Chikamatsu’s Love in Osaka (浪花の恋の物語, Tomu Uchida, 1959)

Chikamatsu's love in Osaka poster“Money is the enemy” a dejected geisha declares in an attempt to explain her desperate circumstances to a naive young man part way  through Tomu Uchida’s Chikamatsu’s Love in Osaka (浪花の恋の物語, Naniwa no Koi no Monogatari). Before a wartime flirtation with the militarist far right, Uchida had been closely involved with the leftwing “tendency film” movement and his post-war work perhaps displays much the same spirit only with a world weary resignation to the inherent unfairness of human society. Chikamatsu, as cited in the slightly awkward English language title, was a Japanese playwright of the 17th/18th century who also specialised in tales of social oppression, most notably in frustrated romance and eventual double suicides.

Uchida’s masterstroke is that he retells Chikamatsu’s well known bunraku play The Courier for Hell and its kabuki counterpart Couriers of Love Fleeing to Yamato from the inside out. Among Chikamatsu’s most famous works the play was in fact inspired by a real life event which took place in Osaka (then known as “Naniwa”) in 1710. Uchida places the grumpy, worldweary figure of the playwright directly into the action as a powerless observer, trapped on the wrong side of the stage able only to observe and comment but, crucially, with the ability to remake reality in altering his tale in the telling.

The tale is familiar enough and possibly a little too close to that of Chikamatsu’s previous hits including Love Suicides at Sonezaki which is given a grim namecheck as events begin to mirror one of his plays. Our hero, Chubei (Kinnosuke Nakamura), is an earnest young man who has been adopted into the Kameya family with the intention that he will marry its only daughter and take over the courier business now being run by stern widow Myokan (Kinuyo Tanaka). Early foreshadowing reminds us that immense responsibility is regularly placed in Chubei’s hands and he must remain above suspicion. Embezzlement is a capital offence in the increasingly austere 18th century society.

Chubei is an honest man, but meek. Unable to risk offending a bawdy client, he allows himself to be bamboozled into the red light district where Hachiemon (Minoru Chiaki) buys him the prettiest courtesan in the place, Umegawa (Ineko Arima). Chubei tries to leave as soon as Hachiemon disappears but is convinced to stay by Umegawa’s entreaties that his sudden exit will reflect badly on her and possibly result in censure or punishment. Struck by her predicament, Chubei falls in love. He makes repeated returns, dips into his savings, and finally makes the fateful decision to spend money not his own when he discovers that a lascivious magnate has made an offer to buy out Umegawa’s contract.

Meanwhile, Chikamatsu hovers on the edges conducting “research” for a new play to save his failing theatre company which itself is suffering due to lack of monetary receipts seeing as audience members obviously prefer the heartrending melodrama of Sonezaki to the more artistic fare he’s currently running. Though he is obviously a frequenter of the red light district and its surrounding drinking establishments, Chikamatsu has a noticeably ambivalent stance towards its existence. His sympathy is instantly caught by the melancholy Umegawa when he notices her tenderly bandage the hand of a little girl who serves in the brothel, only to have her beautiful gesture of human kindness immediately mocked by the lascivious magnate who witnesses the same thing but chooses to ask her to repeat the act on him.

Chikamatsu was supposed to come to the teahouse in order to schmooze the magnate so that he will invest in the theatre company which perhaps generates an odd commonality between the playwright and courtesan both at the mercy of wealthy patrons who, one might say, are all money and no class. Umegawa, however, as Chikamatsu is painfully aware is in no way free and entirely dependent on pleasing men like the magnate whether she likes them or not. As she tells Chubei, Umegawa didn’t choose this line of work but people judge her for it anyway. She has no bodily autonomy and is bought and sold daily with no right to refuse. She is “merchandise” that “talks, laughs, cries, and gets angry” and the sole concern in all of her life is money which she now regards as “the enemy” for the subjugated position in which the need for it has placed her.

Of course, the playwright (our stand-in) has been listening all along. He too would like to free Umegawa from her torment, but he is powerless and can only blame the world that created the circumstances that trap her. Chubei is no hero either, he is weak and feckless even if his eventual willingness to damn himself by embezzling other people’s money (and ruining his adopted family in the process) proves the depth both of his love and of his rage at the social injustice which prevents him from pursuing his romantic desires. Chikamatsu can’t save his fatalistic heroes, but he can create a more fitting vision of their love imbued with all world nearly grandeur of tragic romance that returns our eyes to the cruelty of the world that wouldn’t let them be. A stunning final shot pulls us from Chikamatsu once again in the background as he watches his own play onto the other side of the stage and then back again as the playwright’s eyes burn with silent rage and impotence as he offers the only kind of resistance he can in the face of a cruel and indifferent society.


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.


Ghost in the Well (怪談番町皿屋敷, Toshikazu Kono, 1957)

Ghost in the Well poster 2Love across the class divide threatens to overthrow the social order. Inspired by the classic folktale Bancho Sarayashiki, Ghost in the Well (怪談番町皿屋敷, Kaidan Bancho Sarayashiki) is indeed the story of a haunting though perhaps not altogether of the kind you might be expecting. This is a tale of romance, but also one of impossible love in which the only possible union is in death. The pure love of a servant girl is deemed incompatible with the oppressive world of samurai honour, and so she must die, but her lord cannot survive it. He cannot reconcile himself to having chosen to preserve his honour, his status, his lineage at the cost of her life and his love.

Rowdy samurai Harima (Chiyonosuke Azuma) loves making trouble in the streets. As the lord’s bannerman he knows he has a degree of status and likes to throw his weight around in the yoshiwara, much to the lord’s consternation. Harima has also taken a fancy to one of his maids, Okiku (Hibari Misora), who continues to reject his advances despite returning his affections because she knows the class difference makes a legitimate relationship between them impossible and a dalliance with her lord means losing the opportunity to marry anyone else. Harima tells her that there’s no such thing as status when it comes to love and that he doesn’t think of her as a passing infatuation. Eventually Okiku gives in and a kind of promise is made between them.

Nevertheless, it’s a promise which can’t be kept. The Aoyama family is in trouble and the obvious answer is to make a good match for Harima that will restore both status and wealth. When one of Harima’s friends is ordered to commit seppuku for the exact same petty punk antics Harima gets up to all the time matters come to a crunch. To keep him safe, Harima’s uncle arranges a marriage with an influential family. Harima tries to refuse but he too is more or less powerless even if he weren’t torn between the obligation to his samurai code and his illicit love for servant girl whom he would never be permitted to make his wife. To cement the match, Harima’s uncle has prepared 10 precious plates as a dowry, but Okiku, catching sight of Harima’s bride-to-be, drops one and breaks it in two. Her fate is sealed. Harima draws his sword on her and she backs away, eventually falling into the well and dying there.

The broken plate is, of course, a symbol of their broken covenant but also of Okiku’s shattered dreams as she watches a beautiful but haughty woman steal away her last hope of happiness solely through the accident of noble birth. As her friend tells her, a commoner cannot become the wife of a samurai and all Okiku can do is resign herself to her unhappy fate. Having broken the plate, however, all is lost. The men of the household admit their responsibility for entrusting the entirety of their future to a mere slip of a girl in the middle of intense heartbreak, but Okiku cannot go unpunished and Harima must claim his new life by destroying his past love.

Harima does what he’s supposed to do, if in passion and half by accident. Yet the marriage remains broken, the family in jeopardy, and Harima without hope of future. The ghost of Okiku, real or imagined, haunts him while he remains guilt ridden and filled with regrets. Despite his rowdiness and manly pride, he chose his samurai honour and condemned his one true love to a lonely death. Her love has, however, survived and resurrected her not as a demon of vengeance come to lead him to his doom but as a lovelorn woman keen to remind him of the promise he made and broke but which might be mended.

Harima pays for his transgressions, though more as a mischievous samurai who allowed his over inflated ego to convince him he had the right to oppress his fellow retainers than as a man who caused the death of an innocent woman, first by corrupting her and then by the same rigidity which has led to his present predicament. There can be no “love” in a such a society, let alone the love of a bannerman and a servant girl. Theirs is a blood wedding, uniting them in death, consumed by the impossibilities of the samurai era. At only 45 minutes, Ghost in the Well is perhaps a slight retelling of the tale and somewhat in imbalanced in its presentation of the fates of the two lovers but is nevertheless a refreshingly romantic take on an often dark story in which a scorned woman’s vengeance is reframed as a powerful condemnation of an oppressive society.