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 Hero of Tokyo (東京の英雄, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1935)

Hero of Tokyo still 1Hiroshi Shimizu’s ‘30s films, made against the backdrop of the increasingly censorious militarist regime, had an ambivalent attitude to Japan’s wider foreign policy, its economic impact, and prospects for the future. His final silent film, A Hero of Tokyo (東京の英雄, Tokyo no Eiyu), the title of which is perhaps either deceptive or mildly ironic, is among the bleakest of Shimizu’s depictions of a changing society he perhaps saw as increasingly corrupted by greed and inhumanity. A hahamono of sorts, Hero is not as crushing as Forget Love For Now, but ends on a note of frustrated ambiguity in which wrongdoing has been exposed and justice served but at a terrible cost, leaving the institution of the family itself and therefore the entire social order lying in pieces and broken beyond repair.

The film begins among Shimizu’s familiar milieu of small boys as they watch the trains that will eventually bring their fathers home to them coming and going. Some of the boys stay to play but eventually only one is left behind – Kanichi (Tomio Aoki), whose widowed father constantly works late and leaves him alone in the care of their maid. Kanichi’s father, Nemoto (Yukichi Iwata), is engaged in a local mining concern and, berated by the maid who reminds him that his son is often lonely, decides to marry again to bring order to his house. After placing an ad which states he is a widowed CEO with a good salary, Nemoto marries Haruko (Mitsuko Yoshikawa) – a widow with two children of her own, Hideo (Jun Yokoyama) and Kayoko (Mitsuko Ichimura). A short time later it is discovered that Nemoto’s business is a scam and he flees town leaving his family to face the music alone. Haruko, committed to raising all three children equally, must now find a way to support herself but as a woman with young children and few qualifications there are few jobs available to her. Soon she falls into bar work which may not be “respectable” but allows her to support her family.

10 years later, Haruko owns a fine suburban house and the children appear to be leading a fine middle-class life. Trouble begins when Kayoko (Michiko Kuwano) marries a nice middle-class young man only to be “sent back” soon after the wedding when his family find out about Haruko’s “shameful” past. Though Haruko had told the children that she worked “in a club where executives come to relax” when they were small, Kayoko is shocked and appalled to discover her mother is tainted with the stigma of the sex trade and even more so when her mother’s past threatens to destroy her future. Haruko begs her not to tell her brothers, but Hideo (Koji Mitsui) finds out from his girlfriend, who also dumps him on hearing the rumours, and goes off the rails. Only Kanichi (Mitsugu Fujii), the step-son, stands by the mother he regards as the “best in Japan”, feeling both profound gratitude and sorrowful empathy for the sacrifice she has made on his behalf.

At heart a hahamono, A Hero of Tokyo fits neatly into Shimizu’s career long interest in female oppression in casting Haruko’s trials as entirely caused by being badly let down by a patriarchal society. Having lost one husband and being betrayed by the second, Haruko is forced to stand alone in a society which refuses to forgive her for it. As a “married” woman, she can gain no “honest” work and the necessity to care for her children means that she cannot take a role in service which in effect means dedicating oneself to a family which is not one’s own. She lacks qualifications or connections and has no family to support her and so she is forced into the only remaining line of work available to women in her situation. Haruko makes a great success of herself and becomes an upright businesswoman running her own establishment even if she cannot be exactly proud of the achievement which does (to her own shame and regret) rely on the degradation of other women just like her, though she tries to do the best for them that she can.

Yet her children, as all ungrateful children of a hahamono, are unable to forgive her for the transgressions she was forced to make entirely for their benefit. Having cast their mother as a saint of elegance and decorum, they cannot accept this new information which renders her a mere woman at the mercy of a cruel society. Kayoko, having run away from home, ironically finds herself in the same, or perhaps a worse, position, becoming a streetwalker – by her own admission “famous” and an accidental subject for one of Kanichi’s episodes of investigative reporting as a rookie newspaper man. Meanwhile Hideo has crossed to the other side and joined the ranks of exploiters of women in joining a gang only to get himself into trouble for trying to leave it when he realises he has become a hired goon for one of Nemoto’s stooge companies. The children are “ruined” not by their mother’s “sin” but by the conservative society that forced her into it and by the paternal failures of Nemoto whose abandonment reduced them to dire desperation.

It is, in this sense, Haruko rather than Kanichi who is the “hero” of the title – valiantly battling against the prejudices and cruelties of the city whilst retaining her innate sense of honour decency and steadfastly shielding her children from suffering. Her attempt to protect them perhaps backfires, leaving them without the necessary perspective and humanitarian spirit to feel empathy for others rather than succumbing to the judgemental attitudes of the age. Thus both of the biological children are condemned to suffer in the very way Haruko suffered to prevent and then find themselves too ashamed to return to her. Only Kanichi who had already suffered in his childhood loneliness, in his shame for the transgression of his father, and his position as a step-son doubting his place in a family which was not his by blood, is able to accept and sympathise with his mother’s suffering and experiences only guilt and gratitude that she had chosen to sacrifice herself for his greater happiness.

Yet Kanichi’s role as the good son is also tainted by his filial opposition to his father as it necessarily conflicts with his desire for social justice as a crusading reporter. Kanichi’s desire to expose corruption is ultimately for the common good – to save innocent people being deceived by his father’s dishonourable scheming, but it’s also an act of revenge aimed squarely at a symbol of broken patriarchal responsibilities. In the various names Shimizu attaches to Nemoto’s sham businesses, he aligns him with the expansionist Japanese state which was currently attempting a similarly dishonourable attempt to sell the economic gains of its imperialist project built on the back of international exploitation and dishonesty. It is not just a father who has failed his family, but “the” father which is failing its people in leading them down a dark and disturbing alleyway in which honour and morality no longer have any currency.

Kanichi too profits from his father’s crime – his first bonus is a direct result of the exposé of his father’s company and so he also becomes part of a system of corruption. His actions, however, are not entirely accepted by Haruko who is ashamed and troubled by Kanichi’s crime against filial piety and therefore by his betrayal of the social codes which define his society. Kanichi has picked a side, but in doing so he has also damned himself and emerges not victorious but compromised. Despite the “happy” ending, in which justice has been done and the emotional bonds of the true family restored, the concluding scenes remain ominous as the newspaper boy delivers the sorry news all over town and ruptures the tranquil middle-class peace of Haruko’s once happy suburban home.


Seven Seas (七つの海, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1931-1932)

vlcsnap-2017-02-19-01h57m24s364Hiroshi Shimizu is best remembered for his socially conscious, nuanced character pieces often featuring sympathetic portraits of childhood or the suffering of those who find themselves at the mercy of society’s various prejudices. Nevertheless, as a young director at Shochiku, he too had to cut his teeth on a number of program pictures and this two part novel adaptation is among his earliest. Set in a broadly upper middle class milieu, Seven Seas (七つの海, Nanatsu no Umi) is, perhaps, closer to his real life than many of his subsequent efforts but notably makes class itself a matter for discussion as its wealthy elites wield their privilege like a weapon.

Split into two parts each around an hour long, Seven Seas begins with the chapter entitled Virginity in which we meet the closely interconnected circle of friends around whom the narrative turns. Yumie (Hiroko Kawasaki) is a young woman from a middle class background but fallen on hard times as her father, a former government official, is now bedridden and supporting the family only on his pension. She is about to announce her engagement to the upperclass boy Yuzuru (Ureo Egawa) but when his playboy brother Takehiko (Joji Oka) returns from abroad he takes a fancy to her himself, eventually raping her whilst she is a guest in their house. Devastated, Yumie’s father marches over to sort things out but even more tragic events occur, breaking the family forever as Yumie’s sister Miwako (Kinuko Wakamizu) has a breakdown and is committed to an asylum. In desperate need of money, Yumie eventually agrees to become the wife of the man who has so brutalised her, though she also contrives to turn the situation to her advantage in an act of revenge.

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Part two is entitled “Chastity” as this is to be Yumie’s primary method of resistance. Refusing her new husband his conjugal rights, Yumie spends his money with gay abandon making huge donations to her sister’s hospital and eventually also providing a kind of “salary” for her husband’s long term mistress whom he has been seeing for some years and had neglected to inform about his marriage. Meanwhile, Yumie’s friend Ayako (Sachiko Murase) has also fallen in love with Yuzuru who is still nursing a broken heart having separated from his family and taken refuge with the couple’s friends working in a sports equipment shop in the city.

Unusually for a Shimizu hero, Yuzuru is an uncomplicated, innately good person who instantly rejects his family following their heinous treatment of the woman he loves, remaining committed to her even after she has been assaulted by his own brother. This decision is, however, difficult as he no longer has access to the familial fortune and has few options for earning his own. He eventually finds work as a French translator but it doesn’t pay enough to make up for all the extra expenses incurred as a result of his brother’s actions from the loss of Yumie’s father’s pension to the ongoing medical costs for her sister’s treatment. Times being what they are, moralising forces creep into the frame suggesting all of this “made right” by Takehiko doing the “honourable” thing and marrying the woman he’s “bought” by force.

The Yagibashi family think they can sweep all of this under the carpet by throwing money at Yumie and otherwise ignoring the problem but this is not good enough for the morality police. Forced to marry her rapist, Yumie maintains an air of cool distain, detailing her plans for vengeance in her daily diary and arming herself with a pistol in case Takehiko tries his old tricks once again. Takehiko, a vain and selfish man, seems to be filled with a kind of resentment born of his class in which he remains a perpetual child controlled by his father who holds all of the purse strings. He does at least attempt to be a proper husband to Yumie, defending her from his snobbish parents and providing her with everything she asks for but he retains his tendency to believe that he can behave however he likes because he’s the eldest son of the wealthy Yagibashi family. Yumie may be reduced in circumstances but thanks to her father’s position would be considered from a “good family”, yet to Takehiko and the Yagibashis she is just another faceless person from the lower orders, unworthy of consideration or compassion and simply one of the exploitable masses.

Takehiko is also the bearer of the frequently ambivalent attitude to the Western world found in many of Shimizu’s other films of the period. Returning from a trip abroad, he belittles another woman in the carriage for her supposed snobbery. Having been abroad, they say, she feels herself superior to ordinary Japanese – unlike the two of them, obviously. Ironically when they arrive Takehiko discovers that the woman in question is the daughter of his former professor, recently returned from studying music in Italy. The other major foreigner we meet is Ayako’s boss at the newspaper where she has a good job as a female reporter. The diffident Englishman attempts to confess his love for her, leaping straight into a proposal. Shocked, Ayako eventually informs him that unfortunately she’s in love with someone else – Yuzuru. Reacting badly, he tries to stop Ayako from leaving but once she does he abruptly shoots himself! Unusual passion for an Englishman, this side of foreignness is a definite cultural difference though one perhaps imbued with a degree of entitlement that also speaks of a kind of oppressive arrogance.

This is however, contrasted with Yuzuru’s gentle career as a translator of French. These creative, cultural influences seem to be broadly positive ones adding to Japan’s already impressive artistic history which brings both pleasure and new ways of thinking which will help the fledgling nation interact with the new global order. The Yagibashis’ dependence on their inherited wealth and social status proves their downfall when they are the subject of an ongoing scandal but the family name is, in part, saved by Yuzuru’s artistic endeavours in turning his traumatic life story into a bestselling, critically acclaimed novel. The creative instinct triumphs over the passivity of the established order.

Remaining mostly straightforward in terms of approach, Shimizu experiments with his trademark tracking shots coupled with dissolves which are unusually impressive and innovative in terms of their setting. The narrative may be melodramatic but the setting is naturalistic, giving an ordinary picture of these upper class and lower middle class lives as people lived them in the early 1930s. From crowded city streets and rooms above shops to spacious country mansions these class divisions are neatly drawn though it’s perhaps interesting that friendship groups have begun to ignore these lines in spite of the differing possibilities offered to each of the differently troubled friends. As in much of Shimizu’s output, the good end happily and the bad unhappily, fulfilling the need for narrative justice as Yumie finds an unusual path for restitution after having been so cruelly misused by those who held her existence so cheaply as to rob her of her future, family and dignity solely because of their own sense of social superiority.