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.


 

Carmen Comes Home (カルメン故郷に帰る, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1951)

Carmen Comes HomeShochiku was doing pretty well in 1951. Accordingly they could afford to splash out a little in their 30th anniversary year in commissioning the first ever full colour film to be shot in Japan, Carmen Comes Home (カルメン故郷に帰る, Carmen Kokyou ni Kaeru). For this landmark project they chose trusted director Keisuke Kinoshita and opted to use the home grown Fujicolor which has a much more saturated look than the film stocks favoured by overseas studios or those which would become more common in Japan such as Eastman Colour or Agfa. Fujicolour also had a lot of optimum condition requirements including the necessity of shooting outdoors, and so we find ourselves visiting a picturesque mountain village along with a showgirl runaway on her first visit home hoping to show off what a success she’s made for herself in the city.

Famous Tokyo showgirl “Lily Carmen” (Hideko Takamine) was once plain old Kin from the cow farm. When the family receives a letter written in grand style and signed with Kin’s stage name explaining she’ll be coming to visit, her sister may be excited but her father has much more mixed emotions. When Carmen comes home she does so like she’s on a victory parade. Wearing her Westernised, colourful outfits fashionable in the city but like something from outer space here, Carmen becomes the show but oddly seems uncomfortable with the predictable amount of attention she’s getting around town. The presence of Carmen and her equally pretty friend, Maya (Toshiko Kobayashi), threatens to destabilise this otherwise peaceful mountain village but just what sort of chaos can two beautiful women really create over the period of a few days?

The villagers react to Carmen’s return with a series of ambivalent emotions. Of course, they’re glad to see their own girl back, especially as she’s been so successful in the city, but this Carmen is not the same as the Kin who ran away. Slightly in awe of all this visiting urban sophistication, the villagers are also scandalised by Carmen’s modern attitudes to fashion and vulgar behaviour. Striding around the village like as it were a tourist attraction and she a visiting monarch, Carmen chews gum, breaks in to song at random and dances happily in her underwear on the green mountain hillsides.

The village is smallish community but fiercely proud of their local traditions. Many of the residents are happy to think that a “great artist” of the pedigree of Lily Carmen could have been born in their little village. In fact, this tiny settlement is something of a crucible for artistic talent and the extremely pompous school headmaster has a bee in his bonnet about bringing forth the future of Japan through cultural education. However, not quite all of the residents are so liberal and many live in fear of a feudalistic money lender named Maruju (Koji Mitsui) who runs the local transportation business (such as it is) but makes most of his money out of issuing exorbitant loans to desperate local people. Recently, he’s pointlessly repossessed an organ from the home of a man who was blinded during the war.

The headmaster is very keen for Carmen to come and bring some of her city sophistication back to the village, but no one has actually asked what kind of “art” Carmen is involved in. After a lot of chat from Carmen about how seriously she takes her work, people start wondering about this cutting edge performance art that their homegirl has apparently surrendered her life to. As if it weren’t obvious from her name, Carmen is a burlesque dancer. Quite a good, high grade burlesque dancer and, in fact, an artist, but essentially a stripper who really does take it all off in the end. Ever the enterprising businessman, Maruju decides to put on a show which he advertises with a big cart bearing the slogan “wild dancing by nude beauties” plastered on the side.

Needless to say this does not go down well with pompous headmaster and his plan to create a great city of highbrow artists. Striding straight over to talk to Carmen’s father Shoichi who’s only just got up from a few days in bed after Carmen’s last embarrassing faux pas, the principal intends to talk Carmen and her friend out of their scheduled performance. Her father, however, has a surprising reaction. He had an inkling what kind of life his runaway daughter must have been living. Shoichi put much of Carmen’s lack of acumen down to being kicked in the head by a cow as a child and realised it would be hard for her to find “respectable” work. He doesn’t want to see her “indecent” show and thinks the professor shouldn’t go either, but also thinks that if she’s good at it and it makes her happy then maybe that’s OK. After all, if it was that bad they wouldn’t allow it in the city and whatever’s good enough for the city ought to be good enough for the mountains. The headmaster, momentary stunned, is now confused and wondering if stopping the performance is an infringement on Carmen’s human rights.

Kinoshita refuses to take a side, he shows the ridiculousness of both the isolated villagers and the sophisticated city dwellers to great comic effect. Hideko Takamine is something of a revelation, cast completely against type as a bubbly, airhead showgirl. As is true with a lot of early colour films, or even a lot of early talkies, Carmen Comes Home has a built in gimmick and doesn’t really worry about doing very much beyond it. As such it keeps things light and bright and breezy, emphasising its high contrast colour palate every step of the way. A gentle comedy of manners as small town comforts rival big city liberalism with the obvious trade offs involved on either side, Carmen Comes Home might lack the substance of some of Kinoshita’s other work but makes up for it with general sunniness and effortlessly timeless humour.


Original trailer(s) (no subtitles):

A Japanese Tragedy (日本の悲劇, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1953)

A Japanese Tragedy 1A Japanese tragedy, or the tragedy of Japan? In Kinoshita’s mind, there was no greater tragedy than the war itself though perhaps what came after was little better. Made only eight years after Japan’s defeat, Keisuke Kinoshita’s 1953 film A Japanese Tragedy (日本の悲劇, Nihon no Higeki) is the story of a woman who sacrificed everything it was possible to sacrifice to keep her children safe, well fed and to invest some kind of hope in a better future for them. However, when you’ve had to go to such lengths to merely to stay alive, you may find that afterwards there’s only shame and recrimination from those who ought to be most grateful.

After opening with a series of genuine newsreel segments overlaid with newspaper clippings which tell of nothing other than crime, corruption and suicides, Kinoshita shifts focus to our ordinary mother, Haruko, currently working in an inn. Her son, Seiichi, has something he wants to tell her and will be staying with his sister, Utako, if she’d care to call. Neither of the children seems very excited about seeing their mother and, in fact, Seiichi’s news is that he wants to be adopted into a wealthy medical family so he can eventually take over their hospital. Utako is studying dressmaking and learning English but has also developed an attraction to her married English teacher which is threatening to develop into quite a difficult situation.

Kinoshita makes it plain that everybody suffered during the war which generally brought out the worst in people and even afterwards it was every man for himself as each tried desperately to climb out of the deepening hole that was Japan’s wartime defeat. Haruko lost her husband in the conflict, leaving her alone with two young children to feed and no one to help her. She did what she had to do whether that was a spot of black-marketeering, hoarding, or even casual prostitution but she put her children first every time. Unfortunately, she also falls for some bad self serving advice from her brother-in-law who offers to take over her husband’s land and look after the children while she earns more money out of town. Of course, he didn’t exactly keep his promises and both of the children suffered as a result.

Far from feeling grateful for their mother’s sacrifice, what the children feel is a mixture of shame and resentment. They’re embarrassed by their mother’s hardline personality and rural earthiness which no longer match their postwar upwardly mobile aspirations and force them to remember the unpleasantness of their upbringing. Seiichi is particularly disgusted by his mother’s having prostituted herself, branding her a “loose woman” and calling into question her character even before the disruptive effects of the war. Utako suffered a far greater betrayal at the hands of her relatives which has coloured her entire world view and left her with nothing but lingering resentment towards the mother who placed her in this situation.

Kinoshita intercuts the present day action with completely silent scenes of the family escaping from the military police, or memories of the various traumas each of the family members encountered in the chaotic period immediately after the end of the war. We see them travel from the warm letters sent by the children to their mother which lament the way their aunt and uncle are treating them to the outright hostility of the contemporary era. Haruko may not be the easiest of women, she’s certainly had a difficult life by any standards and it’s understandable why the relationship with her children might be strained, but in this case blood is not enough to overcome all the years of hardship and neither Seiichi nor Utako is willing to fulfil their filial obligations towards their mother.

Haruko substitutes the relationship she’s missing with her own children by offering maternal advice to the chef who works in her inn and a sad wandering guitarist who often comes by to serenade the guests. Not much older than her own son, the guitarist also has a mother in the country whom he rarely sees – Haruko gives him some money that he tearfully promises to use to send his mother a present, though he confesses at the end of the film that he drank it himself in the end. He feels guilty about it and he’s moved by Haruko’s kindness towards him but in the end he’s forgotten his own mother too and even if he isn’t treating her with the same level of disdain that Seiichi and Utako display for Haruko, he isn’t doing much better in the filial piety stakes.

An extended metaphor with a series of tightly packed layers, A Japanese Tragedy is a lament for a homeland that’s lost its way. Haruko, like the idealised mother, has given her own life in sacrifice for those of her children only to find that her children disown her for it. Everything she has ever done, good and bad, has been in their name yet they refuse even to acknowledge her suffering but rather apportion blame for their own hardships. Kinoshita litters Haruko’s story with news reports bearing out the depths to which the country has fallen – corrupt politicians, rioting, violence on the streets and mothers who commit suicide taking their children with them. At a moment near the end of the film, Haruko remains motionless on the train station steps as a crowd of passengers surges past her. Left alone, uncertain, and believing herself to have lost the only thing that has ever mattered to her, Haruko becomes a casualty of a society that is so intent on marching forward that it’s lost sight of where it’s going. An enraged state of the nation address, this bleak and tragic tale is nevertheless filled with genuine human feeling and naturalistic detail which only deepen the impact of the desperately sad ending.


Opening sequence of the film:

Reviewed at the 2016 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme, ICA 7th February 2016.

 

Kwaidan (怪談, Masaki Kobayashi, 1964)

tumblr_ly5zbgdNH61rn3yrmo1_1280Kwaidan (怪談) is something of an anomaly in the career of the humanist director Masaki Kobayashi, best known for his wartime trilogy The Human Condition. Moving away from the naturalistic concerns that had formed the basis of his earlier career, Kwaidan takes a series of ghost stories collected by the foreigner Lafcadio Hearn and gives them a surreal, painterly approach that’s somewhere between theatre and folktale.

The first tale, Black Hair, is the story of an ambitious young samurai (Rentaro Mikuni) who abandons his one true love to marry a wealthy woman and advance his career. However, his second marriage is far from happy and he begins to appreciate just what it is he’s cast aside. Eventually returning home he meets his former wife again and harbours the desire to start afresh. However, when the sun comes up all is not as it seems.

Tale two, The Woman of the Snow, begins when two woodsmen are caught in a blizzard and a mysterious woman appears to suck one of them dry of blood. She spares the other, Minokichi (Tatsuya Nakadai), because she’s moved by his youth but she instructs him never to reveal the events of that evening or she will return to finish what she started. Minokichi returns home and meets another mysterious woman who later becomes his wife and bears him three children but will he remember to keep his secret even from the love of his life?

The third tale is perhaps the most famous, Hoichi the Earless, and features the sad tale of a blind biwa player (Katsuo Nakamura) whose storytelling ability is so great that the dead themselves petition him nightly to recount their story. Eventually the head monk finds out and disapproves of Hoichi’s dealings with the supernatural so the monks paint sutras all over his body to protect him from the malevolent spirits. However, like achilles and his vulnerable heel, they forget to paint Hoichi’s ears…

The fourth tale, A Cup of Tea, is a little more whimsical and opens with a framing sequence lamenting the fact that some ancient tales were never finished for one reason or another. The tale within the tale features a samurai who keeps seeing a face appear in his tea. Obviously this is quite disturbing, but eventually he just decides to drink it anyway only for the owner of the face to suddenly appear and complain about soul having been stolen.

Like all good fables the stories each have a moral to offer but also, crucially, paint the protagonists as victims of circumstance more than rash or unwise people. The samurai feared poverty so he abandoned his love in search of riches only to discover he’d been chasing the wrong kind of dreams. Minokichi momentarily forgot himself, perhaps entrapped by the Snow Woman’s final trick, Hoichi just wanted to play his biwa but his desires were frustrated by the powers at be who further mess things up for him by botching the sutra application. The protagonist of A Cup of Tea does choose to drink the tea himself but the resultant madness is not something that could ever have been reasonably expected. These are worlds of spirits where the doorway to the supernatural is always ajar, waiting for some ordinary person to tumble through accidentally.

Though employing slightly different styles for each of the four segments, Kobayashi sets his stage with a deliberately theatrical, almost hyperreal set design. Obviously shot on a soundstage, the tales take on the feeling of stories which have been told and retold, replayed countless times across the great theatre of life. Black Hair steers closest to a traditional kabuki play, an effect aided by Toru Takemitsu’s more traditional score but The Woman of the Snow gives way to intense color play full of cold blue ice vistas mixed with impressionistic, passionate red skies. Hoichi’s tale begins with an overlay of a scroll painting recounting the famous The of the Heike of which Hoichi sings his song. Full of epic battle scenes, ghostly apparitions and a whole load of biwa music, this segment is the lengthiest but also the meatiest when it comes to subtext. The final tale by contrast is much more straightforward and brings a little chanbara exuberance to the otherwise heavy atmosphere though it does leave us with one of the most haunting images in the entire film.

Kwaidan may look like an exercise in style for Kobayashi – it was also his first colour picture and he makes full use of that aspect of the film. However, that isn’t to say he’s abandoned his recurrent concerns. The people in the stories are all ordinary, they’re flawed but they aren’t evil. The samurai comes closest to bringing his fate on himself when he makes the selfish decision to abandon his loving wife for money and status though he pays a heavy price when he finally realises his foolishness. Minokichi’s crime is a loss of faith of perhaps of having doubted the truth of his tale in itself. In the end, he simply forgot his promise rather than making a conscious decision break it like the samurai. Hoichi is something of a passive player here as his blindness renders him unable to understand his plight – he is unable to keep his promise to the fallen samurai firstly because of the physical toll it’s taking on him and secondly as he’s prevented by his superiors. The protagonist of the final tale simply gives in to temptation and then to madness perfectly symbolising human weakness. Kobayashi maybe more artful here than acerbic but his bleak view of human nature still wins out. However, what Kobayashi crafted in Kwaidan is a beautiful, dreamlike canvas of supernatural visions which continue to dazzle in their artistry long after the screen has gone dark.


Kwaidan is available on blu-ray in the US from Citerion and on DVD in the UK from Eureka Masters of Cinema.