Shukuzu / Miniature (1953)

21 08 2015

Kaneto Shindo would go on to have a stronger association with the Japanese New Wave, but like Keisuke Kinoshita (who he wrote a screenplay for years before this film) and Masahiro Shinoda, he seemed to get his break before such a movement became clearly defined. Miniature is not his first film, but it is one of his earliest and it places him in a precarious time and position. The influence of his mentor, Kenji Mizoguchi, cannot be missed and yet, within a film told mostly through interiors, Shindo tries to find a way to tell a story in a new way. I’d be lying if I said I am enamored with Miniature, but I still find it unique and its place in history is often ignored in crafting a more convenient narrative of Japan’s cinematic history. I’ve always found the idea of a “classic cinema” and “a New Wave” to be frustrating and simple, Miniature elaborates on the fallacy of such a construction.

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Ginko leaves behind her hometown and her family of shoemakers to become a geisha in Chiba. She is overwhelmed at first, but quickly adapts to the pressures of the job. She falls in love with a young med student, Kurisu, but warns him that their relationship will never work because of her profession. Later, the madam of her house dies and grants Ginko to be her replacement. Frightened by the demands of her madam’s husband, she runs away to Takada. There, she falls for another young man, but their interactions are interrupted by his mother. Heartbroken, she returns to Tokyo, bitter and hardened by her experiences. She worries she’ll never escape from her profession and makes a concentrated effort to make sure her younger sisters won’t have to follow in her footsteps.

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Like his mentor, Kenji Mizoguchi, Shindo’s tale of labor goes the route of tragedy. It is indeed hard to escape the comparison between Miniature and Mizoguchi’s Life of Oharu. Here, Ginko does not descend down a cycle of abuse, but her life is similarly transient. In both films, the constant movement is self-defense, ironically the physical movement clashes with the lack of social mobility for its heroines. Ginko, late in the film, expresses her deep anxiety that she’ll die a geisha. Oharu, on the other hand, knows she’ll die a sexworker, her dread is wondering when she will be killed. Additionally, Ginko has options, which might be Shindo’s crucial modification of the tragedy. She can escape, but the other options are equally uninviting.

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Early in the film, after she leaves Chiba, Ginko returns to her family. She has chosen that life as a shoemaker will be better than life as a geisha (she states this directly at one point) but once she’s returned, she discovers that shoemaking is similarly unrewarding. Ginko’s options are just all upsetting (it is a tragedy after all) but at least she is given the agency to choose her route. Eventually, she chooses to try life as a geisha again. Her earlier lament is not a lie, labor will always be dispiriting, and we have to weigh other factors. For Ginko, a life of her own, away from her family, is the incentive to resume an occupation she loathes.

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While there some splendid outdoor scenes, a majority of Miniature takes place inside. As someone who would go on to make The Naked Island, you can see how this may have been a limitation to Shindo. Early on, he tries something interesting, though. The interior sequences in Chiba are filmed like a bad dream: every shot seems to be crowded with bodies in motion, inducing nausea. The few still moments are framed in slanted shots, zooming in on the subjects. Meanwhile, Ginko returns to her family and is photographed in loving tracking shots. In the film’s most moving moment, she returns to her childhood room and falls asleep viewing artifacts of her past. The camera glides to the window, as if to embody the mobility of her daydream. Only in this particular fragile space is she able to dream of a better life. Alas, dreams are the only breaks given from a brutal reality.

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Ani imoto / Older Brother, Younger Sister (1953)

20 08 2015

A year after the success of Lightning, Mikio Naruse was loaned out to Daiei from Toho again. The Daiei connection tempts us to compare the two films, and I find no reason to resist this impulse. Lightning and Older Brother, Younger Sister are both films about the city (and the “other” landscapes that supposedly clash with it) and the family. Both films, to speak broadly on them, depict characters who find solace and some sense of peace by escaping their family life. The familial discord of Lightning unwraps itself in a typical Narusian way, but Older Brother, Younger Sister is bursting with such great tension that it explodes in physical violence. This is a rarity for Naruse, and while it could be easy to write this film off as lesser just because the melodrama is exaggerated, I think doing so would discount much of it. It is a unique entry in Naruse’s filmography, and we should be thrilled by the opportunity to digest this is in a slightly off kilter fashion.

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San commutes to Tokyo from her family’s isolated village for nursing school. Her father, Akaza, was once the proud overseer of a damning operation. Now, he only works part time as a clerk for his wife, Riki. It is Riki’s ice cream business that manages to keep the family afloat financially. San’s brother, Ino, performs physical labor. He enjoys a somewhat cheerful relationship with his boss, which enables him to disappear from work for large periods of time. San’s younger sister is Mon, who, like her sister, also splits her time between Tokyo and her parent’s small village. Mon’s labor is never disclosed, but one can deduce, through her flamboyantly flirtatious dress and speech, that she is a bar hostess. Her presence embarrasses the rest of the town, who frame her as ungrateful and loose. This sentiment is shared by Ino, who is prone to fits of violence.

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Labor has always played a part in Naruse’s film, particularly the labor of women. Men, especially towards the end of his career, seem to exclusively work non-descript office jobs that sucks the life out of them, usually leading to them to follow their suppressed sexual desires. Ino and Akaza’s labor is, by comparison, elaborated on to greater detail but he shows us that they are unreliable individuals. Indeed, the family hasn’t completely fallen apart because of Riki’s ice cream stand. Additionally, the “dirty money” earned by Mon in the city goes to help finance San’s tuition. The women of the family are the only ones with any drive, yet it is this drive (at least for Mon and San) that earns them the derision of their peers.

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Early in the film, San is infatuated with a neighborhood noodle maker. Her feelings are reciprocated, but the parents of the noodle maker forbid the relationship on the grounds of Mon’s personality. The noodle maker is married off, and later confronts San with the promise to runaway to Tokyo with her, just as she had wished for earlier in the film. The whim is tempting for her, but she’s changed her tune and in the passion of their would-be romantic getaway, she buys one train ticket to Tokyo. For herself, to return to school. This romantic gesture has to remind her of something, perhaps the violent swings displayed by her brother, Ino. It seems less charming and more indicative of abusive behavior in the future.

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While Naruse has always poked holes in the construction of masculinity and revealed it to be both silly and toxic, he seems to go another step here, perhaps encroaching on the ground of his rival, Kenji Mizoguchi. Late in the film, San and Mon have returned to Tokyo. A peaceful lunch with their mother is interrupted by Ido, who goes on a violent spree that is entirely unlike anything else in Naruse’s oeuvre. It is difficult to watch, and feels clunky (it is being handled by someone who was otherwise uninterested in capturing physical violence) but it does unravel Ido’s hypocrisy and the violence implicit in the condescending stares of the townspeople. Their scorn contributed to the situation where Ido feels justified in slapping his own sister. This does not absolve him of any guilt, but does suggest that his violence would not be condemned by those who similarly degraded Mon’s human worth because of her personal life.

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Ido’s violence is underscored by his incestuous feelings towards Mon. When he confronts the father of Mon’s would-be child, he reveals quite explicitly that he and Mon “were closer than brother and sister.” Then, he suggests that the man is entirely responsible for the decline of their relationship. Sexual tension tends to guide most of Naruse’s work, but it seldom manifests in a way such as this. White Beast from 1950 might be the only other time when desire became so physically violent in Naruse. It feels awkward, of course, but it does give us a satisfying conclusion. To jump ahead, the film ends with Mon and San walking away from the village towards the train that will take them back to Tokyo. The story is punctuated by the fact that the sisters have grown closer in this unfortunate environment. It’s not some mushy life-affirming humanist triumph of emotions, but instead a confirmation, a validation of their worth as humans. Mon spends a great deal of the film laying down indoors. Here, she is walking and her mobility registers as liberating, as it is for San. There’s no way to be a “good girl” and considering who impose those rules, who wants to be one anyway? Mon and San get to be human together, at least for a moment. Of course, Naruse warns us that we can’t take too much joy from this moment. Mon says she’ll probably return to visit her family again, despite the abuse she’ll likely have to endure again.

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Tsuma / Wife (1953)

12 08 2015

In the early 1950s, Mikio Naruse made a handful of films in which Ken Uehara plays a variation of a bad husband. He’s not a villainous husband, but he is aloof and indifferent in RepastSound of the Mountain, and this film. Despite its title, Wife actually provides the most sympathy for Uehara’s husband, which led some critics at the time to say it defends his infidelity. Only Naruse could be so gentle and understanding with such character and yet, refuse to condone his actions. Wife might bother us because Uehara’s affair feels justified, but the balance is a ruse, the men in this film are not left off the hook. Instead, the responsibility of choice weighs heavier because “escaping” – something that both Uehara and Mineko (the film’s titular wife, portrayed by Mineko Takamine) aspire towards, is impossible.

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Mineko and Juichi wake up to a morning routine. As Juichi goes off to work, Mineko tells us (via voiceover) about her dilemma: she expects something more not just from her marriage, but from life. The camera eventually catches up to Juichi as he approaches a train station, he is similarly dissatisfied with the relationship. He doesn’t express any ill will towards his wife, but he believes his marriage to be nothing more than a performance. At work, he enjoys a friendly relationship with a typist, Sawara, who later invites him to out on a date to the art exhibit. Juichi and Sawara continue to see each other, but Sawara has to move back to Osaka. Meanwhile, frustrated with her husband’s inability to get a raise, Mineko tries to keep the family’s head above water by acting as landlord for the boarding-house they inhabit.

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Space is at a premium throughout all of Naruse’s work, but Wife makes this battle literal. Mineko rents part of the couple’s suburban home out to another couple, whose relationship quickly crumbles and serves as one of many parallels for Mineko and Juichi’s own dissolving. Another room belongs to a struggling art student, who unintentionally spies of Juichi during his date with Sawara at the art museum. Later on, another room becomes occupied by a bar hostess, who is frequently visited by one of her patrons. Eventually, the spurned wife of this patron visits Mineko, providing yet another failed marriage for us to view alongside Mineko’s.

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On the surface, space plays a minimal role for Mineko. As the housewife, she’s relegated to her decidedly non-urban (its not quite suburban and its not quite country) house. However, Naruse’s attention to space is not simply public v private (though that conversation is indeed happening throughout Wife, as well as throughout his entire career) but instead in how we relate to private space around us. Naruse’s precise compositions, along with the design of a typical 1950s Japanese home, enable the camera to cut and divide space in a way that turns it into something new. Towards the end of the film, Mineko has returned to her parent’s home. She sits empty in a room, staring in the mirror. This moment is deeply personal, a woman losing faith in her ability to “be a wife” (which is, of course, something Naruse pokes hole in) is studying her face for signs that could perhaps explain Juichi’s indifference. Naruse cuts, and the room opens up. Her sister was always in the room, but the framing created a new meaning for us and possibly, her.

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The boarding house that is run by Mineko is not unique for Naruse. These quarters are cramped, often occupied by more people then they were designed for, signaling that private space in never really private. In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard stresses the importance of a truly private space and the impact it has on our ability to daydream. Separate conversations figuratively and literally smash together at a visual intersection that lies straight beyond the house’s entrance. Mineko herself tries to daydream, yet she never really succeeds. Towards the film’s conclusion, she isolates her choices to forcing her husband to keep up the charade that is their marriage or for her to commit suicide. Later on, she reads a newspaper whose headline tells of a woman’s suicide. “She didn’t have to do that” she responds, forgetting the threat/promise she had made earlier. This inability to daydream is frustrating, both for Mineko and for us. It grounds the film, and it does so harshly.

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Mineko’s daydreaming is stifled, never given a chance to breathe but Juichi, through his relationship with Sawara is given the opportunity to dabble in the act. Interestingly, he never does this in his own home. The daydreaming occurs at a French bar he meets Sawara at in the Ginza. Or, it occurs in Sawara’s quaint home in Osaka. Of course, the lascivious elements of their relationship are subdued by Naruse, and the most “daydream” moment for Juichi is when he plays with Sawara’s son. Juichi’s affair could be described as more “wholesome” than the one Uehara character has in Sound of the Mountain. Juichi really does love Sawara, and maybe this is noble, but it is also remarkably selfish to pursue such a relationship when your wife is dissatisfied as it is. Here, one could say that Juichi and Sawara’s would-be romance is the critique of the patriarchal society and the way marriage fits inside that structure. That would be too convenient considering that Juichi benefits from the former. Instead, the most vital critique comes at the end when everything returns to normal. Mineko has won her husband back, but she is back to square one, if not worse off. When she finally confronts Sawara, she insists that Juichi needs to come back because of society. Society has restored the family structure, but Mineko is still miserable and unloved. Maybe it is just a more comfortable type of miserably.

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