Tag Archives: postwar Japan

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

Kojima’s Embracing Family


The novel by Kojima Nobuou (1915-2006) that I want to read is Stars and Stripes. The only one that has been translated, however, is the katei shôstsu (domestic novel) Houyou Kazoku (1965, translated as Embracing Family), which won the inaugural Tanizaki Prize. The jacket blurb likens the dysfunctional marriage at the book’s center to that in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?” George and Martha in Albee’s play are much funnier than Shunsuke and Tokiko, and Tokiko lacks the position Martha had in the college town. Moreover, the Miwas have real —not imaginary — children, Ryoichi and Noriko


Rather than braying and making nasty remarks to others about her husband, Tokiko is neurasthetic. Her primary interest seems to be in plastic surgery to counteract aging, followed by having a showplace house. Shunsuke is not vain and superficial, but is timid and very conscious of not being able to make his wife happy. Not that he can make himself happy either.

He did not better at stimulating love from the mistress he broke with before going for a year in the US. When he discovers that Shunsuke had an affair (or maybe a single sexual encounter) with an American GI connected to their maid, Tokiko is a bit irritated, but does not feel jealousy—or much of any other emotion. When the GI revisits Tokyo after going home to the United States, Shunsuke invites him to the new house and then invites him to stay over, giving up his bed/bedroom to George and telling Tokiko she can go to him if she wants (she declines).

Shunsuke is (purportedly! in local assumptions) an expert on American ways, lecturing about American family life. It seems to me that Tokiko is more of a caricature of a dissatisfied and superficial American wife than Shunsuke is a “modern” (i.e., American) husband. His focus on his work and emotional distance from his children and expectations of a wife seem very traditionally Japanese. What is modern is his lack of self-confidence. He is certainly not capable of being a patriarch, or much of an entity of any sort, though he is easily shamed (like the nebbish, buffeted hither and yon English teacher in “American school,” Kojima’s best-known work).

(An explicit contrast made in the book is that “Caucasian men are passionate lovers, and they try very hard to satisfy their women. They’re not like Japanese men at all. Do you know that they talk to you afterward too? Maybe some Japanese men will talk to you, but not after it’s over” (p. 63). That is mildly shocking to Shunsuke. A student/apprentice translator he takes into the household asserts that “Western characters act logically….. Compared to them, the Japanese are temperamental, vague, and opportunistic.,” Vague, I can see, but I can’t recall anyone else finding Americans lacking in opportunism!)

Plot spoiler alert

For me, the best part of the not very long novel is the negotiation with a prospective wife (after Tokiko dies of breast cancer). It is obvious to the reader that this woman in her mid-30s who has to be jolted out of bed by her mother around 11AM would not be useful in running a household (with the slatternly maid rehired after another one dallied with Ryoichi) or mothering the nearly adult children. Nor is there any sexual spark. “If you like my children, I think I will have affection for you” is the best he can do at selling marriage to himself.

End plot spoiler alert

When the novel takes place is vague. I thought it was during the US Occupation (1945-52) until there was a mention of the assassination of John Kennedy, which occurred late in 1963, not very long before a book published in 1965 could have been written. It was not published in English until 2005 (translated by Tanaka Yukiko for the Dalkey Archive).

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

The only other Kojima book available in English is the collection of short stories given the title Long Belts and Thin Men, that was just published and that I discussed here. On the fiction of writers who were adult during the war and began publishing after it (the “third generation)  see here.


Short fiction by Kojima Nobuo, 1952-61


Kojima Nobuo (1915-2006) was drafted in 1941, shortly having graduated with a degree in English literature (his graduation essay was “Thackeray as a Humorist”) and had an absurd military career: first ordered to forget English, he later was detailed to translating intercepted American military radio transmissions. The rest of his unit was deployed to Leyte, where they were slaughtered



Japan is the prototypical shame-based culture and the protagonists of Kojima fiction (including a Nisei leading character) are often paralyzed by fear of doing something shameful. Surviving the war was shameful (not that easily distinguished from “survivor guilt”), if not as shameful as surrendering before the Emperor ordered it.

As Van C. Gessell explained in The Sting of Death, the writers who emerged after WWII and many others of their generation were

“trained not so much to kill as to die, and armed with the instruments of their annihilation, they were sent forth on a mission they loathed and ultimately failed to accomplish. And though they may have been pleased to fail in the deepest recesses of their hearts, they were also publicly embarrassed by that fact. The rush of circumstances made them into unwilling survivors, since the death that was supposed to be their goal and their national duty had conveniently eluded them…. Those who returned alive, for whatever reason, had somehow failed in their calling, had managed to incur shame without committing a shameful act. Fort this generation, the stigma of survival, the return to a ruined and defeated homeland from which they could no more retrieve their youth, and the humiliation of foreign occupation all combined to complete the uprooting process.”

The infantryman narrator of Kojima’s breakthrough fiction, “The Rifle” (1952), melded with his rifle as infantrymen everywhere are urged to do. When it was taken away from him (before Japan’s surrender), he felt lost. Before that, he had been ordered to shoot and bayonet a Chinese woman. No explanation was given him, and he was traumatized by his part in one of the many atrocities the Japanese Army committed in China (and elsewhere). Lawrence Rogers’ introduction likens “The Rifle” to Gogol’s “The Diary of a Madman.” The obsessiveness about a physical possession seems to me more to resemble Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” as other Kojima fiction brings Dostoeveseky’s Notes from the Underground to mind.

“The Rifle” was nominated for the Akutagawa Prize, which Kojima won for the novella Amerikan sukūru (American School, 1954). Its shame-drenched protagonist, Isa, is an English teacher terrified of having to actually speak the language to a native (certain to be shamed by mistakes and/or being incomprehensible). He is trapped, in borrowed and acutely uncomfortable shoes, in a group of Japanese teachers of English who visit a school for the children of American soldiers and officials. The American teachers are paid ten times as much as the Japanese ones and the school is posher on about the same order of magnitude.

In contrast to the shy and chronically ashamed Isa, is the brash and opportunistic Yamada. Yamada is more than willing to celebrate the swordsmanship he used in decapitating prisoners (including captured American ones) during the war to another teacher, though toadying to the conquerors. He has appointed himself commander of the platoon of teachers, though a kind-hearted female teacher (the only female teacher in the group) Michiko speaks better English.

Michiko and a statuesque American teacher, Miss Emily, try to ease Isa’s physical discomfort, but embarrass (shame) him further as an isolated object of pity. And the principal of the school, Mr. Williams, outdoes Yamada at being a martinet, shaming Yamada. The Japanese males’ free-floating humiliation (from defeat and subservience to alien occupiers) is given some new occasions by the attempted solidarity exercise.

Rogers sees two stories from before Kojima’s American (University of Iowa) sojourn as homoerotic. I would have missed the homoerotic aspect of “Voices” (1955), though it has a man (who sells figurines he makes) taking an inexplicable (to the salaryman rushing to work) interest in Sashara. And Sashara, who works at the Defense Agency (no longer Ministry with the abolition of a standing army) enjoys the commands that drift in from the police academy, not consciously relating them to the commands he heard during the war in the army.

The longer “The Black Flame” (1957) has a protagonist enamored of a coworker, Hiroshi, and having an affair with Hiroshi’s wife, Rumi, to feel closer to his secret beloved. The couple have ceased to have sexual relations, so the narrator is not going where Hiroshi has recently gone, though he often urinates in the same urinal Hiroshi has just used. Though the narrator is enamored with Hiroshi, the story is almost entirely about the (adulterous) heterosexual coupling.


Three of the nine stories derive from Kojima’s experiences and observations in Iowa. He did not want to stay in a dormitory and asked to be placed with American families. The wild — shockingly undisciplined to Japanese eyes with parents who do not try to control them — preschoolers in “The House of Hooligans” (1958) are perhaps a warning against accepting American permissiveness in child-raising. It is an amusing tale of culture shock.

More interesting (at least to me) is “Buffoon in an Alien Land” (1958) in which the narrator thinks about having sex with his (Mennonite) hostess, but is mostly buffeted by the demands to perform Japaneseness by his previous hostess, a remarkably brash Amish woman. She has decided that he will demonstrate how to make sukiyaki –with slabs of beef, frozen and canned vegetables — for/before 70 local women. That he has never cooked, let alone with Iowa-available ingredients (including Chinese soy sauce), is no problem in the view of Marcie. (Alas, the reader does not find out how it turned out or whether the rural Iowa women were enchanted with the “exotic” fare.) The typically timid Kojima alter ego is a keen observer of tensions within the marital relations of his hosts

Rogers (and I) wonder how fictitious those two stories are. The third and shortest, “A Certain Day” (1961) has to be, since it centers on a wife who accompanied the Japanese sojourner, who is an engineer, not a writer. She is startled to look out and see a cow next to the house (the basis for the cover illustration) and seems more comfortable in the alien land than her husband, though he has interacted more with Americans.

“In Our Forties” (1961) similarly displays a couple (safely in Japan) planning to build a house, prefiguring Embracing Family (1965), though the couple in the story are not as estranged from each other as that in the novel are. The wives are more decisive, less concerned about “public opinion” than the husbands in both. These ineffectual males, and the ashamed father in “The Smile” [1954] who is unable to love the crippled son he finds when he returns from the war, suppress their aggressiveness, but otherwise resemble married versions of the narrator of Notes from the Underground (and Shimao’s 1947 “Solitary Traveler”)—the pained, awkward Dosteovesky characters seem to have fascinated many Japanese of the postwar era).

Though I am interested in the psychic aftershocks of war and defeat, and the rapid social change of rebuilding Japan, it is the pained intercultural encounters that most interest me in the Kojima stories collected in the just-published Long Belts and Thin Men. (The title is Rogers’ not Kojima’s: when he first went to Japan soon after the war he was struck that many men were wearing belts so long that they extended to their backs. I suspect that rather than being a stylistic choice/ fashion statement that the explanation was that belts manufactured for American girths were dumped on the Japanese market, and then-impoverished thin Japanese made do. He does not seem to have asked anyone whether they felt that American were 1.5 times greater (in girth or anything else) than they were.)

©2016, Stephen O. Murray


Minor Kinoshita soap opera: “Wedding Ring” (1950)


The title of Kinoshita’s 1950 very predictable soap opera “Konyaku yubiwa” was translated into English as “Engagement Ring,” but the ring often shown in closeup is a diamond wedding ring, and the current Criterion/Hulu title “Wedding Ring” is far more accurate a title.

At the start, the very conscientious young physician (his vocation is established immediately, since the bus conductor is his patient) Ema (Mifune Toshirô) who rushes onto an SRO bus is literally thrown into the lap of an older woman riding on the bus. Mrs. Kuki (Tanaka Kinuyo). They both have given names (Takeshi and Noriki, respectively) but always address each other as Mr. Emi and Mrs. Kuki.

It turns out (what a coincidence) that Emi is on his way to the seaside town of Ajiro to treat Mrs. Kuki’s husband, Michio (Uno Yûkichi). The couple was married shortly before the husband went off to war and he returned with tuberculosis, so they have not had conjugal relations except very briefly when they were first married.

How could she not be attracted to the robustly healthy young Mifune (ten years her junior), having a husband in name only? She couldn’t and he is attracted to her as well (though it seems to me that he had the freedom to encounter many other and more attractive women).

Though not immune to jealousy, Michio recognizes that his wife is unfulfilled sexually. He likes his doctor and that doctor is not only conscientious in his treatment of his patient but very correct in curbing his desire for the yearningly available wife.

Mrs. Yuki watched Emi go swimming in the absurd swimsuits extending above the navel of the day (later, Emi strips down to his underwear and reveals his navel…). There are frequent shots in early Kinoshita movies of people from the knee down walking, and Emi’s footwear is observed closely by Mrs. Kuki and by the camera.


There are many artful compositions concocted by Kinoshita and his brother-in-law and usual cinematographer, Kusuda Hiroshi, while, as was often the case, Kinoshita’s brother, Chûji, was guilty of musical overkill (in the Max Steiner tradition). The flopping around resisting temptation, but ultimately doing the right thing is very, very predictable, as if the Hollywood Production Code was regulating Japanese movie (under the US military occupation at the time, it unofficially was).

©2016, Stephen O. Murray





Kinoshita’s nouveau-riche family comedy “A Broken Drum” (1949)



There is some LOL stuff in the 1949 Kinoshita sitcom, “A Broken Drum” (Yabure-daiko), about a paper tiger/ogre (Bandô Tsumasaburô) scheming to raise money to save his construction company. One of his tactics is to marry his daughter Nobuko (Higashiyama Chieko) off for a two-million-yen brideprice. She chooses to model for a painter to whom her father was rude on a train and who has cupid-like parents. Among Nobuko’s siblings are one who wants to become an actor, one who wants to become a physician, and one who writes songs (the director’s brother Chûji, who wrote the music for most Kinoshita movies), including one about a father who is like a broken drum.

The eldest son rebels at being his father’s lieutenant and starts a company of his own, making music boxes. He leaves, followed by his mother, four of his siblings, and a servant. The father refuses to acknowledge that any of these desertions of his sinking ship bothers him, though he is hurt.


I don’t like the songs (as is the case for many Kinoshita movies, which seem to include groups singing together more than in movies by other Japanese directors), and they play a prominent part with young people singing herein.

The bass line of a family business in financial straits  was reprised in  “Fireworks over the Sea”  in 1951. The madcap family prefigures the one in what I consider Kinoshita’s best comedy, the 1960 “Spring Dreams.” “A Broken Dum” is somewhat unusual in the Kinoshita oeuvre in having both parents alive, though not unique in having the father being an unpleasant and very intolerant person. (The extent to which this was conscious rejection of the patriarchy that got Japan’s imperial project overextended is not clear to me, but is at least a strong possibility following upon “Army”  and “Morning for the Osone Family.”  Father did not know best, and is repeatedly held up to ridicule, although he relaxes a bit of his rigidity to make for a happy ending here.)


©2016, Stephen O. Murray