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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Banka / Elegy of the North (1957)

13 05 2014

While David Lean’s Brief Encounter is almost universally beloved, evoking the film in certain comparisons almost seems to inherently imply a negative connotation. The beloved melodrama is seen as the epitome of its type, and the film that try to retread the magic it left behind basically are saturated with some problems that they almost serve as an explanation of everything that makes that film feel so right. Heinosuke Gosho’s Elegy of the North, made in 1957, has yet to even reach the purview of many English-speaking film scholars, but the few who have taken notice to it would find a hard time deflecting comparison to Lean’s classic. While both films occupy a cinematic space that is populated with swooning, romantic gestures, and big, monumental feelings. It’s not a typical route for Gosho, but nestled underneath all the reverie is something a bit more grounded.

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Reiko gets her arthritic hand bitten by a dog. The dog’s owner, Katsuragi is extremely apologetic. “The dog never bites” he tells her. “Dogs never bite me” she replies. Reiko becomes fascinated by Katsuragi. Once his deferential facade wears off from their original encounter, he is revealed to be a deeply unhappy man. Sure, a wealthy, attractive, and married doctor should have very little to complain about but the stillness of his life is beginning to hit him. He’s not out of love with his wife, Akiko, but the passion seems to have faded. She herself has begun seeing a med student on the side. Reiko and Katsuragi become more than friends, but his extended business trip leaves both Reiko and Akiko without anyone to talk to. Naturally, they become best friends, but Akiko remains unaware of her husband’s infidelity.

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Pardon the baseball analogy, but Gosho is really swinging for the fences here. Going for a film that tries to cover such a big, important part of the human experience is always commendable, but his film never quite achieves the transcendent moment for which he shoots. I guess this sounds like a simple criticism of “too melodramatic” but I find that phrase both misused and overused, as while as ignoring the problems that come up here. The reality is that the film is adequately melodramatic, but its issues lie in a betrayal to what it wants to tell us. At its best moments, Gosho has given us a story about two women who should be in opposition to each other, but become wonderfully close friends. This would be enough for a typical Gosho film, at least by the standards of Arthur Nolletti. Like Naruse did with Floating Clouds in 1955, Elegy of the North attempts something more pointedly and poetically “profound” than the usual work of the film’s director. Naruse was successful and his film, though atypical for him, is one of the most masterful moments in a career stocked with them. Gosho’s film is a success too, mostly on the strength of his performers, but overall, it feels a little over baked.

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One needs to give credit where credit is due, though and Elegy of the North does feature one of the best casts ever assembled. Yoshiko Kuga and Masayuki Mori would have received top billing, but the presence of Tatsuo Saito and Mieko Takamine is just as exciting. Both of them may have been considered washed up by 1957, Saito achieving most of his success during the late 20s/early 30s, Takamine during the late 30s/early 40s. More important than familiar faces is the fact that both Takamie and Kuga nail, what I would argue, is the meat of the film. That being the relationship between Reiko and Akiko. Their actual interactions seem a bit maudlin, Reiko quickly takes to calling Akiko “mom” but the film leads up to their friendship in a way that is both real, and easily the most interesting thing in the film.

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Upon meeting Akiko, Reiko mentions that she’s aggressive. “I’m a hunter, a swan hunter. If I have my eye on something I won’t miss it” she tells her. The film awkwardly gives a cutaway of actual swans, before quickly cutting back. It’s almost there that Gosho himself realizes that the illustration isn’t necessary, we’ve already seen Reiko as a “hunter” before. To call her a hunter would be missing the point. She’s aggressive around Katsuragi, but not in a way that suggests male heterosexual wish-fulfillment or even a one-dimensional femme fatale. In a scene at a bar, she has control, but not in a way that suggests she’s a manipulative woman just teasing and seducing him to torment him. Such a person seldom exists in real life, but is constantly created in the pen of frustrated men. Give Gosho credit here: his film, perhaps brought down by some silly narrative shifts, still manages to populate its world with women that feel real and complete. When the film is focused on the struggles of Reiko and Akiko, it touches on something that is far more substantial than a doomed affair. Sure, a nearly-mythical and tragic love story can work, but it seems like Gosho should have spent more time with the far more interesting relationship unfolding in the periphery.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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