Kyûpora no aru machi / Foundry Town (1962)

3 07 2015

The history of film is so large and intractable that we, as scholars, often have to take short cuts to fit history into a narrative that we can understand. One of these short cuts is the idea of the “house style” which was birthed out of 1930s Hollywood. It is largely specific to this moment in America, but many have transposed its idea (that film studios became linked with a certain genre or style) into other moments. Nikkatsu in 1960s Japan, for example, is synonymous with edgy, crime-driven thrillers that are indicative of the country’s cinematic shift into the rougher, more energetic and more violent Japanese New Wave. Kiriro Urayama’s Foundry Town has this kind of energy and it is concerned with generational conflict (plus, Shohei Imamura is responsible for the script), yet it seems more mature than the works that became iconic for Nikkatsu around the same time. If this all sounds a little vague, that’s because it is, and maybe we shouldn’t simplify a narrative about a studio or an era.

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Jun is a model student at the precipice of higher education. Her devotion to studying occurs in the middle of a great drama affecting her home life. Her father, Tatsugoro, is constantly in and out of work with the myriad foundries that punctuate the landscape of Kawaguchi. To make matters worse, another child has been introduced into the family. Through her friend Yoshie, she gets a job working at a pachinko parlor. Yoshie, a Korean-American is stressed about her family’s move to North Korea, especially because her mother, who isn’t Korean, shows no intention of moving with the rest of her family.

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Foundry Town is, much like the recently reviewed Summer Clouds, a film about labor. The film opens with the scenes of foundry life, followed by a group of workers confronting their boss about poor work conditions. Tatsugoro is the oldest in this group of workers and he’s the one most resistant to the idea of worker solidarity. When a younger worker calls out their boss for spending company funds on a mistress, Tatsugoro defends his boss and says that a man with such power would be an embarrassment if he didn’t have a mistress. Tatsugoro’s labor frames the context for the entire film. The family is in Kawaguchi precisely because this is labor he is qualified to do, and when he does lose his job(s), it is Jun who has to make sacrifices for the family.

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While we spend most of our time with the struggles of Jun’s family, it reveals itself in the end to be about her friendship with Yoshie. Their families act as parallels, Jun needs to get away from her mother and father (and their dependence on her prohibits her from leaving) while Yoshie needs to stay together with her mother, despite her protests. Yoshie’s status as Korean-Japanese is crucial to the film, even as it is never articulated to a modern, Western audience what dynamic is revealed in her identity. We see her younger brother publicly bullied by his peers. Characters repeatedly display a confusion for which Korea Yoshie “belongs to” if they even bother to consider the relationship at all.  Of course, it is in this very moment that Foundry Town makes a (successful) turn to the melodramatic. Yoshie’s brother releases a pigeon while leaving, but it causes him to cry. He can’t leave Japan, even if it hasn’t exactly welcomed him.

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The goodbyes shared between Jun and Yoshie are played in a similar melodramatic vein, but this emotional tension is brilliant in a situation that has a highly charged political context. It is seldom that the power of friendship, especially a friendship between two young girls is granted such sincerity. The economic situation of both families has forced the girls to grow up fast. Thus, its fitting that their relationship is given the attention usually afforded for adult men and no one else. The melodramatic flashes throughout the film underscore the reality of growing up, where all decisions feel crucial. Of course, they really are for Jun and Yoshie, yet the film makes an important point to sympathize with the way adults attempt to minimize their problems.

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In the end, we get something of a happy ending. Tatsugoro gets another job, with the help of the union he had resisted because of socialist anxiety. Jun, meanwhile, has already started a job and intends to pay for her schooling entirely on her own. Tatsugoro is flabbergasted by this revelation and it is very likely that we are too. It seems a bit too noble that Jun would make this big of a personal sacrifice, but she’s been making sacrifices for her mother and father (who greatly undervalue her) for a long time. Their is a political importance to her life choice, she wants to provide for herself because she doesn’t want to be drawn back into an abusive home life. Poignantly, Yoshie is never given such a redemptive moment. She still has her friendship, though, and that is important.

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