Snow Country (雪国, Shiro Toyoda, 1957)

Closely associated with literary adaptation, Shiro Toyoda had been wanting to adapt Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country (雪国) since its serialisation and apparently spent four years preparing his treatment ahead of the 1957 film starring Ryo Ikebe as the solipsistic aesthete at the novel’s centre. Characteristically, however, he takes several liberties with the source material, notably introducing an entirely different conclusion which perhaps helps in re-centring the tale away from the hero Shimamura to the melancholy geisha who apparently falls for him because of his intense loneliness. 

A brief reference to a failed military insurrection in Manchuria sets us firmly in the mid-1930s as do repeated mentions of the ongoing depression which causes additional anxiety to local business owners in a small holiday resort town. Mimicking the novel’s famous opening, Toyoda opens with a POV shot of a train exiting a tunnel into the snow-covered landscape, the hero Shimamura (Ryo Ikebe) sitting sadly gazing out of a window and eventually captivated by the reflection of a young woman devotedly caring for a young man who appears to be in poor health. Meanwhile, another young woman, Komako (Keiko Kishi), gazes at her own reflection in a train station window, waiting once again as if unable to depart. As we discover, Shimamura has returned with the intention of seeing Komako with whom he’d struck up a relationship during a summer trip but is somewhat disappointed to learn that she has since become a geisha.

In a flashback to their first meeting, Komako asks Shimamura if he has come for “escape”, a question he doesn’t exactly answer while petulantly complaining about his lack of artistic success as someone who paints pictures apparently out of step with his times. When the head of the local commerce association tries to involve him in conversation about the failed insurrection, he bluntly tells him that he’s an artist and as such has no interest in such things, but it does indeed seem that he is looking for some kind of escape from the turbulent times, expressing that here the war seems very far away as does “the depression”. Komako, a more modern and perhaps prophetic figure than it might at first seem, is the only one to bring up the war directly speculating that it may be about to intensify while the frustrated affair between the two seems to be informed by the mounting tensions against which they are attempting to live their lives. 

Rather self-absorbed, Shimamura in a sense may even identify with Komako explaining that he too has a “patron” and implying that his flight is perhaps a response to his sense of powerlessness, that he feels constrained by his financial dependency presumably on his father-in-law though his relative economic superiority which leads Komako to frequently remark on his “extravagance” obviously affords him the freedom to make these random solo trips to ski resorts and indulge his career as a painter regardless of its capacity to support himself and his family. Komako must know on some level that the relationship is a fantasy, yet she believes in it enough to end her connection with an elderly patron on suspecting that she is carrying Shimamura’s child only to have her hopes dashed when he does not turn up for a local festival as promised with the consequence that all of her dependents are turfed out of the home he had provided for her. 

Komako is not “free” in the same way that Shimamura evidently is, her entire life dictated by the fact that she is poor and female. Fostered by a shamisen teacher, she may have been technically engaged to the young man, Yukio (Akira Nakamura), Shimamura saw on the train being cared for by Yoko (Kaoru Yachigusa), Komako’s foster sister in love with him herself, but intensely resents the burdens she is expected to bear quite literally with her body. She later tells Shimamura that she didn’t become a geisha for Yukio in order to pay his medical bills but out of a sense of obligation, while she is also responsible for her birth family, the now bedridden shamisen teacher, and Yoko who intensely resents her for her callous treatment of Yukio and generally “dissolute”, selfish way of living. During the famous fire in a cinema that closes the novel (but not the film), Komako even exclaims that her life would be easier if Yoko burned to death, but on witnessing her either fall or jump from the burning building she can do nothing other than run to her side. 

Indeed, the novel’s climax finds Shimaura standing alone indifferent to the fate of Yoko, a young woman he had come to admire if only for her contrary qualities, admiring instead the beauty of the night sky. In Toyoda’s characterisation, Yoko is in one sense the conventionally good woman whose selfless devotion to the sickly Yukio so captivates Shimamura, but her goodness is nevertheless undercut by the degree of her animosity towards Komako even as the two women remain trapped in a complex web of frustrated affection and intense resentment, each perhaps knowing they neither can have the man they want and are condemned to an eternal unhappiness as the snow mounts all around them in this perpetually cold and depressing moribund resort town. Switching between studio matte paintings ironically mimicking Shimamura’s art and on-location footage of the deepening snows, Toyoda’s sense of near nihilistic melancholy evoking the atmosphere of Japan in the mid-1930s hints at grand tragedy but finds resolution only in stoicism as the heroine picks up her shamisen and trudges onward amid the quickening blizzard.  


Wife (妻, Mikio Naruse, 1953)

The post-war world, to a certain way of thinking at least, promised a greater degree of freedom in which it might no longer be necessary to go on stoically bearing unhappiness in service to a social ideal. Then again, old habits are hard to break and not everyone is quite so equipped to acknowledge that misery can in a sense be a choice. Mikio Naruse’s Wife (妻, Tsuma) finds itself at a moment of transition in which the meaning of everything the word meant was perhaps beginning to change while the idea that a woman might choose to reject the role was no longer a taboo but an increasingly viable possibility. 

To the unhappily married Mineko (Mieko Takamine), however, the idea of independence remains somewhat distasteful. Each morning her husband, Nakagawa (Ken Uehara), leaves the house without a word. In fact, he doesn’t even look at her before silently walking away. She complains that she has no idea what he’s thinking, all he ever tells her is that he’s “tired” but she also resents him for failing to provide for her in the way that she perhaps expected. The couple live in a sizeable home, but Mineko has to rent out the upstairs to a series of lodgers as well as taking in sewing as a side job to make ends meet. What seems perfectly apparent is that the couple are ill suited, both in terms of temperament and of personal desires. Nakagawa is a soft hearted, romantic sort of man who isn’t particularly bothered if their lodgers pay their rent or not, while his wife is emotionally distant and infinitely practical as perhaps life has taught her to be. 

The peculiarities of life in Japan in 1953 place considerable strain on not only on the Nakagawas but on each of the other couples that we see. Those who married in haste during the war may be regretting their choices, while others, like Eiko (Chieko Nakakita) who rents the upstairs room with her husband Matsuyama (Hajime Izu), complain that the men they waited so long for came back changed. That Matsuyama cannot find a job in the difficult economic circumstances of the post-war society may not be his fault, but the necessity of relying on his wife for economic support has nevertheless eroded his sense of masculinity and left him a resentful drunk, destroying his wife’s love for him. Mineko is slightly scandalised when another tenant, art student Tanimura (Rentaro Mikuni), reveals that Eiko works not in a store but in a bar in Ginza, that being in truth the only kind of job that pays enough to support a married couple and a mother-in-law that a woman can get in 1953. Eventually Eiko leaves her husband, something else that scandalises Mineko, and resolves to live an independent life rather than remarry.

The idea of independence is repeatedly mentioned to her, but Mineko continues to reject it. Her sister jokingly suggests going into business together, while another customer, a widow with a young son, floats the idea of leaving the home of her late husband and opening a shop to support herself independently. She believes remarriage is not a viable option because she has a child, a thought echoed by another widow, Fusako (Yatsuko Tanami), who eventually decides to do something similar by returning to her hometown and going into business with a friend. Opening a shop is a popular option, but it of course requires investment and relies on having strong support, in Fusako’s case from female solidarity in teaming up with another woman in a similar situation. 

It might be easy enough to say that becoming financially independent is a choice on offer only to widows with children who have, in some way, already fulfilled their social obligations, while women like Eiko who chose childless self-sufficiency would still struggle to find acceptance even if their career were not dependent on an industry still itself taboo. That Nakagawa and Mineko have no children perhaps places an additional strain on the marriage. Nakagawa tells a colleague complaining about his family that he wonders if children might have made his life easier, while his only moment of contentment seems to be in playing with Fusako’s young son on the morning after spending an illicit night with her in an inn at Osaka. She sadly tries to ask what might be next for them, but he only wants to live in that moment knowing that their future is an impossibility. 

Despite his unhappiness, Nakagawa doesn’t seem motivated towards ending his marriage, perhaps out of guilt or because as friend later suggests it’s not so much Fusako that he loves as the possibility of a different future. On his return from his Osaka trip, he encounters a new tenant, Mineuchi, who has found her own way to be independent in becoming a mistress. Nakagawa seems to find the arrangement mildly distasteful, though it’s perhaps not so far off what he’s planning to do with Fusako. Mineuchi paid premium for the room and has even brought her own refrigerator and an electric gramophone so she is in a sense living the dream, especially as her “patron”, a furniture store owner, only visits twice a month. 

After learning that Nakagawa has fallen in love with Fusako, Mineko wonders if she should pay her a visit, but then receives one herself from the furniture store owner’s tearful wife who reveals that he is not a wealthy man and has ruined himself, and therefore her, after being bewitched by a Ginza bar hostess. Later, Mineko discovers that the furniture store owner’s wife took her own life in humiliation, lamenting that she didn’t have to go so far just because of her husband’s indiscretion, but also threatens to do the same herself to try and guilt Fusako into giving up her husband. 

Yet, pretty much everyone seems to tell Mineko that this is all her own fault and the reason her perfectly good husband has looked elsewhere is because she has failed as a wife. Sharp and emotionally distant, she alienates those around her but is devastated to realise that she’s lost her husband’s love and will most likely never be able to regain it. Her decision to talk not to him but to Fusako hints at the way in which women see each other as rivals and not as friends, actively holding each other back, as her sister Yoshimi (Michiyo Aratama) also does in insisting on the social order over personal feeling, rather than attempting to find understanding or mutual support. It doesn’t seem to occur to her that ending her husband’s dream of romantic escape through emotional manipulation is unlikely to improve the quality of her married life. 

Mineko, however, never contemplates independence. She tells Fusako that she won’t consent to a divorce just to claim alimony, but privately wonders what would become of her if she left her husband. She might be able to put a stop to it this time, but who’s to say he won’t find someone else. What she seems primed to choose is socially mandated misery, rejecting the “freedoms” of the post-war age to end an unhappy marriage because she can’t conceive of herself as anything other than a “wife” and being miserable is apparently better than being nothing at all. 


The Rickshaw Man (無法松の一生, Hiroshi Inagaki, 1958)

Japanese cinema has a special affinity with loveable rogues. We forgive their mischief and inconvenient troublemaking because deep down we know they’re kindhearted and even when they act impulsively it’s only out of an abundance of misplaced emotion. The wild Matsu is a case in point, brought to life by the great Toshiro Mifune in Hiroshi Inagaki’s remake of a story he first adapted 15 years previously but was apparently unhappy with because of the censorship demands of the time. What is surprising, therefore, is that despite his otherwise liberal outlook Inagaki largely echoes those problematic pre-war views, opting to focus on the tragic comic figure of Matsugoro rather than engage with the destructive visions of toxic masculinity that his well-meaning paternalism represents or with the latent feudalism which continues to inform the later course of his life. 

Beginning in 1897, Inakagaki introduces us to “The Wild Matsu” (Toshiro Mifune) on his “illegal” return to Kokura from which he had apparently been “banished” because of an “incident” the previous year. This time, Matsugoro has crawled back home apparently ill in bed and nursing his head after getting into an argument with a man who turned out to be the kendo instructor for the local police. Unafraid to embarrass himself, Matsugoro later relates the tale as a funny anecdote, admitting that the kendo master put an end to their fight in record time by striking him on the head and knocking him out. Typical Matsugoro, seems to be the reaction from all around him. Later he takes offence with a ticket seller who refuses him a comp to the show when free tickets are usually available to rickshaw drivers (publicity tools haven’t changed as much as you’d think), returning later in the evening and buying a ticket with a friend but setting up a mini stove to bake garlic and stink the place out as his revenge. A calm and rational mediator later explains to him that though he can understand why he was upset because it causes confusion when people refuse to abide by longstanding traditions, his stunt has ruined the evening of a lot of people who weren’t really involved in his vendetta. Immediately seeing the error of his ways, Matsugoro determines to make a full and complete apology to the spectators whom he’d so thoughtlessly inconvenienced. 

This incident demonstrates Matsugoro’s essential goodness. He may be impulsive and easily offended, but he means no harm and even his “revenge” is an amusing, petty affair rather than something dark or violent. The main thrust of the narrative, however, kicks in when he spots a lonely little boy being made fun of by his friends because he’s too scared to climb a tree. Matsugoro pauses to tell him that he needs to man up, but on his way back finds the other kids running away and the boy on the floor crying after having fallen and broken a leg. Finding out where he lives, Matsugoro picks the boy up and takes him home to his mother (Hideko Takamine) who further enlists him to take the child to a doctor. 

The boy, Toshio, lives in the old “samurai district” and is the son of army officer Kotaro Yoshioka (Hiroshi Akutagawa), a cheerful man who though holding similar views on manliness to Matsugoro, finds the incident faintly amusing. In fact, Kotaro had heard of “The Wild Matsu” because he was once very rude to an army general he was charged with conveying from place to place during a series of official events. He decides to invite Matsugoro to dinner and the two men hit it off, but Kotaro suddenly dies of a fever leaving his wife Yoshiko alone with their son, worrying that she won’t be able to cure his sensitivity and turn him into a “strong” young man now that he lacks a male role model. 

Matsugoro is perfectly happy to fill that role, bonding with the little boy but always encouraging him to be “manly” which, in this age, largely means strong and athletic, rational and obedient while manfully repressing his feelings, and finally a willingness and ability to fight. While all of this is going on, we see the tides of militarism rising even in the early years of the century. The Russo-Japanese war giving way to the taking of Qingdao while flags go up everywhere and patriotic celebrations of martial glory become ever more frequent, but the problematic quality of this age of hypermasculinty is never questioned even as it leads the nation towards a decidedly dark destiny. 

Meanwhile, Matsugoro seems to have fallen in deep yet impossible love with Yoshiko but is prevented from voicing his feelings because of a deep seated sense of social inferiority. Matsugoro’s life has been limited not only because he was born poor, but because of a traumatic childhood with a cruel step-mother. Denied a proper education, he is largely illiterate and rickshaw driving, which depends only on his physical strength and stamina (the most highly praised qualities of the age), is all that he can expect out of life. We never have any inkling of how Yoshiko views Matsugoro, if there are any romantic feelings on her part or she simply admires him as a robust and good hearted friend, but the futility of Matsugoro’s unresolvable longing eventually drives him to drink which he had previously given up, along with his “wild” nature, in the need to provide a more respectable example to the young Toshio. 

Similarly, we aren’t privy to the parallel tragedy which will inevitably leave Yoshiko lonely as comparatively young widow whose only son will naturally become distant from his mother, grow-up, and find a wife to start a family of his own. Her anxiety over her son’s participation in a group fight is dismissed as hysterical womanliness, destructive maternity that may prevent Toshio from becoming a “proper” man. Something which is perhaps borne out when Matsugoro, who’d gone to watch over him just in case, has to wade in to defend Toshio who is too frightened to participate.

Nevertheless, Matsugoro is a big hearted man despite his intense masculinity, always acting with selfless kindness but also meekly accepting the fate his cards have dealt him rather than railing against the systems which have caged him all his life from his poverty to the perceived class differences which demand he keep his distance from the beautiful Yoshiko. The wheels of his rickshaw turn on ceaselessly as if relentlessly pulling him on towards his inescapable destiny, but shouldn’t we be asking more for men like Matsugoro whose hearts are good than being resigned to loneliness because of a few outdated social codes?


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Travelling Actors (旅役者, Mikio Naruse, 1940)

“You can’t have a horse without the ass” admits a travelling actor, inwardly preparing to meet his obsolescence. Anything’s an art if you care to practice it, but there is such a thing as taking yourself too seriously. A masterclass in tragicomedy, Naruse’s 1940 character study Travelling Actors (旅役者, Tabi Yakusha) finds two ends of a pantomime horse about to be torn apart when their act is unwittingly destroyed by a resentful punter whose drunken attempt to escape his sense of humiliation in being tricked by unscrupulous promoters leaves their horse without a head. 

Hyoroku (Kamatari Fujiwara) prides himself on being the “Danjuro of pantomime horses”, performing with the younger Senpei (Kan Yanagiya) who looks up to him as if he really were a great master of the arts. The guys are part of a group of travelling players touring rural Japan performing traditional skits for an audience starved of entertainment. The troupe is not, however, above exploitative business practices, proudly advertising the appearance of “Kikugoro” but neglecting to mention that it’s not the famous one, just another guy with the same name. Meanwhile, someone has to foot the bill for “producing” the show wherever the actors land, leading the exploitative producers to convince a local barber (Ko Mihashi) to invest, hoping to get a little free publicity because he’s known to be the town gossip and can spread the word through his shop. The plan backfires, however, when he travels to the station to see them arrive and immediately realises they are not a fancy acting company from Tokyo but a bunch of ragged bumpkins. Feeling thoroughly fed up, he demands to be allowed to perform in the show as the price of his silence before getting black out drunk and passing out backstage, crushing the papier-mâché horse’s head in his desperation to find somewhere soft to land. 

As “Kikugoro” points out, the “guy who plays the pantomime horse is really picky” so they know they’re in for some trouble as soon as he finds out what’s happened to his head. In fact, Hyoroku was just in the middle of some remodelling, trying to make the head look even more realistic to improve his art. While the barber is destroying his life’s work, Hyoroku and Senpei are drinking with a pair of geishas who are pretending to be interested in Hyoroku’s mini lecture about his process in which he tells them all about how he’s really captured the true essence of the horse through patiently honing his craft all these long years. 

There might be something in that, that Hyoroku is a workhorse of the theatre now more beast than man. Just occasionally, his horsey mannerisms come out in his offstage life, scratching the floor with his feet or pacing the room like a penned in pony. Though there are other sides of him which are painfully human. He makes a point of belittling Senpei in front of the geishas, insulting his art to assert his place as the teacher, always keen to keep his pupil in his place. But as Senpei points out, you can’t have a horse without the ass, and his “art” is no less important than Hyoroku’s. Continuing to take himself way too seriously, Hyoroku refuses to perform with the broken head, flatly objecting to the suggestion of substituting one from the fox costumes because he can’t get into character when his head’s in the wrong place. 

Faced with the prospect of cancelling the show, the producers come up with a radical idea – hiring a real horse. In a still more ironic touch, they even sell this horse who is making his stage debut as a star in his own right, only realising the dangers of their situation when it urinates right in the middle of the act. Weirdly, that only makes the horse a hit and convinces the troupe they’re on to a winner, which is bad news for the boys because who wants to see two guys in an ugly costume when they could be gazing at the real thing. The days of the pantomime horse are ending, but where does that leave a “great master” like Hyoroku who has spent his life becoming more horsey than a horse? Kicked out of the inn and forced to sleep backstage as non-performers, the guys eventually suffer the indignity of being offered jobs as stable boys, mere servants to the star who has replaced them. 

In an unguarded moment, Hyoroku and Senpei reflect on where they are as a young man in a soldier’s uniform leads a patient horse off to war. “That could be us” they sigh, though it’s not clear if they mean the man or the horse, before going back to horsing around eating shaved ice and flirting with the store owner. “I’m just the horse’s ass”, Senpei laments, secretly hoping to become a “real” actor at last, only for Hyoroku to uncharacteristically start encouraging him before dragging him off on another crazy adventure. Putting the fox’s head on to make a point, Hyoroku disappears into the role, chasing his rival right out of town, dragging his back legs behind him as he goes. 


White Beast (白い野獣, Mikio Naruse, 1950)

Though motions were made towards criminalising sex work under the American occupation from as early as 1946, not that much changed until the passing of the Prostitution Prevention Law 10 years later. In the desperation of the later war years and their immediate aftermath, many women who’d lost husbands, families, and their homes, found themselves with no other way to survive than to engage in sex work, but the existence of these women who were only doing something that though not exactly well respected was fairly normalised five years previously became an acute source of embarrassment most especially given the views of the morally conservative Occupation forces. 

Slotting in right next to the pro-democracy films of the era, Mikio Naruse’s White Beast (白い野獣, Shiroi Yaju) is a surprisingly progressive effort which locates itself in a “home for wayward women”. The White Lily Residence is run with love and compassion and even if the older female warden is stern in a practical sort of way she is never unkind or uncaring, while the male governor Izumi (So Yamamura) is patient and supportive, always keen to tell the women in his care that they are not spoiled or dirty and are fully deserving of the bright new futures he is certain are waiting for them. Rather than lecturing the women, the home makes a point of teaching them new skills such seamstressing so that they will be able to find honest jobs on the outside, though the conviction that those jobs exist may be a little optimistic in itself. 

Our first introduction to the White Lily is through the eyes of Yukawa (Mitsuko Miura), an educated woman who claims she engaged in sex work simply because she enjoyed it and doesn’t see why she’s been arrested. She tries to leave and is told that she is technically free to do so, but they will have to call the police if she does. Yukawa decides to stay, especially once she locks eyes with cheerful female doctor Nakahara (Kimiko Iino). Perhaps surprisingly, the central drama revolves around an awkward love triangle between Yukawa who becomes fixated on the doctor who to be fair is unambiguously flirting back, and the bashful Izumi who has designs on Nakahara himself. 

Refreshingly direct and professional, Nakahara nevertheless has an engaging warmth that has made her a real asset to Izumi’s team as she deals with the sometimes quite difficult medical circumstances of the women at the centre, many of whom are understandably suffering with various STIs including syphilis. Never judging them she remains sympathetic and egalitarian, even joining in when Yukawa cheekily invites her to dance while some of the other women are listening to records. Appearing to understand what Yukawa is asking her, she tells her that she has remained single by choice and has no intention to marry because she’s prioritising her career. Yukawa’s confidence is, however, shaken when she hears a rumour that Nakahara and Izumi may be romantically involved. 

Yukawa looks to Nakahara to try and understand why she’s ended up at White Lily. She asks her what it means to have a “dirty” body and gets a diplomatic medical answer which nevertheless coyly places the blame on sexual repression. Nakahara admits that marital relationships can also be “dirty”, not because of infidelity but because of patriarchal inequalities – marriages in which the wife is treated as a “doll” or a “maid” for example. The answer seems to satisfy Yukawa, but Nakahara has also cut to the quick of her psychological trauma in asking her if she is not also internalising a sense of shame in secretly battling with the idea that she is somehow “dirty” because of the way she’s lived her life. 

Given her fixation with Nakahara, we might wonder what it is that Yukawa so struggles to accept about herself despite her outwardly liberated persona. Beginning to reflect on her past life, she sees the faces of the men she slept with looming over her but seems confused. Was she deflecting desire rather than embracing it, trying to prove or perhaps overwrite something? In any case, her time at the centre begins to soften her but, crucially, not towards accepting a social definition of herself as dirty but emerging with new degrees of self knowledge and acceptance. 

The one sour note in Izumi’s otherwise progressive philosophy sees him encourage one of his star pupils, Ono (Chieko Nakakita), to reunite with a man she was engaged to before the war who has just been repatriated and claims his feelings haven’t changed despite finding her at White Lily. Ono is reluctant, partly because she feels a sense of unworthiness, but also because she suspects that whatever Iwasaki (Eiji Okada) says now, he will someday hold her past against her. She’s proved right when she gets a day pass to visit him in his flat where he eventually rapes and then tries to strangle her. Ono vows not to see him again, but Izumi convinces her otherwise, as if this is all her fault, telling her that two people who love each other can work through anything, implying that it’s her job to fix his wartime trauma (if perhaps mildly implying the reverse is also true for him). For an otherwise compassionate man, telling a vulnerable woman to return to a violent partner because “love is enough” seems an oddly patriarchal gesture. 

Nevertheless, despite the late in the game swerve towards conservatism, White Beast presents a surprisingly progressive critique of an inherently misogynistic, hypocritically puritanical society. At one point, a wealthy big wig arrives to lecture the women, berating them for “bringing down Japanese womanhood” while insisting that women who justify sex work as a means of avoiding starvation are being disingenuous because most women are just “decadent” and wanting handbags etc. Yukawa, unable to control herself, fires back, asking him who it is he thinks buys their services in the first place. It’s very valid point, and one it seems few are willing to consider. 


Short clip (English subtitles)

Hideko, the Bus Conductor (秀子の車掌さん, Mikio Naruse, 1941)

vlcsnap-2019-12-28-21h47m57s539It’s true enough that we might not have enough extant material from the pre-war and wartime eras to be as selective as some might accuse of us of being on realising that the directors we tend to remember are the ones we see as resisting. Though there were a fair few who managed simply to steer clear of the prevailing ideology, most skirted their way around the demands of the censors board by embracing the kinds of themes they could would work with. In Hideko, the Bus Conductor (秀子の車掌さん, Hideko no Shasho-san) Naruse pushes in a slightly different direction, retreating almost entirely from the troubles of the contemporary era into an idyllic vision of pastoral Japan.

Echoing Mr. Thank You, he opens with a POV shot of bus travelling a rural road accompanied by jaunty music. Neatly undercutting the cheerful atmosphere with ironic absurdity, we then cut to bus conductress Okoma (Hideko Takamine) announcing the next stop to an entirely empty bus. The problem is, the bus Okoma and the driver, Sonoda (Kamatari Fujiwara), operate is old, slow, and dirty. A new company, Kaihatsu, recently launched with shiny new buses that are cleaner and faster, if a little more expensive. Unsurprisingly, most people prefer to travel with Kaihatsu, meaning the only passengers waiting for Okoma’s bus are the kind that don’t have much money or are looking for different kinds of service – e.g. transporting live chickens or unusually large amounts of bags.

A radio programme recommended by her landlady gives Okoma an idea to boost business – performing as a kind of tour guide reading out interesting facts about the local area to entertain the passengers. Unfortunately, no one can quite think of any interesting facts or local landmarks in this tiny rural backwater. Nevertheless, Okoma and Sonoda are determined to give it a go, eventually obtaining permission from the decidedly laissez-faire boss who spends most of his days guzzling ramune and eating kakegori. To make sure the service is professional, they enlist the services of a local writer, Ikawa (Daijiro Natsukawa), whose notebook Okoma once returned when he left it on the bus. Weirdly, he doesn’t even want paying because he enjoys writing this kind of thing, and even coaches Okoma on how to get the cutest accent to really attract those customers with adorable local charm (even though Okoma is very proud to be thought of as nicely spoken young lady with nary an accent at all).

Of course, in true Naruse style, it’s not quite as idyllic as it seems. Most of the people we meet are poor and struggling, that’s why they’re taking this bus and not Kaihatsu’s. Even so, they’re all pleasant and polite, not even minding when Okoma asks the driver to stop by her house so she can chat with her mother, giving her a kimono she’s bought as a present (that her mum tells her off for spending her money on) and swapping her worn out cloth shoes for a classic pair of geta in which she seems to be more comfortable. At one stage, a chicken escapes from the bus and they stop to catch it, timetable be damned. Mind you, there don’t even really seem to be specific stops on this strangely occasional service. In need of passengers, Okoma and Sonoda seem content to stop and pick up random passersby who might be in search of a lift, taking them to wherever they might want to to go.

That might be one reason explaining why Okoma’s landlady is keen to warn her that she’s heard the bus company is no good, it’s just a front for some kind of unspecified shadiness. The truth, however, is more that the boss seems to be the feckless sort who enjoys being bossy but has no idea how to run a business. Distracted by Okoma’s monologue, Sonoda starts forgetting to stop and pick people up and eventually has to slam on the brakes when a child runs out into the street. While they’re checking on the kid, the bus rolls back over the verge, injuring Okoma and landing in farmland. Reassured that no-one has been “seriously” hurt (he’s not getting sued), the boss is then more worried about the insurance, seeing as it doesn’t cover him if the engine was running while they were stopped. Even though Sonoda explains that there’s no damage except maybe a scratch on the side, the boss suggests he scupper the engine and smash the windows so they can claim. They need a better bus, otherwise the company will have to close.

Earlier on, Sonoda and Okoma had joked about a popular slogan “When a country gets confused, loyal subjects appear”. Sonoda rolls his eyes a little and calls it “bombast”. They might not object to adding a bit about birds singing for the emperor’s long reign to their monologue, but it’s plain they aren’t going to go along with something they think is wrong because the boss says it’s a good idea. Sonoda is a little conflicted to begin with, talking it over with Ikawa who acts as the slightly patronising voice of city sophistication, he realises that if he follows the boss’ orders and lies he’ll not only be cheating the rest of society but himself too in doing something he knows to be immoral. Both he and Okoma vow they’ll quit rather than be forced into dishonesty, after all, says Okoma, there are plenty of other jobs (or perhaps not, in real terms, but still there is a choice). Suddenly, they feel quite cheerful, buoyed by their sense of moral righteousness.

An intervention from Ikawa saves their jobs, but this is still a Naruse film in which the world will always betray us, and so Okoma and Sonoda cheerfully continue their tour guiding business little knowing that the boss has gone bust and sold the bus. It might be going too far to say that Naruse envisages a fiery crash, a rude awakening for Okoma and Sonoda who will be left with only the cold comfort that they stood up against authoritarianism when it all goes to hell, but the subtle allegory is all but unmissable. Absurdly cheerful, and just a little bit depressing if you stop to think about it, Hideko the Bus Conductor is a charming jaunt through rural ‘40s Japan filled with salt of the earth types just trying to muddle through while the big bosses put their feet up and pop ramune marbles all day long without a care in the world.


Floating Clouds (浮雲, Mikio Naruse, 1955)

(C) 1955 Toho

floating clouds poster“The past is our only reality” the melancholy Yukiko (Hideko Takamine) intones, only to be told that her past was but a dream and now she is awake. Adapted from a novel by Fumiko Hayashi – a writer whose work proved a frequent inspiration for director Mikio Naruse, Floating Clouds (浮雲, Ukigumo) is a story of the post-war era as its central pair of lovers find themselves caught in a moment of cultural confusion, unsure of how to move forward and unable to leave the traumatic past behind.

We begin with defeat. Shifting from stock footage featuring returnees from Indochina, Naruse’s camera picks out the weary figure of a young woman, Yukiko, drawing her government issue jacket around her. She eventually arrives in the city and at the home of an older man, Kengo (Masayuki Mori), whom we later find out had been her lover when they were both stationed overseas working for the forestry commission but has now returned “home” to his family. Kengo had promised to divorce his wife, Kuniko (Chieko Nakakita), in order to marry Yukiko but now declares their romance one of many casualties of war. With only the brother-in-law who once raped her left of her family, Yukiko has nowhere left to turn, eventually becoming the mistress of an American soldier but despite his earlier declarations the increasingly desperate Kengo cannot bear to let her go and their on again off again affair continues much to Yukiko’s constant suffering.

Floating Clouds is as much about the post-war world as it is about a doomed love affair (if indeed love is really what it is). Kengo and Yukiko are the floating clouds of the title, unable to settle in the chaos of defeat where there is no clear foothold to forge a path into the future, no clear direction in which to head, and no clear sign that the future itself is even a possibility. Naruse begins with the painful present marked by crushing defeat and hopelessness, flashing back to the brighter, warmer forests of Indochina to show us the lovers as they had been in a more “innocent” world. At 22, Yukiko smiles brightly and walks tall with a lightness in her step. She went to Indochina in the middle of a war to escape violence at home and, working in the peaceful environment of the forestry commission, begins to find a kind of serenity even whilst dragged into an ill-advised affair with a moody older man more out of loneliness than lust.

Yet, Yukiko’s troubles started long before the war. Assaulted by her brother-in-law she escapes Japan but falls straight into the arms of Kengo who is thought a good, trustworthy man but proves to be anything but. Kengo, frustrated and broken, attempts to lose himself through intense yet temporary relationships with younger women. Every woman he becomes involved with throughout the course of the film comes to a bad end – his wife, Kuniko, dies of tuberculosis while Kengo was unable to pay for treatment which might perhaps have saved her, an inn keeper’s wife he has a brief fling with is eventually murdered by a jealous husband (a guilty Kengo later attempts to raise money for a better lawyer to defend him), Yukiko’s life is more or less destroyed, and goodness only knows what will happen to a very young errand runner for the local bar whom he apparently kissed in a drunken moment of passion.

The lovers remain trapped by the past, even if Kengo repeatedly insists that one cannot live on memory and that their love died in Dalat where perhaps they should have remained. Yukiko’s tragedy is that she had nothing else than her love for Kengo to cling to, while Kengo’s is that he consistently tries to negate the past rather than accept it, craving the purity of memory over an attainable reality, chasing that same sense of possibility in new and younger lovers but once again squandering each opportunity for happiness through intense self obsession. “Things can’t be the same after a war”, intones Kengo as an excuse for his continued callousness, but they find themselves retreating into the past anyway, taking off for tropical, rainy Yakushima which might not be so different from the Indochina of their memories but the past is not somewhere one can easily return and there can be only tragedy for those who cannot let go of an idealised history in order to move forward into a new and uncertain world.


Oh, Bomb! (ああ爆弾, Kihachi Okamoto, 1964)

vlcsnap-2016-07-12-23h44m56s789Being stood up is a painful experience at the best of times, but when you’ve been in prison for three whole years and no one comes to meet you, it is more than usually upsetting. Sixth generation Oyabun of the Ona clan, Daisaku, has made a new friend whilst inside – Taro is a younger man, slightly geeky and obsessed with bombs. Actually, he’s a bit wimpy and was in for public urination (he also threw a firecracker at the policeman who took issue with his call of nature) but will do as a henchman in a pinch. Daisaku wanted him to see all of his yakuza guys showering him with praise but only his son actually turns up and even that might have been an accident.

His mistress has moved on, his wife got religion, and the clan has gone legit and formed a corporation. That last bit might have been OK except Daisaku isn’t the president, he’s the Chairman, and the new top dog is a pen obsessed political candidate who runs under the slogan that pens can save Japan and violence is the enemy! Taro and Daisaku come up with a way to get revenge on the usurper by sneaking a bomb into one of his beloved writing implements but it’s far from plain sailing in this typically anarchic Okamoto world.

Okamoto casts his ironic tale as a musical, cartoon style slapstick comedy with frequent digressions into musical interludes which take inspiration both from Hollywood movie musicals and classical Japanese drama. Daisaku may only have been inside for three years but he’s a man out of time with behaviour and attitudes more suited to the pre-war world than the modern era. Consequently he often breaks into theatrical rhythms inspired by noh or kabuki with their characteristic chant style recitative and stylised movements. Younger characters sing in the vernacular of the day with Taro and Daisaku’s son belting out a popular hit, and the office workers suddenly breaking into a musical set piece themed around the idea of overtime in which the men and women of the office bicker about balancing the books. Similarly, the would be mayor, Yato, takes his cues from ‘20s gangsters so he naturally dances the charleston before breaking into a tango when he gets some unwelcome news.

Rhythm is the key as the film continues to respond to its various musical fluctuations in highly stylised approach which takes advantage of Okamoto’s innovative editing techniques. Apparently inspired by a Cornell Woolrich story, this is nominally a noir inflected crime story of an ousted gangster trying to rub out his rival and get his old life back, but Okamoto neatly deconstructs the genre and turns it inside out with a hefty serving of irony on the top. Daisaku is an old guy and his era has passed, but Yato isn’t real enough to represent the future either which seems to either belong to bumbling bomber Taro, or Daisaku’s hardworking and straightforward son.

The plot to blow up Yato using his favourite prop becomes progressively more ridiculous as the pen ends up everywhere but where it’s supposed to be and threatening to explode at any second (to great comic effect). Things get even darker when Yato is talked into considering the orchestration of an “accident” for his mayoral rival involving a golf ball which once again causes everyone a lot of bother (though not the kind that was intended).

Daisaku has brought some of his old fashioned habits out of jail with him, quickly corrupting his old friend the chauffeur (who ultimately proves incorruptible even if grateful to have been reminded of the happiness he already shared with his wife, poverty or no) and allowing Taro and his crazy bomb plots access to the criminal mainstream, but ultimately he proves more of a loveable rogue living in the past than a criminal mastermind. Yato, by contrast, is a darker figure with his hypocritical campaign slogans and lack of personal integrity. Daisaku may be deluded in many ways but he never pretends to be anything other than he is, unlike the would be dictator.

Filled with Okamoto’s idiosyncratic touch of absurd irony, Oh, Bomb! (ああ爆弾, Aa Bakudan) is one of his most amusing and formally ambitious pieces of work. Mixing classical theatrical techniques with modern movie musicals, jazz rhythms, expressionist sets and unpredictable editing, he once agains creates a crazy cartoon world in which anything is possible but somehow it’s all quite good natured even when you’re talking about bank robbery and possible assassination plots. Hilarious fun but also intricately constructed, Oh, Bomb! ranks among Okamoto’s most charming masterpieces and is urgently in need of a reappraisal.