Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

November 28, 2011

Japanese Film: "A Page Of Madness" (1926) by Kinugasa

An elderly man (veteran actor Inoue Masao) feels responsible for the schizophrenic condition of his wife (Nakagawa Yoshie) and has taken menial employment in the asylum where she is interned. His ultimate plan is to flee with her. Memories of their happy past mingle with scenes of their present misery.


That is the simple premise of the avant-garde film A Page of Madness (Kurutta Ichipeiji) made in 1926 by young director Kinugasa Teinosuke (1896-1982). A Page of Madness was long thought lost, like so may other films from the 1920s, until in 1971 the director found a copy of the negative in his storehouse.

The script of A Page of Madness is purposely scrambled and jumps from memories of the past to the here and now, mixing in various fantasies and hallucinations along the way. The beginning of the film is typical: a montage of shots of violent rain hitting the windows of the hospital; the unsettled weather induces one of them, a former dancer, to start a frantic dance. We see the dancing girl in fancy costume dancing on a stage, behind her a large colored ball is turning around. This is a memory from the past. The dancer collapses, the stage becomes a cell (we see the black bars, a fixed motive in the whole film), the dancer now wears rags - we are back in the mental hospital.

The film contains a barrage of startling imagery and haunting dreamlike visuals. Any cinematic device known, such as rapid montage - although Kinugasa didn't know the films by Eisenstein as Soviet products were forbidden in Japan - at the time is used. It is not only far ahead of anything happening in Japan in the mid-twenties, but also ahead of the world. And it is very original, there is no resemblance with for example Wiene's Dr Caligari as is sometimes claimed.

There is much misinformation about this film going around, so here are some sober facts (thanks to the study by Aaron Gerow, A Page of Madness: Cinema and Modernity in 1920s Japan (Center for Japanese Studies, The University of Michigan, 2008):
  • The project was not a low-budget, independent art film made solely by a group of enthusiastic youngsters. The studio for which Kinugasa worked invested in the project and the film was shot at Shochiku's Kamogawa Studios in Kyoto. The budget was 20,000 yen, twice as much as that of the commercial jidaigeki Kinugawa usually made for Shochiku.
  • Although famous modernist author and future Nobel-Prize winner Kawabata Yasunari wrote a script for the film, that was not the only scenario nor even the major one. There were several scenarios floating around this film, written by various persons.
  • Originally, the film was not as incomprehensible as it is today, for the following reasons:
    • The 60 minute version that was unearthed by the director (which is all we have today) was shortened and some of the more conventional narrative scenes seem to have been cut - perhaps to bring the film more in line with notions of what was considered "avant-garde" in the seventies. 
    • The film originally incorporated some conservative Shinpa-type narrative elements and there also seem to have been at least some inter-titles (now there are none).
    • On top of that, the film was originally shown with a benshi - the famous benshi Tokugawa Musei gave his cooperation. 
Some other points I would like to add:
  • As was usual with art films, it was shown in a theater reserved for foreign films, the Musashinokan in Shinjuku in Tokyo.
  • In the 1920s, there was a flourishing avant-garde scene in Japan (especially the Shinkankakusha, or New Impressionists, whose work experimented with a wide variety of modernist styles - Constructivism, Futurism, Dada, Surrealism and Expressionism) and much interest in what happened abroad in this field, so the film did not come out of the blue. 
  • One interesting scene: at a certain moment, the male patients of the asylum are aroused by the dance of "the wife" and they cause a riot. They are then given Noh masks to wear which make them peaceful.  

November 27, 2011

Japanese Film: "The Munekata Sisters" (1950) by Ozu

The Munekata Sisters is a study in contrasts: between the conservative, married older sister Setsuko (Tanaka Kinuyo), always wearing kimono, and the free-spirited younger sister Mariko (Takamine Hideko), always in Western-style dress; and between the locations of Tokyo, the center of the modernization of Japan, and the Kansai with the old temple cities of Kyoto and Nara.

Setsuko lives in Tokyo with her husband Mimura (Yamamura So), who is out of a job and into hard and fast drinking. With them also lives her younger sister Mariko. To sustain the family finances, Setsuko operates a bar and Mariko helps her. Their ailing father (Ryu Chishu) lives in Kyoto and Setsuko and Mariko regularly visit him. Also based in the Kansai (in Kobe, a Westernized city) is Setsuko's former flame, Hiroshi (Uehara Ken), who has just returned from France and now has an antique shop. He often visits Tokyo as well. Mariko – who is rather childish - tries to reunite Setsuko and Hiroshi, although she herself is also secretly in love with Hiroshi. Her meddling, however, has unintended tragic results when Mimura gets jealous of his wife and Hiroshi.

This film has been called “lesser Ozu” because it is different from his other, mature works in being more melodramatic. But it serves to show one thing: that Ozu could make quite different films, and not always repeated the same story as some other critics say. The main theme of The Munekata Sisters is typical Ozu: the loss of traditional family values due to Japan's Westernization, embodied in Mariko who lightly advises Setsuko to separate from her drinking and violent husband. On the other hand, Setsuko is the very embodiment of those traditional values: she is reticent (reason why she did not speak out to Hiroshi about her love in the past) and after her husband dies, she refuses to marry Hiroshi. It seems natural that she now should do so and Hiroshi actually asks her, but she decides to never meet him again as marrying him after what happened to her husband – who died doubting her truthfulness to him – does not seem right to her. Instead, she moves to Kyoto to take care of her ill father.

Comments:
  • One of only 3 films Ozu made for another company than Shochiku. 
  • His only adaptation of a novel, by then popular novelist Jiro Osaragi. 
  • The script is more melodramatic than the usual Ozu – Mimura slaps Setsuko in the face and Mariko screams when she sees that Mimura has died from a heart attack (it is the only Ozu film to contain a woman's scream!). 
  • The film took seventh place in the Kinema Junpo ranking for 1950.
  • Contrasting two women, usually sisters, of different types – one traditional, one modern - was common in Japanese film since the 1930s. A famous example is Mizoguchi's Sisters of the Gion. 
  • The film contains several famous, idyllic Japanese spots as the temples in Kyoto and Nara, or the resort town of Hakone. 
  • The use of Yakushiji Temple in Nara is probably intentional: it is dedicated to the Buddha of Healing (Yakushi Nyorai) and during the visit to this temple, Hiroshi hopes to “heal” his relationship with Setsuko. By the way, in 1950 Yakushiji looked very different from today – both main hall and second pagoda were later rebuilt, but I prefer this old Yakushiji with pine trees growing in the courtyard. 
  • Osaragi Jiro loved cats (see his museum in Yokohama!) and Mimura is constantly carrying a cat with him.

November 24, 2011

Japanese film: "Tokyo Story" (1953) by Ozu

Many critics have called Tokyo Story the best film Ozu ever made - it also features in the top 10 of an influential list of best films (Sight & Sound). The subject is - as in many other mature films by Ozu - the decay of traditional values seen in the lives of the members of a family. The rite of passage this time is not a wedding, but old age and death.


The Hirayama's, an elderly couple (played by Ryu Chishu and Higashiyama Chieko) are living with their youngest daughter Kyoko (Kagawa Kyoko), a school teacher, in Onomichi, in Western Japan (near Hiroshima). They have three other children: Koichi (Yamamura So), a local physician, married to Fumiko (Miyake Kuniko) and with two children; Shige, a beautician, with husband Kaneko Kurazu (Nakamura Nobuo); both these live in Tokyo and so does daughter-in-law Noriko, the widow of their son who has never returned from the war; a younger son lives in Osaka. They haven't seen their busy children in a long time and now plan a long trip to both cities to spend some time with them.

You may already be able to guess what happens, for this is a perennial the world around: the children are busy, busy, busy with their own lives and have no time for the parents they have not seen in many years; their egoism is so gross, it becomes even funny; the two oldies are obstacles which are shoved from the house of the son to that of the daughter, and then packed off to Atami, a vulgar and noisy spa town on the Izu coast, about two hours from Tokyo, where they are kept awake by partying youths. When they return unexpectedly early from Atami, they are at first nowhere welcome and almost become "homeless," as they joke among themselves.

There is one exception: daughter-in-law Noriko, who has an office job and lives in a tiny wooden flat. Like a traditional widow, all those years since the war she has kept the memory of her missing husband alive and refuses to consider remarrying. She takes a day off from work (although she is the one who can least of all miss the income) to guide her parents-in-law through Tokyo - we see them on a sort of "Hato bus tour." She also takes them for dinner to her flat - she is so poor she has to borrow not only the sake from a neighbor, but also the sake cups and flask. And when the parents have no home, she takes in the mother, who spends the most valuable moments of the whole Tokyo visit talking with Noriko (the father from his side has gone to visit some old friends, with whom he gets pleasantly drunk, after which the police brings him and one friend to the house of daughter Shige - the egoistic daughter gets her deserts having to take care of two totally plastered old men!).


The mother has had an attack of dizziness in Atami, and on the return trip, again in Osaka. When the parents arrive back home in Onomichi she falls seriously ill and soon dies. Now the family has to make the reverse journey for the funeral. This is done with the same blatant egoism. They stay as short as possible. Shige steals some clothes of the dead woman, "as a memory." And again, only Noriko is different. She stays as long as possible with her widowed father-in-law, who gives her the watch of his wife - and remonstrates with her in a kind way to be sure to remarry. Kyoko, the youngest sister, is shocked at the coldness of the family, but Noriko tells her serenely that is "how the world is." In the train on the way back to Tokyo, she looks pensively at her gift - will she remarry?

Some other points:
  • Onomichi is a port town on the Inland Sea, with narrow alleys, steep slopes and many old temples. There is still a lot of atmosphere left, making it a great place to visit.
  • In 1953 there was no Shinkansen yet (it started services between Osaka and Tokyo in 1964). Today the trip from Onomichi to Tokyo by ordinary trains (skipping the Shinkansen) would take more than 12 hours, in 1953 it was probably even longer - a heavy trip for two elderly people. 
  • Atami is a large resort town with hot springs. Now past its prime, in the fifties and sixties it was a fashionable - though even then already quite vulgar - destination for group tours and newly weds ("Atami" has been jokingly called "tatami" - where Tokyoites travel to do things in a horizontal position).
  • The scars of the war are still visible in 1953: Noriko's husband is missing in action, his body has never been retrieved. 
  • During funerals in Japan, both men and women should wear black clothes, including the tie.

Thanks to the various locations - from Onomichi to various places in Tokyo, to Atami, Tokyo again and finally again Onomichi - this is a film on a big scale. It has all the typical Ozu trademarks I discussed in a previous post. Due to the subject matter, it is a bit darker than for example Late Spring, but happily, it is full of humor as well. This is a very humane film, of great universal value.





November 23, 2011

Japanese Film: "Late Spring" (1949) by Ozu Yasujiro

Banshun is quintessential Ozu: a daughter is living a happy, quiet life with her widowed father; a meddling aunt warns that it is time for her to marry; the daughter is less than enthusiastic, so the father pretends he himself is going to remarry; jealous, the daughter agrees to an arranged marriage; the father remains behind alone.


Also the characters are typical: Ryu Chishu as the father, an elderly professor (Ryu was only 45 at the time, but he was good at playing aged persons); Hara Setsuko as the daughter, more radiant than ever; and Sugimura Haruko as the meddling aunt.

And so is the style: the stationary camera position, the low angle shot, the conscious arrangement of characters and careful composition of each shot, the avoidance of movement, the many distance shots/low number of close-ups, the camera running on for a few moments even after people have left a room, the clearly spoken, unhurried and uninterrupted dialogues, the disregard for eye matches in dialogues, the full-face shot of the speaker, the use of curtain shots, etc. This formalistic way of filming helps to make the viewpoint more neutral and unsentimental. It also serves to set off the characters with greater clarity. And it is interesting because it is a decidedly non-Hollywood film grammar.

But it goes too far to call Ozu's techical style "typically Japanese" as Western observers have done. For in that case it would have to be shared by many other Japanese directors, and that is only partially the case (Shimizu Hiroshi and Mizoguchi Kenji for long takes and low camera angles). Stylistically, Ozu is first and for all "typically Ozu." Even in Japan nobody else comes even close to Ozu's style. (It is in another aspect, his adherence to traditional values, that Ozu was indeed "typically Japanese").

Ozu is interested in characters, not in plot, so the slight story I have sketched in the above, suits him just fine. Anyway, in Ozu' case stories do not do justice to the films, which are incredibly richer than the quotidian events that happen in them.

As in all later films by Ozu, the subject of Banshun is the loss of traditional family values, especially the care family members used to have for each other, and which used to be more important than personal gratification. This was for example the main theme in Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (1941), where most family members are shown as too egoistic to take proper care for the homeless mother and younger sister. In Banshun Ozu turns this theme humorously on its head: Noriko is the traditional one who wants to go on taking care of her widowed father, but the father himself sees that such behavior would be too large a sacrifice - she must have her own life and her own family.

There is a secondary theme, too, that of a "rite of passage:" life consists of several stages and we have to move on, even if that means leaving loved ones. The time comes that children have to leave their parents (something Ozu never practiced, he lived unmarried with his mother almost until his death!).

It is a common idea in Japan that both men and women should marry in order to take their proper position in society (only now this is being hollowed out by the increasing number of singles). Men, once they have the financial means to do so, and women before their mid-twenties. Noriko in the film is 27 (the "late spring" of the title), and although there is a suggestion she may be still single because men her age died in great numbers at the war front, in the Japanese thinking of 60 years ago, it is definitely time for her to take the next step. The aunt fulfills the role of the absent mother - the father is too busy with his research to notice. And thanks to the system of arranged marriages, after Hattori, a friend of Noriko and her father's research assistant, already appears to be engaged, another suitable partner can soon be found.

Banshun was made under the Occupation when films often preached the new "democracy." Ozu does that too, but in a very soft way. The father, for example, is no dictator, even with the arranged marriage system, the daughter can make her own, free choice, as he stresses. After all, the legal underpinnings to the family system (ie) had been abolished by the Occupation and small, nuclear families were a fact of life.

The miai system works as follows (it still exists, although now less than 10% of marriages are still arranged). Photos and CVs are exchanged, after which a meeting in the presence of family members is set up, usually in a restaurant or a hotel. Here, the prospective partners can see each other and talk without committing themselves. They can also have more meetings than if they like. Noriko can still say no if she doesn't fancy her future husband (in The Makioka Sisters, filmed by Ichikawa Kon, the second sister Yukiko has a whole string of miai where she routinely rejects the proposed partner!).

But in Banshun that is alright, as there seems to exist some slight facial resemblance to Gary Cooper. By the way, we never see the marriage prospect nor the miai, nor also the final wedding. All these scenes are elided to concentrate on the story of Noriko leaving her father. The last time we see Noriko is when she has dressed in her heavy wedding kimono, which seems to press her down not only physically, but also mentally...


Japanese traditional culture is also re-evaluated and shown to fit well into a modernized, democratic Japan: the film starts with a tea ceremony, there is a Noh performance, and a visit to Kyoto with the Kiyomizu temple and the rock garden of Ryoanji. But these are the outward aspects of Japanese culture, of culture as a pastime. We should realize that the underlying traditional value system was damaged by leading the nation into war and defeat, even to a conservative as Ozu. He just tried to salvage the positive aspects.

By the way, Banshun does not contain any "Zen" elements as some Western writers wrongly infer due to a tendency to equate Japanese culture with Zen (Mr Daisetz Suzuki is to blame for this!). Japanese culture is not a Zen culture - it is much too varied, and the most important Buddhist groups are the Pure Land sects, not Zen. On top of that Zen Buddhism had firmly allied itself with the military during the war and was therefore in the years immediately after '45 rather suspect among ordinary Japanese. (This very different view of Zen in Japan and in the West also caused the surprise many Japanese felt when the first American and European Zen students arrived and started knocking on temple doors).

Also the "still-life cutaways" such as the famous (because much discussed) flower vase in the inn in Kyoto, have no "Zen connotation." These neutral "curtain shots" just serve to separate different scenes and are not themselves filled with a specific  meaning. The fun comes, when Ozu plays with this system: after showing the vase at night in the inn, where Noriko is sleeping beside her father, instead of cutting to the next scene as expected, we are returned to Noriko whose smiling face now looks pensive. But the vase is just a neutral interior object here, not a "vessel filled with meaning."

Some other cultural points:
  • Noriko and her father live in a detached house in Kamakura, now a quiet temple town (except for the tourists) and residential area. Kamakura is about an hour from Tokyo by train, a train ride which is actually shown in the film.
  • A bell is attached to the sliding door at the entrance to the house. This announces visitors - in a very safe Japan in 1949, the front door is not locked. When the father comes home after the wedding, the bell rings to an empty house.
  • In a discussion with his research assistant, Hattori, the father mentions the economist Friedrich List. The assistant thinks wrongly the father is talking about the composer Franz Liszt. Foreign names are often difficult for the Japanese, just as Japanese names are difficult for Westerners.
  • When Noriko is cycling with her friend, they pass a Coca Cola sign, in the middle of nowhere. Besides the obvious symbol of Westernization, this was also a token of the in 1949 still ongoing Occupation (it lasted until 1952). 
  • In their place of work, Japanese men wore Western clothes, but on coming home they changed quickly into informal Japanese dress. Lots of clothes are changed in Ozu's films!
This film made in 1949 is the most serene film Ozu ever made. Nothing negative happens, as if Ozu wanted to show the public that four years after the end of WWII, peace had finally come to Japan.

November 17, 2011

Japanese Film: "Gallant Jiraiya" (1921) by Makino Shozo

This short film from 1921 is the oldest Japanese film I have seen. It is one of the hundreds of period films made by director Makino Shozo (1878-1929), the "father of Japanese period drama," and Japan's first star actor, Onoe Matsunosuke (1875-1926). Onoe had been an itinerant Kabuki actor and was "discovered" by Makino. Between 1909 and 1926, he appeared in over 1,000 films, mostly one-reelers.


Onoe specialized in heroic warrior roles. One of his most popular films was Goketsu Jiraiya ("Gallant Jiraiya," or "Heroic Thunder Boy," 1921). This is a rare surviving film of the Makino-Onoe combi.

Jiraiya is a figure from vernacular fiction from the late Edo-period (the first tale was published in 1839), a ninja who uses magic to morph into a gigantic toad. His wife Princess Tsunade can use snail magic and his enemy Orochimaru has mastered snake magic. He is popular in Kabuki and today lives on in manga and games.

Thanks to the tricks necessary to morph Onoe into a toad, Jiraiya is Japan's first special effects movie (tokusatsu). It is all very elementary, just stopping the action and replacing Onoe with a humorous-looking toad-like doll, but it works. We also see him flying through the clouds.

The film doesn't have a unifying story line, but consists of some loose scenes, exactly like the Kabuki play on which it was based, and similar to other period films made at that time. Intertitles only give the name of the next scene, for the rest the benshi-narrator had to fill in the story. The film consists almost wholly of fighting scenes. Called tate or tachimawari, these too are as in Kabuki: unrealistic and heavily stylized - more like a dance or ballet than a fighting scene.

That looks rather strange as the action has been filmed on location outside. Instead of watching a realistic film, it is as if you are seeing a group of people perform a play. The camera position is also fixed during the whole scene, filming from the seat of the ideal viewer in a theater.


Onoe is a rather small man with an enormous Kabuki wig. He jumps and slashes, but keeps himself neatly upright all the time. It must have been hard work. All actors including Onoe wear beautiful but unrealistic and unpractical Kabuki costumes.  As was customary in Kabuki, the weapons don't touch the body of the opponents. The victims fall down automatically when they are pointed at.

No wonder that Onoe Matsunosuke was especially popular among children, who took to imitating his ninja performances in their games. A more serious type of period drama "for adults," would start a few years later with the advent of the "nihilistic hero."

Makino Shozo's films are characterized by long takes and long shots, and therefore make a rather archaic impression. Only in his later years he would use the camera a bit more inventively - after he had broken with Onoe and set up his own production company. But real innovations would come from the next generation of directors, including his own son, Makino Masahiro.
This film is available at Internet Archive

November 15, 2011

Japanese Film: "Humanity and Paper Balloons" (1937) by Yamanaka

Humanity and Paper Balloons (Ninjo Kamifusen, 1937) by Yamanaka Sadao (1909-1938) is the samurai film to end all samurai films. Except for a fist fight, there is no violence shown onscreen. The samurai who appear in it are so dirt-poor they have sold their swords - they can't even commit harakiri!


The story is set in the Edo-period, in a quarter of Tokyo where the poor live in tenement houses. The ramshackle houses stand on both sides of an alley that can be closed off with a gate. Impoverished, masterless samurai (ronin) live here among equally poor people of lower social classes.

The film starts very dark: a masterless samurai living in one of the houses has committed suicide by hanging himself - he had already sold his sword, so harikiri (seppuku) was out of the question. The residents of the tenement houses talk their landlord Chobei into providing some sake during the wake, so they have quite a party. But the merrymaking also serves to cleanse the tenement quarter of lingering evil influences.

One other ronin, Unno Matajuro (Kawarasaki Chojuro), is trying to find work by approaching an acquaintance of his deceased father (a samurai official called Mori, who was once helped by his father), but each time the official who knows neither giri nor ninjo, deftly evades him. His wife, Otaki (Yamagishi Shizue), makes paper balloons at home to earn a few coins. Unno keeps aloof from the others living in the slum and he never touches sake - there is a hint that his downfall had something to do with his previous excessive love of the intoxicating nectar.

Next door lives Shinza the barber (Nakamura Kanemon), a lusty but naive fellow who is constantly harassed by the local yakuza because he runs a gambling joint in what they consider as their territory.

Shinza is not the only one who has yakuza troubles: the upright citizens of the town, such as the merchants, frequently use the services of the gang to beat up bad customers or unwelcome visitors - also Unno Matajiro falls victim to their fists when he follows the samurai official Mori to the premises of a money lender, Shirakoya.

The usurer gets his deserts: his daughter Okuma is to be married to a party introduced by the samurai, but she is in love with her father's clerk, Chushichi. One rainy night, when she is planning to elope with the clerk, she crosses the path of Shinza, who is more penniless than ever. Shinza impulsively abducts her, demanding a ransom from her rich father. When the yakuza come looking for her, he hides her at Matajuro’s home.

But the desperate ransom attempt backfires and the crafty landlord has to sort things out with her father Shirakoya and the samurai official Mori, who was arranging a marriage for her. Okuma is returned to her parent's home and as after this experience she is not suitable for a samurai anymore, she is allowed to marry Chushichi.

She is the only one for whom the story ends happily. This time, Shinza does not get away with it and he is killed by the yakuza boss Yataguro because of the loss of face he has caused him (by hiding Okuma when the yakuza came searching for her). And the poor ronin and his wife, after the umpteed futile attempt to approach the samurai, commit suicide - by killing themselves with a small knife. The last image of the film is of one of the paper balloons the wife has made, blown away by the wind and rolling in the gutter...

Director Yamanaka Sadao was one of the talents of the 1930s, the first "Golden Age of Japanese Cinema," when also Ozu, Naruse, Mizoguchi and Shimizu were going strong. Unfortunately, he died a year after making Humanity and Paper Balloons - he was drafted into the army and sent to Manchuria were he died of dysentery. In his short life, he made 24 films, of which only three survive (besides the present one, The Million Ryo Pot and Kochiyama Soshun).

Yamanaka's films have been highly praised by critics as Sato Tadao and Donald Ritchie for the focus on delineation of character, the blurring of genre lines (between samurai films and modern stories, and between comedy and drama), and the focus on average people. And of course for the cinematography that beautifully captures the claustrophobic nature of the slum in which the story is set on the one hand and that on the other hand cuts away from scenes of violence, only hinting at them (we see the yakuza ominously stamping their feet and unsheathing their swords when about to kill Shinza but then the film cuts to another scene). Yamanaka laid the groundwork on which Kurosawa's films such as Yojimbo became possible. Even in recent times directors continue to pay tribute to him, such as Koreeda Hirokazu in Hana, the Tale of a Reluctant Samurai (2006).

Some cultural points:
  • Ninjo is human feeling that complements or opposes giri, or social obligation. Ninjo in the film is the poor helping each other, or in a wider sense, humaneness or humanity. 
  • Paper balloons were made by gluing strips of colored paper together. As they contained no gas, they would not fly, but were a toy for children. In the Edo-period, they were made popular by the itinerant medicine vendors from Toyama, who used them as presents to customers.
  • The sword was the "soul of the samurai." So selling it, was the lowest level of disgrace one could sink to - but that is what utter poverty did to people. Usually, such a samurai would carry a bamboo sword and dagger to hide his shame. In Harakiri (1962) by Kobayashi Masaki a ronin is cynically forced to commit suicide with just such a bamboo weapon.
  • These historical epics without sword fights were called "modern films with chonmage." Chonmage is the traditional haircut of the samurai, a shaved pate with the remaining hair bound in a topknot. 
  • In the 1930s in Japan, many films were made that commiserated with the plight of the poor - and not only by leftists. Even the first war films were not the victorious epics one would expect, but rather films showing how the average people and ordinary soldiers had to suffer. 
  • Yamanaka did not use normal film actors, but all roles are played by members the Zenshinza Theater group.  
  • Part of the story is based on the Kabuki play Shinza the Barber by Mokuami Kawatake.
  • The first jidaigeki (historical film) about ordinary people and without swordplay, was made in 1928 by Kinugasa Teisuke (Crossroads, "Jujiro").
Humanity and Paper Balloons is a film with a dark theme - a bitter critique of traditional values by exposing the greed and hypocrisy of the privileged - but is not a dark film. On the contrary, it is shot through with comic characters and funny scenes, and the poor are shown as brimming with life and energy despite all their tribulations.

November 13, 2011

Japanese Film: "An Actor's Revenge" (1963) by Ichikawa Kon

An Actor's Revenge (Yukinojo Henge, 1963) was made by director Ichikawa Kon (1915-2008; Fire On the Plain, An Obsession, Harp of Burma) on the request of his studio, Daiei, to honor the Hasegawa Kazuo (1908-1984; Gate of Hell, The Crucified Lovers) - it was the veteran actor's 300th (and last) film, but that number of course includes many one-reelers made in the silent era.


Ichikawa was asked to do a remake of a 1935 tearjerker in which Hasegawa had starred and which had been helmed by Kinugasa Teisuke (1896-1982; Kuritta Ippeji, Gate of Hell). The project had been foisted on Ichikawa because his previous films based on literary works had not brought in enough cash. The original scenario, written by Ito Daisuke, "was so bad, it was good" as Ritchie puts it in A Hundred Years of Japanese Film. Ichikawa's fixed scenario writer, his wife Natto Wada, almost kept it as it was.

But I have the feeling that Ichikawa decided to get back at the studio by having some fun. He asked Hasegawa Kazuo to play the same roles as in 1935, those of "onnagata" (female impersonator) Kabuki actor Yukinojo, and of Yamitaro, a good-hearted thief. The first role meant that the now fifty-five year old matinee idol had to appear in drag for most of the film, for Kabuki actors playing female roles also wore woman's clothes in daily life. The campish possibilities are immediately clear, especially as the story of the film has the elderly onnagata engage in a love affair with a gorgeous, young woman...

Ichikawa also decided to make a consciously stagey film, a stage within a stage so to speak, thereby creating the necessary distance between the viewer and the rather hackneyed story. For this special project, he got all the resources he needed from Daiei: excellent color stock, wide view format, and a group of experienced actors and actresses. Ichikawa tried every color experiment he could think of in the film, using innovative camera angles and displaying great virtuosity.

The story ia about onnagata Yukinojo, who one night when his Osaka theater group is performing in Edo, spots his arch enemies among the audience: when he was a small child, way back in Nagasaki, his parents were driven to their death by the magistrate Dobe Sansai (Nakamura Ganjiro) and two merchants, Hiromiya and Kawaguchiya. Dobe's daughter, the beautiful Namiki (Wakao Ayako), is also watching the show and falls in love with Yukinojo. The actor plans to use her to get closer to the three men he wants to kill, but unexpectedly, he falls in love with her himself... Other characters in the film are the above-mentioned thief Yamitaro, his man-hating girlfriend Ohatsu (Yamamoto Fujiko), another thief Hirutaro (Ichikawa Raizo), who dislikes to have to act in the shadow of Yamitaro, and a sword-fighter who is after Yukinojo, Kadokura Heima (Funakoshi Eiji).

Yukinojo's revenge will be successful, but in the process he will loose his love...

Cultural points:
  • Women were forbidden to appear on stage in most of the Edo-period, as the authorities feared that might lead to prostitution. So in Kabuki, men had to play the roles of women. Such actors are called "onnagata" or "oyama." In daily life they also wore woman's clothing, but in order not to be too attractive, the onnagata were forced to have a bald patch in the middle of their head. Despite that precaution, the theater became a source of male prostitution.
  • Onnagata are still going strong in modern Kabuki as well. It is sometimes said that onnagata are more "female" in their body movements than real women, because they are consciously acting femininity based on a centuries long tradition.
  • Yukinojo is not only an actor, he also has studied as a sword-fighter. He is not a hereditary actor, but was brought into the theater after the death of his parents.
  • In traditional Japan, teaching fighting skills, but also crafts, was done by having the pupil for many years watch the Master and imitate him. There usually was no "secret tradition" in written form, as is shown by the "empty scroll" episode in the film. One could only learn through personal contact with a teacher.
  • Originally, under the influence of Kabuki, also women's roles in film were played by men. This lasted until the early twenties, when love stories with close-ups become more frequent and the Adam's apples of the actors got too much attention. Kinugawa Teisuke, the director of the original Yukinojo Henge, had in fact started his career as an onnagata in films.  
  • Some Western commentators mention the jazz music in the film as another stylish innovation by Ichikawa, but that is a mistake: in jidaigeki (historical films) and sword fighting films from the 1950s on, often Western forms of music were used, and jazz was rather common. (Also the tap dance in the finale of Kitano's Zatoichi (2003) was not an innovation, but rather a return to traditional form, as older jidaigeki often had such musical numbers.)
This is a very entertaining film, visually pure pop-art, although there are no deeper layers.

November 9, 2011

Japanese Film: "Woman of Tokyo" (1933) by Ozu

Woman Of Tokyo (1933) was a quickie for Ozu, a film he was asked to make in just eight days by his studio to fill in a gap in production. The melodrama is not very typical for Ozu, but then, in the 1930s he also made a couple of gangster films...

The rather short film (more about that later) is a simple tale about the poor Japanese college student Ryoichi (Ogawa Ureo) and his sister Chikako (Okada Yoshiko). Chikako works as a typist to pay for the study of her brother (apparently, there are no parents anymore and brother and sister live together in a shabby aprtment). Unknown to him, her daytime salary is not sufficient, so she also works in the evenings as hostess and prostitute (we are shown that she accompanies clients when so requested) at a sleazy local cabaret - although she pretends to be helping a professor with translation work.

Ryoichi is in love with Harue (Tanaka Kinuyo), who also lives alone with her brother, but here the roles are reversed as the brother works as policeman. Harue hears from him that Chikako seems to be a hostess - the police are investigating her for illegal prostitution -  and she informs Ryoichi. Angrily, he confronts his sister with this knowledge when she returns home, and even gives her a severe beating (a "patriarchal duty" in the old Japan).  She acknowledges the facts, and Ryoichi runs into the street. He feels so full of shame that he doesn't know what to do and just keeps walking around. The next morning, his body is brought home. He has committed suicide. The two women sit together at the side of the body and refuse to answer questions by two rather nasty reporters. Finally, the reporters leave and decide "this is not something worth reporting on."

The reason the film is so short may have been that part had to be cut out. Originally, Chikako seems to have been doing her night-work not only for her brother, but also to donate money to the Communist Party. But in 1933 the authorities clamped down on leftists and all scenes referring to leftist politics had to be cut out of the scenario and were never filmed.

The film is extremely compact and grim. We only see the protagonists in enclosed, confined spaces. The theme of the strong, supportive woman and the weak male is more characteristic of Mizoguchi than Ozu. But on the technical side, there are lots of typical "Ozu shots." As he said himself: "A certain compositional style of mine began to emerge from this point on." In fact, more than for the mawkish and seemingly truncated story, it is for seeing the development of Ozu's style that this film is interesting.

Some cultural points:
  • In the ideology of the Meiji-period (which in fact was influential until the end of WWII), it was considered natural for an older or younger sister to work themselves to the bone in order to help educate the oldest son or brother. The sacrifice of a woman often formed the basis for a man's worldly success, and that was considered as right. So we see Chikako not only working in an office, she also manages all the household affairs, she cooks, cleans and toils so that Ryoichi can completely devote himself to his studies. 
  • Like a surrogate mother, she also gives Ryoichi some pocket money so that he can go to the cinema with Harue.
  • Ozu pays homage to Ernst Lubitsch by having Ryoichi and Harue see the scene of The Clerk from If I Had a Million when they are in the cinema.
  • Telephones were still rare, so Harue has to visit a shop in the neighborhood to receive a phone call. This is a shop selling clocks, and there is a nice Ozean switch from Harue looking at the clock on the wall, to a whole wall full of clocks.
  • Note the white gloves of the policeman (you still see them today on taxi drivers and politicians). He also wears a sword, the symbol of authority until the war years.
  • Also see the oil stove in the room of Ryoichi and Chikako. The top is flat, and is used for putting on a kettle for boiling water. A nice "ecological" solution.

November 5, 2011

Japanese Film: "The Life of Oharu" (1952) by Mizoguchi

The Life of Oharu (Saikaku Ichida Onna, 1952) by Mizoguchi Kenji (1898-1956) tells the sad story of Oharu (Tanaka Kinuyo), who as a fifty-year-old haggard-looking prostitute in the Kyoto of 1686 thinks in flashback about her sad life. She has entered a temple with 500 rakan (arhat) statues, and sees her countless past lovers in the faces of these disciples of the Buddha.

Oharu started out very promising, a samurai's daughter employed as lady-in-waiting at the imperial court in Kyoto. But a lower-class page Katsunosuke (Toshiro Mifune) pressed his love upon her, and when they were discovered in each other's arms, the man was beheaded and Oharu and her family were exiled in disgrace. From then on, Oharu's life was to become an inexorable downward slide, due to the severity of feudal society...

Here is how that goes:
  • She is "headhunted" to become the concubine of a daimyo, a feudal lord, whose wife is infertile and who needs an heir. In due time, Oharu produces the wished-for offspring, a son, but she is driven away with only a paltry compensation because of jealousy of the first wife.
  • Her father (Sugai Ichiro) had counted on financial gains from her association with a daimyo and made debts. He urgently needs money and sells her to a brothel in Shimabara, the famous red light district of Kyoto. But Oharu returns home after quarreling with the owner of the brothel (not a "geisha house," by the way, Shimabara was the district of the taiyu, who were real prostitutes, though high-class). 
  • Next Oharu becomes servant in the family of a woman who is hiding that she is bald from her merchant husband Jihei. The woman is of course jealous of the young and beautiful Oharu and makes her chop off her hair, but Oharu retaliates, by having a cat pull away the woman's wig...
  • Next some happiness seems in store for Oharu: she marries a poor but honest fan maker, Yakichi (Jukichi Uno), but her husband is killed during a robbery.
  • Oharu enters a nunnery, but is thrown out after being caught in the arms of the merchant Jihei who in fact is committing rape (for the second time, see below).
  • Oharu becomes a streetwalker. She has lost everything, and just then, she sees her young son - who is now a daimyo - passing by in a magnificent carriage. She is called to her son's house, but only to keep her shameful circumstances secret. She "was caused" to bear this child, but has no rights on him as a mother. When she hears they want to lock her up, she runs away. In the final shot of the film, we see her wandering around as a begging nun, while a Buddhist hymn is sung by a chorus. 
Mizoguchi based this film on a 17th c. novel by Ihara Saikaku, The Woman Who Loved Love, but greatly changed the story. In Ihara's Edo-period fiction, the unnamed female protagonist enjoys being a prostitute because she has an unquenchable lust for physical love. That was typical male wishful thinking of a bygone period. Instead, Mizoguchi shows Oharu as the victim of a society that was inhospitable to women. She is not a wanton woman at all (in Saikaku's story, she has slept with more than 10,000 men and is still insatiable, and she is the "veteran" of eight abortions), but Mizoguchi shows her as a woman who wants to be loved and respected for herself. That was impossible in Edo Japan, and so in the life of Oharu, the social order acts as personal fate.

Some cultural remarks:
  • "Mibun," one's station in life was of paramount importance in feudal Japan. It could never be changed. The page Katsunosuke was therefore forbidden to love the courtly lady-in-waiting.
  • When Katsunosuke is about to be executed, he holds a fierce plea for the freedom to love whom one wants. Such ideas were inspired by Japan's new post-war democracy and could of course never have entered the head of someone from the 17th century. This is the only instance Mizoguchi's "pen" slips in the film.
  • There is nothing to show that Oharu is "in love" with Katsunosuke, as other commentators write. After Katsunosuke presses his love on her, she sinks to the ground, allowing him to carry her away, passive as women were expected to be in feudal times. Her personal desires seem to play no role.
  • Oharu is found guilty of misconduct with a person of inferior rank and the parents are reproved for lack of parental supervision. They immediately bow to the verdict of exile, as does Oharu, only slightly later. There is no such thing as freedom in feudal society.
  • Oharu's father is also typical for the feudal order that is supported by patriarchy. He abuses Oharu verbally, and when she initially refuses the offer to become a concubine, he knocks her to the ground.
  • The mother never stands by her daughter, she has learned to support the social order.
  • When the merchant Jihei in whose house Oharu works as a servant hears from his jealous wife Oharu has been a courtesan in Shimabara, he rapes her - thinking the fact of her having been a prostitute gives him the "right" to do so - after praying at the Buddhist house altar. Religion makes hypocrites of people the world over.
  • When the Buddhist nun kicks Oharu out of the temple after catching her with Jihei, she does so in a cruel and self-righteous way, demonstrating that she has never learned the compassion her own religion teaches.
Together with Ugetsu and Sansho The Bailiff "Oharu" is one of the greatest films of Mizoguchi, and also the film in which actress Tanaka Kinuyo gave the best performance of her life. It won the International prize at the Venice Film festival in 1952. 

Mizoguchi is one of the "three great Japanese directors," together with Ozu and Kurosawa, although in the West he is not so famous. That is a mistake, as this great film so securely demonstrates. And I haven't even talked about the beautiful long takes, which are nowhere better demonstrated than here.

And if you think the film's feudal criticism is outdated, think again: even today, there are still men who consider women as "birthing machines" (exactly what Oharu is caused to be), such as a certain politician in this country a couple of years ago...

November 3, 2011

Japanese film: "Passing Fancy" (1933) by Ozu

Passing Fancy (Dekigokoro, 1933) is one of Ozu's pictures featuring Sakamoto Takeshi as the stubborn and illiterate, but goodhearted Kihachi. To be quite honest: this shomingeki is a sort of Ozu I like less than his great post-war films. On the other hand, it is fun to look back to the early career of a famous film maker and seek out the building blocks.

Passing Fancy is set in a dirt-poor working class district in Tokyo's suburbs. A single dad, Kihachi (Sakamoto Takeshi) works at a beer brewery and is raising a son, Tomio (Aoki Tomio). The kid is sharp-witted, but a bit unruly. The father has two friends, his co-worker Jiro (Ohikata Den), and a neighboring widow, Otomo  (Iida Choko), who runs a small restaurant where Kihachi spends much of his time imbibing sake.

The story starts when Kihachi happens to meet a destitute young woman, Harue (Fushimi Nobuko), and helps her become a waitress at the restaurant next door. It is also a case of love at first sight. When Kihachi starts fancying the girl, the son becomes jealous of his father's attentions. In fact, the lovesick Kihachi looked rather familiar to me - I was clearly reminded of the later Tora-san! (And indeed, Tora-san was partly inspired by the figure of Kihachi in Ozu's films).

Happily for the boy, the woman is not interested in the rather boorish Kihachi whom she only sees as a kind uncle, but prefers his smart friend Jiro. The love-sick Kihachi no longer goes to work and seeks relief in sake, which upsets Tomio, the son. He throws his school uniform and books into a corner and stops studying. He calls his father a "fool who can't even read a newspaper..." and then, crying, seeks his father's love for without it life would be unbearable - and returns to studying.

To compensate for his inadequacy as a father, Kihachi now gives his son some money to spend as he wishes. Tomio eats himself sick on every kind of junk food imaginable and has to be  hospitalized. Kihachi has to raise money to pay the hospital. Everybody wants to help, but Jiro manages to borrow the necessary sum from the local barber. To repay the debt, either Jiro or Kihachi must hire himself out as a laborer in remote Hokkaido, where high salaries are paid. As it concerns his son, Kihachi decides to make the sacrifice himself, leaving the son back in Tokyo, but just as the ship is leaving he is already consumed by feelings of homesickness and swims back (!) - a rare, active scene for Ozu. Whatever may happen, Kihachi decides not to break up the family.

The family melodrama is shot through with some mawkishness, but there is also much humor, such a sequence in the theater about a misplaced wallet that nobody wants as it is empty, until Kihachi gets it and notices it is larger than his own wallet. So he exchanges it - after which his old wallet, now empty as well, makes its way back to the owner of the first wallet. Kihachi also dislikes work and tries to dodge it as much as possible. He has a rather quaint way of getting out of his trousers: by stepping on them with his feet, and so pulling them down - in fact, he looks more comfortable in Japanese dress (as probably most Japanese did around that time).

The film has the authentic atmosphere of the working class neighborhood, grimy, but held together (at least in 1933) by a strong sense of community. The father-son relationship stands central and the film is full of warmhearted feelings.

The important message (also for our increasingly under-educated times) is that Kihachi, although he has to live from paycheck to paycheck, and is himself uneducated, attaches great value to the education of his son: the only way to escape poverty.