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March 15, 2012

Japanese Masters: Morishige Hisaya (Actor)

Morishige Hisaya (Morishige Hisaya, 1913–2009; 森繁久彌) was a Japanese actor and comedian, and like Ueki Hitoshi, he worked mostly for Toho - but the types they played could not be more different. While Ueki plays an extroverted type, with lots of swinging of arms and legs, a booming voice and big laugh (not to mention the grin), someone who "goes for it," Morishige in an understated way plays a well-educated, refined type who is also a bit weak and not lacking in pathos. In other words, his is a quiet and subtle type of humor.

Morishige Hisaya was born in a well-off family in Hirakata, Osaka Prefecture, and after local high-school attended Tokyo's Waseda University to study the theater. Just when he began his career as stage actor in a famous troupe, the war broke out, and in order to evade the draft, he became an NHK announcer - and was after all sent to a war zone when he was made announcer in Manchuria. He was obviously blessed with a good and clear voice and also sang in musicals.

It was only in the 1950s that Morishige became famous as a film actor. The first role he played was in the film Joyu (Actress) by Kinoshita Keisuke in 1947. Other serious roles in the 1950s were for example: as the husband in Meoto Zenzai ("Marital Relations") by Toyoda Shiro (1955); as Shozo in Neko to Shozo to Futari no Onna ("A Cat, Shozo, and Two Women"), based on the novel by Tanizaki Junichiro and again helmed by Toyoda Shiro (1956); as Kimura in Yukiguni ("Snow Country"), another film by Toyoda Shiro (1957); and as Isomura in Kohayake no Aki ("The End of Summer") by Ozu Yasujiro (1961). Morishige Hisaya also played in period films, such as the "Jirocho sangokushi" series. Unfortunately, except for the Ozu film, none of the films in which he played were canonized in the West, so he has remained largely unknown outside of Japan.

In 1952 followed Morishige's first comic salaryman role, in Santo Juyaku ("Third Class Executives"), a series of nine films initially based on the "salaryman" novels of Genji Keita (a selection of Genji Keita stories has been translated in 1980 by Hugh Cortazzi as The Lucky One). A "Third Class Executive" is a company president who has been elevated from the ranks of the ordinary salaryman, so not an entrepreneur who with his own talents has set up the company. This role was next the basis for the popular Shacho ("Company President") series, that ran from 1956 to 1970 and in all consists of 33 installments and was produced by Toho. This series was Morishige's major cinematic achievement.

Morishige played the main role here, a spoiled but lovable company president. Although Morishige and other actors reappeared in these films, the settings are each time different. For example, one time it is a food company, another time a real estate company, a department store, etc. Morishige usually plays the President, in the last films also the Chairman. In the position above Morishige sits in the earlier films the wife of the former president, the main shareholder, a person he very much fears; in later films this is the "Big President," that is to say the President of the mother company, usually played by Tono Eijiro.

Morishige is married and rather afraid of his wife (usually played by Kuji Asami) who torments him with health foods. More than his daytime work, he seems interested in what happens "after five" when he often has to entertain clients in ryotei (expensive Japanese-style restaurants) and bars. He always becomes enamored with the madams and mama-sans of these establishments, even taking them on business trips, but he never succeeds in being unfaithful to his wife, how hard he tries. At the last moment, before his lips meet hers, there is inevitably a knock on the door, and something unforeseen disturbs his amorous plans.

Morishige Hisaya can put on the right "company president" airs, so that this role fits him like a glove. The humor is conveyed in the varying expressions he conjures up with his flexible face. One of the frequent faces he makes expresses helplessness, but luckily he has some good staff members.

In the early films, Kobayashi Keiju plays the steadfast secretary (yes, in Japanese companies the secretaries of top management are male!) who helps Morishige to conceal his dallying. He lives together with his mother (Hanabusa Yuriko) and the wife he marries in one of the early films (an OL from his company, played by Tsukasa Yoko). He is a stable familyman who does not drink or play around.

Kato Taisuke usually plays the No. 2 in the company, one of the directors, mostly another reliable man. A second director is played by Miki Norihei, a funny type who likes to party and do a comic folk dance with Morishige. In many installments, Frankie Sakai appears as a somewhat funny business partner: either a foreigner or a local with a heavy accent and "funny" Japanese.

Actresses who play the geisha and hostesses with whom Morishige falls in love, are played by Aratama Michiyo, Kusubue Mitsuko, Awaji Keiko and Ikeuchi Junko. As directors of the films served various comedy genre stalwarts of Toho, such as Matsubayashi Shue. Script writer was the proficient Kasahara Ryozo, who worked on many other Toho series as well, including the Crazy films of Ueki Hitoshi and some Wakadaisho films.

What the Shacho series shows behind all the antics is how important personal relations are in Japanese business and how these are developed after five in restaurants and hostess clubs, with the help of sake and an expense account. Today, such accounts are much slimmer and new businesses with other customs have sprung up, too, but I believe the basics are still unchanged. Other things you can see in these films are how authority goes with a position and is not dependent on personal skills, and how strictly hierarchically large Japanese companies are organized.

The "Ekimae" (Station Front) series was also produced by Toho. The first installment, Ekimae Ryokan ("The Inn in front of the Station") was based on a novel by Ibuse Masuji, but after that new stories were freely developed around the trio of Morishige Hisaya ("Tokunosuke"), Ban Junzaburo ("Magosaku") and Frankie Sakai ("Jiro"). There is no fixed setting here. As the railroads were the major type of transport in the late fifties and sixties, a business in front of the station would be a potentially thriving business. These films are also in their own way symbolic of Japan in its period of high growth. The business are: a Japanese-style hotel, a loan shark, a lunch box shop, a spa, a Chinese restaurant, a hospital, etc. The first film is set in Ueno, Tokyo, the others would go into the countryside for local color. The female roles are often played by Awashima Chikage, Awaji Keiko and Ikeuchi Junko. The series is more of a slapstick kind than the Shacho series.

In all, Morishige Hisaya played in nearly 250 films. He also played on stage and became famous as Teyve in the Japanese version of Fiddler on the Roof. He played in TV series and appeared in talk shows, and besides that also managed to be the long-time head of the Japan Actors Union. Morishige received the Order of Culture in 1991.