The Lights of Asakusa (浅草の灯, Yasujiro Shimazu, 1937)

Lights of Asakusa posterThe lights of Asakusa (浅草の灯, Asakusa no Hi) still shone bright before the war. In this tiny corner of Tokyo well known for “low” entertainment, actors mingle with gangsters, lonely owners of amusement stalls, starving artists, bar girls, and wealthy industrialists each just trying to survive in an increasingly jittery city. Yasujiro Shimazu had been a pioneer of the “shomingeki” – stories of ordinary lower middle class people, and brings his characteristic wit and humanity to a tale of backstreet life where danger and ruin lurk on every corner and the only way to ensure one’s safety is to ensure you have the right defenders.

The main stage, if you will, is that of the Nippon-za “opera” company. This is, however, no great opera house but a run down little theatre presenting classical European opera for vaudeville audiences. The currently running show is Carmen, which will turn out to be appropriate for the events at hand. The trouble starts (or perhaps merely intensifies) when a young chorus member, Reiko (Mieko Takamine), begins attracting a range of wanted and unwanted male attention. Reiko, an orphan, had been taken in by a local bar mistress who later pushed her into the opera company but still expects her to make good on her investment by becoming a casual prostitute and taking on “customers” who present themselves at the bar (Reiko is around 16 or so, and therefore has just reached the age her foster mother thinks appropriate to join the business). The complication is that the man who’s taken a fancy to Reiko, Handa (Shunro Takeda), is a steel magnate who also finances the opera troupe meaning it’s not just the bar owner who’s coming under pressure but the financial security of the troupe too.

Being so young, Reiko finds her foster mother’s demands hard to refuse but is rescued by Sasaki (Seiji Nishimura) – the leading actor, married to leading lady Marie (Haruko Sugimura). The situation with Reiko exposes cracks already present in the group when Handa sends his goons in to disrupt the show, irking Sasaki to the point he takes off in a fit of artistic temperament. Meanwhile, another actor Yamagami (Ken Uehara), gets together with the rest of the troupe to ensure Reiko’s safety by hiding her with a feeble minded fan, Pokacho (Daijiro Natsukawa), so that she won’t be forced into a potentially life ruining situation.

Reiko’s plight is perhaps all too common on the streets of Asakusa. Having been orphaned she feels herself indebted to the bar mistress who took her in even if the relationship between them is not especially warm. She also feels grateful to have found a third family in the opera troupe and is afraid to lose her place there. Nevertheless, she is under extreme pressure to submit herself to this system of reciprocal arrangements and sleep with Handa solely to save making trouble for everyone else. Meanwhile her (sometimes) sympathetic roommate Beniko (Kayako Fujiwara) knows exactly what’s at stake through having been in a similar situation herself. She’s long been in love with the pure hearted Yamagami and is harbouring a degree of jealously in believing that Yamagami has a soft spot for Reiko, but she also half wants things to work out between them seeing as she has lost the “right” to love a man like Yamagami because she is no longer a virgin.

Shimazu had often been of a progressive mind, but sadly Beniko falls by the wayside, merely a sacrificial lamb prepared to give up on her dreams on Reiko’s behalf, so we never find out the limits of Yamagami’s justice loving heart or if he would be as bothered about Beniko’s past as she seems to fear he might be. Yamagami, brooding but righteous, would become one of matinee idol Ken Uehara’s best known roles though he too is teetering on the brink in Asakusa. Committed to defending the innocent, he tries to save Reiko’s honour but fails to declare a personal interest, entrusting her to the rather odd painter Pokacho who claims that his love for Reiko is of a spiritual, rather than carnal kind. Yamagami may succeed in his primary goal but still ends up in defeat, running away from the most important fight by retreating from Tokyo completely with a rebound girlfriend in tow, hoping to find kinder light in Osaka than he had on the dog eat dog streets of Asakusa.

Based on a novel by Hiroshi Hamamoto, Shimazu’s portrait of backstreet life sparkles with authenticity but also with a kind of hopelessness as each of these down on their luck “opera” stars laments their sorry fates and longs for a better gig somewhere less down and dirty. Meanwhile, the spectre of war lingers – when Carmen comes off the next show is to be “Two Honourable Soldiers”, filled with maudlin anthems of war which push the messages of patriotism and the glorification of offering one’s life for one’s country. The slimy Handa may have been defeated for now, but his kind are in the ascendent and the streets of Asakusa are unlikely to improve with only war and depression on the horizon.


Okayo’s Preparedness (お加代の覚悟, Yasujiro Shimazu, 1939)

Okayo's Preparedness title cardYasujiro Shimazu had been the pioneer of the “shomingeki” and a fierce chronicler of the lives of ordinary lower middle class people. The growing presence of the militarist regime, however, demanded a slight shift of focus. 1939’s Okayo’s Preparedness (お加代の覚悟, Okayo no Kakugo) has its share of propaganda content, but it’s also mildly subversive. In the conventional narrative, a woman must get married and a man must find a purpose. Shimazu turns this upside-down – a man becomes a husband and a woman finds artistic fulfilment in the midst of heartbreak.

In the contemporary era, Osumi’s (Kuniko Miyake) husband has been drafted and is away fighting at the front leaving her alone at home where she makes ends meet running a traditional dance school while looking after their small daughter Mitsuko (Kazue Hayashi). Okayo (Kinuyo Tanaka) is the star pupil at school and also a live-in apprentice, functioning almost as a servant but regarded as a member of the family. The trouble begins when a Osumi gets a visit from her brother-in-law who has received a letter from her husband in which he requests some photographs of his wife and family going about their daily lives while he is unable to be with them. The amateur photographer he’s brought along is a young man of quality and the older brother of one of the school’s pupils. Okayo has developed a fondness for Shunsaku (Ken Uehara) during her time walking his little sister home and secretly hopes he returns her affections. Shy and nervous, she is nevertheless overjoyed when he takes her for tea while they wait for the photographs to be developed. Shunsaku, however, was just being kind. He actually has his eye on another pupil at the school (someone more of his social class) and Okayo is destined to experience her first real heartbreak.

Shimazu gets his propaganda obligations out of the way fairly quickly. We cut to a picture of a man in uniform proudly hanging on the wall whom we later realise to be Osumi’s absent husband. Though Osumi worries about him, his enlistment was regarded as a cause for celebration – Okayo felt obliged to have a rare cup of sake, and it’s clear Osumi is proud to be married to a man defending the nation. Nevertheless, it is also clear that he is experiencing suffering – Okayo and Osumi wonder if he too can enjoy the simple pleasures of warm sake and boiled tofu so far away from home, and Osumi also makes sure to send him a pair of of geta in her care package fearing that he may be missing the small but essential facets of his Japaneseness. Though this is only 1939 and the situation is not yet “serious” there is the betrayal of a mild anxiety in Osumi’s fears as well as in her husband’s letter which states the anxiety he feels after learning that a friend was told of trouble at home only after the fact. After all, it’s hard to put unpleasant news in a letter to someone you know to be already experiencing hardship. Hence the request for the photographs – real visual evidence that his wife and daughter are healthy and happy, rather than mere words which may be offered in the interests of comfort.

Meanwhile, Shimazu is secretly building a second argument behind the scenes. We expect the simple love story of Okayo and Shunsaku will proceed along the usual lines. He will come to appreciate her and they will marry despite the class difference and the difficulty of the times. That is not, however, what happens. Okayo’s attraction is apparently one-sided. Osumi’s brother-in-law warns her that Shunsaku is popular with the ladies, even if he also points out his rather stiff, respectable nature. Shunsaku’s mother has apparently had difficulty finding a suitable match for him which increases Okayo’s hopes, but the reason turns out to be that he has developed at attraction for another pupil at the school, as Okayo finds out listening at the door when Shunsaku’s mother comes to Osumi for an additional character reference. All at once Okayo’s world collapses. She remembers that she is a servant, forever separated from the “nice young ladies” who take classes at the school, and that her youthful romance has been little more than a distracting fantasy.

Earlier on, while taking tea with Shunsaku, Okayo had remarked on how important Osumi had told her her dancing training was as a means of achieving independence and self-sufficiency. The ability to dance well enough to teach (and acquire such well regarded pupils) is after all how Osumi has been able to support herself with a husband away in the army. Osumi’s brother-in-law also tells her something similar when he reminds her that it’s important for her to concentrate on her art rather than getting lost in a romantic daydream. Osumi, realising how hurt Okayo has become after overhearing her conversation with Shunsaku’s mother tries to comfort her with the same logic, convincing her that her infatuation in an entirely normal part of being young and that it will pass. Encouraging her to concentrate on her dancing so that she can turn it into a valid career, Osumi provides both a shoulder to cry on and a valid plan for the future, remaining both sympathetic and supportive in witnessing her pupil’s suffering.

Making a bold formal switch, Shimazu dramatises Okayo’s moment of self-actualisation as a dance sequence taking place in parallel to Shunsaku’s wedding. Sadly picking up a bow she slowly moves to the stage and begins to sing, eventually moving into dance before the scene dissolves and Okayo is in full costume, mid-performance playing the part of a brokenhearted woman watching her beloved marry another. Having danced through her pain and doubly experienced the suffering of her romantic disillusionment, Okayo collapses in exhaustion on the bare stage of the studio, gazing out at the windows and weeping once again as they remain empty yet perhaps open.


Eclipse (金環蝕, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1934)

Shimizu Eclipse 1Though most often remembered for his contribution to the cinema of children, Hiroshi Shimizu was also a practiced chronicler of his difficult times. 1934’s Eclipse (金環蝕, Kinkanshoku), unlike much of his other work from the period, avoids direct reference to Japan’s increasingly global or imperialist ambitions but paints its rapid shift towards “modernity” as dangerous and potentially tragic for the unlucky few who for one reason or another are unable to secure their passage towards a harmonious and prosperous future. Adopting the form of a classic romantic melodrama, Eclipse is a bittersweet exploration of corrupted social virtues which ends on an ironic note of defeated victory.

Shimizu begins in a traditional rural village which is all abuzz because prodigal son Seiji Kanda (Shiro Kanemitsu) – now a big shot lawyer in the city, is set to return and, rumour has it, is on the look out for a good country wife. Regarding a marriage to a promising young man like Seiji as the highest of prizes, the village women gossip about whom he might choose and correctly conclude Kinue Nishimura (Hiroko Kawasaki) is likely to be the front runner given her comparatively high education level, beauty, poise, and kindness. Kinue, however, has long been in love with her diffident cousin, Shukichi Osaki (Mitsugu Fujii), who now finds himself in a difficult position as Seiji’s best friend and the go-between charged with communicating his intention to marry. Called to a secret meeting by an old watermill, Kinue is shocked and offended when Shukichi proposes on behalf of someone else, strongly refusing the proposal and reminding him of all the times they had spent together during which she believed an attachment had been formed. Shukichi, whose family is impoverished, does not reject her affections but claims not to want to stand in the way of his friend’s romantic dreams.

Kinue, perhaps unwittingly setting up the ongoing drama, asks if she is to sacrifice her heart and marry a man she does not love and believes would ultimately be unhappy with a woman who yearns for someone else, in order that Shuikichi may continue to feel noble. In the end, Shukichi tries to make her decision for her by running away to the city in the hope of making a life for himself in the same way that Seiji has done. Kinue, brokenhearted, rejects the idea of marrying Seiji and runs off after him only to end up working as a bar girl under the bright lights of Tokyo. Meanwhile, Shukichi discovers that the bonds of obligation which carry so much weight the village are all but worthless in the city when his various contacts refuse to see him and he finds it impossible to gain promising employment. His big break comes when he is knocked over by the chauffeur of the man who just offered to pay his train fare back to the country and thereafter is taken into the family home as a tutor for the youngest son on the insistence of the forthright “modern girl” daughter, Tomone (Michiko Kuwano). Needless to say, the romantic drama isn’t over as Tomone also has a “cousin” who is in love with her and is also sought by Seiji who was her tutor while he was in college and she in school.

The values of the old world and the new are in constant conflict with each other though ultimately it is the failure to act decisively on one’s emotions which causes the greatest harm. Shukichi, knowing his family is poor and a marriage to Seiji the “better” social and financial option for Kinue, insists on nobly sacrificing himself in what he sees as her interest but in doing so rejects her own agency or right to choose her future, assuming she will simply passively pass into the arms of Seiji with no resistance. Kinue, however, resists by following him to Tokyo but, unable to find him, is forced into the sex trade to support herself. Meanwhile, Shukichi continues to break hearts in the city – firstly that of Tomone who has apparently fallen in love with him despite their class difference, but also that of Kayo (Yoshiko Tsubouchi) – the sister of the chauffeur who knocked him over. Still in love with Kinue he diffidently (but not categorically) rejects the affections of the two women but also refuses to act on his feelings for Kinue until he tries a last ditch attempt to “rescue” her from a fall into a life of prostitution through a worrying act of frustrated physical violence (something which ultimately fails).   

The final resolution is brought about by Seiji who, unlike Shukichi, has been able to reconcile his essential nobility with the forward moving nature of the times. Seiji, figuring out that he’d come between a loose arrangement between Kinue and her cousin, is full of remorse and steps back without a second thought, desiring only happiness for all rather than victory or conquest. Again, at the end, becoming the second choice match for Tomone, he returns to fix what he half feels he has broken by “rescuing” Kinue himself through an act of gentleman’s diplomacy and then giving his friend a good talking to. The problem becomes less of one of East and West, town and country, past and future, but personal integrity. Tomone laments that her “selfishness” has caused pain to others – something for which she is trying to make amends in becoming a “good wife” to Seiji, but this is a lesson Shukichi has been slow to learn. His failure to integrate his conflicting desires coupled with a feeling of social inferiority due to his family’s reduced circumstances and standing in the village has effectively created this web of broken hearts and ruined futures, all of which might have been avoided if he had been braver and chosen to stay at home with the woman he loved at his side, living a life of simplicity but with emotional integrity.

These twin destinies are reinforced by the final scenes which find Seiji and Tomone boarding a boat to the West to immense fanfare and celebration, while Kinue and Shukichi are perched aboard a baggage train, he standing and she sitting dejectedly, silent and apart as the rails speed away behind them. The city recedes and the chance of future happiness for our reunited lovers seems slim despite the conventionally romantic nature of their togetherness as they return home drenched in defeat. Seduced and betrayed by the bright lights of Tokyo, Kinue and Shukichi seem bound for the life they should have lived if they’d only been brave enough to fight for happiness at home rather than succumbing to the false promises of modernity but it remains to be seen if their time in the city can be “eclipsed” by a new hope for a traditional future or will continue to overshadow their simple and honest lives in the days to come.


Okoto and Sasuke (春琴抄 お琴と佐助, Yasujiro Shimazu, 1935)

Okoto to SasukeYasujiro Shimazu had been a pioneer of the “shomin-geki” – naturalistic tales of ordinary working people in the contemporary era, but 1935’s Okoto and Sasuke (春琴抄 お琴と佐助, Shunkinsho: Okoto to Sasuke) sees him step back from the modern world in adapting a soon to be classic novella by contemporary novelist Junichiro Tanizaki. Published in 1933 under the title Shunkinsho and set in late Meiji, Okoto and Sasuke is another in the author’s long series of dark erotic dramas which aim to explore the baser elements of the human heart while engaging in a kind of cultural soul searching. The first of many adaptations, Shimazu’s scales back on Tanizaki’s taste for the perverse as well as his wry sense of humour, spinning a tender tale of love which finally finds its home only in the shared darkness of two becoming one in self imposed exile from the visible world.

Okoto (Kinuyo Tanaka) has been blind since she was nine and, though her parents appear to dote on her, has a proud and imperious manner which sees her mistreat those who only seek her friendship. Fearing that, due to her disability, Okoto will never find a suitable husband, the family have decided to let her study the koto and shamisen (traditionally strong areas for the blind) so that she might be able to support herself and have some degree of accomplishment. Sasuke (Kokichi Takada), a young servant at the pharmacy run by Okoto’s father, began escorting Okoto to her classes for no especial reason but as he is one of the few who can cope with Okoto’s moods, and is one of the few Okoto seems to tolerate, he quickly became her personal companion.

Sasuke remains completely devoted to Okoto even when she treats him cruelly. So many areas of their relationship are an inversion of the customs of the time – Okoto is the mistress, while Sasuke is the servant, she is strong while he is weak, she is cruel and he is kind. She has all the power, and he has none but seems to revel in his degradation, obeying each and every one of Okoto’s commands and rarely minding even when she strikes him. Nevertheless, despite her outward contempt for him Okoto is also dependent of Sasuke – not only for the assistance he provides, but for the gentle touch of his hands and his willingness to place himself entirely under her authority in worshipful devotion.

The relationship between the pair is one of (seemingly) chaste sadomasochism in which both reject the “normal” romantic affectations of their time. Despite the obvious class difference, Okoto’s family are secretly hoping Okoto and Sasuke will someday marry – an idea floated with intense seriousness when it is discovered that Okoto has become pregnant though she refuses to name the father of the child, denying that her lover is Sasuke and vowing that she would find it “humiliating” to be married to a mere servant.

There is something, as uncomfortable as it is, which presents Okoto’s pride as a kind of rebellion born of her blindness, a rejection of the world which has rejected her as “imperfect” and which she literally cannot see. Despite her family’s reservations Okoto does acquire a suitor, but he is only interested in her precisely because of her blindness. A playboy, Ritaro has fetishised Okoto’s “difference” and sees her almost as a trophy, captivated by her intense beauty and only spurred on by her haughtiness. A friend of Sasuke’s, by contrast, hearing the rumour of Okoto’s pregnancy, expresses horror at the idea of a “disabled” woman with a child, avowing that society would never stand for such a thing, rejecting and salivating over the salacious rumour at the same time. Okoto will pay a heavy price for her violent rejection of Ritaro’s attempt to reduce her to a mere conquest, ironically allowing him to rob her of something, but eventually leading her towards the destiny which will bind her forever to her devoted servant, Sasuke.

Okoto, having suffered facial disfigurement, comes to realise the true nature of her feelings for Sasuke but cannot bear for him to see her ruined face, and he, dutifully, resolves to keep his eyes closed as if blind. Ultimately Sasuke opts for the traditionally female act of sacrifice in deciding to shift from his own world into that of Okoto. Together they cut themselves off from the outside world, electing to live in a world made for two alone in which none else may enter. Their act is one of intense individualism taken as a pair who have become one in their mutual devotion, rejoicing in a love born of darkness. Shimazu undercuts Tanizaki’s need for discomfort to present the final union of Okoto and Sasuke as the uncomplicated realisation of a love deep and true – concluding with an intertitle rather than succumb to the inherently melodramatic resolution of Tanizaki’s eroguro love story. Nevertheless through the powerful performance of Kinuyo Tanaka as the increasingly conflicted Okoto, Shimazu manages to capture something of the “pure” love of equals who find their place in a changing world only by removing themselves from it.


The Eternal Breasts (乳房よ永遠なれ, Kinuyo Tanaka, 1955)

(c) Nikkatsu 1955

(c) Nikkatsu 1955Having made her directorial debut for Shin Toho with the beautifully drawn post-war romantic melodrama Love Letter scripted by Keisuke Kinoshita, and then moving on to her second film after being accepted as a career director at Nikkatsu – the Ozu scripted humorous romantic family drama The Moon Has Risen, Tanaka chose to work with female script writer Sumie Tanaka (no relation) for a tale of female resilience and resistance in the face of extreme suffering. Fumiko Nakajo was a real life figure who had died of breast cancer at the age of 31 in 1954. The Eternal Breasts (乳房よ永遠なれ, Chibusa yo Eien Nare) , a biopic of sorts, was released in 1955, barely a year later but makes no concession to the recency of Nakajo’s passing in examining both the still taboo subject of breast cancer and the effects of the disease and its treatment on the heroine who, arguably, finally learns to become herself through battling her illness.

Fumiko Shimojo, née Nakajo, (Yumeji Tsukioka) is the wife of a grumpy, resentful stock broker and the mother of their two children, Noboru and Aiko. It’s clear that things in the Shimojo household are far from peaceful with the discord between husband and wife a talking point throughout the local community. Despite her husband’s claims to the contrary, Fumiko is the dutiful “good wife” of the period, trying hard to make her marriage work even in the face of her husband’s ongoing resentment and thinly veiled inferiority complex given Fumiko’s slightly elevated class credentials and education. To get away from her disappointing home life Fumiko has joined a local poetry circle specialising in tanka and is well known for the gritty realism of her poems in which she expresses all of her suffering and unhappiness in regards to life with her husband. When she comes home early one day and finds a woman dressed in kimono entertaining her man, she decides it’s time for a divorce, reverts to her maiden name of Nakajo, and goes back to live with her mother and soon-to-be-married brother, regretting only that her husband insists on custody of their son, Noboru.

The early part of the film deals with the equally taboo subjects of divorce and family breakdown as Fumiko struggles to adjust to her life as a single mother as well as coming to terms with being separated from her son. Though she is often approached by matchmakers and encouraged to remarry, her experience of married life has left her reluctant to commit to a second round of matrimonial subjugation. Her mother, whom she partly blames for pushing her into a marriage she never wanted in the first place, and her brother are fully on her side as are her friends, the Horis – a Christian couple who champion her poetry and act almost as a set of second parents despite being only a little older than she is.

Released from matrimonial shackles, Fumiko is free to embrace her life as a poetess even if she never dreams of any kind of literary success. As the tactless women at the poetry circle put it, pain is good for art and it’s certainly true that each advance in Fumiko’s fortunes is accompanied by emotional suffering. Struggling to cope with the divorce and the children, Fumiko neglects chest pains and a strange feeling in her breast only to keel over when an unpleasant woman arrives to reclaim Noboru with whom she thought she’d finally been reunited.

Diagnosed with late stage breast cancer, Fumiko undergoes a double mastectomy. Refusing to shy away from the medical consequences, Tanaka films the surgery as a kind of fever dream as the bright surgery lights loom over Fumiko whose breasts appear in full view as the surgeons prepare to do their work. The loss of Fumiko’s breasts results in one of her most famous poems, published in a national newspaper, but the physical and emotional consequences are not so easily defined. Before her illness we’re constantly told that young Fumiko was a “tom boy”, and at times it appears as if she has been unsexed after being shorn of her femininity. According to her brother, however, Fumiko has become more like a child – something that rings true as she gaily sings in the bath and almost delights in shocking her friend by flashing her surgery scars unannounced. Mrs. Hori, Kinuko (Yoko Sugi), generally a kind and progressive sort, can hardly bear to look and is unwilling to engage with the physical reality of Fumiko’s condition as much as she would like to help her.

Despite proclaiming that at least she won’t be bothered with marriage proposals anymore, Fumiko’s “unsexing” appears to have the opposite effect in reawakening and intensifying her sense of desire. Earlier on, post-divorce and hiding out from her brother’s wedding at which she feels an awkward guest, Fumiko visits Hori (Masayuki Mori) and confesses her love for him though she knows nothing will come of it. Her love is, however, pure – she also loves and respects Hori’s wife Kinuko safe in the knowledge that Kinuko makes Hori happy. After her operation she returns to the Hori’s home and asks Kinuko to run her a bath so that she can bathe in the same water as her beloved – confessing to her friend that she had been in love with her husband. Kinuko seems to know already and is sympathetic, if a little embarrassed. This same boldness later manifests itself in Fumiko’s last great act of passion in which she embarks on a brief yet intense affair with the journalist (Ryoji Hayama) who is covering her career for a paper in Tokyo.

Fumiko’s relationship with the reporter is originally compromised by his overly gloomy copy which proclaims that her death is only a matter of time (then again, for whom is that not true?). Fearing that her death is being fetishised, that no one would be giving her a second glance if she were not dying, Fumiko refuses to write or have visitors. Just as she was “imprisoned” within her marriage, she is now “imprisoned’ by death. As she puts it in one of her poems, the hospital ward is a gloomy place in which she’s often framed by bars – through the windows, through the footboard of her bed, even the hospital kimono she is wearing is patterned with tiny railings. In an eerie, dream-like sequence she wanders out of her room and follows a parade of wailing relatives as a body is wheeled away but just as she is about to leave the metal gate slides shut in front of her, trapping Fumiko like a ghost in the purgatorial world of the hospital ward as she realises that that same gate will be her only exit route.

The same image is repeated at the end of the film as Fumiko’s own bed is wheeled through the mortuary gates which slam shut across the eyes of her confused children who have been left entirely on their own and without a proper explanation of where their mum is going. Fumiko’s final poem is crushing in its anger and ambivalence as it instructs her children to accept her death as the only thing she has to bequeath them. This terrible legacy seems too cruel, condemning her children to a life of grief and mourning even as she instructs them to “accept” her passing. Yet it also speaks of the final contradictions of her character – loving mother and passionate woman, fierce poet and shy genius. Unlike the sickly heroines of melodrama, Fumiko does not always bear her suffering with saintly stoicism but rages, finally embracing the “true self” she only dared to express through her poetry, learning to live only in the knowledge that she must die.


Screened at BFI as part of the Women in Japanese Melodrama season.

Burden of Life (人生のお荷物, Heinosuke Gosho, 1935)

Despite being at the forefront of early Japanese cinema, directing Japan’s very first talkie, Heinosuke Gosho remains largely unknown overseas. Like many films of the era, much of Gosho’s silent work is lost but the director was among the pioneers of the “shomin-geki” genre which dealt with ordinary, lower middle class society in contemporary Japan. Burden of Life (人生のお荷物, Jinsei no Onimotsu) is another in the long line of girls getting married movies, but Gosho allows his particular brand of irrevent, ironic humour to colour the scene as an ageing patriarch muses on retiring from the fathering business before resentfully remembering his only son, born to him when he was already 50 years old.

Rather than focussing on the main narrative right away, Gosho gives us a crash course in marital relations as we meet middle sister, Itsuko (Kinuyo Tanaka), who is currently posing for a raunchy portrait her starving artist husband is painting. Itsuko dresses in Western style, smokes openly and often, and her home is a bohemian one of the kind you’d imagine a (well to do) artist from the ‘30s would live in. The couple are interrupted by their brother-in-law who has come in search of his wife, Takako (Yoshiko Tsubouchi), with whom he’s had yet another argument causing her to storm off somewhere or other in a huff.

Takako has indeed stormed off, but has gone to her mother’s where her younger sister, Machiko (Mitsuyo Mizushima) is preparing for her own wedding and now feeling quite nervous hoping that it won’t be as tempestuous as Takako’s. The three sisters also have a little brother, Kanichi, who is doted on by the women of the family but has a strained relationship with his father, Shozo (Tatsuo Saito). The main conflict occurs once Shozo has successfully married off Machiko and begins happily contemplating a burden free life only to remember that little Kanichi is only eight and so there are twelve more years of fatherhood ahead of him and he’ll be 70 before he gets any peace. In order to speed up the process, he tells his wife Tamako (Mitsuko Yoshikawa) that maybe Kanichi doesn’t need to go school and should go out and get a job instead. Tamako, rightly outraged at her husband’s persistent coldness towards their son brings things to a head by leaving the family home.

The themes are common ones as a family faces the successful marriage of its youngest daughter but the pattern is complicated by the loose end that is Kanichi. Much younger than his sisters, it’s easy to believe Shozo’s assertions that his arrival was somewhat unexpected but far from a joyous surprise Shozo still seems to regard him with a degree of mild horror. Fearing becoming an elderly father Shozo’s concerns are fair given the additional burdens placed on him in having to find good husbands for three women and then pay for their weddings and dowries never mind a college education for a son he never wanted. Kanichi seems to be aware on some level of the way his father feels about him as a poignant scene implies when he begs some of the other neighbourhood children to keep playing with him even though it’s past tea time because he doesn’t want to go home if his dad is there.

Shozo fails to reform his opinion even after his wife leaves him. Almost delighting in a late life slice of batchelorhood, Shozo heads into the bar district for a night out where he ends up drinking with some younger guys, surrounded by students singing the Keio University song. His attention is momentarily taken by a small boy of around Kanichi’s age who is selling flowers to amorous patrons but it’s only once a hostess calls him “papa” that he seems to feel aged fatherhood reassert itself. Enquiring about her age he discovers she is only 19 – much younger than any of his daughters, and consequently Shozo begins to feel more like a ridiculous old man than a young buck on the prowl.

Gosho draws a number of contrasts within his “ordinary” family from the three sisters who seem to represent the changing times in their differing attitudes to the husband and wife and the division of their home. Itsuko, Westernised and brassy, is living well beyond her means and touching her parents for money in order to do it. Talking things over with the kimono’d Takako who offers to recommend a traditional hairstylist for Machiko’s wedding, Itsuko has some advice for dealing with men which she calls “reverse psychology”. Takako and her husband may not have children and fight all the time, but she is in other ways a model wife even if she thinks married life ought to be simpler than it is. Machiko is caught on the brink, though we never see her husband, wondering what her own married life will entail. Her father, Shozo, lamenting on his responsibilities remarks that women are like products for sale, requiring investments which will eventually pay off in terms of successful marriages but any investment in a son is, in a sense, a waste. Family, for him, is less a social unit and more a mini business enterprise from which he was looking forward to retiring.

In the end of course he changes his mind though more out of loneliness or a sense of mortality than any less selfish emotion. Slight at 66 minutes, Gosho packs in as much detail as possible whilst maintaining a broadly comic, almost screwball tone filled with selfish husbands and calculating wives all making the most of the relatively stable times. Life has many burdens but sometimes it’s better to rebrand those burdens joys and make the most of them before someone else decides to carry them for you and all you’re left with is an empty sort of lightness. You’re only old once, after all.


 

A Mother’s Love (母情, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1950)

mothers-loveShimizu’s depression era work was not lacking in down on their luck single mothers forced into difficult positions as they fiercely fought for their children’s future, but 1950’s A Mother’s Love (母情, Bojo) takes an entirely different approach to the problem. Once again Shimizu displays his customary sympathy for all but this particular mother, Toshiko, does not immediately seem to be the self sacrificing embodiment of maternal virtues that the genre usually favours.

Tellingly, when we first meet Toshiko she’s asleep on a bus as her three children badger a friendly artist who’s entertaining them by drawing a picture of their pretty mother. The boys are quick correct themselves when talking about the woman they’re with – she’s their “aunt” not their mother, but the artist sees through the ruse. Toshiko is heading to visit her brother in the country in the hope that he will look after her children for awhile offering the explanation that she wants to get married again. Her brother is sympathetic to her problems, but has six children of his own already (and perhaps a seventh on the way) so taking in three extra mouths to feed is not really an option. Agreeing to look after the youngest girl, they suggest trying an elderly uncle but remind her that he has a rather conservative mindset and may ask all sorts of questions about Toshiko’s recent past which she might not want to answer.

Not to worry, the uncle seems to have mellowed with age though he can’t take in two growing boys either and suggests asking a friend of his who’s been trying for a baby for years but has been unable to have one. When that doesn’t work out Toshiko deposits her second son at the uncle’s and travels on with just her oldest boy, Fusao, but as time goes on Toshiko begins to rethink her decision to have her children fostered out and wonders if just being together might be worth more than a stable economic life founded on the pain of abandonment.

The protagonists of “hahamono” which praise the idea of the noble, self sacrificing mother are not universally saintly but the one thing they never do is consider leaving their children. In this regard Toshiko is not immediately sympathetic. Rejecting the name “mother” for “aunt” in the hope of hooking a prospective husband, Toshiko has already marked herself as falling outside of the idealised mother standards and her rather cool, snappy way of addressing the children does not go in her favour either. Her brother greets her warmly (even if he seems to suspect that she’s probably come because she wants something) and has no desire to drag up the past but points out that other people might not be so charitable given that all three children have different fathers and Toshiko has never revealed how she supported herself towards the end of the war and in its immediate aftermath. Nevertheless, Shimizu refuses to judge her. Her life has been a hard one and she herself was fostered out herself as a child. Toshiko’s decision may not be one everyone would agree with but that doesn’t mean it was an easy one for her to make, or that she feels nothing in giving up her children.

The biggest tragedy is that the kids will be separated. Apparently often left to fend for themselves at home whilst Toshiko works, the children are a mini band of three and it seems even more cruel that they will be deprived not only of a mother but of their siblings too. Though the youngest girl tries to run after her mother and brothers, and the second son cries so much that his brother goes back to give him one of his comic books to cheer him up, Fusao is even more upset and anxious as the last remaining child. Constantly wetting the bed which costs him his place at a few prospective new homes, Fusao is plagued by the idea that his mother is about to abandon him and finally pleads with her that he can take care of his siblings by himself if only they can all stay together.

Fusao’s pleas eventually soften his mother’s heart though she begins to think again after coming across a band of itinerant performers, one of whom is nursing an infant despite her poverty and the harshness of her life. The young woman seems devoted to her child and is determined to take care of it even though she has no husband to help her. The child’s grandmother urged her daughter to give the baby up to someone with more resources to raise it but the girl refused, no matter how hard it may turn out to be. Moved, and feeling even more guilty in witnessing the hardships another mother is bearing for her child, Toshiko’s resolve begins to weaken.

When Toshiko is taken ill at an inn and her friend from the city, Mitsuko, comes to visit her it is revealed that Toshiko’s plan is not another marriage but that the two women are in the process of opening a bar – hence why she needs to farm out her children. Mitsuko has also sent her daughter to a relative so that she can plow all her time and money into the enterprise though no one knows how long it will take until the place is successful enough to support the full families of both women. It may be, therefore, that Toshiko’s desire to run her own business is for the ultimate benefit of her children who will finally have a degree of economic security. On thinking again, she wonders if it isn’t selfish vanity and that she’s sacrificing her children to fulfil her own desires.

Shimizu takes a more conservative viewpoint than that found in his other work by encouraging Toshiko to reject the prospect of being her own boss to embrace the traditional values of her natural maternity. The old nurse Toshiko visits in the hope that she will take in Fusao (which she almost certainly would have done) remarks that a full belly isn’t everything and being together might be enough, but that doesn’t quite explain what the obviously desperate Toshiko is going to do to survive from here on in. One can only hope that she somehow finds a way to make the bar work (even if it takes a little longer) rather than be left with nothing all over again. Focusing less on the children than on the maternal conflict as Toshiko becomes torn by the traditional values as seen in her rural hometown and the less forgiving modernism of the city, Shimizu retains an understanding tone but also eschews the concessions to pragmatism which so often went hand in hand with his forward looking idealism, for a reassertion of conservative values which fly in the face of his usually compassionate acceptance of the very real difficulties faced by women in a conformist and male dominated society.