Shindo: Zempen Akemi no maki / The New Road (1936)

10 11 2014

By nature of the accepted and limited discourse on Japanese film in the 1930s, this wonderful effort from Heinosuke Gosho becomes a film about modernity. This sounds like bad judgement on my part, situating the conversation on the film in something I identify to be the problem. However, there is something crucial in how the western world constructs an idea of modernity, especially when its averting its gaze on a country like Japan. As recently discussed in a post on Yasujiro Shimazu’s So Goes My Lovethe conversation on modernity is informed by an almost willful disregard for historical context, an engagement that only sees the modernity of a character as charismatic and exciting as Kinuyo Tanaka’s Akemi as society’s exception. She is “progressive” but further inspection shows us that she is not progressive in a way that would help inform a rhetoric of colonial intervention.

1

Akemi is the oldest daughter of a rural but well-off family. She receives some pressure to continue dating a rather dull businessman, but as she hopelessly carries that doomed relationship, she’s really focusing on Ippei. The two enjoy long hikes in the mountains, an activity affordable for Ippei because he’s a business owner and part-time pilot. Meanwhile, Akemi’s cousin, Utako is busy harboring a crush of her own, an attractive young artist named Toru. He offers her a life that would escape her traditional upbringing, by moving the couple to the city and providing opportunities for visits to France. Toru’s own cosmopolitan schedule creates distance between the two, but Akemi is able to spot these developments as Toru taking advantage of Utako.

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It would be a mistake to talk about The New Road without bringing up the power of Kinuyo Tanaka’s performance as Akemi. Tanaka’s entire career is punctuated with roles that could be described in a similar way, but Gosho and screenwriter Kogo Noda (who frequently collaborated with Ozu, of course) cast her in an entirely new light. Instead of the suffering mother or the transcendent martyr who catapults the pain of Mizoguchi’s work. She’s bubbly here, full of energy, and her life, similarly, seems to be limitless. Of course, here’s where the reality of her character comes into play. Gosho’s world  seems to be populated by comfortably middle-class youths, the lack of perceived “melodramatic” elements here might be a function of Akemi’s own privilege. And yet, like Oharu, Tamaki, or any other Mizoguchi protagonist, Akemi still manages to wrestle with her place in society. Sure, she’s elevated by her economic standing, but within that, she is ignored by men who she intellectually towers over.

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To clarify, this is not a film about a smart woman casually accepting her place in the middle of dumb men maintaining their power. Everyone here, perhaps benefiting from their social standing, is  well-educated. More importantly, Akemi never falls into the structure of a conventional heterosexual relationship. Sure, she longs for and has feelings for Ippei, but even if one qualifies their interactions as dating, they’d have a hard time passing it off as typical courting. This is not Hollywood’s type of romantic comedy, where the woman, for whatever reason, has to use her wits to get an oaf to fall for her. Instead of becoming Japan’s Jean Arthur, Tanaka delivers a performance that is something new entirely. Within the two relationships depicted, she somehow manages to gain control. At the risk of selling Gosho’s visuals short, this is entirely Tanaka’s film and it is fueled by her excitement.

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Even as the witty woman, the one who has a leg up on the fellas, Akemi resists many of the cues of the modern woman. In truth, modernity can mean any number of incredibly vague things but critically, there is a preference to see these hints visually. Akemi doesn’t inhabit this limited construction of modernity because she’s not interested in the city, in the academic pursuits of her male peers, or the pictures of European actresses on the wall. In the film’s most memorable sequence, she scoffs and is genuinely unimpressed by a European woman whose framed visage is Ippei’s most prized decoration. Within seconds, she both embodies and perfectly dismisses the discourse that the west chooses to attach to their engagement with women in Japanese film. She doesn’t need to be like the west, the white, the “modern” she’s already above all of those things.

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