The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice (お茶漬けの味, Yasujiro Ozu, 1952)

Famously, many of Yasujiro Ozu’s films end with a young woman getting married and the emotional desolation that it provokes in those left behind. Ozu, unlike some of his contemporaries, generally comes down on the side of marriage. His heroines always succumb, rarely finding independence or resignation and settling for a second choice even if their first proved unavailable. The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice (お茶漬けの味, Ochazuke no Aji), however, takes him in a slightly different direction in asking what, if anything, is to blame when a marriage is unhappy, repurposing the arranged married debate to perhaps imply that wedded bliss is less about romance than it is about endurance and mutual understanding. 

Taeko (Michiyo Kogure), a middle-aged woman, consented to an arranged marriage to Mokichi (Shin Saburi) at the usual age but seems to feel little more than contempt for him. A friend from school, Aya (Chikage Awashima), invites her on an impromptu trip to an onsen and for reasons not entirely clear, Taeko feels she has to lie rather than simply telling Mokichi that she would like to go away with a friend for a couple of days. Aya encourages her to spin a tale that her niece, Setsuko (Keiko Tsushima), who often stays with them in the city, has been taken ill and is in need of urgent care, but the plan is foiled when she swans into their home right as rain before Aya could give her instructions. Caught on the hoof, Taeko is forced to improvise that a different friend is ill, the four women eventually heading off on a girls’ trip leaving Mokichi at home alone and apparently none the wiser. 

Perhaps surprisingly, Mokichi turns out to be a kind and considerate, if perhaps dull, kind of man. We later discover that he knew all along that Taeko was lying but thought it wasn’t worth making a fuss over. He makes a point of chatting with the maid, asking after her family and is apparently well acquainted with her circumstances. Unlike other men, he doesn’t spend his time out drinking or gambling or even overworking, coming home to read instead, but still Taeko is put out when she phones him at work to kickstart the onsen plan and discovers his desk to be empty. It turns out that he met up with the younger brother of an old friend killed in the war who had asked for his help with a recruitment exam. Non-chan (Koji Tsuruta), as everyone calls him, is a cheerful sort guy who openly admits he wears army surplus suits and likes to eat in restaurants which are “good and cheap”, all of which suits Mokichi much better than his wife’s rather more sophisticated tastes. The younger man is quick to introduce him to the pleasures of the age including bicycle racing and pachinko parlours which is where he runs into an old army buddy, Hirayama. 

While Taeko and her old friends break into a rendition of a song from their student days with Setsuko looking on in minor confusion, Mokichi sits around a small table with Hirayama and an equally out of place Non-chan recalling his glory days in Singapore and singing old army songs. They are each, in their own and infinitely parallel ways, mourning the promise of their youth. Taeko’s friends, Aya and Takako, have an equally cynical view of marriage. Takako’s husband has gone to Paris and she, it seems, couldn’t be happier with her newfound freedom, while Aya runs a small boutique and regards hers as little more than a necessary inconvenience. When the ladies take in a baseball game, Aya is surprised to spot her sports-hating husband on the bleachers apparently escorting a woman she recognises from a nearby bar, but she isn’t in any way jealous or angry merely amused and planning to use it as extra leverage to persuade him to buy her a new kimono despite the fact that we later see him asking her for money (which she snatches back as punishment). 

Despite all of that however Taeko’s tragedy maybe that somewhere deep down she wanted her marriage to work. Her open contempt for Mokichi, likening him to a big fat carp and referring to him as “Mr. Bonehead” in assuming he is stupid enough to believe all her lies, annoys the otherwise modern Setsuko who sees their unhappy union as definitive proof that arranged marriages do not work. Interrogated by her exasperated niece who was sure her aunt would support her in her resistance to her parents’ matchmaking, Taeko claims that she is happy and perhaps she is even if in her unhappiness, but Setsuko’s unexpected seizure of her agency though rudely walking out on the omiai brings her own marriage to a crisis point. Mokichi cannot quite say so but tacitly supports Setsuko’s desire to decide her own romantic future even if he disapproves of her irresponsible rudeness to her prospective suitor. “Forcing her to marry against her will would just create another couple like us” he eventually explains to Taeko in boldly saying that which should not be said. 

It would be easy to think that the problem is Taeko and Mokichi simply aren’t suited. There is an obvious class difference that seems to be a continuing problem for the snooty Taeko. It annoys her that he insists on pouring his miso soup into his rice bowl which she feels is common, like his cheap cigarettes and preference for third class rail travel. He explains that it’s not that he’s cheap, simply that these are the things he likes, that he’s familiar with, that make him feel relaxed. Their upbringings are different. Taeko feels relaxed in first class because that’s how she’s always travelled and she likes the finer things because they reassure her in her status. That might be one reason they occupy different areas of a shared home, he with a traditional futon in a tatami mat room, she in a well appointed Western-style boudoir even as she exclusively wears kimono. 

Yet the problem isn’t that they like different things so much as an essential misconnection. Without perhaps knowing, Taeko is so filled with resentment over her lack of control of her romantic destiny that she’s never warmed to her husband or felt secure in her marital home. It’s a cliche to say she doesn’t understand him, but perhaps she wanted something different to what she eventually got. A sudden crisis after the Setsuko episode sees Taeko make a temporary retreat only for Mokichi to be abruptly sent abroad. Sharing the homely comfort food of green tea poured over rice, she finally begins to understand that what she took for indifference was perhaps merely a different way of showing love. Mokichi really is a man who likes the simple things, affection without ceremony, like the flavour of green tea over rice. She knows that unlike Aya’s husband Mokichi will never betray or hurt her. He is infinitely “reliable” which might not sound romantic, but is perhaps the only solid basis for a successful marriage. 

That’s the advice she eventually offers to Setsuko, walking back on her commitment to arranged marriage, a “feudal” tradition she and all the other women had been determined to force onto her despite the fear and pain it caused them in their own youth and beyond, to remind her that marriage is for life. Find someone “reliable”. A flashy suit and a handsome face might look good now, but they might not in 20 years’ time. Setsuko has taken a liking to Non-chan who claims to be “reliable” but his taste for pachinko and bicycle races might suggest otherwise. In any case, after a heartwarming resolution that repairs the fractured marriage of Mokichi and Taeko, Ozu ends on a moment of cheeky ambivalence in which Non-chan says the wrong thing, upsetting Setsuko who retreats into a small hut. Non-chan repeatedly apologises and tries to enter, while she pushes him back out, neatly symbolising the arc of a marriage as an accidental battleground of intimacy though in this case one with a playful resolution. 


The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice is released on blu-ray in the UK on 18th May courtesy of BFI in a set which also includes an audio commentary by Tony Rayns. The first press edition also comes with a booklet featuring an essay by Tom Milne.

Short clip (English subtitles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Farewell to Dream (夕やけ雲, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1956)

Does adulthood mean the death of dreams, or simply accommodation with disappointment? Yoichi (Shinji Tanaka), the cheerfully romantic hero of Keisuke Kinoshita’s Farewell to Dream (夕やけ雲, Yuyake-gumo), has made his peace with “losing” out in the great game of life, comforting himself in working hard to provide for others while becoming good at what he does, but keeping one eye always on the past and the boy he once was whose horizons were boundless and future untethered. 

In his chipper yet somehow poetic opening monologue, 20-year-old Yoichi introduces us to the family fishmonger’s he runs with his mother. If he says so himself, standards have improved since his father’s day and he’s done quite well for himself. His mother even jokes about finding him a wife, but that’s a long way off. To show us how he got here, he picks up his binoculars, a present from an uncle who sailed away and never came back, to show us “the last chapter of his youth, full of innocent dreams”. At 16, Yoichi dreamed of becoming a sailor, staring out over the horizon and catching sight of a beautiful woman in a distant window far on the other side of town. He lives with his parents and three younger siblings, while his older sister Toyoko (Yoshiko Kuga) has an office job that supplements the family income seeing as there’s not much money in fishmongering. 

Yoichi describes his sister as beautiful yet cold. No one can quite believe such a fantastic beauty was born to a lowly family of fishmongers with a back alley shop in a small town, but her beauty has made her cruel and avaricious. She wants out of poverty and she doesn’t much care what she has to do to escape it. She knows the easiest way, and in real terms perhaps the only way, is to attach herself to a man of means, which is why she’s just agreed to marry a man named Sudo (Takahiro Tamura) who comes from a wealthy family and is head over heels in love with her. When he tells her that his family business has collapsed and he’s no more money, she abruptly calls the engagement off and begins courting her widowed boss, eventually marrying him despite the fact that it’s a second marriage and he’s more than twice her age. 

Toyoko may just be playing the only cards she’s been dealt, but she’s also a personification of selfish post-war individualism. She only cares about herself, has no real sense of morality, and a total disregard for the feelings of others. Sudo, who for some reason truly seems to have loved her, cannot let her go, turning up on her wedding day to punch her in the face. Toyoko is fully aware of the effect she has on men and skilled in manipulating it, drifting back into an affair with Sudo even after her marriage, leaving her irate husband forever ringing her parents with orders to return her to her new home as if they had any real influence over her. 

Despite himself, Yoichi is by contrast the “good son” who gives up the right to his individual future to take care of his family. At 16, he hates being a fishmonger’s boy because the other kids tease him that he always smells of fish, as if he can’t wash away the scent of poverty. He dreams of freedom as a sailor out on the wide ocean, forever staring at the horizon with his binoculars, and of the beautiful woman who, he decides rather romantically, must be suffering with some kind of illness which is why she’s always in her room. When his father becomes ill, suffering a heart attack brought on by Toyoko’s harsh words, Yoichi begins to realise that his dreams are dying. Like the fish in his shop, he’s trapped, no longer able to swim free but tethered to the ground. There can’t be anything more of life for him than becoming a fishmonger himself, whether he liked it or not. His fate was sealed before he was even born. 

Yet unlike the flighty Toyoko who seems unhappy in her marriage but doing her best to put up with it by continuing to do as she pleases, Yoichi has made peace with warmhearted practicality. At 16 he lost everything – his father, the image of Toyoko, his younger sister fostered out to a badgering uncle, his best friend, the beautiful woman in her lonely room, and finally the horizon and his dreams. “His dream was as fleeting and as beautiful as the clouds at sunset” the opening text tells us, echoing the film’s title with a poetic melancholy that makes plain that Yoichi has not so much abandoned his dream as made the memory of it a part of him, a relic of another time when all was possible. Still, in essence perhaps it’s only what it is to grow up, an acceptance of shrinking horizons and that dreams are by definition things destined not to be, but that’s it’s OK in the grand scheme of things because that’s just the way life is. Forced to become a fishmonger, Yoichi becomes the best fishmonger he could be, and even if he does so with a heavy heart, he has a lightness in his step in knowing he does it not for himself but for those he loves. 


Titles and opening (no subtitles)

The Garden of Women (女の園, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1954)

garden of women still 1Things changed after the war, but not as much as some might have hoped. Sadly still topical, Keisuke Kinoshita’s Garden of Women (女の園, Onna no Sono) takes aim both at persistent and oppressive patriarchal social structures and at a compromised educational system which, intentionally or otherwise, systematically stifles attempts at progressive social change. A short few years before student protests would plunge education into crisis, Kinoshita’s film asks why it is that the establishment finds itself in conflict with the prevailing moods of the time and discovers that youth intends to have its brighter future even if it has to fight for it all the way.

The setting is an exclusive private woman’s university in the elegant historical city of Kyoto. The ladies who attend this establishment are mostly from very wealthy families who have decided to educate their daughters at the college precisely because of its image of properness. As one student will later put it, there are two kinds of girls at the school – those who genuinely want to study in order to make an independent life for themselves and intend to look for work after graduation, and those who are merely adding to their accomplishments in order to hook a better class of husband. Everyone, however, is subject to a stringent set of rules which revolves around the formation of the ideal Japanese woman through strictly enforced “moral education” which runs to opening the girls’ private letters and informing their families of any “untoward” content, and requiring that permission be sought should the girls wish to attend “dances” or anything of that nature.

As might be expected, not all of the girls are fully compliant even if they superficially conform to the school’s rigid social code. Scolded for her “gaudy” hair ribbon on the first day of school, Tomiko (Keiko Kishi) rolls her eyes at the over the top regulations and enlists the aid of the other girls to cover for her when she stays out late with friends but her resistance is only passive and she has no real ideological objection towards the ethos of the school other than annoyance in being inconvenienced. Tomiko is therefore mildly irritated by the presence of the melancholy Yoshie (Hideko Takamine). Three years older, she’s come to college late and is struggling to keep up with classes but is, ironically enough, prevented from studying by the same school rules which insist she go to bed early.

Meanwhile, dorm mate Akiko (Yoshiko Kuga), from an extraordinarily wealthy and well connected family, is becoming increasingly opposed to the oppressive atmosphere at the school. However, as another already politically active student points out, Akiko’s background means there are absolutely no stakes for her in this fight. She has never suffered, and likely never will, because she always has been and always will be protected by her privilege. Fumie (Kazuko Yamamoto), a hardline socialist, doubts Akiko’s commitment to the cause, worrying that in the end she is only staging a minor protest against her family and will eventually drift away back to her world of ski lodges and summer houses. Despite her ardour, Akiko finds it hard to entirely dispute Fumie’s reasoning and is at constant battle with herself over her true feelings about the state of the modern world as it relates to herself individually and for women in general.

This is certainly a fiercely patriarchal society. Even though these women are in higher education, they are mostly there to perfect the feminine arts which are, in the main, domestic. They are not being prepared for the world of work or to become influential people in their own right, but merely to support husbands and sons as pillars of the rapidly declining social order that those who sent them there are desperate to preserve. For many of the girls, however, times are changing though more for some than others. Tomiko rolls her eyes and does as she pleases, within reason, and even if she eventually wants to see things change at the school it is mostly for her own benefit. She sees no sense in Akiko’s desire for reform as a stepping stone to wider social change, and perhaps even fears the kinds of changes that Akiko and Fumie are seeking.

Akiko and Fumie, and to an extent, Tomiko, seem to have a degree of agency that others do not as seen in the tragic story of Yoshie whose life has been largely ruined thanks to the selfish and heartless actions of her father. From a comparatively less wealthy family, Yoshie worked in a bank for three years during which time she met and fell in love with an earnest young man named Shimoda (Takahiro Tamura). However, her father, having become moderately successful, developed an appetite for social climbing and is determined she marry “well” to increase his own sense of superiority as a fully fledged member of the middle classes. He sees his daughter as nothing more than a tool or extension of himself and cares nothing for her thoughts or feelings. In order to resist his demands for an arranged marriage, Yoshie enrolled in school and is desperate to stay long enough for Shimoda to finish his education so they can marry.

Yoshie is trapped at every turn – she cannot rely on her family, she cannot simply leave them, she cannot yet marry, if she leaves the school she will be reliant on a man who effectively intends to sell her, but her life here is miserable and there is no one who can help her. All she receives from the educational establishment is censure and the instruction to buck up or get kicked out. She feels herself a burden to the other girls who regard her as dim and out of place thanks to their relatively minor age gap and cannot fully comprehend her sense of anxiety and frustration.

Finally standing up to the uncomfortably fascistic school board the girls band together to demand freedoms both academic and social, insisting that there can be no education without liberty, but the old ways die hard as they discover most care only for appearances, neatly shifting the blame onto others in order to support their cause. “Why must we suffer so?” Yoshie decries at a particularly low point as she laments her impossible circumstances. Why indeed. The oppressive stricture of the old regime may eventually cause its demise but it intends to fight back by doubling down and the fight for freedom will be a long one even if youth intends to stand firm.


Titles and opening scene (no subtitles)

Growing Up (たけくらべ, Heinosuke Gosho, 1955)

Gosho Growing UpCaught in a moment of transition, it’s no great mystery that post-war Japanese cinema began to look back at the Meiji past. Progress had indeed been rapid but ended in national tragedy and collective madness. The post-war humanists were eager for a different outcome, to avoid the mistakes of the last fifty years and build a society that was kinder and freer than that which had come before. Though on the surface it might seem as if much had changed since the dawn of a new century, the problems were still the same and a failure to address them only likely to add new tragedies in place of the better future many hoped for. Among the foremost proponents of post-war humanism, Heinosuke Gosho made a rare trip back into the Meiji past in 1955’s Growing Up (たけくらべ, Takekurabe), an adaptation of the well known short story by Ichiyo Higuchi, finding that nothing much had really changed when it came to the fates of women and the poor in an often wilfully indifferent society.

The action opens on the outskirts of the Yoshiwara in 1894. Our heroes are a collection of children who find themselves dealing with typically adolescent problems but also, by modern standards, expected to grow up all too fast. Chief among them is 13-year-old Midori (Hibari Misora) whose sister, Omaki (Keiko Kishi), is the most famous courtesan of the red light district. Although she knows on some level that her parents have already sold her to the brothel owner in whose house they live as servants, Midori has not yet quite processed the full implications of her destiny or that her world of childhood innocence is rapidly drawing to a close. She is in love with a local boy, Shinnyo (Takashi Kitahara), who seems to return her feelings but is as awkward and confused by them as any teenage boy and treats her by turns with coldness and contempt mixed with grudging affection.

Shinnyo, meanwhile, is the son of a greedy and heartless monk (Takamaru Sasaki) who has decided to sell his older sister as a concubine to a wealthy man who already has a wife. As he loves his sister dearly and has a naive, childish sense of absolute morality, this is a sin Shinnyo cannot forgive. He argues with his father but has no real power to change the situation and then decides on rebelling against his father’s wishes that he not become a monk by leaving for the main temple in Kyoto to take holy orders. Of course, this also means he must sacrifice any youthful idea he might have had of pursuing his love for Midori.

The title, in a sense, could refer not only to the increasingly melancholy youngsters coming of age in an oppressive society, but also to Japan itself as it emerged into modernity in an effort to prove itself the equal of any other major power in the late 19th century. It is, however, an ironic a title as any could be. To “grow up” here is to abandon one’s humanity and conform to the kind of “real world” thinking that codifies cruelty and makes a virtue of heartlessness. Still an innocent child, Midori bounces her ball and basks in her somewhat elevated position as a wealthy young girl and sister of a “notorious” woman without fully understanding all that entails. When her sister tells her about a dream she had of climbing trees and picking persimmons, she is incapable of understanding her warning about the loss of innocence she’s about to experience, but her world is brought crashing down when a gang of rival boys rudely attack her and point out that all her finery was bought through “whoring” and that she is nothing more than a “whore” in waiting.

Another of the boys, Sangoro (Masanori Nakamura), whose family is poor, says he can’t wait to be “grown up”, reacting with less than sensitivity to Midori’s pained pleas that she wishes everything could stay as it was and they could be children forever. Sangoro sees adulthood as freedom. He’ll be free to earn his own living and maybe he won’t have to be like his father, too afraid to stand up to people with money because when you don’t have any you’re always reliant on their kindness. Sangoro may be poor, but he’s a man (or will be) and can’t process the total lack of agency that comes with being an adult female whose future is decided entirely by her closest male relative. Midori, like Shinnyo’s sister, has been sold by her father and there’s nothing she or anyone else can do about it now.

Nevertheless, confronted by her fate, Midori decides to own it. She encourages her parents to think of her as dead, cooly hitting back at their callousness but acknowledging an obligation as she goes. The final scenes preceding her passage across the small bridge which will forever sever her from her childhood are filled with dread and anger as if crying out for someone to stop the inevitable from happening, but of course, no one can. An old woman and former courtesan, Okichi (Isuzu Yamada), who owns a shop where Midori used to spend time and is indirectly responsible for Midori’s acceptance of her fate in some cruel, drunken words she threw at her, puts it best when she briefly feels as if she could have done something in affirming that it isn’t her fault, and it isn’t Midori’s, it’s simply “the world”.

Midori meets her fate not with resignation but rage and defiance. Shinnyo, who runs away from his inability to help his sister by becoming a monk, is forever incapable of declaring his real feelings in words but leaves a flower in front of her window in echo of another he gave her long ago. At first Midori picks it up and cherishes it for the innocent symbol of love that it is, but by the time she has travelled half way along the bridge which will take her to the Yoshiwara, she has realised this kind of innocence does not belong inside. She throws the flower to the mud and leaves her youthful dreams of love and happiness behind as she prepares to step through the doorway into a future which is not of her making and over which she has no say. To “grow up”, in this world, is a kind of spiritual death in which there exists nothing other than emptiness and indifference.


The Ballad of Narayama (楢山節考, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1958)

ballad of narayama kinoshita 1958 posterMany naughty children running low on filial piety have probably been told the folktale about a man who took his son along when he abandoned his senile father on a mountain to die only to have his son later do the same thing to him. In Japan, the mythical practice of “obasute” or “ubasute” is a kind of Logan’s Run equivalent in which elderly people elect to remove themselves from society in order to reduce the burden on the young. The Ballad of Narayama (楢山節考, Narayama-bushi Ko) has, perhaps, taken on an additional degree of pathos in ageing Japan in which many elderly people find themselves metaphorically cast out from a society in which they have become the majority, but the idea of “obasute” is intended to be a lesson to the young to treasure their elders and accept the responsibility to care for those who can no longer care for themselves in the knowledge that they too will one day be old.

Keisuke Kinoshita is sometimes criticised for his supposed sentimentalism but his central concern was always in the redemptive power of the relationships between people, that there is always kindness even in the worst of circumstances and that this is enough for hope to survive. In telling the sorry tale of Narayama in which those of over 70-years-of-age are forced into a ritual suicide by social convention, Kinoshita opts for alienation in deliberately shifting into a theatrical register inspired by kabuki featuring obvious studio sets, stylised action, and traditional narration, but his decision to pull back makes the message all the more painful, as does the insistence on the timelessness of his tale.

Long ago in the distant feudal past, 69-year-old Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka) knows that it will soon be time for her widowed son, Tatsuhei (Teiji Takahashi), to carry her to Narayama where she hopes to die of exposure in the New Year snows. She has made her peace with this, it is the will of the gods and she has no call to disobey. Her son, however, is distraught to think of the time he will be expected to carry his elderly mother to a remote spot in the mountains and leave her there, alone, to die of cold and starvation. When a messenger arrives from Orin’s home village to propose a match for Tatsuhei, a recently widowed woman of exactly the same age – Tama (Yuko Mochizuki), Orin is overjoyed – she can go to Narayama without fear or worry, her son and grandsons will be looked after even after she is gone.

The tradition began because the villages in this region are extremely poor. Tatsuhei and Orin will be enjoying their one and only bowl of white rice for the year in celebration of Bon. Orin’s self-centred grandson Kesakichi (Danko Ichikawa) has made up a horrible song about his grandma in which he criticises her for still having all her own teeth at 70 – implying that, as she is not malnourished enough to have lost them, she must have been greedy and taken more than her fair share of food. Unable to bear such reproach, Orin smashes out her own front teeth to better conform to the conventions of her society and make herself a more acceptable sacrifice to the gods as a good and pious woman.

This early horrific act is perhaps the key in illuminating Kinoshita’s gentle critique of social conformity as a tool of social control – something which had become increasingly apparent during the militarist era. Orin, a kind and decent woman, is herself complicit in this abhorrent custom – her acceptance of it is part of her goodness, a sign of her altruistic self-sacrificing nature, but her own unwillingness to challenge the darker aspects of the society in which she lives leads only to their perpetuation and an ongoing descent into unkindness and cruelty.

Tatsuhei, a good and pious son, cannot reconcile himself to his mother’s fate, while his own son, Kesakichi, openly mocks his grandmother for not going sooner and Kesakichi’s pregnant girlfriend (Keiko Ogasawara) looks on enviously at the extra beans on offer if there were one less mouth to feed. Old and bent, Orin still plays a vital part in her community – she harvests the rice while Kesakichi lounges in trees, and she alone knows the best place to catch trout, a valuable skill in a village where food is scarce. Despite the possibility for disaster, Orin and Tama bond instantly as kindred spirits, both kind people in an often unkind world. It’s to Tama that Orin finally divulges her knowledge – something the village will be poorer for when she is gone, having passed her familial responsibilities to another woman and seen her son happily settled with a perfectly suited second wife.

When Tatsuhei returns, broken, after having performed the dreaded ritual he watches his own cruel son laughing and joking from within their shared home, caring only for himself and his easy pleasures. Tama, equally upset over the loss of Orin with whom she had bonded as mother, tries to comfort her husband but is eventually overcome by the tragedy of life, taking comfort only in the fact that, when they are 70, she and Tatsuhei will climb Narayama together.

Hardship, far from bringing people together in the famous harmony that Japanese society praises itself for, has forced them apart, infected them with a sense of mutual distrust and a them or us mentality. Orin feeds the senile old man cast out from his own unfeeling family, but she also urges him towards making a sacrifice of himself on Narayama, genuinely believing that both of their existences have become inappropriate, a greedy usurpation of time which rightfully now belongs to others. Kinoshita respects Orin for her stoicism and righteousness, but pities her for the cruelty of the world in which she lived and was so powerless to resist that it never occurred to her that she should. There is a painful sensitivity around those who willingly went to their deaths in service of something they believed to be right because their society said it must be so, never daring to consider the ways in which their society may be mistaken.

Heavily stylised and markedly experimental for a mainstream Shochiku melodrama of the late 1950s, Kinoshita’s The Ballad of Narayama is a heartrending tale of transience and inevitability, but it’s also one of the various ways a stringent society erodes the bonds between people. The intense love of Tatsuhei for his mother is destroyed by a terrible custom that no one is brave enough to defy, leaving the family rudderless and the village poorer for having been robbed not only of Orin’s wealth of experience but of her warmth and kindness. Kinoshita ends on an ambiguous image showing us the modern train station which stands on the former village of “Obasute”, demonstrating the passage of time and arrival of “modernity” but also that ancient customs are never quite as “ancient” as they seem.


Scene from near the end of the film (English subtitles)

Three Loves (三つの愛, Masaki Kobayashi, 1954)

three-lovesMasaki Kobayashi had a relatively short career of only 22 films. Politically uncompromising and displaying an unflinching eye towards Japan’s recent history, his work was not always welcomed by studio bosses (or, at times, audiences). Beginning his post-war career as an assistant to Keisuke Kinoshita, Kobayashi’s first few films are perhaps closer to the veteran director’s trademark melodrama but in 1953 Kobayashi struck out with a more personal project in the form of The Thick-Walled Room which dealt with the fates of lower class war criminals. Based on a novel by Kobo Abe, the film was sympathetic to the men who had only been “following orders” but was careful not to let them off the hook. Still far too controversial, The Thick-Walled Room could not be released until 1957 and Kobayashi went back to more conventional fare such as this Christianity infused tale of three kinds of frustrated loves – romantic, spiritual, and familial, Three Loves (三つの愛, Mittsu no Ai).

Ikujiro is riding into town on a donkey cart, playing his flute which attracts the attention of a strange boy who exclaims that he is a butterfly. Following the death of his father, Ikujiro’s mother has apprenticed him to a man who owns a sake brewery but is also a member of the school board and has promised that he will get his education. Riding the same cart in is a down on his luck artist, Nobuyuki (Ko Mishima) – the lover of the town’s new music teacher, Michiko (Keiko Kishi), who has travelled to this remote country spot both for the benefit of her health and to help provide for her struggling artist boyfriend. This slightly unusual town is also home to a humble church whose Holy Father, Yasugi (Yunosuke Ito), came to the town as an evacuee alongside the now professor father of the little boy with a pigeon obsession, Heita.

Somewhat unusually, Three Loves opens with a choral rendition of a Christian hymn followed by a brief voice over and intertitle-style caption bearing the message that only those who live sincerely and seriously will be granted true joy but that this same joy is born from the bitterness and sadness of life. There are certainly an array of bitter circumstances on offer but Kobayashi choses to focus on them as filtered through three very different stories of love as children are separated from their parents, lovers are kept apart by cruel twists of fate and the love of God is both keenly and invisibly felt by those who take refuge at the underused church.

Ikujiro has been “sent away” by his mother who has been convinced to allow her oldest child to be raised by foster parents given that it will now be difficult for her to support all of the children in the absence of her husband. Feeling alone and unloved though missing his family, Ikujiro does not quite fit in at the local school but faces even more problems at his new home where it transpires that his foster father is not quite as altruistic as he originally claimed. Forming an odd friendship with Heita, Ikujiro begins to find some comfort in the place but nevertheless continues to suffer.

Heita, is, in many ways the heart of the film though his status as a kind of holy fool is perhaps uncomfortable from a modern standpoint. Yasugi, who has developed the closest relationship with the boy outside of his mother, describes him as beautifully sensitive and someone who requires especial care. Yet, his mother found it difficult to connect with him until he was allowed to return to nature, and his scholarly father mostly ignores him, describing his work as a kind of “atonement” for the way his son has turned out. Even given Heita’s unorthodox relationship to his environment in which he feels himself more bird or butterfly than human, he experiences only warmth and occasional exasperation from those around him rather than outright hostility.

These kinds of frustrated familial or social loves feed back into the intertwined romantic melodrama as tortured artist Nobuyuki has an attack of male pride in partially rejecting Michiko over her decision to become the major breadwinner despite her failing health. Professing love but remaining unwilling to marry because of his lack of financial security, he only wounds the woman he loves who wants nothing other than for him to go on painting and thinks of what he regards as a “sacrifice” of herself in working to support them both as part of their shared struggle. Becoming gloomy and depressed, Nobuyuki posits giving up on love, but eventually comes around, realising some things are more important than pride though old fashioned ideas about illness still pose a problem.

This in turn drives the central spiritual dilemma as Father Yasugi is forced to face his own emotional pain which he has long been trying to sublimate with service to something higher. Ten years previously, his wife left him for another man but his continuing love for her is the very reason he cannot bring himself to do what his own religion requires and forgive her for the pain and suffering which now cloud his heart. God is love, but love is pain and suffering without end. Thus he councils the romantically troubled couple against a marriage which may end suddenly creating even more heartbreak and everlasting sadness, which seems at odds with his own, and the film’s, insistence on the joy that life brings even whilst filled with sorrow and regret.

An early effort from Kobayashi, Three Loves is not as successful as his other work from the period offering none of the rawness or innovation of The Thick-walled Room, falling back on established melodrama techniques though making interesting use of montages and dissolves even if coupled with familiar horizontal wipes. The tone is more forgiving than Kobayashi’s later angry social tirades, but the muddled structure and strange use of religious themes make for a frustrating experience which ends in a traditionally melodramatic way offered abruptly and without further comment. A death of innocence may be Kobayashi’s concession to his own bleaker world view but feels like a standard Shochiku tearjerker ending, an afterthought tacked on as a concession to studio requirements. Still, an interesting meditation on the nature of love in all its different forms, Three Loves is an unusually contemplative piece even if frustrated by a slight clumsiness of execution.