Tag Archives: class

Two novellas about young male creators by Okamoto Kanoko

Okamoto Kanoko (née Ohnuki Kano, 1889-1939) was a scholar of Zen Buddhism and a tanka poet who wrote fiction during the last three years of her life. Being of upper-class origin, her fiction tends to focus on resentful working-class males. Whether males from lower classes of the early Showa-era idealized her peers as she portrays them as doing is a question I can’t answer, though I am suspicious.


The protagonist of her novella Riot of Goldfish (Kingyo Ryōran), Mataichi is the son of a goldfish-seller who is enchanted by Masako, a shy girl whose rich father (Teizô) underwrites Mataichi’s fishery studies. Though distant glimpses of Masako, up the hill above his family’s fishponds, enchant him, he has no chance of wedding her and sublimates his desire into trying to breed a goldfish as beautiful as (he thinks) Masako is. The breeds he engineers (life he creates) keep being washed away in floods. Masako has no idea he is trying to recreate her in piscine form, or, for that matter, that he has been in love with her for most of their lives.

“The Food Demon” (Shokuma), Besshirô, is also smitten by the beautiful daughter of his patron, Okinu, and desperate to be regarded as a master artist, to be addressed with the honorific “sensei.” He alienates those who had admired his knowledge of and skill at painting and calligraphy, though what he produces is dismissed as “tasteful,” lacking the spark of genius.

His genius is for the less exalted “art” of cooking, which has lower prestige but gives very tangible pleasure. He gives cooking lessons to the pampered Okinu and her drudge sister Ochiyo, but only the latter really notices how handsome and gifted he is.

Their father provides Besshirô and the meek wife he has been pressed by the aunt of his dead painter/restaurant-owner friend, Higaki, to marry a small house and a small stipend, and Besshirô takes out his frustrations mostly on his wife, Isuko (Higaki’s only cousin).


There are no female characters developed at all in either novella. The only one who is not a drudge or an impossible fantasy is a female Buddhist scholar (what Okamoto was) who delivers the “no more than tasteful” verdict on his paintings, but genuinely appreciates his culinary skills. Even she is little developed.

The protagonists bring Zola (especially L’ouevre) to my mind with his fatalism in the traditional Buddhist guise of karma. Mataichi is more focused (beyond the point of obsession!) than Besshirô, who writhes in disappointment and resentment of his social superiors.

Goldfish has something of a plot, Food-Demon fills in the background of its protagonist, including the harrowing cancer death of Higaki). In the story’s present Besshirô gives a demonstration of handling endive, leaves his female students in their mansion, goes home, rails at his wife, and drinks a lot of beer as he watches hail fall, and while his wife keeps their son quiet in the bedroom.

Food-Demon is more about attempts to integrate Eastern and Western art and aesthetics than the aesthetic of Mataichi, though he is even more intent on creating beauty than Besshirô is.

The two novellas, translated by J. Keith Vincent were published in 2010 by Hesperus with an enthusiastic foreword by David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas).

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

A Steinbeck Tragedy : The Pearl

This was a contribution by Ed Williamson  to the Steinbeck centenary writeoff on epinions that I hosted.

Pros: Gritty and realistic.

Cons: Some readers may find it too dark and hopeless.

The Bottom Line: The Pearl is Steinbeck’s fine tale about a family who wishes to improve their lot in life, but who find doors blocked.


Most people know that John Steinbeck is one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century. My favorites among his short novels include Of Mice and Men, The Red Pony and The Pearl.

All of these not only show the reader a very believable group of characters, but they make the hills and seacoast of California and Mexico come to life. More importantly, they are concerned with the choices real-world people make, and the consequences of those choices. Steinbeck’s characters are not the wealthy people of Mexico’s aristocracy or the newly rich miners and moneyrunners of California’s boom days, but, rather, they are the homeless, the migrant workers, the poor fishermen, and the farmers. Steinbeck’s preference for telling the stories of the simple, the lowly, the working class, and the poor gives a look at a side of society often overlooked by other writers, and he bravely made this his province as a relectionist* of social conscience but also with incredible human insight into what affects persons on all levels of the social strata. The stories of these humble people show a deceptively simple, but important story to tell; a story filled with love and pain. The tales tell us not only of the lives of the poor who seek to live off the land, but, through the lens of their adversity, of the struggles of all people. In that sense, stories like The Pearl could be placed in China, Africa, the Middle East, or a hundred other locales, because the human drama itself would probably be the same. Steinbeck just happened to choose Mexico because that was where many of his memories were, and thus he could give clearer and comprehensive descriptions to the cultural locale that way even if the characterizations were universal.

The Pearl, which is set in La Paz, Mexico, down at the far tip of the Baja Peninsula, begins with a portrayal of the seemingly pleasant family life of Kino, his wife Juana, and their infant son, Coyotito. Kino the father watches as Coyotito sleeps, but sees a scorpion crawl down the rope that holds the hanging box where Coyotito lies. Kino attempts to catch the scorpion, but Coyotito bumps the rope and the scorpion falls on him. Even though Kino kills the scorpion, it still stings Coyotito. Juana and Kino, accompanied by their neighbors, go to see the local doctor, who refuses to treat Coyotito because Kino cannot pay for the medical treatment.

pearl 1.jpg

Kino and Juana leave the doctors and take Coyotito down near the sea, where Juana uses a folk remedy on Coyotito’s shoulder, which is now swollen. Kino dives for oysters from his canoe, attempting to find pearls. He finds a very large oyster which, when Kino opens it, yields an immense pearl. Kino puts back his head and yells, causing the other pearl divers to look up and race toward Kino’s canoe.

The news that Kino has found a huge and valuable pearl travels fast through the town of La Paz. The doctor who refused to treat Coyotito decides to visit Kino. Kino’s neighbors begin to feel bitter toward him for his good fortune, but neither Kino nor Juana realize this sentiment is present and is hurting them.

Kino’s brotrher, Juan Tomas, asks him what he will do with his money, and he envisions getting married to Juana in a church and dressing Coyotito in a yachting cap and sailor suit. He claims that he will send Coyotito to school and buy a rifle for himself.

The local priest visits and tells Kino to remember to give thanks and to pray for guidance. The doctor also visits, and although Coyotito seems to be healing, the doctor insists that Coyotito still faces danger and treats him. Kino tells the doctor that he will pay him once he sells his pearl, and the doctor attempts to discover where the pearl is located (Kino has buried it in the corner of his hut). That night, a thief tries to break into Kino’s hut, but Kino drives him away. Juana tells Kino that the pearl will destroy them, but Kino insists that the pearl is their big chance at life and that tomorrow they will sell it.

Kino’s neighbors wonder what they would do if they had found the pearl, and suggest giving it as a present to the Pope, buying Masses for the souls of his family, and distributing it among the poor of La Paz. Kino goes to sell his pearl, accompanied by his neighbors, but the pearl dealer only offers a thousand pesos when Kino believes that he deserves fifty thousand. Although other dealers inspect the pearl and give similar prices, Kino refuses their offer and decides to go to the capital to sell it there. That night, Kino is attacked by more thieves, and Juana once again reminds Kino that the pearl is evil. However, Kino vows that he will not be cheated, for he is a man.

pearl orozco.jpg

Later that night, Juana attempts to take the pearl and throw it into the ocean, but Kino finds her and beats her for doing so. While outside, a group of men accost Kino and knock the pearl from his hand. Juana watches from a distance, and sees Kino approach her, limping with another man whose throat Kino has slit. Juana finds the pearl, and they decide that they must go away even if the murder was in self-defense. Kino finds that his canoe has been damaged and their house was torn up and the outside set afire. Kino and Juana stay with Juan Tomas and his wife, Apolonia, where they hide for the next day before setting out for the capital that night.

Kino and Juana travel that night, and rest during the day. When Kino believes that he is being followed, the two hide and Kino sees several bighorn sheep trackers who pass by him. Kino and Juana escape into the mountains, where Juana and Coyotito hide in the cave while Kino, taking his clothes off so that no one will see his white clothing. The trackers think that they hear something when they hear Coyotito crying, but decide that it is merely a coyote pup. After a tracker shoots in the direction of the cries, Kino attacks the three trackers, killing all three of them. Kino can hear nothing but the cry of death, for he soon realizes that Coyotito is dead from that first shot. Juana and Kino return to La Paz. Kino carries a rifle stolen from the one of the trackers he killed, while Juana carries the dead Coyotito. The two approach the gulf, and Kino, who now sees the image of Coyotito with his head blown off in the pearl, throws it into the ocean.

The story is obviously grim and yet intensely universal in a world where the poor are the victims of the greedy and the wealthy. Juana and Kino are hunted like animals throughout the story from the time they have something of value. But the hunt itself, especially in the final stages, seems to reduce Kino himself from the level of “good human” to an animal fighting for his survival.

Steinbeck shows this through several events, such as when Kino attacks the trackers. In this section, Kino moves from being capable of murder for self-defense to a more calculated and premeditated kind of killing. The three men are thus killed out of fear and instinct and not because of any tangible threat they pose to him.

The writer also shows the loss of humanity within Kino when he crawls naked to find the trackers so that his white clothes will not expose him. He loses the final symbols of his humanity to become even more like an animal. This is particularly ironic when considering the death of Coyotito. Kino behaves as an animal so that he can protect himself and his family, but Coyotito dies when the child is mistaken for (the name he bears) a coyote pup.

Contrasting the savage and brutal Kino, Juana becomes stronger as a human through the suffering she faces. She shows herself to be dedicated to her husband even at the most dire moments, demanding that he not break up their family.

When Kino and Juana return to La Paz the story becomes anticlimactic, yet contains some degree of an ironic but sad lesson . Kino comes back to La Paz with the one tool that he desperately wanted, a rifle, but he has lost his child and rejects the pearl. His rebuff of the pearl fully demonstrates the horror that the pearl has wrought upon him.

The Pearl therefore seems a tale with an ambiguous meaning at best and a morbidly fatalistic one at worst. But there is more to it than that.

The Pearl - John Steinbeck.jpg

The story seems to warn against attempting to better one’s social situation, recalling Juan Tomas’ story of the pearl agent who stole the townspeople’s pearls. Although it seems to indict Kino for his attempts to gain the fortune that the pearl offers, at the same time it offers equal if not greater censure to the wealthy of La Paz who attempt to exploit Kino and thwart his attempts to sell the pearl. Even if Steinbeck does not intend the story to be critical of Kino for his behavior, the story implies that Kino and Juana are locked in and could do nothing to improve their situation.

Perhaps the most valid polemic that Steinbeck offers in The Pearl concerns the effects that the newfound opportunity for wealth has on Kino, who replaces what seem to be civilized values with an almost neurotic preoccupation with the pearl and paranoia concerning those around him. Yet in the end, when the pearl causes him unbearable pain, Kino chooses to get rid of the pearl for all the calamity it has caused him and Juana.

When Kino finally throws the pearl into the ocean, he gets rid of what has become a meaningless object. The pearl is now valueless in the sense that, without Coyotito, the pearl has no power to provide for a better future for Kino and Juana, who could gain only simple material items from their fortune.

As a lesson, The Pearl is an engaging one. What Steinbeck seems to be saying is that even sudden wealth will not improve the life of the poor simply by its discovery. If the poor in many cultures are to have any hope to better themselves, they will need freedom and protection by the law in order to turn their opportunity into a dream which will come true. True democracies with middle classes have made that possible. But in the end it can only come from the sustained efforts of people who care for others; people of conscience. Some may call that bleeding-heart liberalism. I call it love.


*REFLECTIONIST: ( Re-flec’-tion-ist) ( Origins in “Looking-Glass” literaria, op. cit.) (n.) (1.) One who is prone to reflect on certain subjects which are of interest to him or her. (2.) A passionate, driven person who thinks continuously of his or her obsession.(3.) A person who only gives occasional and fleeting reflection upon a person, place, or thing, at rare times…as a special person I once knew very well might do these days in regard to me. -Williamson’s Vest Pocket Dictionary


©2002, Ed Williamson

Two Shochiku silent tragicomedies

In his 1974 Ozu Yasuji book, Donald Richie began that Ozu “had but one major subject, the Japanese family, and but one major theme, its dissolution.” Ozu’s prewar films look more at the effects on the family of the hierarchical social structure.

The earliest one I’ve seen (the surviving fragments of), “I Graduated But…” (Umarete wa mita keredo, 1929) seems to be about a college graduate who moved to Tokyo and couldn’t find a job, though pretending as first his mother and then his fiancée come to live with him. The pretending of going to work would also be the launching pad of “Departures,” the first Japanese move to win the best foreign-language film Oscar many decades later


Audie Bock (Japanese Film Directors) asserts that the 1932 “I Was Born But…” is “Ozu’s first great film.” It centers on two young boys, Keiji (Aoki Tomio) and Ryoichi (Sugawara Hideo) who are reluctantly realizing that their father (Saitô Tatsuo) is a lackey, not at all a hero or a potentate.

The family has just moved into a Tokyo neighborhood where the father’s boss also lives. The boss’s son, Taro (Katô Seichi), is a leader (second-ranked) of a gang of miscreants who bully the new boys. Through some movie contrivances, the boys outfight the gang-members and keep Taro as their ranking subordinate in the reconstituted gang.



Their father explains the way things are: “He who has the gold makes the rules.” And he doesn’t have it. “You tell us to become somebody, but you’re nobody! “ they scream at him. Though initially they are bullied, the boys are not especially engaging (they don’t mug like their Hollywood contemporaries in Our Gang/Little Rascals shorts.).


Not anticipating Ozu’s later work, the mother has no character, is entirely subservient to her husband and her role as a housewife.

Way back then, Ozu allowed camera movement to follow the boys (DP Mohara Hideo also edited the movie).



The year before (1931) Naruse Mikio shot a similar story of disappointment in a father (Yamaguchi Isamu) who was the title character, “Flunky, Work Hard!” (Koshiben Gambara). In it the father was an unsuccessful insurance salesman. His own, uninsured, son, Susumu (Katô Seichi), who is preoccupied with obtaining a model airplane, is hit by a train as he sells insurance to a difficult but well-off mother of five.


Focused on the humiliation(s) of an adult male, “Flunk” does not prefigure the beaten-down women who became Naruse’s specialty. The cruel slapstick of the first part (with the salesman kneeling on the ground for his potential clients’ children to, plus evading the rent collector) turns to anguished expressionism in the hospital where his son is taken.



The running time of Naruse’s film was only 28 minutes; Ozu’s ran 90. Though “Flunky” was the ninth film Naruse directed, it is the oldest one still extant (three more later ones have been lost, too).


©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Kobayashi’s 1956 “Izumi” (Spring/Fountainhead)


For me, the most interesting part of Kobayashi’s 1956 “Izumi” (a title that means “a spring” or “a fountain” but that has been rendered in English as “The Fountainhead”, a title already used by Ayn Rand for her 1943 novel and the 1949 movie adaptation of it, starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal) is the rural-urban clash.

The beginning and end of the movie are set in the countryside, where a Tokyo development company owns a reservoir that has cut off the water used to irrigate rice paddies and supply it to getaway second homes of affluent city-dwellers. The outraged farmers regularly sabotage the water pipes (probably using the resulting runoff, though this is not shown).

A botanist and his research assistant (Sada Keiji) are visiting the largest mansion, owned by a nobleman (an earl before such titles were abolished by the US occupation). The aristocrat (Saburi Shin) is estranged from his wife (whom we will later learn had a child fathered by someone else) and is flirting with flirting with his secretary, who is more attracted to the graduate student. Based on the flora, the latter thinks there is probably a water source, an underground spring, that could supply the water the farmers need.


A ruder real estate magnate, who will more or less inherit the secretary Arima Ineko) and is much more blunt about wanting her to be his mistress, is unwilling to explore the alternative water source unless the deluxe development properties should need more water than the reservoir can supply them.

The young botanist takes a position at a provincial museum in part to get away from the older woman he loves and also a younger one who wants to marry him, though he has never even spoken to her and has refused an intermediary’s attempt to introduce them. By the time the botanist decides he is interested in the young woman who had stalked him for more than two years, she has gotten over her infatuation and its back into the emotional maelstrom with the older woman, back in a confrontation in the countryside. This love triangle, complicated by the rich men for whom the secretary successively works make for a boring soap opera that takes up too much of the 122 minutes of the movie. There’s a plethora of “God’s eye” shots down at the characters.

To the surprise of I would guess no movie-viewer, the botanist was right about the potential water source, though the exploration by dynamite provides more tensions, centering on two young rural men who, like Kobayashi, were held prisoners by the Soviets after the war and loathe each other. The one who was malnourished and now works for the company catches the interest of the secretary. The other one is the most intransigent of the local opposition to the development (beyond contention for water).


G2016, Stephen O. Murray

Overstuffed 1959 Kinoshita movie: “Thus Another Day”


It’s difficult to guess why a director as experienced as Kinoshita Keisuke was by 1959 would try to jam so many storylines into a 74-minute movie as he did in “Kyô mo mata kakute ari nan” (Thus Another Day). What I think is the main storyline involves a couple very strapped for cash to support themselves and their young and very bratty and very materialistic son, Kazuo (Nakamura Kanzaburô). Satô Shôichi (Takahashi Teiji) has the bright idea of renting out their house for two months to an executive in the company for which he works. His wife, Yasuko (Kuga Yoshiko), goes home to her parents, taking the brat, who enjoys being able to swim in the ocean and to play with the daughter (I thought her name was Yokô, but from the credit list guess that it was Noriko), the daughter of a WWII veteran, Tetsuo Mori (Tamura Takahiro with none of the bravado of the flight commander bombing Pearl Harbor that he played in “Tora! Tora! Tora!”), who is hobbled by survivor guilt. He broods on having sent many better men to their deaths and wishes that having failed to die for the Emperor (or Empire), and regrets that he was not executed as a war criminal. (He does not seem to have committed any war crimes, btw.)

Yasuko is concerned that her newfound, melancholy friend will kill himself. Trying to avoid plot spoiling, let me say that he goes into battle against some young thugs who have been tormenting an attractive (to the local girls) sometimes singer (there seemingly had to be a repeated folk song in a Kinoshita movie!), named Gorô (Kosaka Kazuya).

When he comes to visit his wife and son, Shôichi spends most of his time playing mahjong with the bored wife of the company’s managing director (Sano Shûji), who appreciates the ambitious employee (rather than feeling any jealousy: who knows what he is enjoying while his wife is stowed away on the coast?).

There are way too many characters sketched. There is an opaque seemingly yakusa-ordered killing of a woman who knew too much (though I have no idea what she knew or if she threatened to reveal anything about the yakusas) executed in a manner with a relatively low probability of succeeding. I don’t know how or even whether the young thugs are connected to the vacationing yakusa chief. Seeing that Gorô has the same family name at Mori Tetsuo, I guess he must be a nephew, since Tetsuo has no son. Etc. Confusing and overstuffed minor Kinoshita movie.

Kusuda Hiroshi’s cinematography is good, but not special in the 35th movie he shot for his brother-in-law.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray


Hierarchy and romance at Yawata Ironworks


Kinoshita’s 1958 “Kono ten no niji” (The Eternal Rainbow) is a very peculiar amalgam. The first fifteen minutes and intermittent splices thereafter are a documentary with a narrator in awe of the scale of the Yawata (now Nippon Steel) ironworks and associated facilities for its workers in Yahara on the north cost of the island of Kyushu. The total institution of the factory (never the company that owns and runs it after the initial mention) comes across as less utopian in the fictional part of the movie, which involves two fathers who have worked there more than 30 years and floundering youth. The senior generation is very concerned about retirement that will involve losing their housing (and, I think, access to the company supermarket and various recreational facilities). The Kageyamas (Ryû Chisû and Tanaka Kinuyo) owns a house somewhere else, but view the coming change with trepidation.

They are supplementing his salary with rent from a young and single tenant, Suda (Kawazu Yûsuke in his first role), who is not content with his physically demanding job, though he keeps being told he was selected in preference to hundreds of other applicants who wished they had been chosen in his stead. Suda —to the surprise of those who know him from later Ôshima films—is an innocent idealist.

He is particularly aggrieved that the family of office-worker Chie (Kuga Yoshike, who had appeared in Kinoshita’s “Garden of Women”, “Farewell to Deam” and “The Rose on his Arm,” and in Kurosawa’s “The Idiot”) turns down the marriage proposal (carried by Suda’s landlord) of Suda’s friend, the even more pure of heart Sagawa (Takahashi Teiji, who also played the dutiful son for Kinoshita in “The Ballad of Narayama” the same year with Tanaka playing the 70-year-oldmother eager to be sacrificed) without providing a reason. Chie tells Suda it is none of his business and her mother tells him that having lived with a factory worker for 30-some years, she does not want her daughter to marry one. Both mother and daughter seek the more advantageous match with Mr. Machimura (Timura Takihiro, future star of Ôshima’s “Empire of Passion”), an engineer rising in the hierarchy and about to be sent off by the company to be involved in starting a factory in Brazil.


I am mystified that Machimura is lodging with a married couple. The wife is in love with Machimura, though her workaholic husband does not notice until gossip reaches him (through Suda). Chie concludes that Machimura has been toying with her affections, and Suda convinces her to meet with Sagawa after telling him why her mother rebuffed Sagawa’s marriage proposal.

Kinoshita did not make it easy to figure out the relationships in the movie with abrupt cuts between the humans and the factory facilities (including a resort by the reservoir that supplies the factory, a concert hall, and an outdoor stage separated by a moat from the audience). Eventually though, I knew who was who. There was also a desperately unhappy and unemployed Kageyama son, Monru (Kosaka Kazuya) lacking in filial piety or manners, indulged by his parents.

Though Kinoshita drew attention to industrial pollution of a river and the sea to which it carried effluvium in “Fireworks Over the Sea,” the smoke that billows from multiple smokestacks and filters down to blanket them in smog troubles none of the characters in “The Eternal Rainbow. Sagawa and Suda somehow see seven different colors in the smoke. Though Suda saw a rainbow the first time he saw the factory, he and his friend admire the view from a hilltop of the smoke. Resigned to never securing a bride (because he cannot obtain the one he wants), Sagawa shows no signs of disaffection for his work. Suda is less a part of a work team and actively wonders “Is this all there is?” Both young men accept Chie selling herself to the highest bidder and cast off their resentment of her rejection (or the rejection by her mother) of Sagawa’s proposal. And she is modest about what she deserves in the way of happiness from an economically (and socially) advantageous marriage.

Well-acted, interestingly shot, with overly emphatic music, “The Eternal Rainbow” is in some ways a typical Kinoshita melodrama. And despite the overly admiring narration of the factory documentary intercut with the melodrama, the tour of the complex interested me. It helped that there are lots of locomotives (Suda’s job involves riding on the front of one and switching tracks).

BTW, this complex was the primary target for the second atomic bomb (“Big Boy”). The smoke from the previous day’s fire-bombing obscured it, and the bomb was instead dropped on the Christian neighborhood (Urakami) of Nagasaki, shown in the 1983 Kinoshita film “Children of Nagasaki.”


©2016, Stephen O. Murray


Psychologically toying with a sullen lower-class boy


 (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.


(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

“Onna” (1946) and “Ojôsan kanpai“ (1949)

I missed three Kinoshita Keisu films from the late 1940s and am posting on them out of the chronological order I have been attempting to impose (the other  the 1946  “The Girl I Loved“).



I thought that the narrative of Kinoshita’s “Onna” (Woman, 1948) was threadbare, but it was visually very impressive. Most of the 84-minute run-time juxtaposes closeups of a chorus-line dancer, Toshiko (Mito Mitsuko) who has been dragged off to Manazura with a man, Tadashi (Ozawa Eitarô) she distrusts (with very good reasons, including that he has just been involved in a robbery followed by stabbing a policeman). In the last quarter of the film, there is first a chase (not involving Tadashi) then a conflagration, which sends most of the townspeople rushing to the scene. This part is shot like an early Soviet sound film with lots of cuts (montage) and fairly bombastic music.

In addition to multiple shots of trains and train stations and views down to the sea, there are singing children and opening and closing numbers of dancing girls, including Toshiko. Mito is rather ordinary and conventional; Tadashi sullen and bitter about his life having been ruined by the warkmakers misleading him and the whole patriotic population.

heresto3-1600x900-c-default.jpg“Ojôsan kanpai“ (1949, the title indexes a toast and the English titles include “Here’s to the Girls” and (a more apt one) “Here’s to the Young Lady”) was not written by Kinoshita (it was written by Shindô Kaneto, future director of “The Naked Island” and “Onibaba”). It seems rather Capraesque to me, with a 34-year-old man of the people, auto shop owner Keizo (played by the then-37-year-old Sano Shuji) smitten by and courting twenty-six-year-old Keizo (played by the then-29-year-old Hara Setsuko, who played daughters of Ryû Chishû in many an Ozu film), who comes from a noble family, though her father is in prison as the fall-guy for a fraud.

Here’s to the Young Lady .jpg

Keizo is very aware of his lack of education and cultural capital. Yasuko is a very refined if timid (never been kissed) and keenly feeling the need to save the family mansion for her mother and grandparents (and sisters, and the two children of her elder sister). She is also keenly aware that her interest in the lowborn but now affluent Keizo will appear mercenary to him. (It’s not only that she is on-sale to the highest bidder, but to the only bidder.) He desperately wants her to love him, not just to be grateful to him for financial salvation of her family. According to her, she expended all her love on a fiancé who died in Manchuria.

Though lovestruck himself, Keizo adamantly blocks his younger brother Gorô (Sada Keiji) from marrying his inamorata. Murase Sachiko provides solace (psychological and liquid) in a friendly neighborhood bar.

There is no flashy cinematography by Konishita’s brother-in-law Kusuda Hiroshi’s work, though there is nothing to fault with it. The surviving print Criterion supplied Hulu is damaged, but watchable)

Apparently, the portrayal of breaking the class barrier was a big deal in Japan ca. 1949. The US Occupation was pushing democracy (only abroad, then, as now), whether Kinoshita was aiming to please the rulers (who are certainly invisible within the movie).

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Kurosawa’s “High and Low”


In addition to the films set in historical times such as “Seven Samurai,” “Rashomon,” and “Ran” for which he is best known, Akira Kurosawa directed a number of excellent movies set in post-WWII Japan (movies about any present day become historical artifacts, so that it cannot be said that any of Kurosawa’s movies show “present-day Japan”). Many of the latter involve criminals and policemen, my favorite of these being “Stray Dogs.”

The 1963 example, “Tengoku to jigoku” (which means “Heaven and Hell,” but has the more secular translation “High and Low” as its English title), based on Ed McBain’s novel King’s Ransom is split in two. The first part is set on a hill in the grand house of industrialist Gondo Kingo (Mifune Toshirô). Things up there are not very heavenly, first because the other directors of the National Shoe Corporation to which Gondo has devoted himself are intent on producing shoddy but profitable products. Gondo has assembled financing to gain a controlling interest of the company and is about to dispatch thirty million yen to Osaka when he receives a call that his son has been kidnapped. Hell has invaded heaven, as it were.

Gondo soon discovers that his son has not been kidnapped. Rather, the chauffeur’s son, wearing the son’s cowboy outfit has. Whether Gondo will sacrifice everything he has worked for to save someone else’s child is the dilemma of the first part of the movie. The kidnapper’s calls make it clear that the house on the hill is within his field of vision and taunts Gondo as a squad of policemen stand by, frustrated at their inability to trace the calls. The earnest detective in charge, Tokura (played by Nakadai Tatsuya who appeared in many Kurosawa films and played the leads in the twin summits “Kagemusha” and “Ran”) is sensitive to the very tough choice Gondo must make. Reaching down to save a child from the grip of a self-styled prince of darkness requires sacrificing all Gondo has worked for, including the house which is mortgaged as part of the take-over bid he cannot make if the 30 million yen are diverted.

In the second half of the movie, set in the lower precincts and culminating in the hellacious “Dope Alley,” Gondo hardly figures (until the very end). Tokura commands considerable resources and has the cooperation of the press in tracking down the kidnappers. Kurosawa was interested in the process rather than in playing “whodunit” games, and shows the caller (Yamazaki Tsutomu ) at the start of the manhunt portion.

Both parts alternate shots that are markedly from unusually low or unusually high angles (justifying the English title for how Kurosawa’s frequent collaborator, cinematographer Nakai Asakazu , shot the scenes? Saitô Takao was also credited). The first part begins to feel claustrophobic. It is shot almost entirely in the living room of the house on the hill. It might seem static, but for someone interested in cinema technique, the way Gondo is filmed (both the angles and the distance which translates into how much of the screen he fills) is fascinating.

The second part has more fluid camerawork and more varied settings as the police (and the chauffeur) track down the architect of the kidnapping. Tokura is good at his job, and relentless. The kidnapper is filled with resentment at the rich, but has no evident solidarity with the others who live with him in the teeming city (hell). Some of the scenes of police meetings and press cajoling (more than briefings they orchestrate disinformation to flush out the kidnapper) seem to me to go on too long. That is, I felt I had a bit too much time to look at the widescreen compositions, when I would have preferred to get on with the plot. (Our sensation-jaded third-millennium expectations and attention deficits tend to stimulate impatience with the pacing of the classic Japanese movies, even “Seven Samurai.”)

Gondo is not one of Mifune’s flamboyant roles. In his last two Kurosawa outings (this and “Red Beard“) he plays mature men whose fury at the outrageous behavior of others is held in check and whose responsibilities are many and weigh very heavily. This is especially true of the very Dosteoveskyian last scene in which Gondo goes to see the kidnapper and the kidnapper does all the flamboyant acting out (recalling the young Mifune of “Drunken Angel” as well as Nakadai’s arrogant goon in “Yojimbo”). The then-unknown Yamazaki Tsutomu brings depth to the twisted intern (but is too vicious to be a worthy opponent of either Mifune or Nakadai). Ishiyama Kenjiro provides the only comic relief as “Bos’n,” a gruff bald detective who would like nothing better than to tear the kidnapper limb from limb (a proto-Kojack?) Takashi Shimura shows up in a small role. Mihashi Tatsuya has a considerably more significant part as Gondo’s nefarious assistant.

Nasty a character as Ginjirô is, he is so outnumbered in the massive manhunt of implacable policement  that he gins a certain underdog sympathy (as Peter Lorre did in being sought by the criminal underground in “M”).

The print of the Criterion DVD is not nearly as good as that on its DVD of “Red Beard.” The latter has the best commentary tracks not by a film’s director that I have heard. The Criterion “High and Low” DVD (out since 1998) has no commentary track. Indeed, it has no extras, not even a trailer for “High and Low.”


©2016, Stephen O. Murray