Wild Geese (雁, AKA The Mistress, Shiro Toyoda, 1953)

(C) Daiei, 1953In the extreme turbulence of the immediate post-war period, it’s not surprising that Japan looked back to the last time it was confronted with such confusion and upheaval for clues as to how to move forward from its current state of shocked inertia. The heroine of Shiro Toyoda’s adaptation of the Ogai Mori novel, Wild Geese (雁, Gan, AKA The Mistress), finds herself at a similar crossroads to the women of the 1950s, caught between tradition and modernity as they embrace the new freedoms but remain constrained by a conservative society. Toyoda, well known for his adaptations of great literature, makes a few key changes to Mori’s novel in effect placing a Showa era heroine in a recognisably “Meiji” world.

The Japan of the 1880s is one of extreme contrast and rapidly unfolding modernity. Having finally opened its doors to the outside world, the nation is in a big hurry to “catch up” to those it sees as its equals on the world stage. Consequently, Western thoughts and values are flooding into the country, bringing both good and ill. Arranged marriages are still common and Otama (Hideko Takamine) has been married once but the marriage has failed – she was deceived, the man she married already had a wife and child. Still, having lived with a man as his wife, Otama is considered “damaged” goods and will find it difficult to make a good match in the future (especially given the whiff of scandal from being involved in an illegitimate marriage with a bigamist).

When a matchmaker (Choko Iida) arrives with a potential husband it proves hard to turn down but the matchmaker is not quite on the level. Suezo (Eijiro Tono), she says, is a recently widowed man with a young child who is in need of a new wife but cannot marry again immediately for propriety’s sake. Otama will be his mistress and then in due course his wife. However, the matchmaker is an unscrupulous woman who has spun Otama a yarn in the hope of getting her debt written off by getting the shady loanshark she owes money to a pretty young woman to have some fun with.

The position Otama finds herself in is one of impossibility. A woman cannot survive alone in the Meiji era and its lingering concessions to feudalism. For a woman as poor and lowly as Otama whose marriage prospects are slim there are few options available. Otama’s neighbour (Kuniko Miyake) has managed to carve out a life for herself as a single woman through teaching sewing classes but such opportunities are few and far between, as Otama is warned when she considers following her example. The “arrangement” with Suezo may not seem too bad on the surface – he looks after her and her father, has set her up in a house, and treats her well even if his behaviour leans toward the possessive. Despite confessing to her father that she feels trapped and miserable, humiliated on learning she has been ostracised as the mistress of a married loanshark, Otama finds little sympathy as her father declares himself “very happy” and councils her against leaving because he has no desire to return to a life of poverty, remaining selfishly indifferent to his daughter’s suffering.

Resigned to her fate, Otama does her best to adapt to her new life but remains as trapped within Suezo’s house as the caged bird he presents her with “for company”. Jealous and fearing that his wife will find out about the affair, Suezo’s preference is for Otama to stay indoors waiting for him to call. His visits are routine and perfunctory. Handing the maid a few coins to go to the public bath, Suezo signals his intentions in the least romantic of ways, pausing only to lock the garden gate.

Catching sight of an earnest student who passes by everyday at 4, Otama begins to dream of something better. The student, Okada (Hiroshi Akutagawa), is a source of fascination for all the young women in the neighbourhood but he too is instantly captivated when he glimpses the beautiful Otama trapped behind the bar-like slats of Suzeo’s love nest. Adding a touch of biblical intrigue, it is a snake which eventually leads to their meeting but no matter how deep the connection this is a love destined to fail – Otama is the kept woman of a loanshark, and Okada is a medical student with international ambitions. They inhabit different worlds and, as his friend (Jukichi Uno) puts it, this is still the Meiji era, the times will not allow it.

Nevertheless, even if her brief infatuation seems doomed, the mere act of wanting something else provokes a shift in Otama’s way of thinking. This act of fierce individualism which prompts her to defy the dominant male forces in her life whose selfish choices have caused her nothing but misery would normally be severely punished in the name of preserving social harmony but Otama’s epiphany is different. The opening title card reminded us that this was a time wild geese still flew in the skies above Tokyo. It seems to imply that birds no longer fly here, that there is no true freedom or possibility for flight in the modern age of Showa, but Otama is a woman trapped in the cage of Meiji suddenly realising that the doors have been open all along. Her choices amount to a humiliating yet materially comfortable life of subjugation, or the path of individualistic freedom in embracing her true desires. Her dream of true love rescue may have been shattered, but Otama’s heart, at least, is finally free from the twin cages of social and patriarchal oppression.


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

The Blue Sky Maiden (青空娘, Yasuzo Masumura, 1957)

blue sky maiden dvd coverYasuzo Masumura is generally remembered for dark, erotic and disturbing explorations of human behaviour but the early part of his career was marked by a more hopeful innocence and a less cynical yet still cutting humour. His debut, Kisses, was very much in the mould of the youth movie of the day but its themes were both more innocent and more controversial as a boy and girl bond after running into each other at the prison where both of their parents are serving time. Marked by darkness as it is, the worldview of Kisses is much kinder than Masumura would later allow as the pair of lovers seem to shake off their respective concerns to embrace the youthful joy and boundless freedom young love can offer.

The Blue Sky Maiden (青空娘, Aozora Musume), Masumura’s second film, does something similar but with added bite. Working for the first time with actress Ayako Wakao who would later become something of a muse, Masumura takes a typical melodrama storyline – the returned illegitimate child treated as a poor relation by her own “family”, and turns it into a genial comedy in which Wakao’s charming heroine shines brightly despite the often cruel and heartless treatment she receives. As far as the family drama goes, the genre was still in its heyday and the family unit itself fairly unquestioned yet as Masumura shows times were changing and perhaps the family is not the bedrock it initially seems to be.

18 year old Yuko (Ayako Wakao) stands at the gates of adulthood. Taking a last photo in school uniform with her high school friends as they prepare for graduation, Yuko expresses her nervousness about being sent to Tokyo to live with the family of a father she barely knows while her friends worry about getting married or getting stuck in their tiny village all alone respectively. Tragedy strikes when the girls’ teacher arrives on a bicycle and informs them that Yuko’s grandmother has been taken ill. On her death bed, the grandmother reveals the reason Yuko is the only one of her father’s four children to be raised in the country is not a concern for her health, but that she is illegitimate. Yuko’s father, unhappy in his marriage, fell in love with his secretary (Kuniko Miyake) who later gave birth to Yuko, but he was already married with two children and so Yuko’s mother went to Manchuria leaving her to be raised in secret in the country.

Having nowhere else to go, Yuko arrives at her father’s large Western style house to be greeted coldly by her half-siblings, and treated as a maid by her still angry step-mother while her father (Kinzo Shin) is away on business. It has to be said that this model middle class family are an extremely unpleasant bunch. Step-mother Tatsuko (Sadako Sawamura) is shrewish and embittered while oldest daughter Teruko (Noriko Hodaka) spends all her time chasing wealthy boyfriends (but failing to win them because she’s just as mean as her mother). The oldest brother (Yuji Shinagawa) idles away in a hipster jazz band while the youngest boy, Hiroshi (Yukihiko Iwatare), is rude and boisterous but later bonds with his new big sister when she is the only one to really bother interacting with him.

The Ono household has always been an unhappy one. Yuko’s father married his wife after being bamboozled into it by an overbearing boss trying to offload his difficult daughter. Feeling trapped and avoiding going home he fell in love with a kind woman at work, had an affair, and wanted to marry her but wasn’t strong enough to break off not only from his unwanted family but also from his career in pursuing personal happiness. By Masumura’s logic, it’s this failure to follow one’s heart which has poisoned the Ono family ruining not only the lives of Tatsuko and the children who have no respect for their father or capacity for real human feeling (as Yuko later tells them), but also that of Yuko’s poor mother  whose life has been one of constant suffering after being unfairly jettisoned by a man who was bold enough to have an affair, but not to defy social conventions and leave an unhappy home.

Yuko herself, however, refuses to allow her life to be ruined by the failings of others. Looking up at the bright blue sky with her teacher (Kenji Sugawara), she learns to create her own stretch of heaven if only in her own mind. Though others might have fought and complained at being forced into the role of maid in what is her own family home, Yuko bears her new circumstances with stoicism and good humour. Thanks to her kindness and enthusiasm, the family maid, Yae (Chocho Miyako), is quickly on her side and if Teruko’s latest target, Hirooka (Keizo Kawasaki) starts to prefer the “new servant girl” his defection is completely understandable. Unlike later Masumura heroines, Yuko’s “revenge” is total yet constructive. She refuses to be cowed by unkindness, remains pure hearted in the face of cruelty, and resolves to find her own happiness and encourage others to do the same. With a few cutting words offered kindly, Yuko gets to the heart of the Onos, essentially reminding her father that all of this unhappiness is his own fault – he made his bed 20 years ago, now he needs to lie it and be a full-time husband and father to the family of lonely misfits he created in the absence of love.

Light and bright and colourful, The Blue Sky Maiden is among Masumura’s more cheerful films, not least because it does seem to believe that true happiness is possible. Yuko does not so much defy social convention as ignore it. She lives openly and without rancour or regret. She takes things as she finds them and people (aside from the Onos) are good to her because she is good to them. Though Masumura’s later work would become increasingly dark and melancholy, Yuko bears out many of his most central themes in her steadfast claim to her own individuality and equally steadfast commitment to enabling the happiness of others in defiance of prevailing social codes.


Her Brother (おとうと, Kon Ichikawa, 1960)

ototoPerhaps oddly for a director of his generation, Kon Ichikawa is not particularly known for family drama yet his 1960 effort, Her Brother (おとうと, Ototo), draws strongly on this genre albeit with Ichikawa’s trademark irony. A Taisho era tale based on an autobiographically inspired novel by Aya Koda, Her Brother is the story of a sister’s unconditional love but also of a woman who is, in some ways, forced to sacrifice herself for her family precisely because of their ongoing emotional neglect.

Oldest daughter Gen (Keiko Kishi) is still in school though she’s more or less running the household seeing as her invalid step-mother (Kinuyo Tanaka) spends most of her time bedridden with rheumatism and the rest of it pontificating about religion and listening to her poisonous friend (Kyoko Kishida) who likes to stir up trouble in this already difficult family environment. Gen’s father (Masayuki Mori) is a well known writer who needs a lot of quiet time for his work. As fathers go he’s very laid back and content to think his kids will be OK because they’re his kids, which isn’t to say he doesn’t care but he’s not exactly present most of the time. It’s no surprise then that care of the family’s youngest, Hekiro (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), has largely fallen to his sister. Where Gen is naturally responsible and practically minded, Hekiro is reckless and always in search of adventure. Eventually this lands him in trouble when he gets involved with a bad crowd but whatever his family might have been feeling towards him, everything changes once they discover that he’s facing a serious illness.

Because of the family’s odd arrangement, Gen has become almost a maternal figure towards Hekiro despite only being a couple of years older than he is. In fact, the pair have an almost comically childish physical fight at one point which is quite undignified considering their ages, especially when it involves staining their tatami mat floor with a puddle of bright red ink. Gen does her best but like her father she more often than not lets Hekiro off the hook by bailing him out, much of the time with her own rather than her father’s money. Not having the kind of authority a parent, uncle, or aunt might have all she can really do is ask him to think about behaving better, but Hekiro constantly pushes the boundaries to get a more concrete form of attention than his sister’s well meaning attempts to help are able to provide.

Hekiro’s stunts  eventually threaten to pull his sister into his darkening world, especially when a man claiming to be a detective starts more or less stalking Gen before pulling her into a shrine on the pretext of talking about her brother’s case before trying to have his wicked way with her. Luckily Gen is saved by a flock of geese cunningly released by some of her brother’s friends which gives her enough time to escape and finally get rid of the odious little man.

Similarly, Hekiro deliberately introduces his sister to the local pool hall. Though Gen seems to enjoy the game and is even good at it, she quickly realises she’s been brought as a sort of guarantor for her brother’s mounting debts. Add in other expensive and dangerous hobbies like his boat habit (he can’t swim) and it’s not surprising everyone’s had enough of Hekiro before he’s even left school. When he has an accident which results in the death of a horse (again, very expensive), it does at least lead him to reflect on the negative effect his actions can have on those around him, even if all he wanted and continues to want is an escape from his boring and miserable family life.

Even Hekiro’s illness fails to arouse very much in the way of concern from his well meaning father and grumpy step-mother who is hellbent on marrying Gen off against her wishes. Gen is, again, the only one to nurse Hekiro in hospital, managing the household as well as looking after her brother on his sickbed. When the illness becomes more serious it provides a last opportunity for the family members to bond and make amends for the various ways they’ve failed each other. The step-mother’s visit is not as altruistic as it seems when it transpires she’s only really come to “convert” Hekiro to her religion, but she begins to feel something more for him on believing that Jesus has already saved him thanks to his outwardly calm and polite manner. The final irony is that the idealised family is only born as it is destroyed, Gen puts her pinny back on and takes the reins from her stepmother who is presumably headed straight back to bed.

Gen’s devotion can’t save her brother either from himself or his fate and it may even be the end of her too. Vowing never to marry and rising from her own sickbed stopping only to instruct her stepmother to rest, she’s very clearly chosen her path even if Ichikawa’s camera and musical cues seem to find the ironic comedy of the situation rather than the sadness of her possibly tragic plight. Ichikawa and his cinematographer invented a whole new technique for this picture – the bleach bypass, which appropriately robs the environment of its vibrancy, dulling even bright colours with a sort of heavy leaded effect perfectly reflecting Hekiro’s increasingly depressed mindset as he reflects on being someone who has no firm anchor or place to feel at home. A strange, comically melancholic piece, Her Brother is a characteristically sideways swipe at the family drama from the master of irony though one which does not altogether escape his taste for the sentimental.


Original trailer (not subtitles)