The Water Magician (瀧の白糸, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1933)

“As long as I breathe, I’ll remember my debt to you” avows a young man to his unexpected benefactor becoming one of many claiming they will never forget her kindness though in his case he actually means it. Kenji Mizoguchi would later become known for tragic tales of female suffering, but his central themes were established early on and very much in evidence in 1933 silent The Water Magician (瀧の白糸, Taki no Shiraito) in which a truly good woman tries to use her independent success to improve the lives of those around her but finds herself cruelly betrayed by a greedy and self-interested patriarchal society. 

Tomo Mizushima (Takako Irie) goes by the stage name Taki no Shiraito, which means something like white threads of the waterfall, particularly apt seeing as she is a “water magician” with a troupe of itinerant players. A beautiful woman who can make the water dance, she has her share of followers and is financially independent if subject to the vagaries of the show business existence. Her life changes one day when she is travelling in a horse-drawn coach that is embarrassingly overtaken by a fast running rickshaw man. The passengers are irate, wondering what they’re paying for, while the driver ignores their pleas not to spare the horses. Tomo decides to use her feminine appeal and then her financial power to convince him to speed up, but he ignores her too until he eventually decides to gallop forward recklessly while the passengers shake inside until the coach’s axle finally snaps and leaves them stranded. A gallant young man, the driver grabs Tomo and throws her on his horse to get her to the next town. She faints on the journey and only comes round after the coachman has left but discovers herself in possession of a complicated law book she assumes is his.  

Tomo cannot stop thinking about the dashing young man, only identified as “Kin” (Tokihiko Okada). She is surprised to reencounter him asleep on a bridge though he seems not to remember her. After finding out that he is an unluckily orphaned former samurai who was fired from the coach for breaking the axle and endangering the passengers, she resolves to use her financial power to help him achieve his dreams of studying law in Tokyo. Tomo does this because she is in love and asks for nothing in return except a future promise of romantic union to which the young man does not exactly agree but does take her money and vows to live up to the faith she has shown in him. 

Alone once again Tomo tries to contend with the world around her while dreaming of Kinya, sending him her savings for his upkeep while the troupe continues to suffer especially during the traditional dry spells of the heavy winter. The troupe’s leader makes the decision to get involved with dangerous loanshark Iwabushi (Ichiro Sugai), a huge hulking man with a mean look and lecherous temperament. While Tomo dreams of Kinya, two romances mirror each other in the failed relationship of the cruel knife thrower Minami (Koju Murata) and his terrorised wife Gin (Kumeko Urabe), and the innocent young love of the beautiful Nadeshiko (Suzuko Taki) and the barker Shinzo (Bontaro Miake). Gin also borrows money from Tomo which she was reluctant to surrender because she saved it for Kinya, claiming she needs it to visit her sick mother in Tokyo and vowing once again never to forget Tomo’s kindness but later skipping out with a stagehand to escape Minami’s control. Nadeshiko and Shinzo, however, are forced to flee on learning that Minami plans to sell her to Iwabushi to settle his private debts. The couple regret leaving Tomo who has always supported them in the lurch, but she helps them escape, ushering them out the back towards a waiting boat and handing them still more money asking only that they be happy and stay together always. 

That’s not perhaps a power that’s in their keep, but the youngsters keep it as best they can and eventually attempt to protect her in the way she has protected them. The world, however, is cruel. With work thin on the ground Tomo finds herself unable to go on funding Kinya as she’d promised, and is only shamed by his well-meaning letter explaining that he’ll try to find a way of supporting himself until his studies are finished so she needn’t worry. She cuts a deal with Iwabushi and sells her body on Kinya’s behalf, but he is in league with Minami who sets his goons on her to retrieve the money seconds after she’s obtained it. 

Her hopes are at least repaid on discovering that her love is true to his word, has never forgotten her, and is well on the way to achieving his dreams as person of note. “Chance and fate, that’s all there is” Kinya had lamented on their second meeting, but he couldn’t know how right he’d be. Tomo’s dreams are fulfilled only their negation. Kinya must do his duty even if it does her harm, yet he too feels responsible and wants to share her burden though that, ironically, would only destroy everything for which she has sacrificed so much. “The river flows on as it always has and always will” the Benshi adds in solemn contemplation of this romantic tragedy, somehow inevitable in its cruelty. Tomo finds herself at the mercy of her times in which money is all, goodness is a weakness, and love too fragile to survive. The woman who made the water dance floats away on a river of tears, a victim of a cruel and unforgiving society.


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.

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.