The Song of the Cart (荷車の歌, Satsuo Yamamoto, 1959)

“When all human beings acknowledge each other as human let the precious joy that results be universal. When this joy lives forever in the hearts of women and is handed down to daughters who become mothers then tomorrow will not just repeat today but be a new beginning” reads the opening title card/mission statement of Satsuo Yamamoto’s chronicle of early 20th century Japan. Told though the eyes of one very good woman wrestling against her baser instincts, Song of the Cart (荷車の歌, Niguruma no Uta) is a gentle plea for a little more empathy and understanding in which the heroine suffers greatly but is finally rewarded in managing to keep the darkness at bay. 

In late Meiji, Seki (Yuko Mochizuki) develops a fondness for the most eligible young man in town – the postman, Moichi (Rentaro Mikuni), who can read and write and isn’t bad looking either. To her surprise, Moichi admires her too and eventually proposes marriage, intending to give up his job as a postman which doesn’t pay as much as it used to now costs are rising because of the recently concluded Sino-Japanese war to buy a handcart with the longterm goal of building a small handcart empire with a warehouse of his own that will allow him to build a fancy house to live in. Seki hesitates, she’s an illiterate maid perhaps she isn’t good enough for the great Moichi but he replies that he couldn’t care less about that and only wants to know if she wants him. She does, but has to check with her parents first. They object to the marriage on the grounds that Moichi is penniless and disown her when she tells them she’s marrying him anyway. Disowned by her parents, she also loses her job as a maid and is forced to head to Moichi’s ahead of schedule where his extremely cold mother (Teruko Kishi) makes no secret of her resentment of her new daughter-in-law but is eventually forced to relent. 

Unlike Moichi and his mother, the other residents of the village and particularly its women are bright and cheerful despite the harshness of their lives. Swept off her feet by Moichi’s seeming sophistication, Seki is in for a rude awakening in realising that his work ethic is extreme and in many ways he’s just as cruel as his heartless mother. On her arrival, Seki’s mother-in-law complains that she brings “only a small bundle” while simultaneously suggesting that she somehow looks down on them because they are only poor people, insisting that she work alongside Moichi pulling carts to make their dreams of riches come true. Seki jumps at the chance to prove her love, but finds her mother-in-law unchanged. 

Pulling the cart through the village, Moichi and Seki pass another woman who seems put out by Seki’s presence, complaining that Moichi never bothered to reply to her own proposal. Moichi dismisses her complaints, avowing that he didn’t marry her because she wasn’t a worker, implying that he was only interested in someone who would work alongside him in pursuit of his goal of becoming a homeowner. Seki is indeed a worker, and a strong woman who bears her hardships with grace, but finds it increasingly difficult to put up with her mother-in-law’s heartlessness and adherence to old-fashioned feudal customs by which she claims her authority over the household while Moichi, as the dutiful son, always defers to his mother. When the first child arrives, Moichi declares that a daughter brings him no joy, while the mother-in-law who is supposed to be watching her, just lets her cry all day long and doesn’t even change her nappies. Out on the road, Seki comes across another couple in a similar situation who’ve brought their little one with them, riding in a bucket on the back of the cart. Seki wonders why they can’t do the same, then she’d at least know her daughter was alright and not crying her heart out in a dirty nappy, but Moichi won’t hear of it lest his mother be offended that Seki is suggesting she’s not looking after her granddaughter properly. 

Moichi works every hour god sends, but not so much to provide for his family as to improve his own status in the hope of owning a sizeable home, perhaps to “regain” the kind of position his mother thinks is theirs as descendents of the Heike. He exists on a kind of political fault line in his rigid austerity, believing that you really can make it just by working hard while also becoming the de facto spokesman for the other cartmen because he is the only one able to read and write. Yet faced with constant and obvious oppression of the eerily feudal kind in persistent rice profiteering he does nothing much to resist it and gives only grudging approval to his son’s intention of forming a train driver’s union. 

While Moichi has pinned all his hopes on handcarts, the future is fast approaching. A funeral procession of cartmen is greeted by the horse-drawn variety coming the other way as if to signal their imminent obsolescence. But the horsemen aren’t much better off. If Moichi couldn’t afford a horse, he’ll never afford a motor car and the mechanised age is on the horizon. The only work he manages to find ironically involves transporting lumber for the new railway line, but it’s a gamble that pays off and makes Moichi a wealthy man once again. 

Material comforts aren’t everything, however, and Seki struggles to reconcile herself to life with her increasing cruel mother-in-law and emotionally distant husband. She worries that she’s becoming what she hates, finding it difficult to find sympathy for Moichi’s mother now she’s ill in feeling that perhaps she’s getting what she deserves. Her friend advises her that that’s just “bugs” eating away at her heart and what she really needs to do is fly in the opposite direction, finally make a friend of her mother-in-law in trying to understand her. She has, after all, had a very hard life, starved of affection all these years as a young widow raising a son alone on little more than charcoal money. 

Seki meanwhile suffers numerous humiliations and heartbreaks, notably Moichi’s extremely unreasonable decision to bring his 50-year-old sex worker mistress to live with them in their home, but does her best to be generous and forgiving. As she points out, this house is half hers, she built it alongside Moichi and she won’t just vacate it so Moichi can do what he always does which is as he pleases (once his mother’s not around to tell him not to). Moichi perhaps pays for his feudalist follies and selfish authoritarianism in a fairly direct way which aligns him with his chastened nation waking up to the emotional costs of his mistakes, while Seki is finally rewarded. Unlike her mother-in-law she becomes a beloved neighbourhood granny giving rides to all the local kids while pulling her cart onwards towards the future like a reverse Mother Courage embracing her long absent son finally returned to her in recognition of her goodness. 


My Love Has Been Burning (わが恋は燃えぬ, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1949)

My love has been burning posterAmong the many parallels that could be drawn between the Meiji Restoration and the immediate post-war period, the most obvious is that each provided a clear opportunity for social change along with a moment of frozen introspection and internal debate about what the new promised future ought to look like. Following Victory of Women and The Love of the Actress Sumako, Kenji Mizoguchi completed a loose trilogy of films dealing with the theme of female emancipation with My Love Has Been Burning (わが恋は燃えぬ, Waga Koi wa Moenu), returning once again to the broken promises of Meiji as its heroine discovers that old ideas don’t change so quickly and even those who claim to be better will often disappoint.

The film opens in the early 1880s as a teenage Eiko Hirayama (Kinuyo Tanaka) attends a rally to celebrate the arrival of noted feminist Toshiko Kishida (Kuniko Miyake). Eiko, a committed social liberal from a conservative middle-class family, went to see her idol in the company of a childhood friend, Hayase (Eitaro Ozawa), who is shortly going to Tokyo to study and join the democratic revolution. He halfheartedly asks Eiko to come with him, but knows that she won’t because her parents will refuse permission and she will not disobey them. Soon after, Eiko’s loyalty to her family is weakened when the family’s maid, Chiyo (Mitsuko Mito), is sold to a brothel by her father. Devastated, Eiko asks her parents for the money to buy her back but they refuse, regarding Chiyo’s sacrifice as noble and in line with filial tradition. If Chiyo had refused (not that she had the right or power to refuse), her parents would starve. Eiko rushes back to the docks, but she is too late, Chiyo and Hayase have both departed for the capital and extremely different fates.

After her family situation declines still further and Eiko decides it is impossible for her to remain under her father’s roof, she makes her own way to the city but finds it not quite so welcoming as she’d assumed it to be. Hayase is not overjoyed to see her. He merely asks if she has finally decided to marry him and becomes petulant when she reaffirms her intention to study even if she implies that she intends to marry him at a later date. During his time apart from her, Hayase has been working for the fledgling Liberal Party agitating for wider democratic rights and the expansion of the franchise, though he is irritated still further when his mentor, Omoi (Ichiro Sugai) – the leader of the socialists, is supportive of Eiko’s ambitions and agrees to find a job for her working on the party paper.

Eiko’s early disappointment in Hayase is frequently mirrored in all of her subsequent dealings with men. Hayase put on a performance of believing in her cause of women’s liberation and more widely the equality of all peoples ending centuries of feudal oppression, but really just wanted to possess her body and is unwilling to accept her decision to reject him or to choose someone else. Later visiting her after she has been imprisoned on a somewhat trumped up charge, Hayase tells her that a woman is only a woman when loved by a man, and that a woman’s fulfilment is achieved through home, family, and motherhood. He tells her that he admires her for her education and talent, but that she has “forgotten” that she is a woman. He will help her remember by getting her out of prison if only she consent to marry him even though he has previously attempted to rape her and is now working for the rightwing government having betrayed the socialist cause.

Meanwhile, Omoi looks an awful lot better. He is, ostensibly, entirely committed to socialist aims, energetically engaged in promoting the Liberal Party, and trying to ensure true democracy takes root in the new Japan, lifting the common man above his subjugated position in the still prevalent feudal hierarchy. Nevertheless, he too eventually falls in love with Eiko and like Hayase is ultimately more interested in her body than their shared cause for liberal freedom. He appears to support her desire for women’s rights as an integral part of his desire to end feudal oppressions but his belief in female equality is later exposed as superficial. Eiko, reuniting with Chiyo in prison, takes her into the household she now shares with Omoi (though they are obviously not legally married) as her maid which is perhaps not entirely egalitarian but still a well intentioned attempt to free her from the life her father condemned her to.

Omoi disappoints, bedding Chiyo while Eiko is working hard at the campaign office. Confronted, he rolls his eyes and offers a boys will be boys justification before affirming that it was just a matter of sexual satisfaction and that his feelings for her haven’t changed, mildly reproving Eiko for allowing her emotional jealously to cloud her judgement in restricting his sexual freedom. If it were indeed a matter of free love, perhaps Eiko could have understood, but Omoi damns himself when looks askance at Chiyo and remarks that it doesn’t really matter because she is nothing but a servant and a concubine. All at once, Eiko sees – despite his fine talk, Omoi may have abandoned feudal ways of thinking when it comes to working men but still sees women in terms of things. If he thinks female “servants” are not worthy of respect or agency, then what is it that he has been fighting for in his supposed mission to end oppression in Japan?

Attempting to comfort a distraught Chiyo who has been so thoroughly brainwashed that she never quite expected anything “better” than being a concubine and has truly fallen for all Omoi’s pretty words about wanting to make her happy, Eiko reminds her that as long as men continue to think as Omoi does women will never be free. Freedom and equality are what will enable female happiness, and long as men refuse to recognise women not as domestic tools but as fellow human beings there can be no freedom in Japan. Mizoguchi reinforces the idea that while one is oppressed none of us is free, neatly celebrating the success of the disappointing Omoi while lamenting that his intentions for reform will not go far enough. Eiko cannot free the women of Japan on her own, but her solution is warm and committed – she will teach them to free themselves by starting a school, educating the next generation to be better than the last. Chiyo, notably, whom she never blames or rejects, will become her first pupil neatly subverting Hayase’s cruel words when she asks Eiko to teach her how to be a woman.

Unusually brutal, My Love Has Been Burning does not shy away from the violence, often sexual violence, which both women suffer both at the hands of men and of the state as they attempt to do nothing more than live freely as full human beings. It also makes plain that even those with supposedly high ideals can disappoint as they nevertheless motion towards real social good without fully committing to its entireties. A committed pro-democratic, intensely feminist statement, Mizoguchi’s lasting message lies in an affirmation of female solidarity as, unlike the self-serving Omoi, Eiko lifts her pupil up onto her own level and draws her shawl around them both committed to proceeding forward together into a fairer future.


The Love of the Actress Sumako (女優須磨子の恋, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1947)

vlcsnap-2019-03-27-01h39m45s435The Taisho era was, like that of the post-war, a time both of confusion and possibility in which the young, in particular, looked for new paths and new freedoms as the world got wider and ideas flowed in from every corner of the globe. In The Love of the Actress Sumako (女優須磨子の恋, Joyu Sumako no koi), the second of a loose trilogy films about female emancipation, Kenji Mizoguchi took the real life story of a pioneering actress of Western theatre and used it to explore the progress of lack there of in terms of social freedoms not only for women but for artists and for society as a whole.

We begin in late Meiji as theatre director Shimamura (So Yamamura) fights to establish a foothold of Western-style “art theatre”, moving away from the theatricality of kabuki for something more immediate and naturalistic. He has, however, a problem in that as women were not allowed to take to the kabuki stage all of his students are male and casting a man to play a woman’s role would run counter to his desires to create a truly representative theatre. It is therefore lucky that he runs into Sumako Matsui (Kinuyo Tanaka) – a feisty, determined young woman who had divorced her first husband for infidelity and then left the second when he complained about her desire to pursue a career on the stage. In Sumako, Shimamura finds a muse and the ideal woman to portray the extremely controversial figure of Nora in his dream production of Ibsen’s incendiary A Doll’s House.

Shimamura casts Sumako because he sees in her some of Nora’s defiance and eventual desire to be free from illusionary social constraints, but it is in fact he who ends up embodying her spirit in real life. Somewhat feminised, Shimamura is in a difficult position in having married into his wife’s family, leaving him without real agency inside his own home as evidenced by his mild opposition to his daughter’s arranged marriage. While he wishes that his daughter be happy and if possible marry for love, Shimamura’s wife is very much of the old school and wants to make the best possible match in terms of financial gain and social status, viewing emotional compatibility as a low priority (the daughter herself as relatively little say). Unwisely falling in love with Sumako, it is he who eventually decides to follow Nora’s example by walking out not only on his family but also on the theatre company. He does this not quite because the scales have been lifted from his eyes – he was never under any illusion that his arranged marriage was “real” and there is of course an accepted degree of performance involved in all such unions, but because he finally sees possibility enough in his love for Sumako and the viability of emotionally honest Western art to allow him to break free of outdated feudal ideas of familial obligation.

Nevertheless, making a career as an artist is a difficult prospect in any age and Shimamura’s emotional freedom quickly becomes tied up with that of his art. Sumako’s Nora proves a hit (in the last year of Meiji), but he is ahead of his times both in terms of his liberal, left-wing philosophy and his determination to embrace modern drama in a still traditional society. The roles we see Sumako perform, including that in Tolstoy’s Resurrection which was another of those that helped to make her name, are all from proto-feminist plays which revolve around women who, like herself, had chosen to challenge the patriarchal status quo in pursuit of their own freedom and agency. Shimamura’s wife makes no secret of her outrage to her husband’s desire to stage A Doll’s House, viewing Nora’s decision as “selfish” and perhaps of a subversion of every notion she associates with idealised femininity. Though not so far apart in age, Sumako is a woman of Taisho who left not one but two unfulfilling marriages and is determined to forge her own path even if that path eventually leads her to subsume her own desires within those of her lover as the pair attempt to put their social revolution on the stage.

The revolution, however, does not quite take off. Despite good early notices, Shimamura’s Art Theatre company quickly runs into trouble. Faced with financial ruin, he does what any sensible theatre producer would do – he begins to prioritise bums on seats and acknowledges that if he’s to keep his company afloat and facilitate his dream of making Western theatre a success in Japan he’ll have to compromise his artistic aims  by putting on some populist plays. Of course, this sudden concession to commercial demands does not go down well with all and some of his hardline actors begin to leave in protest not just of his selling out but of his twinned desire to make Sumako his star.

Tellingly, the pair are eventually forced out of Japan entirely to tour the beginnings of empire from Korea to China and on to Taiwan. Their ideas are too radical and their society not quite ready for their messages even if not initially as hostile as it would later become. Shimamura works himself to the bone trying to keep his dream alive, eventually damaging his health. Sumako remains somewhat petulant about being forced into an itinerant lifestyle while her onstage personas come increasingly to influence her offstage life until it is said of her that her performance is “no longer an interpretation but an extension of reality”. In this, Sumako has, in a sense, achieved Shimamura’s dreams of a truly naturalistic theatre, but it comes at a cost, as perhaps all art does, and, Mizoguchi seems to suggest, becomes a kind of sacrifice laid down to a society still too rigid and unforgiving to appreciate its sincerity. Nevertheless, their boldness, as fruitless as it was, has started a flame which others intend to keep burning, eventually becoming a beacon for another new world looking to rebuild itself better and freer than before.


Short clip featuring Sumako’s performance as Carmen.

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.