Our Neighbor, Miss Yae (隣の八重ちゃん, Yasujiro Shimazu, 1934)

Our Neighbour Miss Yae posterRetrospectively, Japan in the 1930s looks like a time of misery and darkness, permanently overshadowed by oppressive government and coming tragedy. However, life went on much as it had before with all its customary joys and sorrows. The films of Yasujiro Shimazu are indeed among the least politicised of the era (which might make them, in an odd way, among the most politicised) and Our Neighbour, Miss Yae (隣の八重ちゃん, Tonari no Yae-chan) is no exception in its presentation of the everyday easiness between two very close families and the burgeoning romance between the younger daughter and older son of each.

Notably, the film opens with a scene of intense suburbia as the brothers, middle-schooler Seiji (Akio Isono) and university student Keitaro (Den Obinata), play catch in the yard training for Seiji’s big game at which he has a shot at playing at the legendary Koshien stadium. As young men are want to do, they break next-door’s window but luckily Mrs. Hattori (Choko Iida) across the way is a nice woman who hardly minds, especially as this is such a regular occurrence that the families almost have an account with the local glazers.

The Hattoris and the Arais are so close that it’s no problem at all for Keitaro to jump the fence and hang out with Mrs. Hattori, who even offers to feed him, when he arrives home early to find himself locked out while his mother (Ayako Katsuragi) has gone shopping. Despite his ease in the Hattoris’ home, he is flustered when the girl next-door, Yae (Yumeko Aizome), gets back from a school with a friend in tow. Even more so when he overhears the two girls’ typically teenage conversation in which they briefly touch on Yae’s possible feelings for him while somewhat provocatively discussing breast size – something Keitaro awkwardly chastises Yae for when she returns to the living room in more comfortable clothing.

Shimazu dramatises Keitaro’s embarrassment through his ongoing clumsiness – first of all spilling tea on his floor cushion and attempting to hide it by folding the cushion in half and placing it oddly between thighs and calves, and then by tipping pickles everywhere while awkwardly trying to share them with Yae (much to the amusement of her perspicacious friend who has missed absolutely nothing in this series of awkward exchanges). Yae eventually tries to take the cushion back as it’s a good one only meant for “guests” (which she evidently does not regard Keitaro to be) only to discover his mishap with the tea which is something they can all have a good laugh over. Through all of this Keitaro and Yae seem almost like a young couple already, gently bickering but with real affection. It’s all very innocent but also flirtatious to the extent that the offer to darn a pair of socks almost seems like an elaborate metaphor but then really what could say true love better than a willingness to deal with someone’s stinky footwear?

Seiji is forced to recall his brother’s cute and innocent piece of flirtatious banter when commiserating with Yae’s melancholy older sister, Kyoko (Yoshiko Okada), who returns home unexpectedly after having apparently walked out on an unhappy marriage. An act unthinkable to her mother, Kyoko resolves to have a divorce on account of her husband’s improper relations with the maid and generally frivolous character. Keitaro jokingly said that if he had a wife he’d make her put his socks on for him everyday and she’d have to do it. Keitaro might have been joking, but there’s something in what he said and in Kyoko’s insistence that she doesn’t want to be so “submissive”, preferring to be alone rather than spend another second with a man for whom she has no respect.

Kyoko is, after a fashion, the film’s antagonist in that she begins to come between Yae and Keitaro, destabilising the easy relationship between the families by introducing unexpected tension into the otherwise happy Hattori home. Longing to return to a more innocent girlhood but mindful that she can no longer be as “pure” as Yae, Kyoko is torn between two different kinds of being. She takes on the male role, using her status and position in an attempt at seduction. Becoming a third wheel on Yae’s attempt to ask Keitaro out to the pictures, Kyoko buys the whole gang dinner at an expensive restaurant at which she gets roaringly drunk and falls asleep on Keitaro’s shoulder in the cab on the way home. Noticing Keitaro’s discomfort and irritated on a personal level, Yae asks her to move only for Kyoko to state, ironically, that as she’s paid for the evening she’s sure he can put up with it.

In any case, Kyoko becomes an unanswered question. She remains trapped, wanting her independence but unable to access it. She refuses to return to her husband, but finds scant support from her family who remain preoccupied with potential scandal and the difficult future prospects for a divorced woman. Despite Mrs. Arai’s reassurance that perhaps those things no longer matter so much to younger people, which both women seem to view as a positive development, Mrs. Hattori fails to see the effect her disapproval is having on her daughter’s mental state until it is too late. 

Shimazu doesn’t seem to have much of answer for what to do about women like Kyoko save to leave the question dangling. He does not send her back to her (possibly abusive) husband or find a way for her to move past her difficult circumstances but allows her to become another lost woman whose sense of possibility has been gradually eroded by an oppressive society. Nevertheless, counter to her melancholy we have the girlish innocence of Yae who seems to be on a path of natural, easy connection with the straightforward Keitaro. Even so, her brief idyll is then ruptured by political interventions which might take her far away from her putative love. This potential disaster is eventually partially reversed, mimicking the familiar pattern that one family must be broken in order for another to be formed though in a somewhat perverse fashion that sees Yae become a temporary member of the Arai household but as something more like a sister.

This final intervention of the political is the only hint of external darkness. Shimazu’s vision of ordinary contemporary life is a cosmopolitan one filled with Hollywood glamour which references Fredric March and takes the gang to watch a fairly disturbing Betty Boop cartoon on the big screen while the boys dream of baseball glory and the parents look on mystified but happy. Yet despite the generalised happiness of the serene suburban world they inhabit, there is a mild note of disquiet presented by a deliberate lack of resolution which sends Yae, no longer a neighbour, skipping off happily into the future full of childish innocence while others make their way in a much less certain world.


A Woman Crying in Spring (泣き濡れた春の女よ, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1933)

woman crying in spring still 1The later legacy of Hiroshi Shimizu has largely been one of melancholy humanism shot through the unjaded eyes of children who have found themselves for one reason or another excluded from mainstream society. His first talkie, 1933’s A Woman Crying in Spring (泣き濡れた春の女よ, Nakinureta Haru no Onna yo, AKA The Lady Who Wept in Spring) is among his more pessimistic efforts, adopting the trappings of the classic melodrama but repurposing them as a coming of age tale for a woman who is already a mother herself set against the backdrop of the precarious contemporary economy among migrant workers and self-trafficking women. Though the overall tone is one of defeat and resignation in which the only possible salvation lies in learning to accept one’s fate, Shimizu does at least allow his heroines the possibility of a brighter future having actively decided on its course.

The film begins with a collection on men being counted onto a ship, onto which they are eventually followed by a collection of women. The men are going north to Hokkaido to work in the newly opened mines, while the women are following them to work in the newly opened bars. This is not a western, but it is a frontier town being made anew by the ongoing economic flux of ‘30s Japan.

The foreman reads out some rules for migrant workers arriving at the mines which boil down to – no women, no sake, no gambling, and the foreman’s word is law. The first two of these will turn out to have been good advice which was not followed, but it is the foreman himself who kicks off the drama by taking two of the miners, Kenji (Den Obinata) and Chuko (Shigeru Ogura), to the local bar run by one of the boat’s female passengers, Ohama (Yoshiko Okada). Ohama has a small daughter, Omitsu (Mitsuko Ichimura), whom she often neglects while she operates her slightly taboo business. Meanwhile, bar girl Ofuji (Akiko Chihaya) has taken a liking to the handsome and sensitive Kenji who tried to comfort her while she was crying on the boat. Ohama, however, has also taken a liking to him which has created an awkward situation among the women at the bar, though Kenji himself is a solitary sort and perhaps not really thinking of taking up with either woman.

The dilemmas are romantic, largely, but their implications wider. The first “issue” stems from the running of the mine itself which is shown to be inefficient and unsafe. The owners care only for money and not for the men who are all poor migrants unable to secure other, safer work in more palatable industries. The same is largely true of the women at the bar who have “fallen” into this line of work through poverty and lack of other options. Ofuji, possibly new to this world of casual prostitution, weeps on the boat despite having come to terms with her decision while a letter from home letting her know that her mother is seriously ill continues to weigh on her mind. She is touched by Kenji’s kindness and perhaps sees in him a possible escape from the increasingly oppressive nature of her life as a lowly bar girl.

Ohama, however, thinks something similar though her conflict is a slightly different one. Already a mother, Ohama is a middle-aged woman and the bar’s owner, which is to say she is in part the oppressor of these other women and in the business of marketing them to the local miners. Demonstrating his continuing sympathy for lonely children, Shimizu lets Ohama’s daughter Omitsu take centrestage through her mother’s continuing emotional distance. Ohama continually shuts Omitsu out of her bedroom (which is, technically, a place of work) as somewhere which is “unfit for children”, but ignores the inconvenient fact that this world is completely unfit for raising a child. Cast out, Omitsu wanders alone around the physically dangerous mine while she is surrounded by rough men who are often drunk and violent – all dangers her mother refuses to see in being entirely self-involved and overly conscious of the illicit nature of her business.

Ofuji and Ohama both see Kenji as a way out of their dead end lives, but Ohama is gradually made to realise that her opportunity for escape through romance has already passed. Like the later A Mother’s Love, Shimizu seems to suggest that a woman must cease to be a woman when she becomes a mother and that Ohama’s salvation is not a man but in accepting her role as Omitsu’s guardian and protector. Thus, chided by Kenji who has befriended the lonely little girl and noticed how keenly she feels her mother’s coldness towards her, Ohama begins to abandon her romantic fantasies and accept herself as a middle-aged woman with a child. Though this evidently means that she has both the right and the duty to continue on “alone” as a single woman raising a daughter, it is also a mild endorsement of the notion that single women with children must dedicate themselves entirely to childrearing and have lost all rights or hopes for future romantic fulfilment through the slightly taboo idea of “second” marriage.

The Japanese title is noticeably ambiguous and could as easily be a general statement on the unhappy state of 1930s women told through the melancholy tale of two trapped in the Hokkaido snows long after “spring” has supposedly sprung. Ohama, accepting her fate, sacrifices herself for Ofuji, enabling Ofuji’s flight in the knowledge that for her the ship has already sailed. His first talkie, Shimizu makes interesting use of sound in his frequent musical motifs but makes sure to leave space for the mournful sound of the boats departing as a woman watches sadly from an open window while the snow continues to fall silently before her.


No Blood Relation (生さぬ仲, Mikio Naruse, 1932)

No blood relationNaruse apparently directed six other films in-between Flunky, Work Hard and No Blood Relation (生さぬ仲, Nasanunaka) but we’ll likely never see any of them again. Adapting a “Shinpa” play (a new kind of Western style melodrama focusing on the real lives of everyday people), Naruse addresses a theme which later becomes central to his cinematic output – the trials and tribulations of women in contemporary society. This time we have two fully grown women tussling over the affections of a little girl who herself seems to have little input into the situation.

After a brief introductory sequence in which we witness the accidentally humorous escapades of a pair of petty crooks, we meet the sister of one of them who happens to be returning ex-pat and successful Hollywood actress, Tamae. It turns out that Tamae has come back to Japan after making her fortune in the movies hoping to reunite with the daughter she left behind six years ago.

However, her ex-husband, Atsumi, has remarried and the daughter, Shigeko, believes the second wife, Masako, is her real mother. Although the family are very happy together there is tension in the air as Atsumi’s company is running into trouble in this period of economic instability and he’s about to reveal he’s gone bankrupt. Atsumi’s mother does not take this well as she’s used to the upper middle class lifestyle and throws something of a hissy fit at being shamed in this way. Masako, by contrast, remains stoic and says she can bear the worst of what comes only she doesn’t want Atsumi to do anything illegal to try and solve their money problems and she doesn’t want to see Shigeko suffer. Her maternal feelings are further borne out when she is injured diving in front of an oncoming car which threatens to hit her daughter as she stops to pick up her doll in the middle of the road.

The problems continue pile up and Tamae uses her money as a lever to try and prise Shigeko away from her step-mother via the greedy grandma but the little girl was an infant when her birth mother left so she simply doesn’t remember Tamae and repeatedly asks to be allowed to go home to her “mother”. It’s understandable how much this would hurt Tamae who claims she’s only returned to Japan because she’s been unable to forget her daughter, yet her daughter never even knew her. If she was expecting some kind of cosmic connection it does not occur and if she truly wanted to rebuild a relationship with her child, what amounts to a virtual kidnapping was probably not the best way to go about it.

At heart it’s a tug of love between two women – the one who gave birth to a child and then abandoned it (perhaps harsh words, but no concrete reason other than a man and America are ever revealed), and the one who later raised it and came to love it as her own though shares no blood connection. Masako is the faithful Japanese wife, devoted to her family and just a very good, decent person which contrasts nicely with the ferocity of her rival – a modern woman, adulteress and movie star who thinks her money can enable her to take back what she previously gave up. For all that, it’s difficult to not to feel sorry for Tamae as her daughter continues to reject her. Even if the way she’s going about things is not sensible, her maternal emotions and the passion, desperation and even in part grief and regret are all too real.

Of course, what gets forgotten here is the plight of little Shigeko who never had any reason to believe Masako, who obviously loves her dearly, was not her real mother. Extremely confused and probably frightened, she just doesn’t understand why she’s being separated from her mum and being forced to hang out with this strange woman. Masako can’t get to see Shigeko after grandma has removed her from the house, but no one else stops to think about what sort of effect this is all having on a confused little girl who just wants to go home.

The depression is more of a backdrop here and even if Atsumi ultimately ends up feeling the brunt of it, money troubles are only a small part of the question at hand. Naruse doesn’t experiment as much as in Flunky, Work Hard but throws in a few impressive tracking sequences across open rooms and adds some rapid zooms as the two women have silent arguments over their relationships to Shigeko. Without giving too much away, the ending undercuts the degree of nuance Naruse had been trying add in ensuring that both women were drawn in a suitably complex manner, provoking sympathy and understanding for everyone caught up in this complicated situation (well, except perhaps for the bumbling crooks who are a little surplus to requirements).

The finale itself almost feels tacked on from an entirely different film with its sudden cheerfulness and abrupt closure as the original family is repaired thanks to a sudden monetary atonement and subsequent self-exile from the originally corrupting influence of the first wife. In many ways a standard melodrama of the time, No Blood Relation perhaps doesn’t have much more to recommend it than as an early example of Naruse’s development but does offer strong performances from its leading ladies and an interesting take on an age old question.


No Blood Relation is the second of five films included in Criterion’s Eclipse Series 26: Silent Naruse box set.