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

(c) Nikkatsu 1955

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Love New and Old (三味線とオートバイ , AKA Shamisen and Motorcyle, Masahiro Shinoda, 1961)

shamisen and motorcycleMasahiro Shinoda’s first film for Shochiku, One-Way Ticket to Love, over which he’d been given a fairly free rein did not exactly set the box office alight. Accordingly, he then found himself relegated to studio mandated projects with set scripts designed with the studio’s house style in mind. Love New and Old (三味線とオートバイ, Shamisen to Otobai, also known as Shamisen and Motorcycle) is just one of these studio pictures, taking him away from the beginnings of a promising collaboration with avant-garde poet and playwright Shuji Terayama begun in Dry Lake (Youth in Fury) and Killers on Parade. Despite the banality of its melodramic tale of mother and daughter strife caused by changing times, secrets and social mores, Love New and Old plays into several of Shinoda’s recurrent themes and allows him to further indulge his tendency for visual flamboyance with a widescreen colour canvas.

Regular teenager Hatsuko (Miyuki Kuwano) hangs around with the “nice” kind of biker gang, clinging onto her upper class boyfriend Fusao (Yusuke Kawazu) as they ride around the city making use of all the new freedoms available to the young people of the day. Hatsuko lives alone with widowed mother Toyoeda (Yumeji Tsukioka), a minor celebrity known for giving lessons in traditional “kouta” singing on local television. Despite Hatsuko’s rather headstrong nature, she and her mother are very close and have a broadly happy life together in the small house they share which doubles as her mother’s studio.

Things change when Hatsuko and Fusao get into an accident on the bike which leaves them both in hospital. It just so happens that the doctor who ends up treating Hatsuko, Kuroyanagi (Masayuki Mori), is an old friend of her mother’s from before the war. During Hatsuko’s extended convalescence the pair rekindle their long abandoned romance but tension soon arises when the still youthful Hatsuko begins to resent this change in her familial relations. Having come to think of her mother as a kind of pure, saintly figure the idea of her as woman with a woman’s needs and desires profoundly disturbs her.

Shinoda frames this twin tale of women in love as series of embedded conflicts – between generations, between eras, and between a mother and a daughter whose relationship must necessarily change as one comes of age. There is also an additional burden placed on the relationship by means of a long buried secret regarding Hatusko’s birth, the man she had regarded as her father, and the newly resurfaced figure of the doctor who, it seems, has always been in Toyoeda’s heart. Despite the fact that one might assume all of the resentment towards a new relationship would come from the maternal side, Toyoeda is generally supportive of her daughter’s right to choose a boyfriend only warning her that the boy’s parents had acted with hostility following the accident and there may be class based trouble ahead given the fact that her mother is “only a kouta teacher”.

The doctor, a melancholy and perceptive figure, is the first to notice the effect his unexpected return is having on the previously happy mother daughter relationship. Correctly remarking that young people of Hatsuko’s age have much more clearly defined ideas about “morality”, especially as it relates to the older generation, Kuroyanagi can see why Hatsuko may have reservations about her mother remarrying. In this he is very much correct. Even setting aside the slight cultural squeamishness concerning second marriages, Hatsuko’s reaction to her mother’s new romance is one of deep disgust and confusion. Though she recognises that her feelings are unfair and will only cause her mother additional suffering, she cannot bring herself to accept the idea of her mother taking a lover and eventually bringing this new element into their extremely close relationship.

Eventually Hatsuko moves out to live with a friend while Fusao, who had been absent from the picture thanks to his parental machinations, finally reappears and seems to want to resume their relationship whatever the final cost to his own familial relations. Ending on a bittersweet note after which secrets are revealed, confessions are made, and hearts are bared, the film seems to want to remind us that life is short and unpredictable – there is no time for the kind of petty discomforts which lead Hatsuko to force her mother to choose between the man she loved and her daughter. After beginning with an innovative title sequence, Shinoda’s approach is more straightforward than in some of his more visually adventurous work of the period but makes good use of dissolves and interesting compositions to bring a little more substance to this otherwise generic Shochiku programme picture.