The Fellows Who Ate the Elephant (象を喰つた連中, Kozaburo Yoshimura, 1947)

The Japan of 1947 was one still very much caught up in post-war chaos. In the cities, most particularly, hunger was a major problem. The Fellows Who Ate the Elephant (象を喰つた連中, Zo wo Kutta Renchu) may have a title that strongly recalls the screwball comedies of the ’30s, but is less slapstick comedy than dark satire in its central premise that a bunch of idiot mad scientists might actually eat a deceased elephant in extreme dedication to “mottainai” waste not want not philosophy coupled with the justification that all is permissible in the name of science. 

The elephant is, apparently, the last in Japan and was the childhood friend of zookeeper Yamashita (Chishu Ryu) who brought him all the way over the mountains from Thailand after the war. “Shiro-chan” is very ill with some kind of elephant cold but for some reason the doctors the zoo uses aren’t vets specialising in large, exotic animals but virologists. While they stand around apparently mystified, Yamashita enquires after the professor he usually deals with but is told that, despite being over 60 years of age, he’s currently away on honeymoon after marrying a very young and extremely beautiful woman. Sadly, Shiro doesn’t make it. The professor is saddened to learn of the death from the paper and wonders if it might have been a virus similar to one which attacks hoofed animals like donkeys and horses but is not usually found in Japan (Shiro is Thai after all). 

This is relevant because the disease is fatal and contagious but does not usually pass to humans and is only a risk if you come into direct contact with it, like say if you eat meat from an infected animal. No one would eat an elephant though so there’s nothing to worry about. Enter extremely unpleasant mad scientist Wada (Shinichi Himori) who decides that science dictates they must find out if it’s sanitary to eat elephant meat. Though Wada ropes in fellow scientist Baba (Yasumi Hara) with his scientific justifications, he tricks the other two into eating some without telling them what it is. Unforgivably, he even gives some to Yamashita and seems to get a kick out of feeding him his own childhood friend when Yamashita had only come on instruction from his boss to apologise for being over emotional the day before. Yamashita leaves feeling sick after Wada tells him what he was eating for additional effect, but his wife (Chiyoko Fumiya) later remembers a story he told her about fellow elephant drivers in Thailand who ate some elephant meat from an infected animal and were dead within 30 hours. 

After hearing Yamashita’s concerns, the scientists begin investigating and indeed find cases of people dying after eating contaminated meat. The only cure is the serum they use to treat the horse infection the professor mentioned, but it seems nowhere has any in stock (the disease is rare in Japan after all). The idiot scientists come to the conclusion they will die in exactly 30 hours’ time and decide to put their affairs in order rather than consult an actual doctor who might be able to help them. This mostly involves trying to explain their foolishness to their wives. Watanabe (Takashi Kanda) is a father of three with another child on the way. He regrets that he hasn’t been present enough in his family life and has failed to adequately provide for his wife who he will shortly be leaving to raise four children alone. Nomura (Toru Abe) meanwhile is an uxorious newlywed constantly worried that his wife (Kyoko Asagiri), who already dislikes Wada for being a bad influence on her husband, will not be able to bear the anxiety of knowing he may soon die. Baba who has only his parents retreats back to his old country home to apologise for not being a better son. 

Wada, meanwhile, moans about everyone else’s understandable desires to comfort their wives and families. He criticises Yamashita for trying to excuse himself because he’d rather go home and have dinner with his wife, while mocking Nomura for being a henpecked husband. This might partly be because he has no wife or family of his own and is currently chasing after Tomie (Akemi Sora), a maid at his boarding house, who seems pretty indifferent or even hostile to his attentions, joking that she’d celebrate on hearing of his demise. She eventually agrees to go out with him, but only if he really dies. Other than the wives, no-one quite believes the guys’ bizarre story. Baba’s parents even try to stop him going back to Tokyo when a potential cure is located in case he goes “even more mad”. 

In these trying times, the idea that someone might try to eat a dead elephant is perhaps not quite as ridiculous as it might first seem. The act of trying it, however, also plays into the constant critiques of bad or irresponsible science which are a mainstay of films in the immediate post-war era. Wada knows that he can and so he doesn’t bother to think about if he should, spinning tales of Jenner and Koch as if they’re about to make some grand lifesaving discovery. His brush with death does at least begin to humble him as he finally accepts responsibility for the unexpected consequences of his cruel prank, realising that as a man with no wife or family it should perhaps be him if anyone is going to have to make a sacrifice. Finally someone manages to get through to the professor on the phone who tells them they’re all very stupid and haven’t thought of something perfectly obvious that makes all their panicking completely pointless, but at least the surreal 30-hour near death experience has brought out a warmer side of Wada and given a few irresponsible scientists a quick lesson in social responsibility. 


Victory of Women (女性の勝利, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1946)

Victory of Women cap 1Female suffering in an oppressive society had always been at the forefront of Mizoguchi’s filmmaking even if he, like many of his contemporaries, found his aims frustrated by the increasingly censorious militarist regime. In some senses, the early days of occupation may not have been much better as one form of propaganda was essentially substituted for another if one that most would find more palatable. The first of his “women’s liberation trilogy”, Victory of Women (女性の勝利, Josei no Shori) was released in 1946 and expressly embraced the democratic philosophy espoused by the American authorities which necessarily included a motion towards female emancipation.

Played by Mizoguchi’s muse Kinuyo Tanaka, our heroine is Hiroko – a young woman working as a lawyer defending women against the cold and hard face of the law. Her family situation is, however, complicated. Her father having passed away, Hiroko’s sister Michiko (Michiko Kuwano who sadly passed away during shooting after collapsing on set) married the prosecutor Kono (Kappei Matsumoto) who financially supported Hiroko so that she might become the lawyer she is today. Meanwhile, Kono is also responsible for the arrest and incarceration of Hiroko’s fiancé Yamaoka (Shin Tokudaiji), a liberal intellectual. The political situation having changed, Yamaoka is to be released from prison after five years but is now in extremely poor health. Hiroko intends to return to him, resume their former relationship and marry once his health recovers. This is anathema to Kono who still objects to his liberalist views and views himself as having a hold over Hiroko’s future as the head of her family and in having supported her financially.

Financial support is a cornerstone if not the full foundation of Kono’s position of entitled superiority over Hiroko and her family. Despite the melodramatic underpinning of the case at hand, the real questions are the ones defining the direction of the post-war world in pitting the feudal values of “duty” and “womanliness” against a modernising liberality that prizes freedom and equality above hierarchy and obligation.

Kono, perhaps to his credit, does not appear object to the idea of female lawyers and has indeed facilitated Hiroko’s rise to just such as position but otherwise affirms that “a woman’s duty is easy. All that is required of her is self-sacrifice”. The idea of “self-sacrifice” is one which is brought up in the closing speeches of the trial in which Hiroko makes an impassioned plea in the case of a mother, Moto (Mitsuko Miura), who, mad with grief, held her baby too closely and may have suffocated it. Kono’s argument is that Moto’s transgression is against nature and the social order, that she has “failed” as a woman in rejecting her maternity by murdering her child. He rejects the “extenuating circumstances” of her grief and desperation by painting her “crime” as a selfish one in choosing to save her own life rather than sacrifice herself on her child’s behalf. Insisting that she has “disgraced the morals of women”, Kono requests she be punished severely as an example to the others.

In refuting Kono’s argument, Hiroko not only restates the extenuating circumstances of the intense strain on Moto’s mental health but attacks his entire way of thinking in positioning “motherhood” as the primary female “duty”. She does not deny that there have been many wonderful stories of women who valiantly sacrificed their own lives for their families, but reminds the court that these stories have often been misused as a kind of propaganda in service of female oppression, that under the feudal system which militarists prized so highly women were little more than slaves to men with no rights or agency. Further more, she points to the corruption of the hierarchical society which has left Moto in such a difficult position following her husband’s early death as a result of an accident at the factory for which the factory paid but only until the end of the war at which time he was cruelly cast away like so many of his generation who had perhaps been similarly exploited to serve a similar idea of “duty” only this time to the state. Kono blames Moto, insisting that her “crime” occurred because her character is “weak”. Hiroko does not blame Moto at all but the society which placed her in such an impossible position and has all but broken her spirit.

The argument is between a fair and just society in which the law exists for the protection of the people, and an austere and cruel one in which the law exists to oppress and tyrannise. Kono, an arch and unreconstructed militarist, believes in the primacy of the law. He is rigid and uncompromising, branding Hiroko’s summation as “sentimental” and “romantic”, dismissing an “irrational” woman’s logic from his elevated position on the podium. As others point out to him, his way of thinking is outdated and his tendency towards an entitled assumption that it will eventually prevail through being the proper order of things is extremely misguided yet he clings fiercely to feudalistic values which have ensured power remains in the hands of people like him since time immemorial, uncompromising to the last.

Rather than focus on Moto and her trial, Mizoguchi and his scriptwriters Kogo Noda and Kaneto Shindo, return to the realms of melodrama in shifting into the domestic as Hiroko’s older sister Michiko struggles between the feudal duty to her husband (however much she appears to dislike him) and her love for her sister whose modern liberal way of thinking still strikes her as immoral. Michiko, it seems, was forced to sacrifice herself for her family in marrying Kono for financial support. The sisters’ mother, now committed to Hiroko’s way of thinking, willingly married her daughter off telling her never to return believing it to be the proper way of things. Having suffered so long in service of an ideal no longer current, Michiko gradually comes to the realisation that she now has a choice – she does not have to stay with a husband who she does not love and does not love her, she is free to leave him and live as a full and independent woman if that is her individual will.

Nevertheless, the slightly awkward framing perhaps casts the choices of Hiroko and her sister as being defined by their respective men – Hiroko swept along by Yamaoka’s socialist politics and Michiko by her husband’s conservatism. Both men are in different senses problematic – Yamaoka vindictive and unsympathetic to Michiko’s attempts to make peace, no more forgiving than Kono while also patronising in his last impassioned speech which places such great responsibility in Hiroko’s “tiny hands”. Nevertheless, Hiroko’s clearsighted fight not only for her own freedom but for a fairer, more compassionate society founded on the idea of a literal social justice in which the law exists in service of its people rather than to oppress them is remarkably forward thinking, moving beyond “propaganda” for the new regime to the better world so often envisaged by the post-war humanists.


So Goes My Love (愛より愛へ, Yasujiro Shimazu, 1938)

(C) Shochiku 1938Yasujiro Shimazu had been a pioneer of the “shomingeki” – naturalistic stories of ordinary lower middle class life, and his early career included several forays into the world of the “tendency film” which carried strong left-wing messages. By the late 1930s however his films have shifted upwards a little and often deal with the lives of the upper middle classes as they find themselves at another moment of transition during the turbulent militarist years. In contrast with many contemporary films, Shimazu’s may seem curiously apolitical but speak volumes solely through their subtlety and direct refusal to engage with the propagandist concerns of the ruling regime.

In So Goes My Love (愛より愛へ, Ai yori Ai e), our lead, Shigeo (Shuji Sano), is a struggling writer living with his girlfriend, Miyako (Sanae Takasugi), who supports them both with her meagre earnings as a bar hostess. As we later discover, Shigeo is the eldest son of a prominent family who have (temporarily) disowned him because they don’t approve of his relationship with Miyako. Realising his dreams of becoming a successful writer are unlikely to be fulfilled, Shigeo has become moody and taciturn. He wants to find a job but isn’t exactly equipped to get one especially when the times are as hard as they are. He asks his uncle for help and gets an interview at a newspaper, but quickly realises that his uncle has set him up – he can only have the job if he “legitimises” his living arrangements. Shigeo leaves in a huff but there’s no denying he’s in a financial fix.

Things start to change when Shigeo runs into his younger sister, Toshiko (Mieko Takamine), by chance at a cafe. Toshiko insists on coming back with him to his lodgings “for future reference” but also out of morbid curiosity as a kind of touristic exercise in surveying the lives of those less fortunate. Shigeo thought Miyako would have already gone out but walks in just as she’s leaving. Though Miyako is shy and quiet, a little perturbed over being suddenly ambushed with a visitor, she does her best to ease the awkwardness between herself and her potential sister-in-law with black tea (foregoing a cup herself) until Toshiko finally consents to sit on their floor cushion. Toshiko looks around the bare, depressing flat and spots Miyako’s sewing box with a pair of freshly darned socks sitting on top. It’s immediately clear to her that Miyako is not, as her parents had suggested, some kind of gold digger (no self-respecting gold digger darns their socks, after all). More than that, she seems “nice”, which is perhaps why she’s able to put up with the petulant Shigeo with so little complaint.

The central problem is a two fold one – Shigeo has attempted to choose his own bride and therefore “modernity” over the “traditionalism” of an arranged marriage. He doesn’t particularly care about being the head of a household or about living in relative squalor save for guilt and wounded male pride that he’s condemned Miyako to live there with him (not to mention sending her out to the degrading world of hostess bars and cabarets just so they can survive). The parents have reacted badly and produced a stand-off. Shigeo’s uncle is trying to manipulate the situation to his advantage by convincing Shigeo to leave Miyako and come home, but Shigeo is a proud young man, even if he leaves Miyako there’s no way he’ll come home with his tail between his legs. If the older generation wants to win the younger one over, it will have to compromise and learn to play by less stringent rules.

Making a knee-jerk judgment, Shigeo’s father and uncle have decided that Miyako is just a passing fad, a floozy or a gold digger best worked out of one’s system young and then forgotten about (preferably so that it wounds you so badly you’re ready to accept the cold comforts of a proper arranged marriage). Rather than the uncle, it’s Toshiko who becomes the bridge when she realises how kind and devoted Miyako really is. Shigeo’s mother is also sympathetic but, sadly, it’s still the men who have the final say and it’s not until uncle pays a Miyako a visit to try and persuade her to leave Shigeo that he too begins to see how “sweet” she is and that allowing her into their family wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all. In fact, as we later realise, Shigeo’s father perhaps wasn’t so opposed as he pretended to be and was simply playing his son at his own game, planning to consent to the match once he proved that it was really “serious” and not just a passing fling. Nevertheless, Miyako’s own meekness proves the final barrier as she finds herself suddenly afraid that Shigeo’s family might think her inherent goodness is some kind of trick and she’s been plotting all along. Only when Toshiko comes to fetch her and Shigeo himself calls her to come does she finally understand it’s going to be alright.

For 1938, this rather frivolous story might seem decadent especially with its warmhearted liberalism as the union of a lower-class woman and upper-class man is finally blessed through nothing more than common sense and empathy. Though Shimazu otherwise steers clear of political concerns, he does send Shigeo, Miyako, and Toshiko to the pictures where they end up watching part of a film made by Leni Reifenstahl featuring beautifully photographed visions of lithe young men in swimming trunks after which Shigeo gets up in a huff to smoke a cigarette. Toshiko didn’t seem to enjoy it much either and tries to improve Shigeo’s mood by insisting that the next one will be better but the message is clear – Shimazu didn’t like that film and he doesn’t think you did either. Among fans of Shimazu, at least, modernity is winning. It may not be perfect (Shigeo is an obvious prig whose self-conscious masculine posturing is almost a self parody), but it’s getting there and if everyone would just forget about the “rules” and treat others with respect, decency, and understanding then perhaps things wouldn’t be in such a mess.


Short scene in which the trio go to the cinema

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.


Okayo’s Preparedness (お加代の覚悟, Yasujiro Shimazu, 1939)

Okayo's Preparedness title cardYasujiro Shimazu had been the pioneer of the “shomingeki” and a fierce chronicler of the lives of ordinary lower middle class people. The growing presence of the militarist regime, however, demanded a slight shift of focus. 1939’s Okayo’s Preparedness (お加代の覚悟, Okayo no Kakugo) has its share of propaganda content, but it’s also mildly subversive. In the conventional narrative, a woman must get married and a man must find a purpose. Shimazu turns this upside-down – a man becomes a husband and a woman finds artistic fulfilment in the midst of heartbreak.

In the contemporary era, Osumi’s (Kuniko Miyake) husband has been drafted and is away fighting at the front leaving her alone at home where she makes ends meet running a traditional dance school while looking after their small daughter Mitsuko (Kazue Hayashi). Okayo (Kinuyo Tanaka) is the star pupil at school and also a live-in apprentice, functioning almost as a servant but regarded as a member of the family. The trouble begins when a Osumi gets a visit from her brother-in-law who has received a letter from her husband in which he requests some photographs of his wife and family going about their daily lives while he is unable to be with them. The amateur photographer he’s brought along is a young man of quality and the older brother of one of the school’s pupils. Okayo has developed a fondness for Shunsaku (Ken Uehara) during her time walking his little sister home and secretly hopes he returns her affections. Shy and nervous, she is nevertheless overjoyed when he takes her for tea while they wait for the photographs to be developed. Shunsaku, however, was just being kind. He actually has his eye on another pupil at the school (someone more of his social class) and Okayo is destined to experience her first real heartbreak.

Shimazu gets his propaganda obligations out of the way fairly quickly. We cut to a picture of a man in uniform proudly hanging on the wall whom we later realise to be Osumi’s absent husband. Though Osumi worries about him, his enlistment was regarded as a cause for celebration – Okayo felt obliged to have a rare cup of sake, and it’s clear Osumi is proud to be married to a man defending the nation. Nevertheless, it is also clear that he is experiencing suffering – Okayo and Osumi wonder if he too can enjoy the simple pleasures of warm sake and boiled tofu so far away from home, and Osumi also makes sure to send him a pair of of geta in her care package fearing that he may be missing the small but essential facets of his Japaneseness. Though this is only 1939 and the situation is not yet “serious” there is the betrayal of a mild anxiety in Osumi’s fears as well as in her husband’s letter which states the anxiety he feels after learning that a friend was told of trouble at home only after the fact. After all, it’s hard to put unpleasant news in a letter to someone you know to be already experiencing hardship. Hence the request for the photographs – real visual evidence that his wife and daughter are healthy and happy, rather than mere words which may be offered in the interests of comfort.

Meanwhile, Shimazu is secretly building a second argument behind the scenes. We expect the simple love story of Okayo and Shunsaku will proceed along the usual lines. He will come to appreciate her and they will marry despite the class difference and the difficulty of the times. That is not, however, what happens. Okayo’s attraction is apparently one-sided. Osumi’s brother-in-law warns her that Shunsaku is popular with the ladies, even if he also points out his rather stiff, respectable nature. Shunsaku’s mother has apparently had difficulty finding a suitable match for him which increases Okayo’s hopes, but the reason turns out to be that he has developed at attraction for another pupil at the school, as Okayo finds out listening at the door when Shunsaku’s mother comes to Osumi for an additional character reference. All at once Okayo’s world collapses. She remembers that she is a servant, forever separated from the “nice young ladies” who take classes at the school, and that her youthful romance has been little more than a distracting fantasy.

Earlier on, while taking tea with Shunsaku, Okayo had remarked on how important Osumi had told her her dancing training was as a means of achieving independence and self-sufficiency. The ability to dance well enough to teach (and acquire such well regarded pupils) is after all how Osumi has been able to support herself with a husband away in the army. Osumi’s brother-in-law also tells her something similar when he reminds her that it’s important for her to concentrate on her art rather than getting lost in a romantic daydream. Osumi, realising how hurt Okayo has become after overhearing her conversation with Shunsaku’s mother tries to comfort her with the same logic, convincing her that her infatuation in an entirely normal part of being young and that it will pass. Encouraging her to concentrate on her dancing so that she can turn it into a valid career, Osumi provides both a shoulder to cry on and a valid plan for the future, remaining both sympathetic and supportive in witnessing her pupil’s suffering.

Making a bold formal switch, Shimazu dramatises Okayo’s moment of self-actualisation as a dance sequence taking place in parallel to Shunsaku’s wedding. Sadly picking up a bow she slowly moves to the stage and begins to sing, eventually moving into dance before the scene dissolves and Okayo is in full costume, mid-performance playing the part of a brokenhearted woman watching her beloved marry another. Having danced through her pain and doubly experienced the suffering of her romantic disillusionment, Okayo collapses in exhaustion on the bare stage of the studio, gazing out at the windows and weeping once again as they remain empty yet perhaps open.