Tag Archives: women’s status

Love and politics in 1950s Japan

Utage no Ato/After the Banquet (1960, published in English, translated by Donald Keene, in 1963) is with The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (the basis for Enjô/Conflagration), the most acclaimed novel by Mishima Yukio. Most of the bookis about the relationship between a retired diplomat, Soguchi Tuken, and Kazu, the owner of Setsugoan (After Snow Retreat), a chic restaurant with an impressive garden where a group of retired diplomats has a reunion. One, a former ambassador to Nazi Germany, has a stroke in the lavatory of the restaurant. The only single (widower) guest stays a while to help. Is struck by his once-elegant (in the English fashion), now shabby clothes and wants to take care of him. She has foresworn love after a career in which at least some of her advancement came from work she did on her back. It seem to me that there is much that is maternal in her attraction to Soguchi, though he does not seem to be seeking a new mother, and resists her spending money on him.


He has agreed to let his energetic younger wife (a young 50-somthing in contrast to his old 60-something) continue to operate her successful business and sleep on the grounds there weeknights. When Soguchi decides he is going to run for office, Kazu (unbeknownst to him) throws her energy and resources into the campaign, starting before it is legal to do so (before the election is formally called). Soguchi is stiff and proper, but Kazu connects with lower-class voters, à la Eva Peron, eclipsing her prosaic husband devoid of the popular touch:
“The phrases from Kazu’s lips – ‘reform of the prefectural administration,’ ‘positive policies to combat unemployment,’ and the like – plummeted to the ground like swarms of winged ants which have lost the strength of their wings, but the words visible on the lips of the crowd dripped like red meat in the sunshine.”

(On the first page of the novel, Mishima wrote: “Some curious blessing of heaven had joined in one body a mans resolution with a woman’s reckless enthusiasm.” Neither the society nor her husband are prepared to accept such a dynamo unleashed in the political sphere.)

For a time Soguchi leads in polls, but the Conservative Party publishes a scurrilous book about Kazu’s sexual history and otherwise considerably outspends the Radical Party’s campaign for Soguchi. After he loses, he retires, but his wife is not ready for a quiet life. She is, as I mentioned, more than a decade younger, and accustomed to being among men (her customer base having been Conservative Party politicians), followed by a very active role campaigning (not just financing her husband’s campaign). She cares nothing about ideology, and has a much firmer understanding of how politics resembles (or is a form of) prostitution than her idealistic husband does.


There is no depth psychology (not just Mishima, but most Japanese literature prefigured the noveau roman in chronicling objects—especially clothing, but also including menus—rather than exploring motivations). In particular, while Kazu’s feelings are detailed, the motivations of Soguchi, beyond seeking to be a public model of rectitude are not limned, and his expectations of a subservient wife seem foolish from the get-go as she more or less conquers him and is obviously a more than competent business owner. Also, she is more in love, eager to advance her husband (by any means, not just the patrician ones of which he approves). In contrast, he is not particularly in love and is totally indifferent to what his wife wants (for him or for herself), indeed is clueless about what that might be.

A third major character is Yamazaki, Kazu’s political mentor, a Radical Party operative accustomed to defeat by the money the Conservative Party uses (“Corruption in an election or the victory of moneyed power did not in the least surprise him; they seemed as natural as stones and horse dung along a road”). He advises both Soguchi and Kazu and appreciates her more than her husband does.

Still, the protagonist of the novel is Kazu and it focuses on her difficulties, not at all colluding the male privilege or taking a male perspective on female aspirations. (Also see the entirely female world Mishima created in “Madame de Sade” and Asako in  “Rokumeikan.”) Given Mishima’s horror about the ravages to the body of age that led to his suicide in 1970, the book is remarkably sympathetic to characters older than he would allow himself to become,


The real-life model for Soguchi was Arita Hachirô, who had been Japanese Ambassador to Austria and Belgim, Minister for Foreign Affairs. Like Soguchi , he won a seat in the House of Rpresentative in 1953, ran and lost a campaign to be Governor of Tokyo in 1955. The married Arita had a notorious affair with a Ginza hostess. Arita won a suit for invasion of privacy by the novel, though it seems to me that there were major differences” Arita rose much higher in the government, his wife was dead when he took up with a hostess, and his attempt to become Governor of Tokyo was not a comeback and was not waged as a radical against his former partymates. And rather than retiring after defeat, he ran (and lost) again four years later. I don’t know how close to the real-life model Kazu was, but his political career did not end with the 1955 defeat.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Kinoshita’s “Yotsuda, the Phantom” (1949)


Kinoshita’s 1949 adaptation (one of very many) of a famous (in Japan) 1825 Kabuki play (by Tsuruya Nanboku), “Yotsuya kaidan,” is available (on Hulu) as “The Yotsuda Phantom” It came out in two parts of 84 and 72 minutes, with the last seven or so minutes of part one repeated (rather than part one being summarized) at the start of part two. Part One is almost as hard on the viewer as it is on the suffering, loyal, and luckless Oiwa (Tanaka Kinuyo).

The film begins with its biggest set piece, a prison breakout in Edo (Tokyo). The only escaped prisoners not captured and then beheaded were Kohei (Sada Keiji), through dumb luck and Gonbei Naosuke (Takizawa Osamu [Fires on the Plain]). The latter had snitched on the plan to the authorities, and is sought by a gang whose leader was among those betrayed. Naosuke might be the Japanese byword for “betrayal”; he makes Iago seem like a loyal friend!

Kohei was besotted by a teahouse waitress, Oiwa, and stole from the till, hoping to be able to afford her (to buy her release from indenturing?). His infatuation was not reciprocated, and while he was in prison she married Iemon Tamiya (Uehara Ken), who had lost his position as a samurai when the storehouse of his master was robbed. I don’t know how he was able to get Oiwa released from the teahouse, since his disgrace occurred seven years before the story…

Iemon seems to drink up more than Oiwa’s umbrella-making earns. She is more than devoted to him, though he does not treat her well even—or especially—after she has a miscarriage (just before the start of the movie).

Naosuke manages to arrange a match for Iemon with the daughter of a rich merchant. Though the town seems small, the father somehow is not aware that Iemon is already married. Naosuke plots to make Iemon single. He wants to show Iemin Oiwa entertaining Kohei, so that Iemon will either slay the lovers or divorce his wife, but Oiwa virtuously repels him. Then Naosuke supplied Iemon with poison, which Iemon is reluctant to use. It is not exactly honorable for a samurai to poison his devoted wife to be free to marry someone with money (and a father who can get him a job).

Oiwa’s death is hideous and Iemon slays Kohei for good measure. Naosuke helps him dump the corpses in a canal (not exactly a raging river that would carry the corpses far…). Though financially set, Iemon is haunted by guilt. Japan is supposed to be the prototype shame culture, but Iemon replaced the shame of being a masterless samurai (ronin) with guilt for having slain a virtuous and loving wife.

The ghosts do not take revenge as onryô do in some other Japanese ghost movies. Iemon imagines Oiwa, and when Oiwa’s sister, the hardier, Osode (also Tanaka Kinuyo)goes to see him wearing the kimono her sister was wearing when Iemon killed her, he flips out.


In part two, Naosuke proceeds with his plans to enrich himself through his hold on Iemon, commits some new crimes, and confesses to (well brags of?) some older ones before he went to prison. There is a closing conflagration.

Kinoshita’s brother-in-law, Kusuda Hiroshi, provided serviceable if not especially memorable studio-bound cinematography.

I haven’t written yet about “Kwaidan,” but have written about two other superior 1950s Japanese ghost story movies: Shindo’s “Onibaba” and “Kuroneko”/The Black Cat.”


©2016, Stephen O. Murray