Equinox Flower (彼岸花, Yasujiro Ozu, 1958)

Japanese golden age cinema is famed for its centring of female stories, but while it’s true that many of Yasujiro Ozu’s family dramas revolve around a young woman’s feelings towards marriage, the perspective is often surprisingly male. Equinox Flower (彼岸花, Higanbana), his first film in colour, marks something of a change in direction in its spirited defence of the young, but at heart is still a story as much about impending old age, the responsibilities of fatherhood, and changing times as it is about contemporary family dynamics or female agency. 

The father in question, Hirayama (Shin Saburi), is a high ranking executive with two daughters. The older, Setsuko (Ineko Arima), is working at another company, and the younger, Hisako (Miyuki Kuwano), is still in school. Marriage is on his mind because he’s just attended the wedding of an old school friend’s daughter at which he gave a speech, with his wife Kiyoko (Kinuyo Tanaka) sitting awkwardly next to him, describing the arranged marriage he had with her as “pragmatic, routine” while he envies the young couple’s “fortunate opportunity” to indulge in romance. He and Kiyoko idly discuss the idea of Setsuko’s marriage, it seems as if there is a promising match on the horizon, with Hirayama conflicted while Kiyoko is very much in favour of doing things the traditional way. She’s already mentioned it to her daughter, but all she does is smile demurely which seems to provoke different interpretations from each of the parents. 

While thinking about all of that, Hirayama receives a visit from an old friend who was a notable absence at the wedding asking him to check up on his daughter Fumiko (Yoshiko Kuga) who ran away from home two months ago to live with a musician after he tried to veto her intention to marry without consulting him. Hirayama is sympathetic, perhaps thinking his friend has acted foolishly and pushed his daughter away. After visiting the bar where she works, he comes to the conclusion that as long as she’s happy with her choice then everyone else should be too. That all goes out the window, however, when a young man, Taniguchi (Keiji Sada), visits him unexpectedly at work and asks for permission to marry Setsuko. Hirayama quite rudely asks him to leave and then irritatedly talks the matter over with Setsuko before petulantly refusing his consent, not because he objects to Taniguchi, but because he is hurt on emotional level that she hadn’t talked to him about this first (not least so that they stop worrying about arranging a marriage) while resentful that she’s gone behind his back and undercut his patriarchal authority. 

In addition to the changing nature of family dynamics, Hirayama is perhaps conscious of his advancing age, feeling himself increasingly obsolescent and therefore additionally wounded by this assault on his authority as a father. The generation gap, however, is all too present. Both Setsuko and Fumiko feel as if they simply cannot talk to their parents because they wouldn’t listen and will never understand. Yukiko (Fujiko Yamamoto), the daughter of another friend, feels something similar in her exasperation with her well-meaning single mother who keeps hatching plans to set her up with various men she isn’t interested in. Intellectually, Hirayama sides with the young, envying them their freedoms and advising Yukiko firstly not to marry at all, and then encouraging her desire to resist arranged marriages despite trying to foist them on his own daughters. 

Even Kiyoko eventually describes her husband’s continuing petulance as “inconsistent”. It seems obvious that Kiyoko is siding with her daughter, immediately taking a liking to Taniguchi who politely brought her home after she stormed out following an argument with her father, but she continues to behave as a “good wife” should, politely minding her husband while gently hoping that he will eventually come round. Only once pushed does she try to explain to him, again politely, that he’s being selfish and unreasonable, but he continues on in resentment while causing his daughter emotional pain simply for trying to find her own happiness rather letting him decide for her. Kiyoko is afraid that if it carries on like this, then Setsuko will, like Fumiko, eventually leave and they’ll lose her completely, something which Hirayama either hasn’t fully considered or is actively encouraging through his petulance. 

In the end the conclusion he comes to is that the parents will eventually have to give way or risk losing their children entirely. He tells both Fumiko and Yukiko that all parents want is for their children to be happy and so nothing else matters, but struggles to put his advice into practice when it comes to his own daughter. Like pretty much everyone in an Ozu film, Hirayama is a good, kind person, even if one struggling against himself as he contemplates a loss of authority, a change in standing, and the difficulty of dealing with complex emotions as a man in a patriarchal society. Predictably, it’s women who essentially bully him into making better decisions, Yukiko “interfering” in the nicest of ways, while his wife makes it clear that though she thinks he’s wrong she will continue to stand by him if only in the hope he will eventually see the light. “Life is absurd, we’re not all perfect” he admits, only later realising how his stubborn foolishness may have caused unnecessary suffering to those he loves the most.


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

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth? (靑春の夢いまいづこ, Yasujiro Ozu, 1932)

It’s lonely at the top. Perhaps surprisingly, Japan’s depression-era cinema had considerable space for lamenting the complicated position of the young master and, as Hiroshi Shimizu’s The Boss’ Son at College would do the following year, Ozu’s Where Now are the Dreams of Youth (靑春の夢いまいづこ, Seishun no Yume Ima Izuko) follows a young man of privilege realising that inequality is bad for friendship and no matter how much you try to manipulate an inherently unfair system for the good of those you love it is the system itself which will always stand between you. 

Ozu begins, however, in familiar territory continuing in the vein of student comedy which was proving such a big hit for home studio Shochiku and in fact reusing a few gags from his previous films in the genre such as the guys’ persistent attempts to cheat on their exams. The opening sequence in which three of the four friends goof off rehearsing a cheerleading routine neatly sets up the already existing divisions between them as Saiki (Tatsuo Saito), the gang’s outlier, hovers on the sidelines attempting to study explaining to a young woman the guys know from the bakery, Shige (Kinuyo Tanaka), that he has only his mother and cannot afford to spend his time messing around. Despite that, however, we’re also told that Saiki is a hopeless case forever falling his exams and regarded as essentially feckless. 

The hero, Tetsuo (Ureo Egawa), is the son of a company president and even if he doesn’t notice it the guys are already deferring to him as a kind of leader though they are all, in one sense, still “equals” as students at the same university taking the same classes. They all wear the same universal student uniform and drink in the same cafe, though they perhaps have different fears and anxieties for their futures at this difficult economic moment. The friendship is suddenly disrupted by the unexpected death of Tetsuo’s father which necessitates his leaving university to take over the family firm, though it’s also clear that he is not quite in charge and his conservative uncle is in fact running the show. 

Tetsuo’s new status as a company president, now dressed in an expensive tailored business suit, forever sets him apart from his friends who eventually come to him for help on being unable to find jobs in the midst of an economic depression. He decides to use his privilege to help them but in an underhanded way, insisting they sit the company exam but giving them the answer sheet beforehand just like in their school days helping each other to cheat. Nevertheless, he fails to realise that you can’t be both friend and boss and it hurts him that they are now polite and deferent in his presence. Gone is their old camaraderie and foolishness, fear and dependency gradually erode their friendship. 

Meanwhile, Tetsuo has continued to carry a torch for Shige but again has failed to realise that they now live in different worlds. His uncle keeps trying to arrange suitable marriages for him which he delights in frustrating with childish pranks. Now settled in his professional life he tries to abide by a college era bro code in asking for the guys’ permission to ask for Shige’s hand, knowing that they had all taken a liking to her. He places himself on their level but only superficially, acting with a degree of self-confident entitlement which assumes firstly that the others will defer to him and back off, and that Shige is his for the asking. What hurts him most is that none of the guys, who must all know, were brave enough to tell him that Saiki and Shige are already engaged. Fearful for his job, Saiki would have sacrificed the woman he loves, essentially traded her for economic stability. Finding out from Saiki’s mother (Choko Iida), Tetsuo confronts Shige who tells him that she agreed to marry Saiki out of pity and despair after growing weary of waiting for him believing that a company president would never marry a woman like her. 

Tetsuo surrenders his love on the altar of friendship. Despite confirming their love for each other, he and Shige are separated by the great wall of social class in a hierarchal society along with the economic pressures of an ongoing depression. What Tetsuo chooses to save is his male friendship, striking Saiki, who does not fight back, for his moral cowardice in debasing himself by allowing those with power and privilege to rob him of his rights and freedoms. The guys sort things out with a fist fight, restoring an artificial “equality” that provokes a “happy” ending despite the fact that nothing has really changed. Tetsuo has to say goodbye to the dreams of youth in acceptance of the disappointments of adulthood but tries to salvage something as he moves forward in preserving what he can of cross-class friendship as bulwark against the inequalities of his age.


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

Woman of Tokyo (東京の女, Yasujiro Ozu, 1933)

Most closely associated with his family dramas, the films of Yasujiro Ozu while often deeply moving are generally safe spaces filled with warmth and love. He was never, however, afraid to explore the darkness of his society as the uncharacteristically bleak silent Woman of Tokyo (東京の女, Tokyo no Onna) makes plain. A tale of disintegrating families, Ozu substitutes a loyal sister for a self sacrificing mother but once again places her at the mercy of a conservative society which refuses to accept the nature of the sacrifice she has chosen to make on its behalf. 

The heroine, Chikako (Yoshiko Okada), is better off than most during these years of depression in that she has a steady full-time job as a typist with which she is able to support her younger brother, Ryoichi (Ureo Egawa), who is a student. Somewhat unusually, Ozu shows us a fairly progressive working environment in which Chikako is one of many women working alongside men in an open plan office which is arranged in a far less stressful manner than the one we later observe in the American film which Ryoichi and his girlfriend Harue (Kinuyo Tanaka) see at the cinema (If I Had a Million, 1932, the segment directed by Ernst Lubitsch, “The Clerk”) in which the desks are laid out in regimented style and staffed entirely by identically dressed men.  

In any case, the job apparently does not quite pay enough to cover Ryoichi’s fees and so Chikako has taken on a part-time gig assisting a professor with translation at his home in the evenings, or so she said. Unbeknownst to her, a policeman turns up at her office and asks to see her attendance records. Again surprisingly, Chikako’s boss is calm and supportive, telling the policeman she’s a model employee of four years’ standing and obviously confused as to how she could be the subject of any criminal investigation. The policeman does not explain, shutting the interview down as soon as the boss motions to ask Chikako about the mysterious professor presumably not wanting her to know she is under investigation. 

Rumours, however, will start and it is those rumours more than the truth of them which will prove the most fatal. Harue’s brother (Shinyo Nara) is a policeman and he’s heard that Chikako has been moonlighting as a bar girl and engaging in sex work. Harue decides to put the matter to her boyfriend, but he is immediately offended, brought to tears by anger, and throws Harue out for slandering his sister. The issue is that, as a woman and most particularly as a sister in place of a mother, Chikako is expected to sacrifice herself on her brother’s behalf. Her career, and implicitly the reason she is not yet married, is not for her personal fulfilment or financial security but only for her brother’s future. She has given up everything for him, and now apparently has also surrendered her body yet he rejects and shames her for it. He does not thank her, nor does he feel guilt for being the cause of her supposed degradation but again foregrounds his own suffering as the brother of a fallen woman. 

Harue, by contrast, is presented as a the soul of properness, not unkind but disapproving. In a difficult conversation with Chikako, she admits it’s not the right thing to say but immediately pities Ryoichi rather than sympathising with another woman who has found herself making difficult choices solely on his behalf. Ryoichi rejects her suffering and sees only the shame. Yet Chikako is not ashamed. She does not seem unhappy with her choices and is defiant in the face of censure. She hoped that Ryoichi would one day understand, but the decision he makes is cruel and selfish, ruining all her hope and rendering her long years of suffering void. She resents his cowardice in being unable to face and accept the truth in the depth of her love for him. 

In this instance, the family fails but only because of an oppressive social structure that is inherently unequal and refuses to accept either female agency or sacrifice. Chikako lives in a world of film noir despair, haunted by ominous shadows – policemen’s swords, gloves against the shoji, nooses in shadows on the walls, a boiling kettle giving way to a pillow shot of smoke pouring from a chimney in funereal foreshadowing that forever traps her in impossibility. Frustrated, Ryoichi tries to reassert his manhood through physical violence but remains impotent, dependent on his sister but resenting her for shaming him in transgressing against an oppressive society. Meanwhile, Chikako is one of many women of Tokyo enduring the same old tragedies, her suffering barely registers. Reporters leave her door giggling after concluding there’s nothing to see here before taking to the streets in search of greater scandal in a readily devolving city filled with only emptiness and despair. 


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

Seven Seas (七つの海, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1931-1932)

vlcsnap-2017-02-19-01h57m24s364Hiroshi Shimizu is best remembered for his socially conscious, nuanced character pieces often featuring sympathetic portraits of childhood or the suffering of those who find themselves at the mercy of society’s various prejudices. Nevertheless, as a young director at Shochiku, he too had to cut his teeth on a number of program pictures and this two part novel adaptation is among his earliest. Set in a broadly upper middle class milieu, Seven Seas (七つの海, Nanatsu no Umi) is, perhaps, closer to his real life than many of his subsequent efforts but notably makes class itself a matter for discussion as its wealthy elites wield their privilege like a weapon.

Split into two parts each around an hour long, Seven Seas begins with the chapter entitled Virginity in which we meet the closely interconnected circle of friends around whom the narrative turns. Yumie (Hiroko Kawasaki) is a young woman from a middle class background but fallen on hard times as her father, a former government official, is now bedridden and supporting the family only on his pension. She is about to announce her engagement to the upperclass boy Yuzuru (Ureo Egawa) but when his playboy brother Takehiko (Joji Oka) returns from abroad he takes a fancy to her himself, eventually raping her whilst she is a guest in their house. Devastated, Yumie’s father marches over to sort things out but even more tragic events occur, breaking the family forever as Yumie’s sister Miwako (Kinuko Wakamizu) has a breakdown and is committed to an asylum. In desperate need of money, Yumie eventually agrees to become the wife of the man who has so brutalised her, though she also contrives to turn the situation to her advantage in an act of revenge.

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Part two is entitled “Chastity” as this is to be Yumie’s primary method of resistance. Refusing her new husband his conjugal rights, Yumie spends his money with gay abandon making huge donations to her sister’s hospital and eventually also providing a kind of “salary” for her husband’s long term mistress whom he has been seeing for some years and had neglected to inform about his marriage. Meanwhile, Yumie’s friend Ayako (Sachiko Murase) has also fallen in love with Yuzuru who is still nursing a broken heart having separated from his family and taken refuge with the couple’s friends working in a sports equipment shop in the city.

Unusually for a Shimizu hero, Yuzuru is an uncomplicated, innately good person who instantly rejects his family following their heinous treatment of the woman he loves, remaining committed to her even after she has been assaulted by his own brother. This decision is, however, difficult as he no longer has access to the familial fortune and has few options for earning his own. He eventually finds work as a French translator but it doesn’t pay enough to make up for all the extra expenses incurred as a result of his brother’s actions from the loss of Yumie’s father’s pension to the ongoing medical costs for her sister’s treatment. Times being what they are, moralising forces creep into the frame suggesting all of this “made right” by Takehiko doing the “honourable” thing and marrying the woman he’s “bought” by force.

The Yagibashi family think they can sweep all of this under the carpet by throwing money at Yumie and otherwise ignoring the problem but this is not good enough for the morality police. Forced to marry her rapist, Yumie maintains an air of cool distain, detailing her plans for vengeance in her daily diary and arming herself with a pistol in case Takehiko tries his old tricks once again. Takehiko, a vain and selfish man, seems to be filled with a kind of resentment born of his class in which he remains a perpetual child controlled by his father who holds all of the purse strings. He does at least attempt to be a proper husband to Yumie, defending her from his snobbish parents and providing her with everything she asks for but he retains his tendency to believe that he can behave however he likes because he’s the eldest son of the wealthy Yagibashi family. Yumie may be reduced in circumstances but thanks to her father’s position would be considered from a “good family”, yet to Takehiko and the Yagibashis she is just another faceless person from the lower orders, unworthy of consideration or compassion and simply one of the exploitable masses.

Takehiko is also the bearer of the frequently ambivalent attitude to the Western world found in many of Shimizu’s other films of the period. Returning from a trip abroad, he belittles another woman in the carriage for her supposed snobbery. Having been abroad, they say, she feels herself superior to ordinary Japanese – unlike the two of them, obviously. Ironically when they arrive Takehiko discovers that the woman in question is the daughter of his former professor, recently returned from studying music in Italy. The other major foreigner we meet is Ayako’s boss at the newspaper where she has a good job as a female reporter. The diffident Englishman attempts to confess his love for her, leaping straight into a proposal. Shocked, Ayako eventually informs him that unfortunately she’s in love with someone else – Yuzuru. Reacting badly, he tries to stop Ayako from leaving but once she does he abruptly shoots himself! Unusual passion for an Englishman, this side of foreignness is a definite cultural difference though one perhaps imbued with a degree of entitlement that also speaks of a kind of oppressive arrogance.

This is however, contrasted with Yuzuru’s gentle career as a translator of French. These creative, cultural influences seem to be broadly positive ones adding to Japan’s already impressive artistic history which brings both pleasure and new ways of thinking which will help the fledgling nation interact with the new global order. The Yagibashis’ dependence on their inherited wealth and social status proves their downfall when they are the subject of an ongoing scandal but the family name is, in part, saved by Yuzuru’s artistic endeavours in turning his traumatic life story into a bestselling, critically acclaimed novel. The creative instinct triumphs over the passivity of the established order.

Remaining mostly straightforward in terms of approach, Shimizu experiments with his trademark tracking shots coupled with dissolves which are unusually impressive and innovative in terms of their setting. The narrative may be melodramatic but the setting is naturalistic, giving an ordinary picture of these upper class and lower middle class lives as people lived them in the early 1930s. From crowded city streets and rooms above shops to spacious country mansions these class divisions are neatly drawn though it’s perhaps interesting that friendship groups have begun to ignore these lines in spite of the differing possibilities offered to each of the differently troubled friends. As in much of Shimizu’s output, the good end happily and the bad unhappily, fulfilling the need for narrative justice as Yumie finds an unusual path for restitution after having been so cruelly misused by those who held her existence so cheaply as to rob her of her future, family and dignity solely because of their own sense of social superiority.


 

Japanese Girls at the Harbor (港の日本娘, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1933)

japanese girls at the harbourHiroshi Shimizu made over 160 films during his relatively short career but though many of them are hugely influential critically acclaimed movies, his name has never quite reached the levels of international renown acheived by his contemporaries Ozu, Naruse, or Mizoguchi. Early silent effort Japanese Girls at the Harbor (港の日本娘, Minato no Nihon Musume) displays his trademark interest in the lives of everyday people but also demonstrates a directing style and international interest that were each way ahead of their time.

A classic melodrama at heart, Japanese Girls at the Harbor begins with two school girls living their humdrum lives of commuting back and for to school in early 1930s Yokohama. Dora and Sunako attend a Catholic school in the “foreign quarter” of the city and are devoted best friends who swear they’ll stick together for ever. However, motorcycle riding bad boy Henry rips right through their friendship in the way that only a bad boy can. Sunako abandons Dora at the harbour to ride off with Henry (later apologising to her understanding friend) but it turns out that Henry likes hanging round with gangsters and also has something going with an older lady called Yoko.

Dora tells Sunako if she really loves Henry she’ll just have to accept him for what he is before going off to find the cheating louse herself and give him a piece of her mind. However, when Sunako catches Henry and Yoko together she loses the plot entirely and ends up running off out of the city. Time passes and Sunako returns but in shame as she’s become a prostitute living with a painter whom she doesn’t seem to care for very much at all. Can she repair the damage with the now married Dora and Henry and get herself out of the hell her existence has become, or is she forever doomed to the life of a fallen woman?

Made in 1933 just as Japan was heading into its militarist era, Japanese Girls at the Harbour has an oddly international mindset with its Western houses, names and a Christianising atmosphere. An international port, there’s plenty of the outside world to be found in Yokohama where things seem to leave much more often then they arrive. Sunako says watching the boats leave makes her feel sad, but it’s she who will go off on one of Shimizu’s trademark travels, running from a crime of passion and the ache of a breaking heart.

A true friend, Dora has not abandoned Sunako and is willing to welcome her back into her home. Henry, the first to meet Sunako (at her place of employ) is torn between the old attraction, feelings of guilt over what’s happened to her, and his responsibility to Dora as her husband. Shimizu introduces an interesting metaphorical device as Henry and Dora wind a ball of wool whilst sitting together in their Western style house but as soon as Sunako arrives it falls onto the floor and begins to unravel, eventually becoming tangled up around the feet of Henry and Sunako who dance in the living room while Dora prepares a meal. Suddenly seeing her married life unravel just like this shaggy ball of wool, Dora, though still devoted to her friend, begins to feel a little afraid that Sunako may be about to jump back on the bike with Henry, just as she did all those years ago.

Shimizu’s interest is much more with the two young women than it is with Henry who remains very much a prize not worth winning. This is Sunako’s fallen woman story – eventually she comes to feel that she’s bringing too much disruption into the lives of her old friends who were getting on so well before. Henry and Dora were her last lifeline to her old self, the only old friends she could still count on, but if she wants to save them (and herself) she will have to stay away and lose them forever. Her redemption lies in self sacrifice, in giving up something that made her profoundly happy for its own good despite the immense amount of suffering she will incur in doing so.

Shimizu was one of the earliest proponents of location shooting and he does make good use of the atmospheric Yokohama streets before heading indoors for the seedy, smoky clubs and cheap tenement housing. He also introduces a series of strange jump zooms at two moments of unusually high emotion which add a degree of panic to the scene as well as heightening the nuanced reactions of the characters in question. This, coupled with his use of dissolves which often sees characters simply evaporate from the frame like unwelcome ghosts of memory, lends to the almost noir-ish, melancholic tone with its dream-like blurring of the real and the merely recalled.

An interesting example of international cross pollination in the early 1930s before hard line militarism became entrenched, Japanese Girls at the Harbor is a pregnantly titled story of a wronged woman abandoned on the shore and left with the choice to board a boat to fairer climes or remain behind and risk destroying what she most loved. The past becomes something to be absorbed and then put to rest. Ghosts cannot travel by water, and so you must leave them behind, like girls at the harbour staring sadly at departing ships.


Japanese Girls at the Harbor is the first of four films in Criterion’s Eclipse Series 15: Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu box set.

Video clip of a climactic scene which showcases Shimuzu’s jump zoom technique (presented without musical score but does have subtitles for the really quite amazing intertitles which are a definite highlight of the film).

(Video clip courtesy of Mubi)