Kinoshita’s 1957 comedy of greed and passive aggression: “Fûzen no tomoshibi”

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I thought that Kinoshita’s 1957 “Fûzen no tomoshibi” (titled in English Danger Stalks Near/ Hanging by a Thread/ A Candle in the Wind) was going to be a sort of Japanese “The Ladykillers,” but the (pictured) three thieves watching a house they plan to rob is pretty much a MacGuffin. The traffic in and out of the house is very considerable, in part because the husband, who works in a shoe store for 7000 yen a month has just won a 50,000-yen camera.

His wife has to deal with his very difficult, miserly mother (Tamura Akiko [the mother in Kinoshita’s 1951 “Boyhood”]) and a young son who is sick, as his grandmother claims to be when it suits her purposes. Plus a servant who is fired for leaving an iron on a tatami mat while she is off reading in the bathroom, a sinister classmate (Nanbara Kôji) of the husband, who drops by and flatters the grandmother, a greedy sister, and various tradesmen (bill collectors, mailman, two messengers from local stores).

There is a lot of buildup, and a tumultuous, satisfying climax. The payoffs are funny, though the sitcom difficulties along the way are not especially funny. In the eye of ther storms, Takmine Hideko was frustrated, but not suffering at a soap opera level, more like a less affluent housewife in the Donna Stone (Reed)/June Cleaver mode, if frumpier (with unflattering glasses), having to deal with (OK and participate in!) lots of passive aggression, greed, scheming, and seething resentments.

There’s an unusual amount of long shots, frequently providing, the view of the three juvenile delinquents waiting for the house to be less filled with people so they can rob it.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

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Stuck in a back-alley fish shop: Kinoshita’s 1956 “Yûyake-gumo”

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I don’t think that “Farewell to Dream” is grammatical: it should be “Farewell to Dreams.” (or “a dream” or “the dream” or “his dream.”) The dreams are those of 20-year-old Akimoto Yôichi (Tanaka Shinki, who would also play the elder son in “The Naked Island” and appear in half a dozen other Kinoshita movies) had had to abandon a few years earlier (four years, I think) in Konishita’s 1956 movie “Yûyake-gumo.” Yôichi, the eldest son of the owner of a fish shop off in an alley (to which wartime authorities forced him to move; the father curses the war and the government that initiated it) loathes smelling like fish and dreams of being a sailor, like his deceased uncle, rather than becoming a fishmonger. Alas for his occupational dream, his father (Tôno Eijirô sickens and dies, and Yôichi must drop out of school and take over the shop to support his mother (Mochizuki Yukô) and two younger siblings. There are three, but his parents feel they have to let his father’s brother adopt Kazue, on whom Yôichi dotes.

There is an older sister, Toyoko (Kuga Yoshiko [The Idiot, Zero Focus]), who drops her engagement with Sudô (Tamura Takahiro, long before “Empire of Passion”) when she learns that Sudô’s father’s business has failed. She marries a richer older man, while continuing to see Sudô, scandalizing Yôichi and his parents. She does nothing to raise her younger siblings.

He and his best friend, Harada Seiji (Ôno Ryôhei) had been watching an ailing young woman across town through Yôichi’s binoculars. They track her down just as she is leaving to be married. And the final blow to Yôichi’s happiness is that Seiji’s father is being transferred to Hokkaido, so that his friend is also wrenched away from him.

Though it turns out he is much better at cutting fish (into sashimi) than his father, Yôichi is keenly aware that what he cared about is unobtainable and what he hoped to become will not be. He is a resigned, dutiful son (very unlike his self-centered older sister).

That’s it for story. Yôichi’s life chances are few, but he is able to forestall the family’s impoverishment and is not crushed like the female victims in many Mizoguchi and Naruse films. The acting is impeccable and showing all the disappointments take only 78 minutes of running time.

The movie looks good, especially when it gets out of the fish shop and flat above it. Credit, as usual, Kinoshita’s brother-in-law, Kusuda Hiroshi. And in contrast to many other Kinoshita-directed movies, the sentimental music provided by his brother Chûji seems appropriate to Yôichi’s melancholy.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

Psychologically toying with a sullen lower-class boy

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 (Masahiro and Keiko)

In Kinoshita’s 1956 “The Rose on His Arm” (Taiyô to bara Kiyoshi (Nakamura Katsuo [who would later play the frantic spender of “Pleasures of the Flesh”] is a stupid, feckless,  sullen, and skinny slacker Kiyoshi who catches the eye of Masahiro (Ishihama Akira), the spoiled and vicious son of the owner of the factory where Kiyoshi has been given a job he has no interest in performing or keeping. (How he got a two weeks’ salary advance mystifies me!)

Masahiro’s sister Keiko (Kuga Yoshiko), who had an abortion after being raped in the seaside town where Kiyoshi and his hardworking mother (Miyake Kuniko) live, tries to help Kiyoshi without any visible agenda, not that Masahiro’s is visible. Masahiro takes up Kiyoshi, giving him money and clothes… and orders. 1956 audiences may not have noticed an erotic component in Masahiro’s domination/submission play (which becomes fatal).

Class plays a very large role in both movies about juvenile delinquents without the funds for the lifestyles to which they aspire, or the education to attain higher status. Sabu and Kiyoshi are not rebels, but exemplars of Mertonian strain (accepting socially valued status but using illegal means to try to achieve it). Does differential association account for Masahiro’s deviance (I mean criminality rather than homoerotic s&m; he may qualify as being a “rebel”). He already has money and status with no loyalty to respectable society.

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(Nakamura some years later)

 

I thought the fight scenes in “Rose” pretty phony in this as in other golden age Japanese movies (including the swordfights in which the hero mows down one after another assailant who has waited patiently for his turn to die.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Tamiko was like a wild chrysanthemum in Kinoshita’s 1955 movie

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Kinoshita’s melancholy 1955 “Nogiku no gotoki kimi nariki,” based on a novel by Ito Saicho, is variously known in English as “She Was Like a Wild Chrysanthemum,” “You Were Like a Wild Chrysanthemum,” and “My First Love Affair,” It opens with 73-year-old Masao (Ryû Chishü) being poled upstream to the site of his childhood home and pure first love. Most of the film is flashbacks (in oval frames) to when he was 15 (in the last years of the 19th century).

Masao (played at 15 by Tanaka Shinji) and the daughter of his mother’s sister, Tamiko (Arita Noriko), enjoyed spending time together. This was gossiped about, especially by Masao’s vicious older sister (Yukishiro Keiko), who convinced Masao’s mother to separate the two, sending him off to school early and then sending Tamiko off before Masao returned for winter break. Masao’s widowed mother (Sugimura Haruko) was ambitious for him. The main impediment to their marrying was not her social status or that they were first cousins, but that Tamiko was two years older than Masao, which made any romantic connection between them ridiculous in the eyes of local gossips, again led by his sister. The only defender of their delicate relationship is the mother of both their mothers (Urabe Kumeko, who would also play the grandmother of the infant in Ichikawa’s “Being Two Isn’t Easy”).

Kinoshita managed to get some cherry blossoms in, along with multiple shots of wild chrysanthemums swaying in the wind. Masao said that Tamiko was like a wild chrysanthemum (pictured below), and she said he was like a bellflower.

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To me the representation of friendship untainted by any sexual feelings (let alone acts) seems incompatible with the adolescents’ relationship being the love of each’s life. The passion is somewhat surprising in that the two were raised together, starting with sharing Masao’s mother’s breast milk. According to the Westermarck thesis (extensively documented for Japanese records from what was their colony of Taiwan), such passions should not happen (that is, should stimulate a repulsion for incest).

Kinoshita’s brother in law, Kusuda Hiroshi, received cinematography awards for the black-and-white cinematography of “Wild Chrysanthemums” and “Tattered Wings.” The many long shots bring to my mind Murnau’s (1927) “Sunrise.” Kinoshita Chûji’s soundtrack mostly relied on a solo guitar that is plaintive, upping the sentimentality, as in so many of his soundtracks for movies directed by his brother (and lensed by their brother-in-law).

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

“Distant Clouds”/”Tattered Wings” (1955)

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Another outing with the mid-1950s Kinoshita/Shochiko Studio repertory company. The Japanese title of the 1955 weepie, “Tôi kumo” means “Distant Clouds,” but the American edition takes its title from Gide’s Strait Is the Gate, “Tattered Wings.”

It is another story of love persisting and that not being enough to lead to happiness. The redoubtable Takamine Hideko, in this outing named Fumyuko, again suffers for social conventions. Before the war, she loved Keizô (Tamura Takahiro), who loved her, but because her family needed money, she married into the Terada family, owners of a distillery in Takayama. Her husband routinely cheated on her and criticized her relentlessly. He left her (pregnant?) with a daughter when he went off to war, not to return.

Her dutiful brother-in-law, Shunsuke (Sada Keiji again subordinating personal feeling, particularly jealousy, trying to do the right thing by everyone) is set to propose marriage. Keizô passes through before taking up a position in Hokkaido (from which he will not be able to return for any visits for at least two years? I only report what he said). He is pained to hear of her husband’s infidelity and brutality. He hoped that if he gave her up, she would be happy—and that having not been happy without him, she can yet be happy with him, that they can make a new start.

Though the two do nothing other than talk to each other, salacious gossip about an affair booms, and Fuuyko’s sister (who has loved Keizô as long as KeizIo has loved Fuyuko) undertakes filling in Shunsuke with the scandal (knowing that he loves her sister). Will she stay with the only Terada child (that is, her daughter) or finally go off with Keizô?

There is another illicit romance involving Ryô (Ishihama Akira) and the daughter of the blacksmith to whom he has been apprenticed. And film of local festival. The movie begins by following a train through the countryside (presumably the one bearing Keizô to Takayama) back and ends in the train station (with Keizô on board a train that will take him to Tokyo, form where he will head off to Hokkaido).

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As Usual, Takamine and Sada behave properly and hide their emotions from public view, though these are clear enough to viewers of the movie.

In Gide’s novella, the writer’s surrogate, Jerome, does not notice that while he focuses on one very-proper(/puritanical) young woman, her sister is the one who really loves him. Keizô is rereading the book, which Fuyuko lent him before her marriage to the Terada scion.

The persistence of desire even after bowing to the loss of a beloved to marriage is definitely a Kinoshita leitmotif. And, as usual, I am more appreciative of the cinematography of Kusuda Hiroshi than of the music of Kinoshita Chûji, though is is less intrusive in this movie than in some others.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

Kinoshita’s “most beloved”movie: “24 Eyes” (1954)

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Knowing that “24 Eyes” (Nijushi no hitomi, 1954) is Kinoshita Keisuke’s “most beloved film” and that it runs 156 minutes made me wary. The pace is leisurely, at least through the first two-thirds of the film, though the movie covers eighteen years that were very tumultuous for Japan (1928-46) even on the second largest island in the Inland Sea, Shodoshima. It opens with the new teacher in a two-teacher village grade school, Miss Oishi (Takamine Hideko), shocking the locals by wearing western dress and arriving on a shiny new bicycle, causing the tongues of censorious beer-sizzling mothers to wag.

After she breaks a leg in a prank by her male first-grade students (and they are taught by the clueless veteran teacher played by Ryû Chishû) both the students and their parents come to appreciate her. The students rejoin her when they start fifth grade in town, where the teacher lives. In the paranoid militarist (/fascist) Japan of the 1930s, she is suspected of being “a Red,” and after being reprimanded by the principal (looking out for her, since he was a friend of her dead father) for telling her boys that she would prefer them to be living farmers or fishermen to being heroically dead soldiers, she is labeled a “coward,” and decides to quit teaching (to run a candy store).

In 1942, after an eight year gap in which she has borne two sons and an infant daughter, her students and her (pleasure cruise captain) husband are drafted—to her dismay that is barely disguised in public and is overt at home, where she is unhappy about her two sons marching around singing military songs.

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Surviving students (including a blind veteran of the war) gather to celebrate her return to the village school in 1946. That gathering seems an apt place to hear “Auld Lang Syne,” but Kinoshita Chûji (the director’s brother and usual soundtrack-provider) uses various instrumentations of that hackneyed song seven times in the last hour and a half of the movie, plus “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” three times, and “Annie Laurie” earlier on (I think twice).* I think there is also an hour of the children singing (including the national anthem, a song about a chirping plover, and a song of thanks to teachers at two graduations). I don’t think there is any music original to the movie, just arrangements (often treacly ones) of various Japanese and western standards. (I have already commented in earlier postings that the music his brother provided is largely responsible for the sentimentality charged to Kinoshita movies.)

Though the cloying music annoys me, I’ll readily stipulate that the director’s brother-in-law, who had been his cinematographer from the beginning of his directorial career, did outstanding work, whether closeups of the actors (including twelve pairs of siblings 5-7 years apart in age) or long shots of processions and the terrain of Shodoshima. The Criterion edition print is good (and generally well subtitled), if it’s blacks are just a bit washed out.

The movie was shot, mostly sequentially, on location over the course of a whole year, though the wheat seems high most of the time, and there are cherry blossoms both at the beginning and at the end of school years. Both are photogenic, so I wouldn’t complain too much about their incongruity.

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The movie was/is loved in Japan for showing rural solidarity and characteristics of Japanese other than those exposed by the victors’ war crimes trials following the war. Kinoshita showed mothers’ aversion to sending their sons off to die as early as his 1944 film financed by the Army Ministry, “Army,” and unloaded at the militarists who brought disaster to the homeland in “Morning for the Osone Family,” as well as showing the mutual suspicion of people relocated from Tokyo and rural folk in “Boyhood,” so was far form being an apologist for the Japanese war makers and their inculcating the sentiment of the marching off song, “We won’t return alive unless we’ve won” and the general cult of dying for the emperor (in which “unless we’ve won” seems an afterthought to looking forward to the glory of death).

(Though the war has a major impact in depopulating the island and spreading grief, the area is too remote to be bombed and there is no direct representation of warmaking.)

The Criterion edition DVD has a nearly 20-minute-long interview with clips of film historian Sato Tadao that clued me to the sibling casting and that Kinoshita had wanted to film a different novel by Tsuboi Sakae than the 1952 24 Eyes. His assertion that Kinoshita’s trip to Paris turned him into a more socially aware film-maker, however, is nonsense. Indeed, other than “24 Eyes” and “Immortal Love,” I’d say that Kinoshita’s later movies were less social criticism, and that his most pointed social criticism was in the 1946 “Morning for the Osone Family” and the 1948 “Apostasy.” Hulu streams both the trailer and the Sato interview, btw.

 

  • In the booklet essay for the DVD Audie Block defended the musical choices: ‘If the themes of “Annie Laurie,” “Auld Lang Syne,” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” played on guitar, flute, violin, and harp, seem un-Japanese, it is our ears that are a little off. It’s necessary to detach ourselves from the cultural associations we impose on music. The Western tunes and Western instrumentation are just as ordinary to the Japanese ear as the old Japanese folk songs the twelve children sing with their teacher. The easy transitions the composer, Kinoshita’s brother Chuji, makes between East and West are no more unusual than the use of Ravel and Beethoven in Akira Kurosawa’s film music.’ I do not accept this, since the associations of “Auld Lang Syne” are clearly intended, and I’m not sure that “Take it to the Lord in prayer” is not intended to link to “Lord Buddha.” Moreover, the resemblance of the music of Kurosawa’s “Rashômon” has been severely criticized in the west since the movie made it to international attention.

 

@2016, Stephen O. Murray

Kinoshita’s girl’s school melodrama: “Garden of Women” (1953)

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Historian of Japanese cinema Audie Bock claims that “The Garden of Women” (1Onna no Sono, 1954) was Kinoshita’s last protest film. According to Bock, Kinoshita had found that “social protest in film had no impact,” a realization followed by surrender to sentimentality, starting with his biggest commercial success “24 Eyes.” I think, however, that “24 Eyes” (review coming soon!)movie has considerable criticism of wartime propaganda and authoritarianism and that there is plenty of social criticism (sometimes satirical) in later Kinoshita movie.

“Garden” also criticized authoritarianism, of a female form, the rigidly moralistic Kyoto girls’ school matron played by Takamine Mieko, who indulges the rebellious daughter of a rich family (her father is de facto the boss of the matron’s boss), (Kuga Yoshiko, who would appear in many of the later Ozu movies), while persecuting a poor scholarship girl, Yoshie (Takamine Hideko), who is in love with and wanting to marry the handsome Shimoda Sankichi (Tamura Takahiro, who would star in Ôshima’s 1978 “Empire of Passion”).

Kinoshita clearly sides with the young rebels against the continuation of the authoritarianism that had led to imperial overreach, making for an unusually unsubtle and hectoring/didactic movie that also runs on far too long (142 minutes).

And, other than being set in a girl’s school run by authoritarian female teachers, I don’t see much in common between “Mädchen in niform” and “Garden of Women.”

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray