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March 28, 2015

A History of Japanese Film by Year: Social-realism and Shoshimin-Eiga (1930-1939)

Japanese cinema is 35 years old and has attained full maturity. It can withstand comparison with any other national cinema of the day. It shows life as it is (rather than as how it should be) and puts emphasis on character and mood rather than plot. 

The commercial studio system with its sophisticated machinery for production and consumption of films (the studios owned their own theaters) is in full swing. There is a star system, but also maverick directors who later would be recognized as auteurs have their place. The great classical directors such as Ozu, Mizoguchi, Naruse, Gosho, Shimizu, Kinugasa, etc., have all made their first films in the 1920s or early 1930s and will continue production until well in the 1960s and 1970s, thus ensuring continuity, especially as they often worked with fixed actors/actresses and a fixed team of technical staff and scenario writers. 

Japan had such a large public for film - a public that moreover in these years preferred Japanese films - that the industry could rely on the internal Japanese market and exports were not necessary. Foreign films were shown in different theaters and were only watched by a small but sophisticated public of urban intelligentsia. The 1930s have been called the "First Golden Age of Japanese Cinema."

As the benshi was very popular, so-called "silent films" (which were not at all silent but accompanied by music, song and the benshi narration - the benshi could even enact dialogues!) remained dominant for the first half of this decade. When sound was finally generally introduced in 1935, it was technologically more advanced than it had been in the late twenties or early thirties. Happily, Japan also evaded the phenomenon that plagued Hollywood where films became a sort of "canned theater," without filmic qualities. For most Japanese directors, a good sound film was one with lots of silence.

Unfortunately, even from this period, many films have been lost, as is shown by the example of director Yamanaka who worked in the 1930s: of his more than twenty films, only three have been preserved. The quality of the preserved copies, also, can't stand comparison with films from for example the U.S., France or Germany, where already starting in the late twenties, often beautiful copies without blemishes have been preserved. 

The leftist movement is at its peak and as these films make money, the studios encourage their production. Naniga Kanojo wo So Saseta ka? ("What made her do it?") by Suzuki Shigeyoshi (1900-1976), is Japan's most famous leftist film (keiko eiga), about a naive orphan girl, Sumiko (Takatsu Keiko), up against corrupt and materialistic society. After her father commits suicide, she is sent to live with relatives who steal her money and sell her to a circus. The faces in this film are great - the poor are not heroic proletarians, but look realistically mean and degraded. Via the poorhouse, she later lands a job as maid with a rich family and very pampered daughter, making for some nice contrast. The daughter spits out her food when she finds a small fish bone in it, but the maids have to do with leftovers. Sumiko is finally forced to commit arson. When the film was first shown, audiences rioted in support of its anti-capitalist sentiments. It scored Kinema Junpo Best Film for this year.

Hogaraka ni Ayume ("Walk Cheerfully") was Ozu's 14th film and the second one still extant (disregarding the fragment from I Graduated, But...). It is a sort of gangster comedy in which the delinquent reforms for love of a pure young woman, a typist. Two other extant Ozu films from this year are Rakudai wa Shita Keredo... ("I Flunked, but..."), a "nonsense" comedy with the message that being stuck in school after failing the exams, is not so bad as there are no jobs for graduates anyway - containing the first substantial role of Ryu Chishu; and Sono Yo no Tsuma ("That Night's Wife"), about an impoverished father who robs a bank. As an adaptation of a piece of American pulp fiction, it also shows the impact which American films and Western culture had in Japan. On the other hand, we also already find one of Ozu's characteristic film elements: the close-up of objects which serve as sheer transition, without carrying connotative weight.

Already in this year, the year of the Manchurian Incident, political suppression put an end to Pro Kino and the popularity of leftist tendency films waned, although generally speaking, many films from the 1930s do contain strong socialist-realist elements. This is true of many of the films from the 1930s by Ozu, by Mizoguchi, and by Tasaka Tomotaka, Yamamoto Kajiro and Uchida Tomu.

More importantly, 1931 is the year the first Japanese sound film was made, although the general introduction of sound would have to wait until the middle of the decade - it remained a rarity. That film was Madamu to Nyobo ("The Neighbor's Wife and Mine") by Gosho Heinosuke (1902-1981), a domestic comedy (shoshimin-eiga) made at Shochiku about a playwright suffering from writer's block and distracted by various noises, such as a baby crying, the ticking of a clock, but most of all a jazz band practicing in the home of the modern woman living next door (a good excuse to go there and join the party). Sound is used sparingly and inventively - this is a film that needs sound for the many off-screen noises and could never have worked with a benshi. On top of that, it introduced many new Hollywood codes, and was also inspired by French film such as RenĂ© Clair's Under the Roofs of Paris (of which the signature melody is whistled in Madamu to Nyobo). Kinema Junpo Best Film for this year.

Gosho, whose career spanned the years 1922-1977, was another outstanding practitioner of shoshimin-eiga. In contrast to Ozu and Naruse, he is still waiting to be properly assessed by Western film fans. His work is imbued with compassionate humanism, and is rich and complex, while also being visually intelligent (showing a debt to Lubitsch). By the way, how gradually sound was introduced in Japan is shown by the fact that Gosho after Madamu to Nyobo returned to silent production until 1935. And again to show how much has been lost: Madamu to Nyobo was Gosho's earliest film that has survived, but in fact the 39th movie he made (Gosho had started as a director in 1925).

I already mentioned Naruse Mikio (1905-1969) in the above paragraph. He was a shoshimin-eiga director with a rather dark view, who like Ozu made his greatest work in the 1950s and early 1960s (all women's films). His first preserved film is Koshiben Gambare ("Flunky, Work Hard!") from this year, about an impoverished insurance salesman. The salesman desperately tries to sell accident coverage to a wealthy woman with five children, while his own uninsured son is hit by a train.

Ozu made two films this year, Shukujo to Hige ("The Lady and the Beard") and Tokyo Gassho ("Tokyo Chorus"), the first a nonsense comedy about a bearded kendo swordfighting star, who is tamed by his girlfriend and made to shave. The second one is a shoshimin-eiga about an office worker who sticks up for a colleague and gets fired himself. After the student comedies and other nonsense films, this is Ozu's first (preserved) home drama, a big step towards next year's I Was Born, But..., with which it has the young salaryman family in common.

Of course, as every year many period films were made. There were two outstanding ones this year. Mabuta no Haha ("Long-sought Mother") by Inagaki Hiroshi (1905-1980), with Kataoka Chiezo, was based on a novel by Hasegawa Shin, a lyrical story about a ronin's search for and rejection by his long lost mother, - still extant and many times remade. Inagaki was a versatile film maker who mostly worked in jidaigeki - after WWII, he would become internationally famous with the Miyamoto Musashi Trilogy and The Rickshaw Man. Otsurae Jirokichi Goshi ("Jirokichi the Rat") by Ito Daisuke with Okochi Denjiro, is one of the rare surviving films by this period director. The climax consists of a dazzling lantern-filled pursuit.

This year Ozu Yasujiro made one of his best films (still a "silent" film) and at the same time one of the best Japanese films ever made: Umarete wa mita keredo... ("I was born, but..."). Two small boys learn to live with the fact that their father is not a great man, but simply a company employee ("salaryman"), who has to be obsequious to his boss. The worst moment comes when the boss gives a show for the neighborhood of a home movie he shot in which the father is shown clowning to please his superior. The boys ask why their father has to behave so silly, and why they can't beat up the boss' kid when they are stronger? In the end, of course, they have to learn something of the ways and compromises of the adult world. A serious comedy, funny and devastating at the same time, that teaches us to accept life as it is. Kinema Junpo Best Film for this year. Technically, in this film also Ozu's systematic low-angle frontality begins to appear.

Nasanu Naka ("No Blood Relations") by Naruse Mikio is a melodrama about a Japanese film star who has become rich in Hollywood and now returns to Japan to search for the little daughter she has left behind. With the help of her brother, a gangster, she succeeds in wrestling away the girl from the step-mother, but as the girl now really loves the step-mother, she in the end gives in and returns alone to America.

Itami Mansaku (1900-1946), a friend of Ito Daisuke, brought new ideas to period drama. In Kokushi Muso ("Peerless Patriot"), the story of poor ronin who impersonates a famous swordsman, he ridiculed feudal traditions. Also more generally speaking, with the demise of leftist tendency films, also the nihilistic hero was on his way out. He was supplanted by what Sato Tadao calls "the free spirit hero," replacing nihilism with an advocacy of freedom portrayed in resistance against feudal authority. As in this film, Kataoka Chiezo became the typical actor for such roles.

A new film company, P.C.L. (later renamed to Toho) is set up to take advantage of sound technology. Founder was the owner of the Hankyu Railway group, Kobayashi Ichizo, and the company also managed the Tokyo Takarazuka Theater (Kobayashi had already set up the all-female Takarazuka revue in 1914) and the Imperial Theater. It specialized in the adaptation of modern novels and attracted inventive directors as Naruse Mikio. Naruse switched to the new studio from Shochiku, as there he had to work under the constant shadow of Ozu Yasujiro, both being shoshimin-eiga directors.

The best film of this year is another Ozu work, Dekigokoro ("Passing Fancy"). This silent film is about a father, Kihachi, and a son living together in impoverished circumstances. The father here is not a "salaryman" but works in a brewery. A widower, he becomes captivated by a new girl in the area, but she herself is infatuated with his younger friend, who is still single. The father recognizes his folly when the son becomes seriously ill and barely survives. Sakamoto Takeshi plays the father; Kihachi's type would recur several times in Ozu's cinema of the 1930s, and in fact formed the inspiration for the famous character of Torasan played by Atsumi Kiyoshi from 1969 to 1995. Kinema Junpo Best Film for this year.

A second Ozu film from this year is the short feature Tokyo no Onna ("Woman of Tokyo") about a young woman (Tanaka Kinuyo) who puts her younger brother through school with the money she earns. But when he notices that she not only works in an office but also is a prostitute at night, he commits suicide. More than for the melodramatic story, this film is interesting for the development of two of Ozu's style characteristics: besides the further development of his "cut-away still-lifes," we also find the systematic disregard for eye-line matching here.

1933 is also the year from which we have one of the first surviving films by Mizoguchi Kenji (1898-1956), with Ozu and Kurosawa one of the greatest Japanese directors of all time. Mizoguchi had already become a director in 1923, at Nikkatsu where he made films based on contemporary urban melodramas (shinpa); this was his 48th film (!), again vividly demonstrating how much has been lost. Taki no Shiraito ("The Water Magician") is a Shinpa-style melodrama about a girl water magician who falls in love with a poor student and puts him through college, after which they loose contact. Later she is driven to murder an usurer; at the trial she meets her former lover again, who is now a judge. He has to give her the death sentence. Based on a play by Izumi Kyoka. The melodrama is redeemed by Mizoguchi's cool, distant take. Mizoguchi's prewar films were often about the plight of women trapped in impossible situations. After WWII, this would change into the more general liberal-humanist topic about the liberation of women. In all cases, Mizoguchi expressed his deep sympathy for women victimized by an oppressive society.

Another interesting film of 1933 is Izu no Odoriko ("Dancing Girl of Izu") by Gosho Heinosuke, based on the eponymous novella by Kawabata Yasunari. Although in the original story the theme is in the first place the acceptance of the lonely student by a troupe of itinerant actors (the lowest of the lowest at that time, often forbidden entry into the villages) and his happiness at being connected with humanity, Gosho sets the tone for a whole string of Odoriko films in which the (platonic) love between the student and the underage dancing girl is highlighted, ending in a moving scene of separation. Tanaka Kinuyo played the dancing girl, and as she was a real actress (in contrast to the singers and teenage "talents" who would follow), she is by far the best. The film as a whole is not so good, as Gosho unfortunately tacked on a subplot about a gold mine which is not in Kawabata, but it was shot on location in the Izu Peninsula and there are beautiful landscapes. This film also was the start of what has been called the jun-bungaku or "Pure Literature" movement in film (also called bungei eiga), the adaptation to the cinema of literary masterworks. More would follow later on in the 1930s.

There was more in this rich year: a friend and contemporary of Ozu at Schochiku, Shimizu Hiroshi (1903-1966), made Minato no Nihon Musume ("Japanese Girls at the Harbor"), a romantic melodrama in which he probed the dilemmas of a country posed between native and Western ideas, tradition and liberalism. It is an aesthetically exciting film, visualized in terms of art deco patternings. Shimizu made subtle, charming and humorous films, often about children, and is known for the humanity of his oeuvre.

Finally we have to mention two films by Naruse Mikio, Yogoto no Yume ("Every Night Dreams"), a melodrama about the poor, visually influenced by Von Sternberg's 1928 The Docks of New York, and Kimi to wakarete ("After Our Separation"), a love melodrama set in the geisha world.

Nikkatsu finishes building its Tamagawa studio in Tokyo; from now on, it will make gendaigeki in Tokyo and jidaigeki in Kyoto.

Ozu made another great film in 1934, which again won the Kinema Junpo Best Film award: Ukigusa Monogatari ("A Story of Floating Weeds"), a film about the head of a traveling theater group (Sakamoto Takeshi) who in a mountain village meets again the - now grown-up - son who was the result of a casual affair. Based on a forgotten American 1928 circus film, The Barker. Ozu added the character of the former mistress (played by a strong Iida Choko) to the story and in his subtle characterization of the older actor and his jealous wife far surpasses the original. Ozu remade the film in 1959 in color (and, of course, sound).

Although little known today, Shimazu Yasujiro (1897-1945) was the pioneer of the shoshimin-eiga genre ("films about people like you and me") at Shochiku, who made his first comedy about the everyday life of the lower middle class already in 1921. One of his best films was made this year, the domestic drama (shoshimin-eiga) Tonari no Yae-chan ("My Little Neighbor, Yae"), the story of a young girl who falls in love with the boy next door. The carefully calculated lack of action in this film gives the effect of "eavesdropping on life itself," as Anderson & Richie put it. Shimazu had a great talent for realistic observation and his blending of humor and pathos as well as his understated melodrama have influenced many other directors, such as Gosho, Kinoshita and Kawashima.

The third major film corporation, Toho (formerly PCL) starts operation. There are now 1,500 theaters in Japan; audiences also have steadily increased to a total of 185 million admissions annually. This is the year that sound finally becomes widely accepted.

The film companies have their own house styles: Shochiku specializes in shoshimin-eiga (home drama about the lower middle class); Nikkatsu in realistic period drama (jidaigeki) and films based on literary works; Toho also specializes in literary adaptations of modern novels. There are also other differences between the studios. For example, Toho based its mode of production around the central figure of the producer (Hollywood -style), but Shochiku favored a "director system" - thereby giving directors like Ozu the means to assemble a team of people for different, specialized fields of production and to cultivate them so that they could continue to work together.

The Kinema Junpo Best Film award went this year to Naruse's Tsuma yo, bara no yo ni ("Wife, Be Like a Rose"), his first true success. A bright office girl who lives with her mother, a poet, finds out that her father is living in the countryside with his disreputable mistress. She visits them intending to ask the father to come back home. But she finds a large, poor family with many children and also sees the love of the mistress for her father. In fact, the daughter discovers the mistress to be good and the (ex-)wife to be the worse of the two. Although the father comes to town when she has her wedding, he again returns permanently to the other family, for that is where he now belongs. We find again a mature acceptance of life as it is in this Japanese film, rather than a forced happy ending in Hollywood-style. Interestingly, this became one of the first Japanese feature films to be distributed in the United States (the first one may have been Gosho's A Daughter of Two Fathers, which played in 1928 in New York).

My favorite film of the year is Hyakumanryo no Tsubo ("The Hundred Ryo Pot") by Yamanaka Sadao (1909-1938), a period film that is at the same time a breezy farce about the fruitless search for a lost pot thought to contain a map pointing to a treasure. The film features the famous one-eyed and one-armed swordsman Tange Zazen, played by Okochi Denjiro - since 1927 a staple of jidaigeki - but Yamanaka turns him into a soft-hearted slacker who sponges off the much stronger woman who operates a shooting gallery (the only film role played by Kiyozo, a real-life geisha from the Shinbashi district in Tokyo). This subversion of Bushido (and of the tateyaku type) is typical of the humanist Yamanaka - there is no swordplay in this home comedy. In the end, Tange and the shooting gallery mistress adopt a little boy who helped in the search for the pot and become a happy family. Yamanaka directed 26 films between 1932 and 1938 and was one of the greatest upcoming directors of Japanese cinema; tragically, he died in 1938 from an illness in Manchuria, after having been drafted into the army.

Shunkinsho: Okoto to Sasuke ("Okoto and Sasuke") by Shimazu Yasujiro is a rendering of Tanizaki Junichiro's famous novella Shunkinsho in the style of a shoshimin-eiga, set in down-town Osaka. At the same time it is one of the earliest and most successful bungei-eiga, also thanks to the solid acting of the two stars Tanaka Kinuyo and Takada Kokichi. Despite the addition of some funny elements, the film works very well, and is in fact a surprisingly good version of the difficult to adapt Tanizaki story.

Mizoguchi Kenji made Maria no Oyuki ("Oyuki the Madonna"), a period drama about a prostitute with a heart of gold, interestingly based on Maupassant's Boule de Suif.

Ozu Yasujiro made another social-realist film with the Kihachi character, Tokyo no Yado ("An Inn in Tokyo"), about a vagrant father and his two sons who find the companionship of a poor widow and her little daughter.

A rich year. Mizoguchi Kenji makes his two best films of this decade. Naniwa Ereji ("Osaka Elegy") is his first work with script writer Yoda Yoshikata. A young telephone operator, a very modern woman (played by Yamada Isuzu), is ruined when she tries to help her father with a money problem by becoming the mistress of her boss. When her employer tires of her, she has no recourse but prostitution, especially when a scheme to cheat the boss' friend out of his family backfires and lands her in police custody. Her fiance (of course, a ninaime type) stands helplessly by. Filmed in a modern style, with an open ending: a close-up of the face of the protagonist as a big question mark. The film in which Mizoguchi found his true direction. Also an invaluable document of Japanese urban life in the mid-thirties. The reality of the location is emphasized by the use of Osaka dialect.

That is also true of the other Mizoguchi film from this year, after modern Osaka situated in traditional Kyoto. Gion no Shimai ("Sisters of the Gion") takes a realistic look at the glamorous world of traditional geisha in Kyoto's Gion district. There is an interesting contrast between a strict and traditional elder sister (Umemura Yoko) who is faithful to her patron even after he has gone broke and a younger one (Isuzu Yamada) who is modern and opportunistic - she goes from man to man for money, being a geisha is after all "business." Although the director's sentiments seem to go to the elder sister, the end of the film leaves her in fact condemned. Kinema Junpo Best Film for this year.

Shochiku opens its Ofuna studio on the Miura Peninsula near Kamakura, which would remain in operation for 64 years.

Ozu finally changes to sound in Hitori Musuko ("The Only Son"), an example of Japanese "neo-realism" avant-la-date. A mother has slaved to send her son to college in Tokyo. After she has not heard anything from him for a long time, she visits him, using up all her savings. She finds him poor, a teacher at a night school, living in eye-sore suburbia, with wife and child (the existence of both also new to her!), and wholly disillusioned. But he borrows money to entertain his mother and she returns to the countryside where she still pretends to be proud of him. A moving work about the disappointments of family life, and the essential loneliness of human beings. The first film in Ozu's fully established mature style. Interesting is the use of off-screen sound: when we are in the living room of the son's house, we constantly hear the clicking of the machinery of a nearby factory.

Shimizu Hiroshi directs his lyrical masterpiece Arigato-san ("Mister Thank-you"), about a polite and kind bus driver (Uehara Ken). The film was shot entirely on location in the Izu Peninsula, almost like an impromptu, and in its exquisite landscape photography expresses Shimizu's love of the countryside. At the same time, he also shows the extreme poverty of country dwellers during the Depression. A wonderful film, with only a flimsy story, almost like a documentary. Uehara Ken really had to learn how to drive a bus for the film.

Gosho Heinosuke made what may well be his best film of the '30s with Oboroyo no Onna ("Woman of the Mist"), a fusion of shoshimin-eiga with romantic comedy. A widow is slaving to put her son through university (a common theme in the 1930s), but he has other interests beside his study, resulting in the pregnancy of a waitress (Iizuka Toshiko). To save the future of the boy, his (married but childless) uncle (as usual, a very warmhearted Sakamoto Takeshi) pretends that the child is his. The waitress agrees, although she had hoped to marry the student, sacrificing herself to save his future. But sadly, mother and child die in hospital due to complications with the pregnancy...

Itami Mansaku, like Yamanaka Sadao another great director of humanistic jidaigeki with little or no swordplay, directs Akanishi Kakita, an intelligent comedy based on a story by Shiga Naoya. Kataoka Chiezo plays two different roles: Akanishi Kakita, an ugly-looking spy trying to expose a plot against the Date clan, and Harada Kai, the leader of the discontented group framing the plot. In his first role, Itami has Kataoka play in a natural way, and speak normal Japanese, in the second he has him wear heavy white make-up and speak in difficult to understand Kabuki jargon, like in a conventional period film. In this way, Itami develops a meta-criticism of the obsolete conventions in jidaigeki. A very artistic film - one of the favorite period films of great director Kurosawa Akira. The film is full of jokes and funny situations - not only when Akanishi catches a cat to chase away noisy mice and the cat proves to be more noisy with his constant meowing, but also when he needs an excuse to leave the Date mansion in Edo to bring an important report to his clan lord and therefore proposes to the most beautiful servant girl in the house, fully expecting to be refused with his ugly face (and therefore having to flee) - but she gladly accepts him, so that this plan totally backfires. But after all the clan troubles have been resolved, the film closes on the sounds of the Wedding March... (Kataoka Chiezo Productions)

Another interesting period film is Kochiyama Soshun by Yamanaka Sadao. Based on a low-life Kabuki play by Kawatake Mokuami, this is a complex story set in a downtown neighborhood ruled by a gang boss. Onami (Hara Setsuko) sells sweet sake, her younger brother Hirotaro is a good-for-nothing who has to go in hiding after a botched love suicide (shinju) with a prostitute, as the gang boss demands 300 ryo in payment for her death. The two are helped by Kochiyama Soshun, a gambler who dresses like a priest, and Kaneko Ichinojo, the yojinbo of that gang leader, who is dissatisfied with his idle life. Through this plays another story, of an antique kozuka (the knife worn in the scabbard of a katana) that has been stolen and sold by Hirotaro; although it has been bought back at a high price by the owner, he wrongly believes it is a look-alike fake and that situation gives Kochiyama the idea for a clever trick that nets him the compensation money. But in the meantime, Hirotaro has killed the gang boss and the gang is after him. Kochiyama and Kaneko die fighting in the sewers to hold the gang back so that Hirotaro can escape with the money and take his sister away to a safe place. (Nikkatsu)

With the start of the Sino-Japanese War, the government demands the cooperation of the film industry with the war effort and bans "decadent" films. Still, this year 562 films were produced in Japan, making it a peak year. Film had become a fundamental component of national culture.

Toho lures away ninaime star actor Hasegawa Kazuo from rival Shochiku. Hasegawa was probably attracted by the technical advantages of Toho as a new company. Such star-stealing often resulted in violence, as here: Hasegawa was attacked by a man who slashed his face with a razor, and who later appeared to be a professional gangster hired via-via by Shochiku.

The best film of 1937 (in my view, not of Kinema Junpo, which selected another film) and again one of the best Japanese films of all-time was Ninjo Kamifusen ("Humanity and Paper Balloons") by Yamanaka Sadao. It is a bleak and pessimistic masterpiece with claustrophobic qualities, set in a slum quarter in Edo, presenting its samurai "hero" as a pathetic, servile man who is out of work. His wife has to make paper balloons so that they have something to eat. The ronin spends his days going around town begging for work. Then they become involved in drama when their neighbor, Shinza the barber, kidnaps the daughter of a wealthy merchant and hides her in the apartment of the ronin. A wonderful humanistic film made in dark times, showing something of the true life under the Tokugawa regime. Adapted from a Kawatake Mokuami kabuki play. In this and his previous film Yamanaka worked with actors and actresses of the Zenshinza, a troupe of radical kabuki players, part of a socially critical subculture. (Sony PCL / Toho / Zenshinsha)

Aienkyo ("The Straits of Love and Hate") is a well-crafted and sophisticated melodrama by Mizoguchi Kenji. A young woman, Ofumi (Yamaji Fumiko), working at a spa hotel in Nagano runs off to Tokyo with her lover, Kenkichi, the pampered son of the owner. Kenkichi is brought back by his father, she is left alone with a baby in Tokyo. As she needs money she becomes a hostess - and we get to see some raucous nightlife scenes rare for this militant period. In the meantime, she has also met a poor musician (he lost his job as player in a cinema due to advent of sound!) and they finally join a theater troupe led by her uncle as a manzai team. The troupe travels to Nagano where she again meets her former lover, who now manages the spa hotel. For the future of her small son she is willing to stay with him, but his father again opposes the union. Finally, she returns to the troupe and the poor stage partner she really loves. As is usual for Mizoguchi, this is a film with unlucky but strong women and weak men. (Shinko Kinema)

Kaze no naka no Kodomo ("Children in the Wind") by Shimizu Hiroshi contrasts the trusting world of the young with the corrupt world of adults. A father is accused of embezzlement at his firm and one of his sons - the younger, wilder one - is sent to live with an uncle. Making films about children was a good way to evade censorship and Shimizu proved to be a master in this genre.

Shukujo wa Nani wo Wasureteka? ("What Did the Lady Forget?") by Ozu Yasujiro is a bright comedy set among the upper classes. A bourgeois housewife (Kurishima Sumiko) has her husband completely cowed, but - goaded on by his modern niece from Osaka who is visiting - he for once fights back, which finally leads to a better mutual understanding. The answer to the questioning title is, that the lady forgot to be nice to her husband. Ozu on bubbles, a film that deserves to be better known.

After finishing this film, Ozu was drafted and sent to China, where he remained for two years, until summer 1939. One can easily imagine his reaction to the barbarity of war and the regimentation he hated so much. In China he also briefly met Yamanaka Sadao, before the untimely death of this director who could be called the "Ozu of period drama."

The worst film of the year was without a doubt Atarishiki Tsuchi ("The New Earth"), also known as Die Tochter des Samurai as it was a Japanese-German co-production intended to show the union between both allies. The union did not work out, as the Japanese director, Itami Mansaku, who had been selected simply because he was the top director of his studio, and German director Arnold Fanck, who had strong Nazi sympathies, did not at all hit it off - they ended up making two different versions of the film. Also as regards the content, it was a failed attempt to form for Japan alien Nazi propaganda out of Japanese raw materials. The film was a box office disaster, despite the fact that the samurai daughter was played by a young Hara Setsuko.

The government calls for more patriotic films. Several directors take refuge in the safe territory of films about children or works set in the world of traditional music and theater.

Gonin no Sekkokei ("Five Scouts") by Tasaka Tomotaka was one of the first real war movies. It is about five scouts sent out to reconnoiter of whom only one returns - but he knows his time has come, too, when the signal for a general attack is given. A documentary-like war film in which no fighting is shown, but only the effects of the war. There are no heroes, but only ordinary people. Kinema Junpo Best Film for this year. It was also nominated Best Film at the Venice International Film Festival of 1939 - Japan at that time was aligned with Axis countries Italy and Germany. Also Tasaka's Tsuchi to Heitai ("Earth and Soldiers") from 1939, although celebrating duty and sacrifice, was similarly a continuation of the 1930s interest in human values. (Nikkatsu)

Abe Ichizoku ("The Abe Clan") by Kumagai Hisatora is a masterful period drama examining the samurai spirit. It is based on a story by Mori Ogai about a retainer who commits junshi (seppuku to follow a deceased lord in death) in defiance of the shogun's command, a deed which leads to the destruction of his entire clan. Very ritualistic in style. Kumagai started as a leftist film maker, but later shifted to the right and ended up making patriotic propaganda films.

Haha to Ko by Shibuya Minoru (1907-1980) is a family melodrama in the Shochiku style, about a clerk (Saburi Shin) who rejects his lover to get engaged to the daughter of the company president (by a mistress) with a view to advancement in his job. Satisfyingly, the daughter (Tanaka Kinuyo) in the end rejects the clerk and chooses an independent lifestyle. Shibuya was one of Shochiku's most significant directors, who had started out as an assistant to Ozu and Gosho. (Shochiku)

Hana Chirinu ("Fallen Blossoms") by Ishida Tamizo (1901-1972) is a portrait of life in a geisha house at the end of the Edo-period. Stylistically interesting for its technique of fragmentation and also for the sympathy it shows for its subject. Ishida's work is barely known, also in Japan, and most of his other films have been lost.

Nakimushi Kozo ("Crybaby Apprentice") by Toyoda Shiro (1905-1977) is about a boy whose family is too busy to care for him; he is shifted from relation to relation and when he finally returns home, his mother has eloped with a boyfriend. A typical handkerchief film, based on a story by Hayashi Fumiko. Toyoda was a craftsman working in the classical studio system known for his many adaptations of Japanese literature (bungei eiga). His films are intelligent and he treats his literary sources always with respect.

Robo no Ishi ("A Pebble by the Wayside") by Tasaka Tomotaka (1902-1974) is about a poor youth fighting adversity and making his way alone in the cold world of grown-ups. Based on a famous novel by Yamamoto Yuzo and full of melancholy naturalism. Although Tasaka specialized in romantic melodrama, he is now best known for his war films, such as the ones mentioned above.

Tsuzurikata Kyoshitsu ("Composition Class") by Yamamoto Kajiro (1902-1974), with Takamine Hideko, shows the everyday life of the lower classes, based on the compositions of a poor girl in primary school - another film about the "safe" topic of children. Yamamoto was the mentor of Kurosawa Akira. He worked for Toho and is now best known for the patriotic war films he made. Together with Robo ni Ishi, Nakimushi Kozo and Haha to Ko, this film was part of the above-mentioned "Pure Literature" movement in film, which was now in full swing. It would continue after the war especially in the hands of Toyoda Shiro.

With the Motion Picture Law, the film industry is placed completely under government control. All scripts have to be passed by censors. And still, several beautiful, humanistic films were made... Japan never was a fascist country and there was no empty triumphalism about the war, which was rather depicted as hardship for the common soldiers and a great suffering for the Japanese people.

The best film of this year is Zangiku Monogatari ("Story of the Last Chrysanthemums") by Mizoguchi Kenji. It is the tragedy of a woman in the feudalistic and snobbish world of the Kabuki, but at the same time an almost "sacramental" depiction of the family system. A kabuki actor injures the dignity of his family by falling in love with a woman of the lower classes. She sacrifices herself for his career, even at the expense of her health, but he succeeds. Sodden melodrama filmed in a most refined way. Mizoguchi sought shelter from censorship by making this and other films about Japanese traditions.

Aizen Katsura ("The Love-Troth Tree") by Shochiku house director Nomura Hiromasa (1905-1979), about the thwarted love between a weak hero, a doctor (Uehara Ken, the most famous pre-war ninaime actor), and an unfortunate heroine, a nurse (Tanaka Kinuyo). The nurse is in fact a widow with a little daughter, something which means the doctor's parents will not permit their marriage. On top of that she is poor and he is rich, the son of the owner-administrator of the hospital. Although he leaves home to marry her, she does not show up at the station due to a sudden illness of her child. The film was an unabashed tearjerker that was immensely popular with the public, although not with the critics. It belongs to the type of "surechigai," where the lovers repeatedly come close to a meeting but most of the time narrowly miss each other (another and even more famous example is the postwar film What is Your Name? by Oba Hideo). However, in the end the power of love overcomes all obstacles. (Note that there are no kisses or embraces yet in pre-1945 Japanese films - they just look each other soulfully in the eyes).

Ani to Sono Imoto ("An Older Brother and His Younger Sister") by Shimazu Yasujiro shows feminist sympathies in its treatment of the heroine's rejection of a marriage proposal. A sister (Kuwano Michiko), who works in a modern office and speaks fluent English (she types a letter her boss dictates in Japanese directly in English!), lives with her brother (Saburi Shin) and his wife (Miyake Kuniko). When she rejects a marriage proposal, the suitor exerts pressure via his uncle, who happens to be the boss of the brother. The brother is anxious for advancement, the reason he plays go with his boss until late every night. But the sister remains adamant. A film with very modern dialogues and a contemporary feel, showing that white collar workers before the war were not so different from those in the postwar era. Also shows that already at that time commuting in packed trains was no pleasure. But it also reveals the time when it was made in the ending, when the brother and the sister have both quit their jobs in Tokyo and leave to set up a business in Manchuria - an expansion on behalf of an entrepreneur and a friend played by Ryu Chishu. (Shochiku)

Danryu ("Warm Current") by Yoshimura Kozaburo was a major commercial success, a low-keyed melodrama about the romantic and professional problems of a young hospital superintendent. Great acting by Takamine Mieko as the daughter of the wealthy hospital owner and Saburi Shin as the young go-getting superintendent. She thinks she doesn't love him and refuses his proposal, but when another young woman confesses her ardent love for him, she feels confused. Another case of a modern, Westernized version of romantic love slipping past the censor.

Hataraki Ikka ("The Whole Family Works") by Naruse Mikio was a realistic treatment of the hardships of the working class. All eleven members of a printer's family have to work so that there is enough to eat, also the young children and the grandparents; a crisis ensues when the oldest son wants to quit work to go to technical college.

Kodomo no Shiki ("Four Seasons of Children") by Shimizu Hiroshi. Another lyrical film about country children.

Tsuchi ("Earth") by Uchida Tomu. Realistic depiction of the lives of poor peasants, showing the cycle of the seasons. Made on location behind the back of the studio (it was made by director and staff in their spare time, with resources left over from other projects) by Uchida and his staff. Contains almost no plot and little dialogue. Called one of the finest films of the decade. Kinema Junpo Best Film for this year. Uchida Tomu was a film maker who managed to put his personal ideas in genre plots. After the war, he became famous for his versions of Daibosatsu Toge and Miyamoto Musashi.

When one sees how many wonderful films were still being made in the late 1930s, the hiatus caused by the war is all the more regrettable. Also when one notices through these films how modern Japan was becoming in the thirties, it is a pity that the war in a social and economic sense pushed the country back for at least ten years - warping a whole society.

A History of Japanese Film by Year:
1896-1909 - First Stirrings
1910-1919 - Development
1920-1929 - Art Films and Nihilistic Heroes
1930-1939 - Social Realism and Shoshimin-Eiga
1940-1949 - Censorship during War and Occupation
1950-1954 - Golden Age of the Classical Studio System
1955-1959 - Taiyozoku and other Youth Films
1960-1964 - The New Wave
1965-1969 - Independent Productions
1970-1974 - Sex and Violence
1975-1979 - Decline and Stagnation
1980-1989 - Disintegration of the Studio System
1990-1994 - The Rise of Indies
1995-1999 - Revival
2000-2004 - Postmodern Peak
2005-2009 - Cinematic Bubble
2010-2014 - Risk Avoidance
[Reference works used: Currents In Japanese Cinema by Tadao Sato (Tokyo, 1987); The Japanese Film: Art and Industry by Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie (reprint Tokyo, 1983); A Hundred Years of Japanese Film by Donald Richie (Tokyo, 2001); Japanese Film Directors by Audrie Bock (Tokyo, 1985); A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors by Alexander Jacoby (Berkeley, 2008); A New History of Japanese Cinema by Isolde Standish (New York, 2005); The Japanese Period Film by S.A. Thornton (Jefferson & London, 2008); Eros plus Massacre, An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema by David Desser (Bloomington and Indianopolis, 1988); Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema by David Bordwell (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1988); Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema by Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto (Duke University Press: Durham, 2000); The Waves at Genji's Door by Joan Mellen (Pantheon Books: New York, 1976); Japanese Classical Theatre in Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994); From Book to Screen by Keiko I. Macdonald (M.E. Sharpe: New York and London, 2000); Reading a Japanese Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (University of Hawai'i Press: Honolulu, 2006); Behind the Pink Curtain, A Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema, by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2008); Contemporary Japanese Film by Mark Schilling (Weatherhill: New York and Tokyo, 1999); The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film by Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp (Stone Bridge Press: Berkeley, 2005); Kitano Takeshi by Aaron Gerow (British Film Institute: London, 2007); Iron Man: the Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto by Tom Mes (Fab Press: Godalming, 2005); Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2003); Nihon Eigashi by Sato Tadao (Iwanami Shoten: Tokyo, 2008, 4 vols.); Nihon Eigashi 110-nen by Yomota Inuhiko (Shueisha; Tokyo, 2014). All images are linked from Wikipedia.]