Tag Archives: hierarhcy

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

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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.

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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).

 

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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.

 

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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

Hierarchy and romance at Yawata Ironworks

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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.

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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