A Woman’s Place (女の座, Mikio Naruse, 1962)

“A woman’s life is so dreary” laments a disappointed woman as she sits awkwardly at a funeral in Mikio Naruse’s A Woman’s Place (女の座, Onna no Za, AKA The Wiser Age). What exactly is “a woman’s place” in the changing post-war society? The continuing uncertainties of the age begin to burrow into the Ishikawa household as it becomes plain that the house is already divided, in several senses, as daughters and sons find themselves pulled in different directions, each of them perhaps banking on an inheritance to claim a different future. 

As the film opens, the sons and daughters of the Ishikawa family have been sent telegrams to come home at once because dad is at death’s door. Thankfully, that turns out to be premature. All he’s done is put his back out overdoing it in the garden by trying to lift a big rock in defiance of his age. Oldest daughter Matsuyo (Aiko Mimasu), who runs a boarding house, is quite put out to have rushed over for nothing, but everyone is obviously relieved that there turned out to be nothing to worry about after all. Widowed daughter-in-law Yoshiko (Hideko Takamine) realises that she needs to wire Michiko (Keiko Awaji) who moved to Kyushu when she got married that there’s no need to come, but she later turns up anyway along with her goofy husband Masaaki (Tatsuya Mihashi), claiming they’ve decided to make the trip a kind of honeymoon though it seems obvious to everyone that there must be reasons they seem intent on overstaying their welcome. 

“They depend on us, everyone does when they return home” mother/step-mother Aki (Haruko Sugimura) chuckles as Matsuyo and only remaining son Jiro (Keiju Kobayashi) pocket some paper towels from the family shop on their way out. Everyone is indeed depending on the family, not least for a clue as to where they stand as much as for a permanent place to return to. Three daughters of marriageable age still live at home. The oldest, Umeko (Mitsuko Kusabue), the daughter of patriarch Kinjiro’s (Chishu Ryu) first wife, has renounced the possibility of marriage and has made a career for herself as an ikebana teacher, a traditionally respectable occupation for “independent” women. In her 30s, she has become cruel and embittered, sniping at her sisters and always smirking away in a corner somewhere being aggressively miserable (nobody in the family seems to like Umeko very much, but still they accept her). Later she offers a sad, surprisingly romantic explanation for her decision in her unrequited love for a middle school classmate who died in the war, but is in someway revived by an unexpected attraction to a young man Matsuyo brings to the house who claims to be the infant boy Aki was forced to give up when she left her former husband’s family and married Kinjiro. 

The unexpected reappearance of Musumiya (Akira Takarada) destabilises the family across several levels, firstly in highlighting Aki’s awkward status as a second wife and step-mother to the two oldest children, and then by inciting a false romantic rivalry between the widowed Yoshiko and the unmarried Umeko. Umeko at one point cruelly describes Yoshiko as the only “outsider” in the household, viewing her connection to them now that her husband has died solely through the lens of being the mother of the only male grandchild, Ken (Kenzaburo Osawa). Yoshiko, only 36 years old, is repeatedly urged to remarry, but she like Aki would be forced to leave Ken behind if she did, though he is now a teenager and perhaps old enough not to feel abandoned. Ken in fact joins in encouraging his mother to find a second husband, but partly because she is always nagging him to study harder (something which will have have tragic, unexpected consequences). Yoshiko’s “place” in the household is therefore somewhat liminal, part of the family and yet not, because her status depends on solely on her relationships to others rather than blood. 

Nevertheless, Yoshiko is clearly in charge as we witness all of the other women disturbing her while she’s cooking to enquire after missing items, whether the bath is ready, or to attend to something in the store. Umeko has built her own smaller annex on another part of the property and mostly keeps to herself, while the two younger daughters busy themselves with a series of romantic subplots. Despite her sister Matsuyo’s eye-rolling that she should “forget about working and get married”, Natsuko (Yoko Tsukasa) is trying to find another job after being laid off when the company she worked for went bankrupt. Her brother, meanwhile, is experiencing the opposite problem in that it’s impossible to find and keep delivery staff at his ramen shop and he desperately needs help because his wife is pregnant again. Natsuko is convinced to “help out” though it’s clear that working in a ramen shop wasn’t what she had in mind, but it does bring her into contact with an eccentric friend of her sister Yukiko’s (Yuriko Hoshi) while she works on the box office of a nearby cinema. 

A crisis occurs when Natsuko is presented with the prospect of an accelerated arranged marriage to a man who took a liking to her while working at the company which went bust and has since got a job which requires him to relocate to Brazil. The ramen shop guy, Aoyama (Yosuke Natsuki), meanwhile is also getting a transfer but only to the top of Mount Fuji. Natsuko is torn, but also wonders if Yukiko actually wants Aoyama herself and only tried to set them up as a sort of test. In any case, both of these younger women also feel that their “place” is defined by marriage and their status conferred by their husbands even if they are exercising a personal preference in their choice, Yukiko’s in romance while Natsuko’s is perhaps a little more calculation in that she knew and liked her suitor but would not go so far as to call it “love”. 

In her own strange way, Umeko may be the most radical of the women in that she has attempted to define her own place through rejecting marriage and making enough money to buy her own home (albeit still on the family property) in a kind of independence, later deciding that perhaps she does want marriage after all but only on her own terms. Unfortunately, she is drawn to Musumiya whose presence poses a threat to the family on several levels, the most serious being that he is quickly exposed as a conman guilting Aki into assisting him financially while also trying some kind of car sale scam on the smitten Umeko who wants to add to her independence through learning to drive. Musumiya, it seems, prefers Yoshiko and his affection may well be genuine, but she is trapped once again. While she and Aki privately express their doubts about Musumiya, they have no desire to hurt Umeko’s feelings and cannot exactly come out and say that he is no good seeing as he is Aki’s son. Yoshiko stoically keeps the secret, perhaps also attracted to Musumiya but loyal to the Ishikawas and wanting no trouble from such a duplicitous man. Still, Umeko regards Yoshiko’s attempts to discourage her as “jealousy” and wastes no time embarrassing them both in a nasty public altercation. 

While all of this going on, there has been some talk that the shop may be compulsory purchased to make way for an Olympic road, and each of the Ishikawa children is eagerly awaiting their share of the compensation money, not least Michiko and her feckless husband who turns out to have fled Kyushu after getting fired from his job for assaulting a client. The “heir”, technically is Ken as the only male grandchild and Yoshiko’s tenuous status in the household is entirely conferred on her as his mother. When that disappears, her “place” is uncertain. Most of the others are for kicking her out, she’s not a “real” member of the family and so deserves none of the money with only Natsuko stopping to defend her. But, as so often, the widowed daughter-in-law turns out to be the only filial child. Mum and dad feel themselves displaced in their own home, somehow feeling they must stand aside, but it turns out they have plans of their own and Yoshiko is very much included. They want to take her with them, and if one day she decides to marry again then that’s perfectly OK and they will even provide a dowry for her as if she were one of their own daughters. 

“We have many children but they only think of themselves” Kinjiro laments, “let’s not worry about them and live peacefully by ourselves”. It’s easy to see their decision as a strategic retreat, as if they’re being left behind by a future they cannot be a part of, but it’s also in some ways an escape from the increasingly selfish post-war society. Yoshiko may not have actively chosen her “place” but she does at least have one and reserves the right to choose somewhere else in the future. The older Ishikawas choose to be happy on their own, freeing their children and giving them their blessing so long as they’re “doing their best”. It’s a strangely upbeat conclusion for a Naruse film, if perhaps undercut with a mild sense of resignation, but nevertheless filled with a hope for a happier future and an acknowledgement that “family” can work but only when it is defined by genuine feeling and not merely by blood. 


Our Marriage (私たちの結婚, Masahiro Shinoda, 1962)

Like many directors of his age, Masahiro Shinoda had to serve his apprenticeship at Shochiku contributing to the studio’s particular brand of light and cheerful melodramas though 1962’s Our Marriage (私たちの結婚, Watashitachi no Kekkon) did perhaps allow him to explore some of his persistent themes in its ultimately empathetic exploration of the romantic and existential dilemmas of two sisters who ultimately find themselves taking different paths in the complicated post-war society. Co-scripted by Zenzo Matsuyama, Our Marriage is essentially a chronicle of changing times and the crises of modernity, but it’s also surprisingly even-handed in its refusal to judge or indeed to sugarcoat the “romance” of a working class life. 

Keiko (Noriko Maki) and her younger sister Saeko (Chieko Baisho) both have jobs in the local factory with Keiko working in the accounts department which is where she first meets the brooding and self-righteous Komakura (Shinichiro Mikami) when he marches straight into the office to complain that he’s been shorted on his pay-packet to the tune of 10 yen. The ladies are non-plussed, it’s only 10 yen after all so perhaps there’s no need to be so unpleasant about it, but Komakura insists on having it looked into even after they give him the single coin in an effort to make him go away. Getting so upset about 10 yen is perhaps disproportionate, but then it is Komakura’s 10 yen and he has a point that if a mistake has been made it needs to be acknowledged and corrected especially when you’re dealing with people’s livelihoods to ensure that everyone is being paid fairly. On the other hand, marching in and shouting at people is unlikely to help the situation. 

It just so happens that Komakura is a good friend of Saeko’s who perhaps reads more into the mild embarrassment he and her sister each experience on meeting in another context to assume that they are romantically involved, immediately swinging into action to get them together. Meanwhile, another potential suitor has turned up at home in the form of Matsumoto (Isao Kimura), apparently an old friend dropping in on their parents out of courtesy. Matsumoto is very good looking and apparently now has a well paying job in the textiles trade, but despite their politeness to him the parents later have their doubts because it turns out that he was their blackmarket dealer during the dark days of the immediate post-war era. 

The Hibino family make their living as seaweed farmers and live in a small two-story home in a fishing village. Times are hard because the sea is dying. Increased industrial pollution, land reclamation, and the new airport have reduced the harvest to almost nothing and the girls’ father (Eijiro Tono) can no longer make ends meet. The union hasn’t paid him and he can’t ask about it because he’s still in debt from a previous loan, which is why Keiko’s mother (Sadako Sawamura) is always asking her for extra money to help with household expenses. Keiko intensely resents this, especially as her father’s irresponsible drinking habits continue to adversely affect the family’s finances. They haven’t really been thinking about her marriage perhaps partly because they need her salary but are now forced to because of all the sudden and unexpected interest. On top of Matsumoto and Komakura, it seems that the union leader’s widowed son is also interested which would, admittedly, be quite beneficial to the family. 

Keiko, however, is insistent that her husband must have a decent salary and that her married home must have a refrigerator and a washing machine. Quite the consumerist, Keiko has had enough of poverty and of feckless men like her authoritarian father who waste all their money on drink while relying on female labour to keep them out of trouble. When Matsumoto writes a formal letter proposing marriage, the parents decide to push the union leader’s son instead hoping to avoid embarrassment all round. Keiko immediately assumes the worst, that her father is trying to sell her to the union leader in exchange for the cancelation of his debts. She insists that she will decide her own future, leading Saeko to make a disastrous intervention revealing Keiko’s relationship with Komakura which only has the effect of enraging her father who brands her an ungrateful “whore” while shouting that a mere workman is not good enough for his daughter despite having previously stated that the union leader’s son was really “too good” and they were only in the running because it’s a second marriage. 

Both women still implicitly feel that marriage will define their futures, they do not have an expectation of living independently. Nevertheless, marriage itself may not be an answer. Everyone keeps talking about how happy Miyoko (Fumiko Hirayama) is with her new husband and she herself is forever extolling the joys of married life even in poverty, insisting to Saeko that “a woman’s happiness lies in marrying and having babies”. It’s a cruel irony then that we later see her arguing with her husband who is trying to force her to have an abortion against her will because they cannot afford to raise a child. Keiko has had enough of poverty, she wants to be more than comfortable, enjoying the new consumerist age. Re-encountering an old schoolfriend who has become a glamorous social butterfly she is mildly scandalised when she tells her that she obtained all her treasures through a complex network of compensated dating arrangements with foreigners, but later decides to check it out for herself when directly faced with the hopelessness of her situation. 

The fact remains, however, that no matter the initial attraction and her sister’s earnest attempts to make it work, Keiko and Komakura are fundamentally unsuited. They have entirely different ways of thinking about the world and want completely different things. Komakura is an angry young man but committed to his working class roots. He isn’t trying to get on, he’s happy with working in the factory for the rest of his life and just wants a quiet, honest existence. Keiko wants more, she thinks that people who say they’re poor but happy have merely given up on life. Revealing himself, Matsumoto says that he was struck by Keiko’s harsh words to him when she was a child, her calling him a blackmarketeer to his face apparently showing him what he was. He claims to have reformed and now fears the various ways that poverty can corrupt, something Keiko feels herself after her brief brush with the shady world of compensated dating. They are very much on the same page, both intent on seizing the benefits of the consumerist age but hoping they won’t have to stoop too low to get them. 

Saeko meanwhile is a little younger, still naive, and unlike her sister completely resistant to the corruptions of consumerism. Part of that might be because Keiko has shielded her from some of the harsh consequences of the way their family lives such as the financial burden of her father’s drinking, leaving her with a rosier view of poor but honest life which has her taking notes from Miyoko on how it’s easy to be happy even when you don’t have enough to eat. She and Komakura are in fact perfectly suited and perhaps she is already in love with him but either afraid of her feelings or unable to recognise them, pushing him towards her “prettier” sister instead. Then again, is there anything to say that Komakura will not turn into another man like her father, embittered and old, trying to drown his disappointment in sake? There’s no guarantee Keiko will be happy with Matsumoto, or perhaps with anyone, but they are at least moving forward in the same direction, as are Saeko and Komakura even as they blend back in with a hundred other cheerful youngsters making their way towards the factory. Our Marriage offers no judgment on its heroines’ choices, merely stating that people make their own paths in life pursuing their particular ideal of happiness and it happens that those paths might necessarily diverge but the people are still the same ones they always were and perhaps you don’t need to reject them for choosing differently than you might have done. Isn’t that what post-war freedom is all about after all?


Black River (黒い河, Masaki Kobayashi, 1957)

20140731_762128Masaki Kobayashi is still not enamoured with the new Japan by the time he comes to make Black River (黒い河, Kuroi Kawa) in 1957 which proves his most raw and cynical take on contemporary society to date. Set in a small, rundown backwater filled with the desperate and hopeless, Black River is a tale of ruined innocence, opportunistic fury and a nation losing its way.

The tale begins as a poor student, Nishida, moves into a rundown tenement owned by a tyrannous landlady who collects rent payments as if drinking in souls. Nishida looks around his new abode with a depressed air as the landlady advises him that he can always clean the place up. The vast majority of his possessions are books and the studious Nishida quickly sets himself apart from the ordinary working class denizens of this forsaken place to whom he clearly feels himself superior. However, he does take a liking to a local waitress. This too is destined to go wrong as when Shizuko visits him late after work one night hoping to borrow a book, she is grabbed by a gang of guys who attempt to assault her. Another man turns up and disrupts them but it quickly transpires that the whole thing is a ruse set up by the local gangster, Killer Joe, who then rapes her himself.

The modern, jazz inspired score and classic love triangle plot are almost a seishun eiga cliché but Kobayashi is only partly interested in the central trio with the ruined girl at its core. Casting the net wider, he’s interested in each of the wretched people that live in this place which is on the fringes of an American military base. From the obvious and blatant pan pan girls to the secret prostitutes and black marketeers, the American military has become a disruptive force in the area offering the weak minded easy, if dishonest, ways of living. That is to say, the problem is not “the Americans” or “the occupation” so much as it is the society which is allowing itself to become corrupted by Western values.

In this place, it’s everyman for himself. One of the community is ill, probably with tuberculosis. At one point he’s in desperate need of a blood transfusion so the wife hysterically asks everyone else if they have a matching blood type which they all deny (some of them obviously lying). Nishida admits he has a match, but outright refuses his blood despite the fact that this man will likely die without it. This doesn’t matter however because someone remembers the wife herself is a match but even she did not want to volunteer her own blood to save the life of her husband. Later when he is rushed to hospital she will delay his departure trying to take all their worldly goods with them in case the husband dies and his relatives turn up to claim everything.

The landlady has hatched a plot with Killer Joe (played by a young Tatsuya Nakadai in his first film role) to evict the tenants, knock the place down and build a love hotel catering to the American troops. They have a small problem as a committed communist lives in the building and refuses to move – he also tries to organise some community action where he tries to get them to club together to reduce energy costs as the local American base doesn’t pay their bills and the community has to foot the bill for the entire area. Nobody really cares though and no one wants to pay.

Killer Joe plays the tough guy in swanky clothes and sunglasses but his authority is hollow and really he’s just a scared little boy. He rapes Shizuko because he’s too lazy and frightened to bother about doing things in the more conventional way. She, for herself, is too pure to consider herself anything other than ruined by her traumatic experience and immediately petitions Joe to marry her (he, predictably, laughs and offers to let her move in with him). She’s disgusted with herself but is completely in thrall to Joe, both attracted and repelled by him. Gone are her demure outfits and white parasol, in with the dark, figure hugging dresses with exposed shoulders, loose hair and pretty pearl earrings. Her love for Nishida is the one aspect of her former self that she clings to as a way of keeping her innocence alive. Eventually she decides the only way to reclaim her honour and be free of Joe is to kill him and kill the new self born in her by his violence.

Innocence, once lost, is not something which can ever be truly regained. Nishida makes the typically male decision and is saved from his folly by a typically female one, but the ending here can never be anything other than tragic for all involved. It’s the usual B-movie conclusion, leaving only a lonely white parasol lying abandoned on the road to ruin. The message is clear, the world is cruel because we allow it to be and that is a fact that is unlikely to change.


Black River is the third of four early films from Masaki Kobayashi available in Criterion’s Eclipse Series 38: Masaki Kobayashi Against the System DVD boxset.

Here’s a scene from about half way through the movie: