Tag Archives: oppressed women

Mizoguchi’s “Women of the Night”


Though only running 73 minutes, I thought that Mizoguchi Kenji’s 1948 movie “Women of the Night” (Yoru no onnatachi) interminable. Also contrived, increasingly overwrought (dare I say “hysterical”?), increasingly preachy, way melodramatic, with an intact stained-glass window of the Virgin Mary in a bombed-out church as the scene for the witches’ (prostitutes) cabal. As usual, the women are treated badly, not only by men who exploit them, but by female prostitutes who drag newcomers or those trying to break away back, like crabs in a basket.

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It was the only Japanese movie from the immediately postwar years that I’ve seen that showed rubble along with broken lives, though it looked to me that the movie was shot in a studio. Kinoshita’s prosperous family and patriarch seem an altogether different world only a year later. (Much later (1983), Kinoshita shot studio rubble for “The Children of Nagasaki.”)


©2016, Stephen O. Murray

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs


Nearly at the end of it (Nakadai’s big scene), I felt that I had seen Naruse’s 1960 “Onna ga kaidan o noboru toki?”/“When a Woman Ascends the Stairs” (to a Ginza bar over which she presides) before. I found the movie slow, though not excruciatingly slow, and not because I remembered the plot. I shared the frustrations of the woman, the widow Yashiro Keiko (Takamine Hideko), who dreaded having to go up those stairs and make men happy and drunk. “But once I was up, I would take each day as it came,” she resignedly said.— even with fresh obstacles to surmount in order to get by, affronts from clients and kin, and younger women striking out on their own after she trained them.

Takamine was great, nearly impassive though not opaque to viewers (whether that is due to her acting, Naruse’s direction, or Kikushima Ryuzo’s writing). Nakadai Tatsuya plays Komatsu Kenichi, a manager who admires her and, in particular, her not selling her body over the course of five years in the business. He is pretty bland until his penultimate scene. I don’t know why the client whom Yashiro loves is the chilly Fujisaki (Mori Masayuki), but making good decisions is incompatible with the soap-opera genre (and Naruse refused to provide a romantic happy ending).


Pudgy Katô Daisuku delivers a performance to Yashiro that doesn’t quite break her heart, but breaks the heart of the viewer on her behalf. In showing the impossible lot of women without husbands, the film brings Mizoguchi (Street of Shame in particular) to mind, though Yashiro is not ground to dust like a Mizoguchi victim (surviving with a mouthful of ashes more like a Douglas Sirk protagonist, though the visuals are very different). With splendid b&w cinematography by Tamai Masao albeit with few camera movement (though more variety of camera placement than in Ozu movies).

The Japanese re-release trailer gives away far too much plot. The Criterion Collection bonus feature interview with Nakadai is excellent. He says that he learned a lot about screen-acting from Takamine, though he was scared of her. He says she was kind but not at all warm. And that he received very little direction from Naruse (Takamine, who was in 17 of his movies, said the same thing).


©2016, Stephen O. Murray


Naruse’s 1952 “Mother”/”Okasan”


Life was hard for the widowed, self-sacrificing titular mother in Naruse’s 1952 film (Okasan), though the commemoration through an affectionate daughter’s voiceover verges on sentimentality (in contrast to Kinoshita’s (1953) “A Japanese Tragedy”). Tanaka Kinuyo (Sansho the Bailiff, The Life of Oharu) is the somewhat sentimentalized mother, Fukuhara Masako, seen from the perspective of her older daughter Toshiko (Kagawa Kyôko who played Mifune’s wife in “High and Low” and the second female lead in “Sansho, the Bailiff”). The patient husband/father Ryosuke (Mishima Masao) waited for the property (laundry/dyeing establishment) on a main street that the wartime government expropriated to be returned, but dies before that happens. Their adult son, Susumu (Katayama Akihiko) has to go off to a sanitarium (presumably tuberculosis, though some work-related lung condition may be the reason). The Fukuharas’ life is no picnic, though a picnic relieves the struggle for survival shown in most of the movie. (There’s also a carnival interlude.)

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I find it hard to understand why Masako allows her younger daughter (Chako) to be adopted while continuing to raise the younger boy child (Tetsuo) of her sister Noriko (Nakakita Chieko) who is studying hairdressing, then beginning work as a beautician. I was interested to see the young Okada Eiji (Hiroshima, Mon Amour) as Shinjiro, a baker hoping to marry Toshiko. He provides much of the comedy, romantic and other, including singing and coping with a date for which Toshiko shows up with her younger sister and de facto younger brother.

©2015, Stephen O. Murray











“Money is everything”: Naruse’s “Bangiku”


The “Late Chrysanthemums” of the title of Naruse Mikio’s 1954 movie (“Bangiku” in Japanese, based on three 1948 stories by Hayashi Fumiko [whose fiction was also the source of Naruse’s 1955 “Floating Clouds”]) are four middle-aged former geishas, who had made it through the (Pacific) war. The one with the most screen time, the miserly Kin (Kinoshita and Ozu regular Sugimura Haruko), is a property speculator and money-lender. She goes around collecting rent. She retained some nostalgia for a married patron, Tabe (Uehara Ken, typecast as a seductive cad), who was also in the army in Manchuria and primps for his visit, only to find that he is there hoping to borrow money. As is her one-time lover, Seki (Miaka Bontaro), who tried to kill her in a failed “double suicide” (he cut his throat and stabbed her, for which he was rightly convicted of “attempted murder,” since Kin had not wanted to die then). Kin does not drink or gamble or go out except to collect rent (she has a deaf-mute serving girl (Sawamura Sonosuke) to buy groceries).


Two of her former peers are widows, each with one feckless child. Tomi’s impudent daughter, Sachiko is marrying without consulting letting alone gaining approval of the match to an older, affluent man from her mother. Tamae’s son Kiyoshi (Koizumi Hiroshi) has never held down a long-run job (I think he has been a gigolo), is sponging on a woman old enough to be his mother, and is going off to Hokkaido for a new job. Both the alcoholic Tomi (Arima Ineko) and the sickly Tamae Hoskoawa Chikako) are in debt to Kin, and the fourth, Nobu (Sawaura Sonosuke), is running a small bar in property owned by Kin. Nobu (a character not the focus of any of the three Hayashi stories) lives with a husband and seems more content with her lot than the other three

Children, thus, are as unreliable as geisha patrons. None of the four women is happy, though the one making some money betting on bicycle races and playing Pachinko (I don’t know how anyone can turn a profit from the latter and the movie provides no enlightenment or any portrayal of playing it.) Tame works as a chambermaid, but is frequently incapacitated with migraines.

Though not holding any shot for very long, the camera never moves within a shot, interior or exterios (in contrast to the fluid camerawork of Mizoguchi and early Kurosawa). Saitô Ichirô’s music is innocuous, minimalist Japanese.


Though the movie has its admirers (Dennis Schwartz considers it “emotionally gripping” and Keith Uhlich lauded it as “a film of unbridled riches.” I find it drab and boring and not showing much of interest about Japanese attempts to deal with either the war crimes or the devastation of firebombing (and nuclear weapon bombing) visited on Japan. Nor is there much in the way of female solidarity to celebrate. The movie was made after the end of US Occupation and censorship of the Japanese movie industry.

©2016, Stephen O. Muray


Naruse’s adaptation of Kawabata’s Sound of the Mountain


It’s hard for me to believe that a novel than only takes up 276 pages in English (the National Book Award-winning one of Edward Seidensticker) was serialized over the span of five years, but future Nobel Prize-winner Kawabata Kasunari’s Yama no Oto was (Sound of the Mountain, 1949-54; simultaneously with Thousand Cranes). It was then quickly made into a movie (1954) directed by Naruse Mikio.

In that both Kawabata and Naruse generally focused on female characters, another surprise is that the focus of TSound of the Mountain is a man. Ogata Shingo (Yamamura Sô) starts to think that he must have been a failure as a father, since his selfish son, Shuichi (Naruse and Kinoshita regular Uehara Ken) is out drinking most every night with his mistress, neglecting his uncomplaining wife Kikuko (Hara Setsuko, the dutiful daughter of many Ozu family dramas, notably “Tokyo Story,”mistreated/underappreciated by Uehara Ken characters with some frequency). And Shingo’s daughter, Fusako (Nakakita Chieko), has left her husband and arrives with her bratty daughter and baby in her father’s home. (It suprises me that the children were so spoiled, having grown up during the war with its privations for those at home.)


Shingo is the only one who seems to conceive that Kikuko might have feelings. He feels sorry for Kikuko, though he—as much as and his wife, daughter, and son— avails himself of her domestic skills and readiness cheerfully to undertake doing whatever needs to be done. (With her as a de facto servant, there is no rush to find a new maid.)

Kikuko also seems to remind Shingo of the older sister of his wife (the coarse and entitled-feeling Yasuko, played by Nagaoika Taruko); he had been in love with her, but she died and he married the plainer-looking younger sister. This is reprised in Shingo’s preference for his daughter-in-law over his daughter, which his wife and his daughter complain about. Fusako and her mother both blame Shingo for the failure of Fusako’s marriage, as if he had raised Fusako and his wife had not been involved, though the daughter is coarse, whiney, and selfish like her mother, whereas Kikuko is refined and uncomplaining.

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The saccharine Saitô Ichirô music annoyed me, and the images have not aged well, but eventually Kikuko takes an action that surprised me, and Suichi’s mistress ups the melodrama. Not much is resolved at the wistful ending in Shinjuku Park after the leaves have fallen from the trees—this is still Shingo’s point of view. Neither he nor the viewer knows what Kikuko really thinks about his adoration or the lack of even common courtesy from his son (her husband). In contrast, the mistress’ perspective is spelled out when, late in the movie, she appears.

The set for the Ogata home was modeled on Kawabata’s own, btw.


©2016, Stephen O. Murray