A Woman’s Story (女の歴史, Mikio Naruse, 1963)

woman's storyMikio Naruse made the lives of everyday women the central focus of his entire body of work but his 1963 film, A Woman’s Story (女の歴史, Onna no Rekishi), proves one of his less subtle attempts to chart the trials and tribulations of post-war generation. Told largely through extended flashbacks and voice over from Naruse’s frequent leading actress, Hideko Takamine, the film paints a bleak vision of the endless suffering inherent in being a woman at this point in history but does at least offer a glimmer of hope and understanding as the curtains falls.

We meet Nobuko Shimizu (Hideko Takamine) in the contemporary era where she is a successful proprietor of a beauty salon in bustling ‘60s Tokyo. She has a grown up son who works as a car salesman though he’s often kept out late entertaining clients and has less and less time for the mother who gave up so much on his behalf. Her life is about to change when Kohei (Tsutomu Yamazaki) suddenly announces that he wants to get married – his lady love is a bar hostess to whom he’s become a knight in shining armour after saving her from a violent and persistent stalker. Needless to say, Nobuko does not approve both for the selfish reason that she isn’t ready to “lose” her son, and because of the social stigma of adding a woman who’s been employed in that line of work to the family.

All of this is about to become (almost) irrelevant as tragedy strikes leaving Nobuko to reflect on all the long years of suffering she’s endured up to this point only to have been struck by such a cruel and unexpected blow. An arranged marriage, her husband’s infidelity, the war which cost her home, possessions and also the entirely of her family, and finally the inescapable pain of lost love as the man who offers her salvation is quickly removed from her life only to resurface years later with the kind of pleasantries one might offer a casual acquaintance made at party some years ago. Life has dealt Nobuko a series of hard knocks and now she’s become hard too, but perhaps if she allows herself to soften there might be something worth living for after all.

Women of a similar age in 1963 would doubtless find a lot to identify with in Nobuko’s all too common set of personal tragedies. They too were expected to consent to an arranged marriage with its awkward wedding night and sudden plunge into an unfamiliar household. Nobuko has been lucky in that her husband is a nice enough man who actually had quite a crush on her though there is discord within the household and Nobuko also has to put up with the unwelcome attentions of her father-in-law. This familial tension later implodes though fails to resolve itself just as Japan’s military endeavours mount up and Nobuko gives birth to her little boy, Kohei. Husband Kouichi becomes increasingly cold towards her before being drafted into the army leaving her all alone with a young child.

All these troubles only get worse when the war ends. Though Kouichi’s former company had been paying his salary while he was at the front, they care little for his widow now. Left with nothing to do but traffic rice, Nobuko comes back into contact with her husband’s old friend, Akimoto (Tatsuya Nakadai), who wants to help her but is himself involved in a series of illegal enterprises. Nobuko is molested twice by a loud and drunken man who accosts her firstly on a crowded train (no one even tries to help her) and then again at a cafe where she is only saved by the intervention of Akimoto, arriving just in the nick of time. Nobuko sacrifices her chances at happiness to care for Kohei, caring about nothing else except his survival and eventual success.

Of course, Kohei isn’t particularly grateful and feels trapped by his mother’s overwhelming love for him. Nobuko’s sacrifices have also made her a little bit selfish and afraid of being eclipsed in the life of her son. It’s easy to understand the way that she later behaves towards Kohei’s new bride, but if she wants to maintain any kind of connection to the son that’s become her entire world, she will need to learn to allow another woman to share it with her.

Naruse is a master at capturing the deep seated, hidden longings that women of his era were often incapable of realising but A Woman’s Story flirts with melodrama whilst refusing to engage. The awkward flashback structure lends the film a degree of incoherence which frustrates any attempt to build investment in Nobuko’s mounting sorrows, and the voiceover also adds an additional layer of bitterness which makes it doubly hard to swallow. This is in no way helped by the frequently melodramatic music which conspires to ruin any attempts at subtlety in favour of maudlin sentimentality. The endless suffering of mid-twentieth century women is all too well drawn as grief gives way to heartbreak and self sacrifice, though Naruse does at least offer the chance to begin again with the hope of a brighter and warmer future of three women and a baby building the world of tomorrow free of bombs and war and sorrow.


 

On Wings of Love (大当り三色娘, Toshio Sugie, 1957)

vlcsnap-2016-06-01-01h48m32s675The Sannin Musume girls are growing up by the time we reach 1957’s On Wings of Love (大当り三色娘, Ooatari Sanshoku Musume). In fact, they each turned 20 this year (which is the age you legally become an adult in Japan), so it’s out with the school girl stuff and in with more grown up concerns, or more specifically marriage. Wings of Love is the third film to star the three Japanese singing stars Hibari Misora, Chiemi Eri, and Izumi Yukimura who come together to form the early idol combo supergroup Sannin Musume. Once again modelled on the classic Hollywood musical, On Wings of Love is the very first Tohoscope film giving the girls even more screen to fill with their by now familiar cute and colourful antics.

On Wings of Love does not have very much going for it in terms of plot (even compared to previous So Young, So Bright and Romantic Daughters). This time the three girls each work as maids in swanky households and have their eyes on the same guy who they think looks like James Dean (again played by Godzilla heartthrob Akira Takarada). Luckily, another two guys pop-up from somewhere so no one gets left on the shelf at the end when the completely non serious romantic difficulties work themselves out in time for the color coded waterskiing finale.

Like the other films in the series, On Wings of Love is not an integrated musical but one which is punctuated by musical numbers either given a real world context or portrayed as a fantasy sequence. In the previous two films the girls all went to the theatre and ended up watching themselves perform in one way or another, but this time the production number excuse is either a nap or a daydream whilst out on the river on a sunny day. Awkwardly, they each fantasise about Akira Takarada. Hibari goes all Madame Butterfly in an elegant sailor themed number, whereas Chiemi’s is all forlorn love with a melancholic, gothic ballad inspired by On London Bridge, but Izumi breaks all protocol here with a riotous cover of Bee-Bop-a-Lula which is sung entirely in English and becomes a high octane dance number (including the less successful involvement of Takarada).

There are fewer musical numbers included in On Wings of Love than in either of the other two movies though there are two trio sequences including the longer opening which sees the girls again color coded and drying dishes together as well as the finale which features the girls waterskiing while their boyfriends drive the boats. Each of the girls gets two numbers each, one solo and one production plus the trio stuff though interestingly there is a more “integrated” love song towards the end and Chiemi’s early song as she walks into town isn’t quite a fantasy sequence either.

Somehow, On Wings of Love isn’t quite as charming as either of the other movies in the series despite the kitch appeal of the opening number. The girls don’t actually spend much time together and the tone is a little rougher than the cutesy approach that had previously dominated with fewer humorous episodes to boot. That isn’t to say the film isn’t successful, but it doesn’t have the same kind of comforting fluffiness that dominated the previous instalments. The switch to Tohoscope gives series director Sugie a different canvas to play with though the most obvious change he makes is a split screen sequence to cover a telephone call. This time the colours appear a little muted too (though this may be down to the quality of the DVD which doesn’t seem as high as the transfers of either So Young, So Bright or Romantic Daughters which are both excellent) limiting the effect of the full on sugar rush the film seems to be aiming for. Nevertheless ,even if it doesn’t live up to the promise of either So Young, So Bright or Romantic Daughters, On Wings of Love is another suitably entertaining outing for the Sannin Musume girls only one a little less filled with laughter and song.


Hibari Misora’s Madame Butterfly inspired routine featuring her song Nagasaki no Cho Cho-san:

Also Izumi Yukimura’s quite wonderful Bee-Bop-A-Lula in its release version: