A Lustful Man (好色一代男, Yasuzo Masumura, 1961)

“Why are women in Japan so unhappy?” the carefree Casanova at the centre of Yasuzo Masumura’s 1961 sex romp A Lustful Man (好色一代男, Koshoku Ichidai Otoko) laments, never quite grasping the essential inequalities of the world in which he lives. Masumura is best known for extremity, a wilful iconoclast who flew in the face of golden age cinema’s genial classism, but shock was not his only weapon and he could also be surprisingly playful. Adapted from a well known novel by creator of the “floating world” Ihara Saikaku, A Lustful Man finds him indulging in ironic satire as his hero sets out to “make all the women in Japan happy” chiefly by satisfying their unfulfilled sexual desire while resolutely ignoring all of the entrenched patriarchal social codes which ensure that their lives will be miserable. 

Set in the Edo era, the film opens not with the hero Yonosuke (Raizo Ichikawa) but with his miserly father who berates a servant after discovering a single grain of rice on the hall floor. According to him, the central virtues necessary to become rich are endurance, diligence, and vitality. You must treasure each and every grain of rice in order to accumulate. A cruel and austere man who only thinks of money, Yonosuke’s father keeps his wife in earnest poverty despite their wealth, angrily grabbing an obviously worn kimono out of her hands and insisting that it’s still good for another year, apparently caring nothing for appearances in the otherwise class conscious Kyoto society. It’s this meanness that Yonosuke can’t seem to stand. He hates the way his father disrespects his mother, and her misery is a primary motivator in his lifelong quest to cheer up Japan’s melancholy women though the weapon he has chosen is sex, a convenient excuse to live as a genial libertine to whom money means essentially nothing. 

Yonosuke’s father has set him up with an arranged marriage into a much wealthier family, which is not something he’s very interested in despite the fact she seems to be quite pretty but on learning that she has transgressively found love with the family butler he determines to help her instead, ending the marriage meeting by chasing her round the garden like a dog in heat. Several similar stunts eventually get him sent away from his native Kyoto to Edo but he takes the opportunity to escape, travelling all over Japan making women “happy” as he goes. 

As the first example proves, Yonosuke genuinely hates to see women suffer. His own pleasure, though perhaps not far from his mind, is secondary and he never seeks to take advantage of a woman’s vulnerability only to ease her loneliness. Despite that, however, he remains essentially superficial opting for the transience of postcoital bliss while ignoring the very real societal factors which make an escape from misery all but impossible. During an early adventure, he spends all of the money he conned out of his new employer on redeeming a geisha (at more than three times the asking price) so that she can be with the man she loves, but he continues to visit sex workers without interrogating their existence as indentured servants, “merchandise” which is bought and sold, traded between men and entirely deprived of freedom. In fact, he proudly collects hair cuttings from the various geishas he has known as a kind of trophy only to later discover the grim truth, that the hair likely doesn’t belong to the geisha herself but is sold to them by middlemen who get it by digging up dead bodies. 

Yonosuke remains seemingly oblivious to the duplicitous hypocrisy of the yoshiwara, but is repeatedly confronted by the evils of Edo-era feudalism with its proto-capitalist cruelty where everything is status and transaction. He is often told that as he is not a samurai he would not understand, but seems to understand pretty well that “samurai are idiots” and that their heartless elitism is the leading cause of all the world’s misery. To some a feckless fool, Yonosuke refuses to give in to the false allure of worldly riches. As soon as he gets money he spends it, and does so in ways he believes enrich the lives of women (even if that only extends to paying them for sex), eventually getting himself into trouble once again reneging on his taxes after trying to prove a geisha is worth her weight in gold. 

Yogiri (Ayako Wakao) complains that women are but “merchandise”, valued only as toys for men. “Japan is not a good country for women” Yonosuke agrees, suggesting they run away together to find a place where women are respected, indifferent to Yogiri’s rebuttal “no, wherever you go, no one can change women’s sad fate”. Yonosuke’s naive attempts to rescue women from their misery often end in disaster, a runaway mistress is dragged back and hanged, the woman he was set to marry goes mad after her father and lover are beheaded for having the temerity to speak out about corrupt lords, Yogiri is killed by a samurai intent on arresting him for tax evasion, and his own mother dies seconds after his father only to be immediately praised as “the epitome of a Japanese wife”. Yet he remains undaunted, wandering around like an Edo-era Candide, setting off into exile to look for a supposed female paradise without ever really engaging with the systems which propagate misery or with his own accidental complicity with them. Nevertheless, he does perhaps enact his own resistance in refusing to conform to the rules of a society he knows to be cruel and unfair even if his resistance is essentially superficial, self-involved, and usually counterproductive which is, in its own way, perfectly in keeping with Masumura’s central philosophies on the impossibilities of individual freedom within an inherently oppressive social order.


Killing in Yoshiwara (妖刀物語花の吉原百人斬り, Tomu Uchida, 1960)

Killing Yoshiwara posterHaving led a somewhat floating life, Tomu Uchida returned to Japan in only in 1953 after a sustained period with the Manchurian Film Cooperative followed by a brief flirtation with Maoism. Before the war Uchida had been closely identified with the Keiko Eiga movement of broadly left-wing filmmaking but later fell hard for the inherent romanticism of militarist ideology during his time in Manchuria. Nevertheless it was apparently the Maoist doctrines of progress through contradiction that influenced his later dramatic philosophy in which he came to think of narrative as a series of conflicts which culminate in an explosive act designed to resolve them (or not, as we will see). 1960’s Killing in Yoshiwara (妖刀物語花の吉原百人斬り, Yoto Monogatari: Hana no Yoshiwara Hyakunin-giri, AKA Hero of the Red Light District) is perhaps a prime example as it takes a seemingly generic story inspired by a kabuki play and uses it to tell a melancholy tale of parallel yet mutually thwarted desires for vengeance against a cruel and oppressive society.

Ostensibly, our “hero” is Jiro (Chiezo Kataoka) – a successful silk merchant. A good and kind man, Jiro is beloved of all his staff for his careful consideration of them as people as well as employees. This concern is, however, perhaps not as wholly “good” as it seems. Jiro’s major problem in life is that he is an adopted child, taken in by his parents who auspiciously discovered him abandoned on the anniversary of their own child’s death. Jiro, apparently of noble birth, was abandoned because he has a prominent grey birthmark “staining” his face. This is the reason he has so far been unable to find a wife despite his good character and relative wealth. Desperately grateful to the couple who took him in “despite” his “imperfection”, Jiro feels this failure heavily in his current inability to provide them with a male heir to take over the family business.

Being good and earnest, Jiro has never dared to fritter money away in the red light district but is tempted when invited by a valued client whom he would not want to offend by refusing. Nevertheless, his first visit to the Yoshiwara is not an altogether pleasant experience as even the seasoned courtesans find it difficult to bear the sight of his “monstrous” face. Embarrassed, the innkeepers finally decide to employ a lowly servant, Otsuru (Yoshie Mizutani), who is not a trained courtesan but a woman convicted for illegal prostitution, to minister solely to Jiro. Otsuru does her work and is relatively unbothered by Jiro’s facial abnormality – something which endears her to Jiro’s heart and has the desired effect of hooking him through his weakness.

Otsuru, later “Tamarazu” the courtesan, is in many ways our villainess but she is also Jiro’s mirror and merely another outsider trying to escape oppression through any means possible. Uchida is careful to frame Otsuru not as a cruel and amoral adventurer, but someone who has decided to survive and can at least be honest about her intentions. We see her caged, imprisoned inside the Yoshiwara to do inside it what was declared “illegal” outside and acknowledging that she may well die here to met by a lonely funeral and rest unnamed in a communal grave. Otsuru decides that if she has to stay in the Yoshiwara then she will be its queen and then use that success to catapult herself into a more comfortable life even if she knows that it will be little more than a nicer kind of cage.

Jiro and Otsuru are each victims of the oppressive society in which they live as symbolised by the cruelly hypocritical worldview of the brothel owners who set out to exploit them both. Otsuru, worldly wise, is fully aware of the ways in which she is and will continue to be exploited but has chosen to be complicit within them as a means of effecting her escape. Jiro, meanwhile, is obviously aware that the “stain” across his face is the reason for his unhappy destiny but has only ever sought to minimise the distress his appearance causes to others. Thus he overcompensates by being relentlessly nice and infinitely humble, grateful for each and every concession which is extended to him as a fully human being rather than the “monster” which he is later branded by the innkeepers in a rare moment of candour which exposes their venial desires. 

This extreme desire for acceptance is in itself a symptom of his self loathing and internalised shame regarding his appearance which is after all merely an accident of birth over which he had no control. Abandoned by his birthparents who left him with a “cursed” destiny in the form of an unlucky sword, Jiro has been working overtime to overcome social prejudice but finding his path continually blocked. He latches on to Otsuru simply because she was nice to him without understanding the peculiar rules of interactions within the Yoshiwara, or as she later puts it “no money, no love”. Jiro ruins himself out of frustrated loneliness and a forlorn hope of repaying the debt he owes the couple who took him in by being able to provide them with a male heir to inherit the family business.

It is these mutual conflicts which eventually lead to the explosive finale hinted at by the violence of the title. Otsuru’s star rises while Jiro’s falls – not only is he fleeced by the innkeepers and an unrepentant Otsuru, his business also fails thanks to an act of God while his reputation lies in tatters once his associates get to know of his “frivolous” behaviour in the Yoshiwara. This in itself is doubly hypocritical as it was this same major client who introduced Jiro to the “pleasure” quarters in the first place only to remind him that business is a matter of trust and that they no longer trust him because he has broken his promise of keeping away from the Yoshiwara.

Pushed to the brink by successive humiliations, Jiro’s rage erupts in a singular act of violence which takes the sword not only to the Yoshiwara but the entrenched systems of oppression and exploitation which it represents. Otsuru, now an oiran, is literally trapped by her ostentatious outfit (in reality the very purpose it is designed to serve) as she struggles to escape male violence, her hand on the gate of the Yoshiwara which refuses to release her. Their parallel quests for revenge eventually converge only to defeat each other in a staggering act of futility which remains unresolved as the curtain falls on a moment of unanswerable rage.


Notes of an Itinerant Performer (歌女おぼえ書, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1941)

notes-on-an-itinerant-performerFilmed in 1941, Notes of an Itinerant Performer (歌女おぼえ書, Utajo Oboegaki ) is among the least politicised of Shimizu’s output though its odd, domestic violence fuelled, finally romantic resolution points to a hardening of his otherwise progressive social ideals. Neatly avoiding contemporary issues by setting his tale in 1901 at the mid-point of the Meiji era as Japanese society was caught in a transitionary phase, Shimizu similarly casts his heroine adrift as she decides to make a break with the hand fate dealt her and try her luck in a more “civilised” world.

At 25 years old, Uta (Yaeko Mizutani) jumps ships from one acting company to another having been promised better work by a roguish fellow performer. Tired of the strenuous life of travelling from village to village, putting on folk plays and street performances, Uta is thinking of quitting the business and looking for a job as a maid or something similar which is at least in the same place everyday. In a stroke of luck, she comes into contact with a kindly tea merchant who takes pity on her and suggests she come to live with him where she can teach his teenage daughter how to dance.

Uta becomes a member of the Hiramatsu household but not all of the inhabitants are as generous of spirit as Mr. Hiramatsu (Hideo Fujino) himself. The oldest son is away at college but the daughter, Nuiko (Kyoko Asagiri), has no interest in learning to dance and resents her father’s “adoption” of such a “common” woman. Youngest son Jiro (Haruhiko Tsuda) is similarly unimpressed with Uta’s presence, making her new home less than welcoming. To make matters worse, Mr. Hiramatsu abruptly dies leaving his business and household in disarray. Oldest son Shotaro (Ken Uehara) returns and feels as if he ought to abandon his studies and take over the company, but as a student he has no experience of running a business and lacks his father’s knowledge of the tea industry. Uta encourages him to return to university and finish his studies if only so that the prestige of a degree might help him later if he decides to restart the business. She also volunteers to act as a guardian for Jiro and Nuiko though Shotaro is wary seeing as they know each other so little. He then makes a surprising suggestion – that he and Uta marry, making it perfectly natural that she take care of everything at home while he’s away studying in the city.

Like many a Shimizu hero, Mr. Hiramatsu is a good hearted man but perhaps lacking in practical skills. Though he seemed to be prosperous and successful, the business was on the rocks and he dies leaving a number of debts behind him and total admin chaos for Shotaro as there is no clear successor to keep the business running in Mr. Hiramatsu’s absence. Luckily for Uta, Shotaro is also a kindhearted man like his father (in contrast to his siblings) and has no desire to suddenly throw her out when his father promised to look after her. He is, however, at a loss as of how to take care of everyone with no money coming in.

Even before Mr. Hiramatsu died, not everyone was happy about his decision to take in a travelling performer and an old friend begins to warn him about the danger of rumours. Friend of the family Kajikawa feels he has a stake in this as he intends his daughter Ayako to marry Shotaro and thinks it’s a done deal (though Mr. Hiramatsu does not seem particularly wedded to the idea). Ayako and Nuiko are also good friends and Ayako does seem like the ideal bride for Shotaro as a member of his own social class and a business connection for the family. Shotaro, however, proposes to Uta without really thinking things through. It is, in one sense, a purely practical decision but one that is likely to meet with a degree of social opposition.

Uta left her life as a travelling performer because she wanted something more conventional. Her mother died when she was six and she never knew her father. Her only happy memory of family is the time spent with her grandmother who died when she was twelve. Uta resents her lack of status as a member of a lowly order of entertainers and longs for something grander but has also internalised a deep seated sense of inferiority. Hence when Jiro and his school friends refer to her as a “monster” living in the house, she half accepts their prejudiced view of her. Nevertheless, she wants to honour the kindness that Mr. Hiramatsu offered her and also deeply respects his son, Shotaro, possibly even developing romantic feelings for him. Despite continuing to feel herself unworthy, Uta does the unthinkable by almost singlehandedly resurrecting the tea business when presented with an opportunity from a foreign company. Even after becoming a formidable business woman and winning the respect of Nuiko and affection of Jiro, Uta still feels herself out of place in the mercantile world and ultimately opts to leave in order to pave the way for the “proper” union of Ayako and Shotaro.

When Shotaro and Uta meet again she tells him that she left because she found his middle class world of “decency” too rigid and full of dull formality. Her “housewife” life was a hard one – getting up early, no smoking, no drinking. At least as a travelling performer she can sleep in and have her share of fun. This produces a quite shocking and strange scene in which Shotaro strikes Uta violently, knocking her to the floor. He repeats his earlier promise to marry her and invites her to come home as his wife, a “decent” woman, and full member of his social class whatever anyone else might have to say about it. Shotaro is apparently a man of his word but there is real feeling implied in his actions as opposed to duty or obligation. Nevertheless, this quite surprising scene of domestic violence used as a tool of coercion does not speak to Shotaro’s otherwise kindly personality and undercuts the “romantic”, if melodramatic, quality of the scene. This may be another instance of Shimizu’s aversion to romantic resolutions or romance as a solution to crisis, but one expects better from a director generally so keen to underline the hardships faced by women in his society.

Despite being filmed well into the era of the talkies and long after Shimizu himself had made the jump to sound, Notes of an Itinerant Performer makes use of frequent intertitles setting the scene or providing explanatory background material. Conversely, it also anticipates a more recent trend by allowing the discussions between the “American” (actually heavily accented European) and his interpreter to take place in English with Japanese sidetitles for parts not subsequently translated in the dialogue. In fact, this broadly positive foreign presence seems an odd inclusion for the fraught political world of 1941 (the film was released in March, just nine months before outright hostilities would commence with the USA which had been effecting a series of trade sanctions with the expansionist nation since 1938) even if the deal itself is taking place in the comparatively more open society of 1901.

In many ways about transitionary periods both in terms of society and of the self, Notes of an Itinerant Perfomer seems conflicted right up until its “Reader, I married him” inspired intertitle. Uta crosses a class border, transcending her lowly origins through selfless sacrifice, pure heartedness, and perseverance yet finally she is dragged across by violence and condescension rather than self acceptance or personal transformation. Filled with ambiguity, Notes of an Itinerant Performer reflects the uncertainties of its times and is noticeably less forgiving than Shimizu’s general outlook as its problematic finale demonstrates.