Koibumi / Love Letters (1953)

25 02 2014

While Kinuyo Tanaka is one of the most celebrated figures of Japanese cinema in the west, her role has only been represented to us as a performer. Her tragedies with Kenji Mizoguchi, such as Sansho the Bailiff and Ugetsu, are well-regarded as classics, but they only represent a small part of her career. The “Bette Davis of Japan” had been working since as an actress in the 1930s, and she wasn’t always tasked with playing the sacrificing maternal figures that Mizoguchi saw of her. In the 1950s, she began her career as a director herself. A Keisuke Kinoshita screenplay certainly isn’t the most promising element for a film, but Tanaka brilliantly underscores his usually schmaltzy currents. The result is one of the most brilliant debuts in all of cinema and unfortunately, its mostly forgotten.

1

Still feelings the affects of the war and the American occupation, Reikichi Mayumi struggles to make ends meet. He picks up a job writing love letters, a large majority of his customers are Japanese sex workers, trying to contact the American men who loved them during the occupation. Reikichi’s experience with translation makes him a perfect fit for the job, but one day, he comes in to contact with Michiko, the woman he loved before he was sent off to war. The war years were not particularly kind to her either, and the feelings the two once shared for each other seem to cause nothing but problems.

2

The screenplay here comes from the pen of one Keisuke Kinoshita. A filmmaker who, if you’ve paid any attention to this blog, I am not particularly fond of. Kinoshita’s films are beautiful, yet stupid, and hopelessly maudlin. The same kind of impulse works its way in here, but it is probably worth noting that Kinoshita’s screenplay is based on a Fumio Niwa novel. I’ve not read any of Niwa’s work, but the films that came from his work, Battle of Roses and The Angry Street seem to be in made in the same spirit as Kinoshita’s work, and both of those films were directed by otherwise masterful Mikio Naruse. Taking all of this into account, Tanaka carried a heavy load on this, her very first film. There’s an undeniable mopey, “sadboy” quality to the film’s protagonist, Reikichi, but even as Tanaka observes and registers his sadness, she does not make it the central point in her film.

3

Reikichi’s profession, a love letter writer, may remind one of the lead protagonist’s occupation in Spike Jonze’s Her. At the risk of being harsh, I’ll also be brief but Jonze’s film uses that setup for his one simplistic, male-driven, self-inflicted “heartbreak” fantasy. Tanaka’s film, which I think is important to note as “forgotten” does indulge in the male character’s sadness but the film does not meander it through it like thick, gooey emotional honey. Instead, she cuts through it and focuses on something far more interesting and heartbreaking: the status of Japanese women and their bodies during the American occupation. Sure, Reikichi being single but writing love letters for other people is ironic and heartbreaking, but not nearly as much as writing English love letters as a Japanese woman to an American soldier.

4

The relationship between the Americans and Japanese during the occupation is one that has yet to be explored in film, at least to my knowledge, but Tanaka’s film begins to chip away at the power structure that it erected. She wasn’t the only Japanese filmmaker in the 1950s to depict sex work, but importantly, she was the only woman. I’ll celebrate someone like Naruse for having the most fair and respectful portrait of such a profession, but his male status does mean that he himself never suffered from the power dynamic that is involved in such work. Tanaka’s tenderness to her women rivals Naruse’s, and is of course levels beyond what Mizoguchi was depicting at the same time. A film like The Life of Oharu examines the oppression involved in a patriarchial society, but it does so exclusively through sex work. This isolating insists that such an oppression might be tied to women’s voluntary involvement in the profession. Tanaka’s film illuminates us to oppression, but she does not see this gendered power dynamic as being informed by sex work. Instead, the existence of sex work being influenced by the power structure. To say this in a less complicated way, Mizoguchi tortures his characters and makes them martyrs, Tanaka allows them space to roam, to discover this restriction of spaces on their own.

5

Late in the film, Reikichi scolds Michiko for both her upper-class status and her lack of class consciousness. In this sequence, another tool of oppression in a capitalist society is given attention. The film later reveals that this image of Michiko as an upper-class woman is false and following the war, she too did sex work. The conversation is interesting because it is the only one that positions Reikichi as the oppressed. The fact that this is not the reality should say something about the other tools of oppression, the fact that they’re all linked even when one’s identity doesn’t reflect all of them. Reikichi is an honorable character but again, Tanaka does not afford him any easy pass. His profession as a love letter is founded on the need for (presumably impoverished) sex workers to make contact with the Americans who left him. His wistfulness and fantasies about Michiko could not even exist without this setup. Their romance, indeed a failed and tragic one, is only lived on the backs of laborers. He can take his own sermon on class to heart, he makes money from those “beneath him.”

6

The political potential in Tanaka’s debut is staggering, but it isn’t the end of the film’s merits. Its parallel on colonialism and sexism is relevant, even today, and is enough to make the film required viewing. Interwoven with all of this is a heartache of a melodrama. Sure, Reikichi and Michiko’s lost love is contextualized by the structures briefly touched on above, but it does not dilute their sadness. If anything, they work together in providing the dissolving factor in their relationship. Like her countrymen, Ozu and Naruse, Tanaka has made a film that is political because it is personal and vice versa. What it says about life is not restricted to “traditional Japanese society” (an Orientalist construct), it resonates in contemporary, western society as well.

7

Advertisements




Karumen kokyo ni kaeru / Carmen Comes Home (1951)

29 01 2014

With its instance on being lighthearted and charming, it’s difficult for one to critically evaluate Keisuke Kinoshita’s Carmen Comes Home without sounding like a kill joy. It’s a gloriously photographed film, Japan’s first in color, but the novelty of the photography eventually weighs on the actual content. While I frequently criticize Kinoshita for forcing the pathos in his films, he doesn’t even bother to try here in this film. There’s the same, drippy melodramatic tearjearker touches one comes to expect from him, but the tone of the experience is too jovial for that to make the film feel particularly overwrought. Instead, the probably here lies in his complete lack of interest in his characters. His ambition is not nearly as great as it is in a film like Twenty-four Eyes, but the result feels similarly empty.

1

Lily Carmen is a famous dancer in Tokyo. However, the locals in her hometown recall fondly her days as a youth. Her father, who experiences some difficulty walking, is ashamed of his daughter’s profession. The fact that she’s never returned home is preferable to him, as he shows no interest in ever confronting her about what he understands to be a dirty profession. Carmen and her friend, Akemi Maya arrive in the village to much fanfare. However, Carmen’s father is still resistant to speaking with her. He intentionally hides whenever the two girls gleefully announce their presence. Upset with his refusal to listen to her, Carmen and Maya decide to put on a show for the entire village. They do it in the name of the art of dancing, but the villagers are attracted by the potential for nudity.

2

Kinoshita’s script paints with rather broad strokes, establishing a binary immediately between rural and urban life. To his credit, we never see Carmen and Maya’s life in Tokyo so all of this characterization of city life might be a inward critique of the small village’s own ignorance of it. On the other hand, that would be giving Kinoshita too much credit when he continually sympathizes and places himself with the perspective of the villagers. It’s the same characterization made in Murnau’s Sunrise. The city and its materialism represents evil and decadence. The rural village is return to the simple, idyllic life that we should aspire towards. To Murnau’s credit, he critiqued this himself in his own film, City Girl, which paints both spaces as having their strengths and weaknesses. The reality comes in what you yourself do with the space your given, which sounds like some neoliberal “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” rhetoric, but it’s not. To be more blunt, this type of binary isn’t exactly false (farm life is different from city life, sure) but it is instead represented in such a one-dimensional way that it becomes characterization tools for the actual characters in the film.

3

There is an awful lot to like in the titular character, Lily Carmen. Of course, Hideko Takamine is fantastic in a role that requires her to channel a bubbly personality, one that would seem to be the antithesis to the women she played in most of Mikio Naruse’s films. One important similarity would be the connection of sexwork, always at least happening on the periphery in Naruse’s world, if not in the center. Naruse’ stoic, broken (physically and mentally), and sad women immediately register as worthy of our attention and sympathy. Carmen, however, is constantly trying to earn this and its because Kinoshita’s script limits her in some sort of obstacle course that seems designed with the intention to only see her fall and have us laugh at the conceited big city girl. She repeatedly refers to her work as a dancer as art but that word is greeted with only smirks and giggles by the men of the village, all of whom’s condescension Kinoshita aligns with. Like the men of the village, he sees this art as merely smut and Maya and Carmen as victims of a society that thrives off of such work. Any pride they take in their profession is unmasked and pulled out to the center of a horny public who classifies their pride as stupid.

4

In the end, Carmen and Maya do put on a show for the village and yes, they willingly display their bodies in a crowded makeshift theater. This final act doesn’t really tie things up. Carmen’s father accepts the money made from his daughter, but he still sees it as tainted. The blind music teacher who Carmen once loved gets back his accordion because the new owner, still drunk from the show, gives it away in an act of good will via personal intoxication. Most importantly, Carmen and Maya control their show, controlled their sexuality, and can now happily return to their normal lives in the city. It all feels a bit too cute, especially when the consequences are kind of amazing. Carmen’s father still sort of hates her, and Kinoshita glossing over this detail is weirdly poignant. Also, Carmen’s lyrics celebrating the “dapper man beside me” are matched visually with only her female best friend. It could be a celebration of personal independence in a world whose foundation is in heterosexual coupling.

5

The conclusion still feels cheap and unearned, if not uninteresting. Maybe there is something feminist about Kinoshita’s discourse here, but the conclusion is only reached through the most simplistic and contrived of manners that I hesitate to connect with his work as truly revolutionary, or hell, even interesting. He provides an intriguing narrative for his protagonist, but there’s not enough of her. Instead, the film ends with a weirdly fascist sentiment, celebrating the blind Mr. Taguchi as the model Japanese citizen, because of his commitment to the military during the war.  Carmen’s unrequited love for him is ignored and instead, the village, perhaps a shade less conservative, can move with its typical routine. There’s a subtext here, however illusive, that evokes something absolutely heartbreaking. Kinoshita’s ignorance of it isn’t transgressive, but instead an oversight by a filmmaker who was more interested in the easiest elements of his scenario. It’s a shame, someone as driven and likable as Lily Carmen probably deserved a better director.

6