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 Lady and the Beard (淑女と髭, Yasujiro Ozu, 1931)

Yasujiro Ozu has sometimes been dismissed as middle of the road, particularly by the young radicals of the post-war generation who saw his, by then, rather conservative films as a symbol of everything they sought to reject in their national cinema. They may in some senses have had a point and, in 1931’s The Lady and the Beard (淑女と髭, Shukujo to hige), Ozu does indeed show us that the middle of the road might be the best place to be as his basically good yet rigidly traditionalist hero is cajoled towards modernity but ultimately rejects its extremes in pulling a “modern girl” back towards the path of righteousness. 

Recent graduate Okajima (Tokihiko Okada) is a kendo enthusiast with a rather unsettling beard which he has long refused to shave. Other than his strangely close friendship with nobleman Teruo (Ichiro Tsukida), he appears to have been rejected by mainstream society because of his odd appearance and socially awkward behaviour. Teruo invites him to his sister’s birthday party without bothering to ask her and consequently scandalises all of her friends who vow to humiliate Okajima as soon as he arrives. Okajima, however, has no idea he is being made fun of. He declines the invitation to dance with the young women in the modern fashion but volunteers to do a dance on his own, prancing about with a fan and waving his sword around in an unexpected display of traditional performance. When Teruo and his sister return after having a private argument, the party is ruined. All the girls have left, for reasons which Okajima seems not to understand. 

He is at least, however, chivalrous. Spotting a young woman in kimono being mugged in the street by a modern girl, he wades in to help, earning her eternal admiration while fending off the other members of the modern girl’s gang with his kendo skills. His heroism further pays off when he discovers that the woman he saved, Hiroko (Hiroko Kawasaki), is a typist at an office where he is interviewing for a job. Hiroko is able to explain to him that the reason he was turned down, despite the fact that the boss also had a big bushy beard, was his facial hair so he should try shaving it off. 

The beard is a symbol not only of Okajima’s traditional mindset but of a certain kind of masculinity which might not be welcome in the modern world. Teruo tries to defend it to his sister by showing her portraits of various great men from the past who all had facial hair while Okajima claims that his is inspired by Abraham Lincoln and is intended to put women off so that he doesn’t get distracted from becoming a great man himself. Okajima’s robust masculinity, avoidance of women, and intense friendship with Teruo, anxious should he get the wrong idea about women in his apartment, might hint at another possibility, but that soon goes out the window when he sheds the beard and instantly becomes irresistible to women. Not only is he developing a romantic relationship with the homely, traditional Hiroko but also becomes attractive to Teruo’s sister Ikuko (Toshiko Iizuka) and the modern girl Satoko (Satoko Date). 

Both Hiroko and Ikuko are attracted to Okajima because of his traditional masculinity in his capacity to protect them. Ikuko, rejecting a suitor who eventually exposes a problematic side to male dominance, tells him that she won’t consider anyone who’s not skilled in kendo because she is looking for a protector. He reminds her that’s what the police and the law are for, so she tells him fair enough, she’ll marry a policeman. Modernity codes “protection” into the system, depersonalised and in other ways perhaps problematic, where traditionalism relies on access to male strength. Ikuko disliked Okajima when he had a beard, but secretly desires those very qualities the beard was set to represent. 

Satoko, meanwhile, the modern girl, rejected Okajima because of his bizarre appearance while he rejects her for the same reason in a mirroring of the various ways we are the image we present. Kimono’d Hiroko is good, modern girl Satoko is bad. Even after shaving his beard, Okajima remains an undercover traditionalist, wearing his kendo clothes under his suit and chivalrous to the end. Not recognising him and possibly in the pay of Teruo trying to put his sister off marriage, Satoko seduces the clean shaven Okajima while he rejects her advances but tries to “save” her from an excess of modernity by getting her away from the gang. She fancies herself in love with him, but what he does is free her from the false image of the modern society to give her back the true freedom of her own agency. In the end he chooses the classically nice, middle of the road option in remaining with Hiroko who loved him with beard and without rather than modern girl Satoko or snooty aristocrat Ikuko. You trim it but it just keeps growing back, the final title card adds, but the message seems to be that too much of one thing be it nationalistic conservatism or hedonistic modernity is no good. The middle way it is, slow and steady and as wholesome as could be.


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

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.

Tokyo Chorus (東京の合唱, Yasujiro Ozu, 1931)

“Tokyo – city of the unemployed” runs a rather unexpected caption part way through Yasujiro Ozu’s depression-era silent comedy, Tokyo Chorus (東京の合唱, Tokyo no Chorus). Putting an unconventional spin on the reality of the contemporary capital, Ozu nevertheless retreats into his favourite themes as good people attempt to remain cheerful in the face of increasing adversity while embracing an often latent interest in class politics as the hero finds himself losing out at the hands of heartless capitalists when he alone is brave enough to stand up for a friend treated unfairly. 

Ozu opens however with an amusing prologue set some years before the main action in which the hero, Okajima (Tokihiko Okada), is a poor student goofing off during a military-style drill. While another boy arrives late to practice and is mocked for having arrived in geta, Okajima’s problem is that he didn’t want to take his jacket off because he isn’t wearing a shirt. A little less well off than some of the others, he brazens things out by ribbing the teacher, Mr. Omura (Tatsuo Saito). Flashforward some years and Okajima has become an insurance clerk, married with three children. His oldest child, a son, is desperate for a bicycle because the other kids have one and as Okajima is supposed to be getting his bonus today, the parents have decided to give in. 

Things do not, however,  go quite to plan. After picking up his pay packet, Okajima gets talking with an old timer who laments he’s just been fired. He thinks it’s because he sold some unlucky policies in which the beneficiary died shortly after signing the paperwork, but it seems obvious to Okajima that they’re firing him because they don’t want to pay his pension. He talks things over with the other employees who all agree it’s unfair, but is the only one brave enough to march into the boss’ office and say so. Unfortunately, Okajima gets nowhere and loses his own job in the proccess. Dejected, he buys his son a much cheaper scooter on the way home but the boy is unimpressed, as is his wife (Emiko Yagumo) when he hands her his notice of termination. 

It is of course a good and proper thing that Okajima stood up for colleague, but he’s lost out because of his pride, smugly explaining to his wife that he was in the right while arguing with his boss and resentfully refusing to admit the irresponsibility of his actions as a husband and a father. Pride becomes a persistent secondary concern as he tries to find another steady job in the economically straitened world of 1931. Despite telling his colleague he envied him for his job as a sandwichboard man and claiming that having a college degree makes him overqualified for casual work, Okajima struggles with himself intellectually knowing that any job will do to feed his family but embarrassed in having to resort to work he feels is beneath him. When he runs into Mr. Omura and he offers to help him with a job in the curry rice restaurant he now owns after retiring from teaching, Okajima is conflicted, telling him he won’t accept help if it’s offered out of pity but only if extended in friendship. When his wife spots him out delivering leaflets, however, she is scandalised and humiliated rather than proud or grateful, only later coming round and agreeing to help out in the Omuras’ restaurant herself. 

Meanwhile, family life is obviously strained by their ongoing financial predicament. When their daughter is taken ill and needs hospital treatment, Mrs. Okajima is upset to discover that her husband sold all her kimonos to pay the fees, their eyes aflash with anger and despair as they put on a brave face for the children but eventually brightening as they continue on with a family game of pat-a-cake. Despite her distress, Mrs. Okaijma maintains faith in her husband and the family is as happy as it can be under the circumstances. At a reunion organised for some of his former students now no longer the rambunctious young men they were at the film’s opening but wistful for the spent freedoms of their youth, Omura makes a toast hoping that everyone continues to prosper through “hard-work and self-reliance”, but it is the mutual solidarity which Okajima showed when he stood up for his mistreated colleague which eventually proves his salvation. Humbled by his experiences, no longer looking down on honest work, he gets the offer of another job which is not quite of the kind he was hoping for, but is perhaps a new start even if it means leaving Tokyo, city of the unemployed, behind for the greener pastures of provincial Tochigi and a simpler, but perhaps kinder, existence. 


Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (戸田家の兄妹, Yasujiro Ozu, 1941)

Yasujiro Ozu made only two films during the height of the war. After being drafted for the second time in 1943, he famously sat out the main action from the relative safety of Singapore where he was able to indulge his love of Hollywood cinema to an extent impossible in Japan. Somewhat surprisingly, 1941’s Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (戸田家の兄妹, Toda-ke no Kyodai) does not seem to fit the censor’s ideal in that it contains little to no patriotic content and never mentions the war save for presenting the idea of “Manchuria” as a place to start again free of burdensome codes of social oppression but, crucially, embraces classic ideas of filial piety which is presumably how it came to be approved by the powers that be. 

Shortly after the Toda family gathers for the first time in quite a while to celebrate Mrs. Toda’s (Ayako Katsuragi) 61st birthday, Mr. Toda (Hideo Fujino) drops dead of a heart attack and it is discovered that the family firm is near bankruptcy. The large, Western-style mansion where the family photo so recently took place will have to be sold and Mrs. Toda and her unmarried daughter Setsuko (Mieko Takamine) will have to move in with one of the married children. 

Like the later Tokyo Story, Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family concerns itself with the failure of filial piety in an increasingly corrupt society. Multigenerational homes might once have been a cultural norm, but perhaps it’s understandable that few people might be excited about the prospect of their mother suddenly moving in with them especially as the traditional Japanese house is not designed with personal space in mind. Power dynamics seem to be the problem at the first home where daughter-in-law Kazuko (Kuniko Miyake) makes no secret of the fact that the two women are in the way. She resents having to shift everything around and reorder her home to give them space upstairs, complains about their noisy pet bird, and is then put out when Setsuko and her mother fail to greet her guests even though she specifically asked them to absent themselves in order to avoid meeting them. 

At the next home, however, it’s more a question of maternal heirarchy. Daughter Chizuru (Mitsuko Yoshikawa) has two children and the oldest, her son Ryokichi (Masao Hayama), is very attached to his grandma, so much so that he confides in her about skipping school because he got into a fight and is worried about reprisals. Chizuru’s main objection to them moving in had been that it might distract Ryokichi from his studies, and it’s clear that she finds it difficult to assert her own maternity with her mother hovering in the background. She accuses Mrs. Toda of interfering by keeping her promise to Ryokichi and not telling her about skipping school, making it impossible for them to keep living in the same house. 

Rather than descend on the home of the last daughter, Ayako (Yoshiko Tsubouchi), who is hurt but perhaps relieved to hear they won’t be living with her, Mrs. Toda and Setsuko decide to move into a dilapidated summer house the family thought too worthless to sell. They are now thoroughly marginalised, living in a literal half-way home having lost their position in society. Setsuko, naive but earnest, is the keenest to adapt to her circumstances. Her best friend Tokiko (Michiko Kuwano) is from an “ordinary” family and tries to point out, as nicely as possible, that Setsuko is going to find it much more difficult than she thinks to move beyond her privilege. Aware of her precarious circumstances, she expresses the intention to work but is quickly shut down by Chizuru who finds the idea highly offensive and in fact embarrassing. She urges her to think about a socially advantageous marriage instead.  

Shojiro (Shin Saburi), the youngest and as yet unmarried son, urges her to do something much the same at the film’s conclusion but also offers his sister the freedom to fulfil herself outside the home by accompanying him to the land of the possible, Manchuria. Previously regarded as a feckless failure, Shojiro decided to take up the opportunity to make something of himself in Japan’s new colonial endevour. On his brief return to mark the first anniversary of his father’s passing, he appears in a China-style suit and fiercely takes his siblings to task for their disrespect of his mother. It has to be said, however, that he does not particularly take Mrs. Toda’s feelings into account and foregrounds his own duty of filial piety in insisting that she live with family rather than alone excluding the possibility that she too may prefer her freedom. In any case, it’s freedom he dangles before Setsuko in suggesting that in Manchuria you can do as you please without needing to worry about what others think. He offers her the possibility of marriage, but also of working and a kind of independence which is bound within the family. For herself, Setsuko wants to bring Tokiko too, positing a possible arranged match between her friend and her brother which other members of the family may find inappropriate in its transgressive breach of the class divide. 

The family is both dissolved and restored as the three Todas prepare to remove themselves from a corrupted Japan for, ironically, a new start in the home of old ideas, China, where there is both the promise of modernity and all the “good” aspects of the traditional, to whit filiality. Fulfilling the censors demands in subtly criticising the decadent, selfish, and hypocritical lifestyles of an impoverished nobility while presenting Manchuria as an opportunity remake a better, purer (and subversively progressive) Japan through imperialist pursuits, Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family offers an ambivalent portrait of contemporary Japanese society in which the young save themselves but only by saving their parents first. 


Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family is available on blu-ray in the UK as part of the BFI’s re-release of Tokyo Story in its recent 4K restoration which also includes an introduction to Tokyo Story from Tony Rayns, and Talking with Ozu: a tribute to the legendary director featuring filmmakers Lindsay Anderson, Claire Denis, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Aki Kaurismäki, Stanley Kwan, Paul Schrader and Wim Wenders. The first pressing also comes with a booklet featuring an essay by Professor Joan Mellen, archival writing by John Gillett and Lindsay Anderson, and a biography of Yasujiro Ozu by Tony Rayns.

It is also available to stream online via BFI Player as part of the BFI Japan Yasujiro Ozu collection.

Titles and opening (no subtitles)

The Lights of Asakusa (浅草の灯, Yasujiro Shimazu, 1937)

Lights of Asakusa posterThe lights of Asakusa (浅草の灯, Asakusa no Hi) still shone bright before the war. In this tiny corner of Tokyo well known for “low” entertainment, actors mingle with gangsters, lonely owners of amusement stalls, starving artists, bar girls, and wealthy industrialists each just trying to survive in an increasingly jittery city. Yasujiro Shimazu had been a pioneer of the “shomingeki” – stories of ordinary lower middle class people, and brings his characteristic wit and humanity to a tale of backstreet life where danger and ruin lurk on every corner and the only way to ensure one’s safety is to ensure you have the right defenders.

The main stage, if you will, is that of the Nippon-za “opera” company. This is, however, no great opera house but a run down little theatre presenting classical European opera for vaudeville audiences. The currently running show is Carmen, which will turn out to be appropriate for the events at hand. The trouble starts (or perhaps merely intensifies) when a young chorus member, Reiko (Mieko Takamine), begins attracting a range of wanted and unwanted male attention. Reiko, an orphan, had been taken in by a local bar mistress who later pushed her into the opera company but still expects her to make good on her investment by becoming a casual prostitute and taking on “customers” who present themselves at the bar (Reiko is around 16 or so, and therefore has just reached the age her foster mother thinks appropriate to join the business). The complication is that the man who’s taken a fancy to Reiko, Handa (Shunro Takeda), is a steel magnate who also finances the opera troupe meaning it’s not just the bar owner who’s coming under pressure but the financial security of the troupe too.

Being so young, Reiko finds her foster mother’s demands hard to refuse but is rescued by Sasaki (Seiji Nishimura) – the leading actor, married to leading lady Marie (Haruko Sugimura). The situation with Reiko exposes cracks already present in the group when Handa sends his goons in to disrupt the show, irking Sasaki to the point he takes off in a fit of artistic temperament. Meanwhile, another actor Yamagami (Ken Uehara), gets together with the rest of the troupe to ensure Reiko’s safety by hiding her with a feeble minded fan, Pokacho (Daijiro Natsukawa), so that she won’t be forced into a potentially life ruining situation.

Reiko’s plight is perhaps all too common on the streets of Asakusa. Having been orphaned she feels herself indebted to the bar mistress who took her in even if the relationship between them is not especially warm. She also feels grateful to have found a third family in the opera troupe and is afraid to lose her place there. Nevertheless, she is under extreme pressure to submit herself to this system of reciprocal arrangements and sleep with Handa solely to save making trouble for everyone else. Meanwhile her (sometimes) sympathetic roommate Beniko (Kayako Fujiwara) knows exactly what’s at stake through having been in a similar situation herself. She’s long been in love with the pure hearted Yamagami and is harbouring a degree of jealously in believing that Yamagami has a soft spot for Reiko, but she also half wants things to work out between them seeing as she has lost the “right” to love a man like Yamagami because she is no longer a virgin.

Shimazu had often been of a progressive mind, but sadly Beniko falls by the wayside, merely a sacrificial lamb prepared to give up on her dreams on Reiko’s behalf, so we never find out the limits of Yamagami’s justice loving heart or if he would be as bothered about Beniko’s past as she seems to fear he might be. Yamagami, brooding but righteous, would become one of matinee idol Ken Uehara’s best known roles though he too is teetering on the brink in Asakusa. Committed to defending the innocent, he tries to save Reiko’s honour but fails to declare a personal interest, entrusting her to the rather odd painter Pokacho who claims that his love for Reiko is of a spiritual, rather than carnal kind. Yamagami may succeed in his primary goal but still ends up in defeat, running away from the most important fight by retreating from Tokyo completely with a rebound girlfriend in tow, hoping to find kinder light in Osaka than he had on the dog eat dog streets of Asakusa.

Based on a novel by Hiroshi Hamamoto, Shimazu’s portrait of backstreet life sparkles with authenticity but also with a kind of hopelessness as each of these down on their luck “opera” stars laments their sorry fates and longs for a better gig somewhere less down and dirty. Meanwhile, the spectre of war lingers – when Carmen comes off the next show is to be “Two Honourable Soldiers”, filled with maudlin anthems of war which push the messages of patriotism and the glorification of offering one’s life for one’s country. The slimy Handa may have been defeated for now, but his kind are in the ascendent and the streets of Asakusa are unlikely to improve with only war and depression on the horizon.


Family Meeting (家族会議, Yasujiro Shimazu, 1936)

Family Meeting horizontal posterGiven the strident tone of the times, it was perhaps becoming more difficult to avoid politics altogether by the mid-1930s, but Yasujiro Shimazu manages it well enough in Family Meeting (家族会議, Kazoku Kaigi) – a romantic melodrama set in the world of the high stakes family business. Shimazu is best remembered as the pioneer of the shomingeki – stories of ordinary lower-middle class life in the contemporary era, but Family Meeting shifts up a little way in its focus on a young CEO who discovers it’s lonely at the top, not least because of the burden of family legacy and its unexpected impact on his difficult love life.

Shimazu opens on a noisy trading room floor at the Shigezumi Company before shifting to the equally chaotic boss’ office. Young CEO Takayuki (Shin Saburi) is called out by a family friend, Haruko (Yasuko Tachibana), who insists he come to the theatre to meet a young lady, Kiyoko (Michiko Kuwano), with whom she hopes to set him up. Takayuki’s love life is somewhat complicated in that he’s in love with “that woman from Osaka” – Yasuko (Michiko Oikawa) who also happens to be the daughter of a former business associate whose dodgy dealings some say pushed Takayuki’s late father to suicide. Yasuko is coming to Tokyo for the memorial service for Takayuki’s dad in company with her friend, Shinobu (Sanae Takasugi), but is also being pursued by another suitor – Rentaro (Kokichi Takada), a businessman who is secretly attempting to undermine Takayuki’s business through merging with another company.

Difficulties abound for Takayuki as his business suffers and he’s pestered from all sides as regards his romantic inclinations. Despite his personal feelings, he is unable to fulfil his romantic desires with Yasuko because of their difficult family history while Haruko attempts to push him towards Kiyoko. Kiyoko, the daughter of the businessman undercutting Takayuki’s business wouldn’t be such a good match either if anyone but she knew about the machinations, but currently they’re a well kept secret. Having fallen in love with Takayuki she eventually decides to spill the beans which gives him an all important advantage though he has to mortgage his house and approach Shinobu’s father, a wealthy Buddhist monk, for a loan in order to stay afloat. Takayuki isn’t interested in Kiyoko and finally has to resort to bluntness to make her understand but the eventual outcome is as positive as it could be and, in any case, works out well enough once she realises she’s developed an attraction for Rentaro who is finally beginning to go off Yasuko.

The romantic and the corporate increasingly overlap but the general message is that the modern business of commerce is chaotic and messy. The shouting of the trading floor and the backroom dealing of Rentaro’s nefarious plan are not exactly the rarefied world of gentleman’s agreements which often passes for the salaryman life in Japanese cinema, but the central irony is that the wealthiest man of all is the monk who “earns” his money passively through the largely silent practice of donation. The monk’s modern girl daughter, Shinobu, by contrast is a spendthrift with a taste for the spirt of the age – fast cars, feather boas, fancy hats and a confident forthrightness that stands in stark contrast to the shy diffidence of the permanently kimono’d Yasuko. The final irony is that it’s Shinobu who ultimately ends up “in charge” not only of Takayuki’s business arrangements – receiving the debt from her father and deciding to run the company herself with Takayuki as the boss, but also of his romantic life when she engineers a reunion with Yasuko before valiantly driving off alone into the mountains, her work here well and truly done.

Only once Takayuki is freed from his workplace burden is he able to address his romantic difficulties, and only by leaving the city behind is he able to free himself of his father’s legacy. Thanks to the gentle machinations of Shinobu, everyone is able to move forward with a little more certainty and little less preoccupation as she alone decides to shoulder all their burdens without thought for herself. Unlike many ‘30s films, Family Meeting’s central message seems to be slow down, let others help when things get hard, and try to avoid being so noble you make yourself unhappy. All good lessons though perhaps inexpertly delivered and without Shimazu’s usual wit.


Okoto and Sasuke (春琴抄 お琴と佐助, Yasujiro Shimazu, 1935)

Okoto to SasukeYasujiro Shimazu had been a pioneer of the “shomin-geki” – naturalistic tales of ordinary working people in the contemporary era, but 1935’s Okoto and Sasuke (春琴抄 お琴と佐助, Shunkinsho: Okoto to Sasuke) sees him step back from the modern world in adapting a soon to be classic novella by contemporary novelist Junichiro Tanizaki. Published in 1933 under the title Shunkinsho and set in late Meiji, Okoto and Sasuke is another in the author’s long series of dark erotic dramas which aim to explore the baser elements of the human heart while engaging in a kind of cultural soul searching. The first of many adaptations, Shimazu’s scales back on Tanizaki’s taste for the perverse as well as his wry sense of humour, spinning a tender tale of love which finally finds its home only in the shared darkness of two becoming one in self imposed exile from the visible world.

Okoto (Kinuyo Tanaka) has been blind since she was nine and, though her parents appear to dote on her, has a proud and imperious manner which sees her mistreat those who only seek her friendship. Fearing that, due to her disability, Okoto will never find a suitable husband, the family have decided to let her study the koto and shamisen (traditionally strong areas for the blind) so that she might be able to support herself and have some degree of accomplishment. Sasuke (Kokichi Takada), a young servant at the pharmacy run by Okoto’s father, began escorting Okoto to her classes for no especial reason but as he is one of the few who can cope with Okoto’s moods, and is one of the few Okoto seems to tolerate, he quickly became her personal companion.

Sasuke remains completely devoted to Okoto even when she treats him cruelly. So many areas of their relationship are an inversion of the customs of the time – Okoto is the mistress, while Sasuke is the servant, she is strong while he is weak, she is cruel and he is kind. She has all the power, and he has none but seems to revel in his degradation, obeying each and every one of Okoto’s commands and rarely minding even when she strikes him. Nevertheless, despite her outward contempt for him Okoto is also dependent of Sasuke – not only for the assistance he provides, but for the gentle touch of his hands and his willingness to place himself entirely under her authority in worshipful devotion.

The relationship between the pair is one of (seemingly) chaste sadomasochism in which both reject the “normal” romantic affectations of their time. Despite the obvious class difference, Okoto’s family are secretly hoping Okoto and Sasuke will someday marry – an idea floated with intense seriousness when it is discovered that Okoto has become pregnant though she refuses to name the father of the child, denying that her lover is Sasuke and vowing that she would find it “humiliating” to be married to a mere servant.

There is something, as uncomfortable as it is, which presents Okoto’s pride as a kind of rebellion born of her blindness, a rejection of the world which has rejected her as “imperfect” and which she literally cannot see. Despite her family’s reservations Okoto does acquire a suitor, but he is only interested in her precisely because of her blindness. A playboy, Ritaro has fetishised Okoto’s “difference” and sees her almost as a trophy, captivated by her intense beauty and only spurred on by her haughtiness. A friend of Sasuke’s, by contrast, hearing the rumour of Okoto’s pregnancy, expresses horror at the idea of a “disabled” woman with a child, avowing that society would never stand for such a thing, rejecting and salivating over the salacious rumour at the same time. Okoto will pay a heavy price for her violent rejection of Ritaro’s attempt to reduce her to a mere conquest, ironically allowing him to rob her of something, but eventually leading her towards the destiny which will bind her forever to her devoted servant, Sasuke.

Okoto, having suffered facial disfigurement, comes to realise the true nature of her feelings for Sasuke but cannot bear for him to see her ruined face, and he, dutifully, resolves to keep his eyes closed as if blind. Ultimately Sasuke opts for the traditionally female act of sacrifice in deciding to shift from his own world into that of Okoto. Together they cut themselves off from the outside world, electing to live in a world made for two alone in which none else may enter. Their act is one of intense individualism taken as a pair who have become one in their mutual devotion, rejoicing in a love born of darkness. Shimazu undercuts Tanizaki’s need for discomfort to present the final union of Okoto and Sasuke as the uncomplicated realisation of a love deep and true – concluding with an intertitle rather than succumb to the inherently melodramatic resolution of Tanizaki’s eroguro love story. Nevertheless through the powerful performance of Kinuyo Tanaka as the increasingly conflicted Okoto, Shimazu manages to capture something of the “pure” love of equals who find their place in a changing world only by removing themselves from it.


Elegy of the North (挽歌, Heinosuke Gosho, 1957)

elegy of the north posterHeinosuke Gosho is perhaps among the most neglected Japanese directors of the “golden age”. A pioneer of the “shomingeki”, Gosho’s work is marked by a profound humanism but also a refusal to reduce the complexity of human emotions to the superficially immediate. Elegy of the North (挽歌, Banka) takes him much further in the direction of standard melodrama than he would usually venture, echoing contemporary American or European romantic dramas filled with soaring scores and moments of intense emotion bridged by long periods of restraint and repression. Yet it is also among the most psychologically complex of Gosho’s narratives, telling stories of death and rebirth in place of the usual coming of age and first heartbreak for which the genre is so well loved. In Reiko (Yoshiko Kuga) he presents us with a heroine we can’t be sure we like and certainly are not intended to approve of even as we sympathise with her pain and long for an end to her (often self inflicted) suffering.

Walking along the smoking volcanic soil of frozen Hokkaido, Reiko offers us the first of many voiceovers in which she tells us about her left arm – withered and almost numb due to childhood arthritis. When her withered arm is bitten by a dog, Nellie, owned by a melancholy architect, Katsuragi (Masayuki Mori), she barely feels it but Katsuragi is mortified. “She’s never bitten anyone before”, he tells Reiko by way of explanation, “I’ve never been bitten before”, Reiko fires back but bitten she certainly has been. Captivated by the idea of Katsuragi, she doesn’t immediately take him up on the offer of coming to his house and possibly adopting a puppy but catches sight of him around town and then decides to pay him a visit. He isn’t in, but Akiko (Mieko Takamine), his wife, is. Reiko didn’t want to see Katsuragi’s wife so she makes a speedy escape.

Having caught sight of Akiko, Reiko is equally intrigued. Akiko, as Reiko discovers, is having an (unhappy) affair with a much younger medical student, Tatsumi (Fumio Watanabe). Failing to read the emotional landscape of this sorry scene, Reiko regards this information as a juicy piece of gossip in her ongoing campaign to win over Katsuragi. She spies on the lovers, childishly eavesdropping on them in a local cafe, even suddenly delivering their coffee for them so she can get a proper look at Akiko – not that she really sees her or the distraught look on her face, she merely observes her rival – the wicked woman who has betrayed her beloved Katsuragi.

Reiko is constantly berated by her father and grandmother for her unwomanliness. Compared with the typical Japanese woman of the time and particularly with the stoic yet miserable Akiko, Reiko can certainly be thought unusual. Dressing in androgynous loose trousers, polo neck jumper and overcoat, without makeup and with unkempt hair, her aesthetic is one of rambunctious child or rebellious teenager. Her habit of throwing out awkward, inappropriate questions at first seems like childish ineptness but later seems calculated to unbalance. She is often cruel, perhaps deliberately so, but then remorseful (if only for selfish reasons). Though Reiko seems to feel that it’s her disability that marks her out as an outcast, unfit for marriage or a “normal” life, her family appear much more concerned with her unconventional rejection of femininity in her boldness, masculine dress, and refusal to learn the traditionally feminine crafts of housework and cookery so necessary to becoming the ideal wife.

What Reiko sees in Akiko is an image of her idealised self – beautiful, poised, elegant, and the wife of Katsuragi. As part of her nefarious plan, Reiko decides to “befriend” Akiko while Katsuragi is away on a business trip. What she never expected is that she would come to genuinely care for both Akiko and the couple’s small daughter Kumiko (Etsuko Nakazato), making her position as a potential home wrecker impossible. Reiko’s father blames himself for her unwomanliness, having raised her alone after his wife died, denying her of a maternal influence from whom she would have learned all the essentials of femininity which she now seems to lack. Akiko, a few years older, becomes both friend and surrogate mother – Reiko even begins calling her “Mamma” just as Kumiko does. Akiko’s distant poise begins to thaw when Reiko crawls in through her door one night after contracting pneumonia. Nursing Reiko as a mother would brings the two women closer together but it also unwittingly drives them apart in deepening Reiko’s sense of guilt in being torn between two loves in the knowledge that she must destroy one of them or herself.

Akiko, the tragic heroine of the piece, remains a cypher precisely because of her adherence to the rules of traditional femininity. Reiko is first drawn to her because of her sad smile – something she later brings up again in their fiercely undramatic yet heartrending parting scene as Reiko tries to undo the harm she has just done only for Akiko to mildly reject her by instructing her that she needs to take better care of herself. Her relationship with Katsuragi appears to have floundered and, trapped in a lonely marriage, Akiko has found herself in an emotionally draining entanglement with a younger man whose life she fears she is ruining. Tatsumi, needled, is irritated by Reiko’s buzzing around Akiko, asking her an awkward question of his own in accusing her of being a lesbian, to which Reiko gives one of her infuriately barbed replies with “call it what you want”. Reiko’s intentions probably do not run that way (at least consciously), so much as she longs for the love and affection she missed out on after losing her mother at such a young age. Akiko, however, may see things differently. Her life appears lonely, and her friendship with Reiko, whom she brands “reckless yet somehow cheerful” (again, like an infuriating child), is one of its few bright spots. The betrayal is not so much that Reiko has slept with her husband, but that Reiko has deliberately ruined their friendship by exposing it as a cruel ruse in the most wounding of ways. The last time we see Akiko, she is wearing the necklace that Reiko gave to her – a sure sign that her final decision is, in someway, taken on Reiko’s behalf.

Reiko’s tragedy is that her intense self loathing which she attributes to her withered arm, leads her to suspect each act of kindness is only one of pity and that no one can truly love her, they’re just overcompensating because of her “deformity”. At the beginning of the film she asks herself if her mind is as warped as her body. Her actions are often “warped”, as in she works against herself and ultimately destroys the very thing she wanted most yet there is a kind of settling that occurs through her interactions with Akiko. In the final sequence, Reiko has shed her dowdy, dark coloured, worn trousers and jumpers for an elegant skirt and blouse, and has learned to accommodate a certain level of domesticity. Even if she is merely echoing Akiko, Reiko has at least attempted to move forward in exploring the areas of femininity she had hitherto rejected outright. That it is not to say her “unusual” nature is tamed in favour of conforming to social norms, merely that a side of herself which she had decided to keep locked has been opened up for examination (and may then be rejected with greater self knowledge). Elegy of the North lives up to its name in singing a long and painful song of mourning, but Gosho ends on a note of hopeful, in pained, optimism for his contrary heroine, literally forced to move past the scene of her crime towards a possibly happier future.


Screened at BFI as part of the Women in Japanese Melodrama season.

The Trio’s Engagements (婚約三羽烏, Yasujiro Shimazu, 1937)

vlcsnap-2017-09-08-02h54m10s546Yasujiro Shimazu may not be as well known as some of his contemporaries such as the similarly named Yasujiro Ozu and Hiroshi Shimizu, but during in his brief yet prolific career which was cut short by his early death just before the end of the war, Shimazu became the father of one of the most prominent genres in Japanese cinema –  the “shomingeki”, which focussed on the lives ordinary lower middle-class people. Shimazu’s early films were noted for their unusual naturalism but 1937’s The Trio’s Engagements (婚約三羽烏, Konyaku Sanbagarasu) is pure Hollywood in its screwball tale of three silly young men and their respective romantic difficulties which are sorted out with the amusing kind of neatness you can only find in a 1930s cinematic farce.

Shuji Kamura (Shuji Sano) has been looking for a job in Japan’s depression hit Tokyo for some time and his long suffering girlfriend, Junko (Kuniko Miyake), has finally gotten fed up with his listlessness and decided it might be better if she left him on his own for a while to sort himself out. Slightly panicked, Shuji heads off to see about a job at a department store specialising in rayon fabrics. Undergoing a rather odd interview, he meets two other men in the same position – well to do Ken Taniyama (Ken Uehara), and down on his luck chancer Shin Miki (Shin Saburi). Luckily all three are employed that day and start working in the store but trouble brews when they each fall for the charms of the boss’ daughter, Reiko (Mieko Takamine).

Despite the contemporary setting and the difficulty of finding work for even educated young men providing a starting point for the drama, Shimazu creates a truly “modern” world full of neon lights and Westernised fashions. The trio work in a department store which sells rayon – a cheap substitute for silk being sold as the latest sophisticated import from overseas, and the store itself is designed in a modernist, art deco style which wouldn’t look out of place in any Hollywood film of the same period. Likewise, though the store is largely staffed by men catering to a largely female clientele, it maintains a sophisticated atmosphere with staff members expected to provide solicitous care and attention to each and every customer.

The guys do this with varying degrees of commitment as Shin and Ken pull faces at each other across the floor and Shuji wastes time on the roof. Shimazu packs in as many quick fire gags as possible beginning the the bizarre job interviews in which Shuji ends up doing some very in-depth role play while Shin expounds on the virtues of rayon as if he were some kind of fabrics genius. Shin Miki is your typical chancer, turning up to his job interview with a thick beard which he later shaves making him all but unrecognisable, and even cheating Ken out of a few coins he’s been using to show off his magic tricks before bamboozling his way into Shuji’s flat.

The central, slapstick conceit is that each of the guys is about to jettison their previous partners for a false infatuation with the beautiful Reiko. Shuji is mostly on the rebound from Junko who may or may not come back to see if he’s sorted himself out, while Ken is uncertain about an arranged marriage, and Shin has a secret country bumpkin girlfriend he doesn’t want anyone to know about. Their respective crushes nearly spell the end for their friendship but then Reiko has her own ideas about marriage which don’t involve shop boys or a future in the rayon business. Eventually the guys realise they’ve all been a little silly and run back into the arms of the women they almost threw over, finding happiness at last in their otherwise ordinary choices.

Shimazu makes brief use of location shoots as Shin and Reiko walk along the harbour but mostly sticks to stage sets including the noticeably fake cityscape backdrop on the shop’s roof. The major draw is the “trio” at the centre which includes some of Shochiku’s most promising young leading men who would all go on to become huge stars including 30s matinee idol Ken Uehara, Shuji Sano, and Shin Saburi. Light and filled with silly, studenty humour The Trio’s Engagements is a deliberately fluffy piece designed to blow the blues away in increasingly difficult times, but even if somewhat lacking in substance it does provide a window onto an idealised 1930s world of Westernised flappers, cheap synthetic products, and frivolous romance.