fact already married if (for the moment) unhappily. Though he knew his future wife Mitsuko (Michiyo Aratama) had given birth to an illegitimate child fathered by her employer, Junpei chose to marry her anyway because he was in love. The pair married, they say, for “genuine” reasons but the father of Mitsuko’s son continues to send maintenance money for the boy’s education and his constant presence has begun to play on Junpei’s mind especially as his teacher’s salary is dwindling in this age of militarism in which educational hours are decreasing in favour of compulsory military drills. Meanwhile, Mitsuko also seems to have got religion and spends most of her time reciting sutras with the implication that she has begun to neglect her husband, emotionally, spiritually, and most particularly physically. In order to escape his depressing home life, Junpei hangs out in the Tamanoi where men’s hearts are lighter and people talk frankly about love.

This is, of course, not quite the case, but the fantasy the pleasure quarters sell of themselves. Our jaded author is perfectly aware of that and broadly sympathetic towards the women caught in its web. Oyuki, a former geisha, has “debased” herself in order to earn extra money to send home to her family and pay the medical fees for her sickly mother. Her uncles constantly pressure her for more and she wonders if they are not merely exploiting her, using her money for their own benefit and refusing to chip in for her mother’s care. Nevertheless, she is trapped. On meeting Junpei with whom she seems to develop a genuine emotional connection, she dares to dream that one day they might marry, that she could leave this life behind and build a stable family home of her own.

Of course, it’s not to be. Like all men in the Tamanoi, Junpei is misrepresenting himself for his own ends. He is only using Oyuki as an idealised point of refuge from the unhappy marriage he shows no other signs of leaving. As the author points out, the men think they’re using women but the women are also using them though they do so without calculation. Denied power or agency of their own, the women of the Tamanoi have no other option than to manipulate that of men, though the author sympathises with them so strongly that to expose the hidden “vulgarity” seems to him an act of intense cruelty.

Junpei falls in love with the world of the Tamanoi because he thinks it’s more emotionally honest, but the truth is quite the reverse. Wandering through the narrow streets at night, the author pities the women in the windows, knowing that men come here to escape their isolation but there is no escape for these women who are forced to delude themselves that a better future is waiting in order to go on living. Meanwhile Junpei’s colleague, looking back over his shoulder towards the young men in uniform, declares that he too has lost all hope for a promising future. With militarism on the rise, hyper-masculinity has led to a further decline in the already woeful status of women with even the girls’ sympathetic pimp lamenting that the army, who have been rounding up sex workers for forced service in Manchuria, regard them as little more than products to be poked and prodded and giggled over as they are cruelly bought and sold.

Reuniting with his wife, Junpei is forced to face his emotional cowardice, that he was just playing with Oyuki’s feelings in indulging the fantasy of an idealised romantic union. Oyuki, meanwhile, faces the destruction of all her dreams when she realises her uncle has betrayed her, her mother is dead, and all her sacrifices have been for nothing. On some level she may have known Junpei had another woman, but needed to believe in the fantasy of his love for her in order to make her life bearable. Even so, she now sees no other future for herself than a return to work shorn of all her hope. Toyoda’s condemnation of the red light district is bleak and total, even as the jaded author himself becomes an ambivalent part of it, but the Tamanoi is only a symptom of longstanding social oppression exacerbated by militarist fervour as the lights go out all over town.


Chikamatsu’s Love in Osaka (浪花の恋の物語, Tomu Uchida, 1959)

Chikamatsu's love in Osaka poster“Money is the enemy” a dejected geisha declares in an attempt to explain her desperate circumstances to a naive young man part way  through Tomu Uchida’s Chikamatsu’s Love in Osaka (浪花の恋の物語, Naniwa no Koi no Monogatari). Before a wartime flirtation with the militarist far right, Uchida had been closely involved with the leftwing “tendency film” movement and his post-war work perhaps displays much the same spirit only with a world weary resignation to the inherent unfairness of human society. Chikamatsu, as cited in the slightly awkward English language title, was a Japanese playwright of the 17th/18th century who also specialised in tales of social oppression, most notably in frustrated romance and eventual double suicides.

Uchida’s masterstroke is that he retells Chikamatsu’s well known bunraku play The Courier for Hell and its kabuki counterpart Couriers of Love Fleeing to Yamato from the inside out. Among Chikamatsu’s most famous works the play was in fact inspired by a real life event which took place in Osaka (then known as “Naniwa”) in 1710. Uchida places the grumpy, worldweary figure of the playwright directly into the action as a powerless observer, trapped on the wrong side of the stage able only to observe and comment but, crucially, with the ability to remake reality in altering his tale in the telling.

The tale is familiar enough and possibly a little too close to that of Chikamatsu’s previous hits including Love Suicides at Sonezaki which is given a grim namecheck as events begin to mirror one of his plays. Our hero, Chubei (Kinnosuke Nakamura), is an earnest young man who has been adopted into the Kameya family with the intention that he will marry its only daughter and take over the courier business now being run by stern widow Myokan (Kinuyo Tanaka). Early foreshadowing reminds us that immense responsibility is regularly placed in Chubei’s hands and he must remain above suspicion. Embezzlement is a capital offence in the increasingly austere 18th century society.

Chubei is an honest man, but meek. Unable to risk offending a bawdy client, he allows himself to be bamboozled into the red light district where Hachiemon (Minoru Chiaki) buys him the prettiest courtesan in the place, Umegawa (Ineko Arima). Chubei tries to leave as soon as Hachiemon disappears but is convinced to stay by Umegawa’s entreaties that his sudden exit will reflect badly on her and possibly result in censure or punishment. Struck by her predicament, Chubei falls in love. He makes repeated returns, dips into his savings, and finally makes the fateful decision to spend money not his own when he discovers that a lascivious magnate has made an offer to buy out Umegawa’s contract.

Meanwhile, Chikamatsu hovers on the edges conducting “research” for a new play to save his failing theatre company which itself is suffering due to lack of monetary receipts seeing as audience members obviously prefer the heartrending melodrama of Sonezaki to the more artistic fare he’s currently running. Though he is obviously a frequenter of the red light district and its surrounding drinking establishments, Chikamatsu has a noticeably ambivalent stance towards its existence. His sympathy is instantly caught by the melancholy Umegawa when he notices her tenderly bandage the hand of a little girl who serves in the brothel, only to have her beautiful gesture of human kindness immediately mocked by the lascivious magnate who witnesses the same thing but chooses to ask her to repeat the act on him.

Chikamatsu was supposed to come to the teahouse in order to schmooze the magnate so that he will invest in the theatre company which perhaps generates an odd commonality between the playwright and courtesan both at the mercy of wealthy patrons who, one might say, are all money and no class. Umegawa, however, as Chikamatsu is painfully aware is in no way free and entirely dependent on pleasing men like the magnate whether she likes them or not. As she tells Chubei, Umegawa didn’t choose this line of work but people judge her for it anyway. She has no bodily autonomy and is bought and sold daily with no right to refuse. She is “merchandise” that “talks, laughs, cries, and gets angry” and the sole concern in all of her life is money which she now regards as “the enemy” for the subjugated position in which the need for it has placed her.

Of course, the playwright (our stand-in) has been listening all along. He too would like to free Umegawa from her torment, but he is powerless and can only blame the world that created the circumstances that trap her. Chubei is no hero either, he is weak and feckless even if his eventual willingness to damn himself by embezzling other people’s money (and ruining his adopted family in the process) proves the depth both of his love and of his rage at the social injustice which prevents him from pursuing his romantic desires. Chikamatsu can’t save his fatalistic heroes, but he can create a more fitting vision of their love imbued with all world nearly grandeur of tragic romance that returns our eyes to the cruelty of the world that wouldn’t let them be. A stunning final shot pulls us from Chikamatsu once again in the background as he watches his own play onto the other side of the stage and then back again as the playwright’s eyes burn with silent rage and impotence as he offers the only kind of resistance he can in the face of a cruel and indifferent society.


Hibari Ohako: Benten Kozo (ひばり十八番 弁天小僧, Yasushi Sasaki, 1960)

Benten Kozo dvd coverStarting out as a child actress, Hibari Misora was one of the biggest singing and acting stars of the post-war period whose songs are often pointed to as embodiments of the era’s melancholy yet determined spirit. Though it’s her singing career which has perhaps had the most historical impact, Misora made an immense number of films most of them in ’50s and ‘60s, many typical star vehicles of the time – silly comedies and softer musicals, usually finding an opportunity or two for a song even in straight drama. Hibari Ohako: Benten Kozo (ひばり十八番 弁天小僧), released in 1960 for Toei, is very much of this mould and showcases another somewhat interesting facet of Misora’s career in her readiness to play ambiguous gender roles.

Based on the well known kabuki play, Benten Kozo, which had also been adapted two years previously in a version starring male actor Raizo Ichikawa, Sasaki’s film stars Hibari Misora in the title role – a 13 year old boy who was given up at birth to be raised in a temple which specialises in performing Noh theatre. Kikunosuke (Hibari Misora) is their star, but there’s a dark side to temple performing companies in that they’re dependent on donations and it’s accepted practice to allow wealthy patrons to do whatever they like with the talent, no matter their age or gender. Kikunosuke knows this and isn’t having any of it. Pushed into a room with a lecherous, overly made-up older woman, Kikunosuke balks at the old monk’s attempts to pimp him out and tries to leave, much to the monk’s disappointment.

Unfortunately, just as Kikunosuke is leaving, a thief arrives to steal the money meant for the monk and kills the old woman in the process. Kikunosuke kills the thief but is accused of killing the old woman too and is forced on the run. Tracking down his birth mother, Ofuji (Mitsuko Miura), Kiku thinks he’s found a home but is betrayed, at which point he adopts the name “Benten Kozo” (lit. “Benten Kid” where Benten is the name of the goddess at the temple where he was raised) and joins a gang of Robin Hood-style outlaw thieves.

Like many period films of the time, Benten Kozo revolves around exposing the corruption of the samurai order. In this case, it’s a salt scam – the samurai elders have been stockpiling salt to push the price up, endangering the lives of ordinary people for their own financial gain and thinking nothing of it. The thieves, led by later Lone Wolf and Cub star Tomisaburo Wakayama, are dedicated to robbing the rich to feed the poor but they also aim to expose those in power for the reckless bullies they really are. Benten Kozo joins the “Shiranami Five Alliance” both out of self preservation and out of genuine sympathy with their cause, eventually encountering the same corrupt monk who turned a blind eye to his attempted molestation when he intervenes to save a woman forced into prostitution to pay her father’s debt whom the monk was attempting to rape.

Benten Kozo listens to the woman’s story and decides to give her his savings (which he no longer wants after being betrayed by his mother for whom he’d been saving the money) to pay off her family debt. In fact the pair met earlier when Benten Kozo was on the run and she helped him hide from the authorities. The woman, like several in the film, falls for Benten Kozo’s androgynous charms though he remains resolutely noble and indifferent. Benten Kozo would originally have been played by a male actor on the kabuki stage which did not allow female performers. The “onnagata” or actors who specialised in playing women were often effeminate younger men or boys much like Benten Kozo himself who plays these skills to the max throughout the film.

Hibari Misora, with her low, husky voice, effortlessly switches between the elegant upperclass women Benten Kozo impersonates on stage and in service of the gang’s scams, and the rough and ready dialect of a street ruffian. In a shocking display of bravado, Benten Kozo drops the top of his kimono to show his off his tattoos proving once and for all that he’s no lady but still his appeal lingers perhaps precisely because of his gender ambiguity.

Benten Kozo is not a musical but finds two occasions for Misora to sing – once as Benten Kozo takes off on the road, and the other at the end as he paddles a boat away back to his new found friends. The film ends with a giant mass brawl and also provides ample scope for Misora to escape across roof tops and fight off the unjust but it’s otherwise fairly straightforward fare and not exactly among the singer’s most memorable outings. It is however generally entertaining and interesting enough in its central theme of woman playing man playing woman to warrant attention from more than just diehard Misora fans.


Hibari Misora singing Benten Kozo in concert some years later.

Akitsu Springs (秋津温泉, Kiju Yoshida, 1962)

akitsu springsKiju (Yoshishige) Yoshida is best remembered for his extraordinary run of avant-garde masterpieces in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but even he had to cut his teeth on Shochiku’s speciality genre – the romantic melodrama. Adapted from a best selling novel, Akitsu Springs (秋津温泉, Akitsu Onsen) is hardly an original tale in its doom laden reflection of the hopelessness and inertia of the post-war world as depicted in the frustrated love story of a self sacrificing woman and self destructive man, but Yoshida elevates the material through his characteristically beautiful compositions and full use of the particularly lush colour palate.

At the very end of the war, consumptive student Shusaku (Hiroyuki Nagato) finds his aunt’s house destroyed by aerial bombing. Attempting to find her but proving too ill to go on, Shusaku is taken to a nearby inn by a good samaritan where he first encounters the innkeeper’s daughter, Shinko (Mariko Okada). Despite her mother’s protestations, Shinko takes a shine to Shusaku and is determined to nurse him back to health. Shusaku, however, is a gloomy sort of boy and, ironically, longs only for death. Though the pair fall in love their youthful romance is forever tinged with darkness as Shusaku declares his love not with a ring but with a rope – he asks Shinko for that most classically theatrical of unions in proposing a double suicide.

Shinko agrees, but is not quite ready to die. In another dose of irony, Shinko’s tears of fear and despair on hearing the Emperor’s final wartime broadcast confirming his surrender inspire Shusaku to want to live but the pair are eventually separated. Reuniting and parting over and over again, their complicated love story repeats itself over a period of seventeen years but the painful spectre of the past refuses to allow either of them the freedom to move beyond Akitsu Springs.

Mariko Okada was only 29 in 1962, but she’d already worked with some of the best directors of the age including Ozu whose An Autumn Afternoon was released the same year, and Naruse in Floating Clouds which has something of a narrative similarity to Akitsu Springs. This prestige picture was her 100th screen appearance for which she also took a producer credit. Despite the obvious importance attached to both of these elements, the studio took a chance on a rookie director with only three films under his belt. Two years later Okada would become Yoshida’s wife and go on to star in some of his most important pictures including Eros + Massacre and Heroic Purgatory. At first glance her role here is a conventional one – a love lorn, melancholy woman unable to let the ghost of a failed romance die, but Okada’s work is extraordinary as Shinko travels from flighty teen to rueful middle aged woman, hollowed out and robbed of any sense of hope.

At Akitsu Springs time passes and it doesn’t all at once. Yoshida refuses to give us concrete demarcations, preferring to simply show a child being born and growing older or someone remarking on having been away. The inn becomes a kind of bubble with Shinko trapped inside, but Shusaku comes to regard the place as a temporary haven rather than a permanent home or place to make a life. For her everything real is at the spring, but for him everything at the spring is unreal – an unattainable paradise. She cannot leave, he cannot stay. Only for short periods are they able to indulge their romance, but the time always comes at which they must part again often swearing it will be for the last time, never knowing if it will.

Yoshida neatly bookends the relationship with announcements over loudspeakers as Shinko originally fails to understand the Emperor’s speech in which he remarks on enduring the unendurable, only to be prompted into later action by the banal drone of a train station tannoy. It’s almost as if their lives are being entirely dictated by outside forces, powerless drifters in the post-war world, condemned to a perpetual waiting sustained only by hopelessness.

Shinko may have convinced Shusaku to live but his growing successes only seem to deplete her. Wasting away at an inn she always claimed to hate, Shinko grows old while Shusaku grows bitter yet successful in the city. They move past and through each other, unable to connect or disconnect, yearning for the completion of something which consistently eludes them. Yoshida films the standard melodrama with appropriate theatricality but also with his beautifully composed framing as the lovers are divided by screen doors or captured in mirrors. Okada glows in the light of falling cherry blossoms, acknowledging the tragic and transitory character of love, but her final action is one which echoes the beginning of her suffering and finally declares an ending to an unendurable romance.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Night Drum (夜の鼓, Tadashi Imai, 1958)

night-drumThe works of Chikamatsu Monzaemon continue to have a large influence over Japanese drama even if not as frequently and directly adapted as they were in the immediate post-war period. Famous for tales of tragic love suicides and romantic heroes who risk all in the service of deep emotion, Chikamatsu’s works perhaps found even greater resonance in the turbulent years in which individual freedom and adherence to tradition found themselves in even greater conflict than ever before. Tadashi Imai makes the most of Chikamatsu’s melancholy fatalism to take a sword to the samurai order itself with all of its arcane rules and the essential hypocrisy which underlines its cruelty.

Hikokuro Ogura (Rentaro Mikuni) has been in Edo for a year with the shogun and is now on his way home. Stopping at an inn, he has a low level argument with his brother-in-law who warns him the men are getting restless and need to blow off some steam – preferably with some sake. Hikokuro is in charge of the purse strings and knows all of this pageantry costs money the clan do not quite have – hence, he’s reluctant to fritter it away on alcohol no matter how much the men might resent him for it.

That’s not to say Hikokuro is a particularly officious person, he’s kind and cheerful by nature but also tired and eager to get home after such a long time away. His wife, Otane (Ineko Arima), is very happy to see him but something seems different about her and there’s a tension in the air among some of the other women. It seems, there are rumours about Otane and a travelling musician (Masayuki Mori) who frequented the house during the summer while Hikokuro was away. Rumours are often just that, especially in these petty circles of nobility, but female adultery is punishable by death and so is not something to be gossiped about idly.

Night Drum (夜の鼓, Yoru no Tsuzumi) begins with the ominous sound of the drum itself, beating out the inevitably tragic fate of all concerned with a melancholy fatality. The tale proceeds in a procedural fashion as the authorities become involved, hearing witness testimonies and trying to discover if there could be any truth at all in these unpleasant rumours. Matters are further complicated by the pecuniary difficulties the clan currently finds itself in – the elders are half hoping it is true because it would be a good excuse to expel the Ogura household and thereby save the money which goes on its upkeep. They are aware, however, that they’re talking about the life of a previously unblemished woman as well as the ruin of her extended family.

The life of a retainer is not as easy as it sounds and we’re constantly reminded of just how much money is necessary to keep up appearances. The clan authorities are dismayed when they hear of Otane earning money on the side through needlework though other retainers are quick to confess their wives also help out – they just can’t survive on such meagre stipends. Each lord is required to hire servants as befits their status but they aren’t given the money to do so. Hikokuro is also required to serve the shogun in Edo every other year for at least twelve months meaning Otane is left alone at home with almost nothing other than her needlework to do except wait patiently for her husband’s return.

Given these circumstances, it’s easy to understand how such pernicious rumours might begin. The sole basis of the evidence seems to rest on a tip off that Otane is thought to have been alone in a room with a man who is not her husband. That she may be put to death solely for the crime of sharing the same space as someone of the opposite sex seems extreme, but this is the feudal world where rules and propriety are all. The men can cavort with geishas to their heart’s content, but Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion.

The action unfolds piecemeal as each of the various witnesses offers their testimony of events. Given the gravity of the situation, few are eager to recount their suspicions – especially the other women who fear the rumour may be true but are also unwilling to believe it. Hikokuro does not want to believe it either but faced with such convincing, if circumstantial, evidence doubt creeps into his mind and finds an anchor in Otane’s guilt ridden behaviour. Ironically, this entire situation developed only because of Otane’s attempts to avoid it – remaining at an inn rather than travelling with a man on the road only for one of her husband’s friends to attempt to rape and blackmail her. Having had far too much to drink in an attempt to steel her nerves and cover up the embarrassing assault, Otane finds herself at the mercy of man who should have known better than to take advantage of another man’s wife in such a moment of weakness.

One stupid mistake born of alcohol, loneliness, and a series of male betrayals is enough to bring down the social order all on its own. Rentaro Mikuni plays the part of the previously affable wounded spouse with an exceptional level of nuance as he accepts his part in his wife’s downfall thanks to the the circumstances of their lives which have kept them apart and left her at the mercy of untrustworthy lords. There is anger here, and shame, but there is still love too which only makes the inevitable outcome all the more painful for everyone concerned. Hikokuro plays the part he’s expected to play, but it pains him and you can’t wipe a slate clean with blood. Imai has his eyes firmly on the civilised society with all of its rigid yet often cruel and unfair rules for living. Shot with a kind of hypnotic dreaminess in which each of our unfortunate players is swept along by events they are powerless to influence, Night Drum beats out the death knell of those who allow their individual desires to overwhelm their “civilised” conformity but it does so with a rhythm that is filled with anger rather than sorrow, for those who are forced to leave half their lives unlived in maintenance of the very system which oppresses them.