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A Japanese Tragedy / Nihon no higeki Japan 1953

Posted by keith1942 on February 26, 2016

Tagasugi and Harako

Tagasugi and Harako

This was one of the films in the Japanese Film Season from the Japan Foundation screened at the Sheffield Showroom. Unfortunately, as is frequently the case, West Yorkshire missed out. However it was worth the trek to Sheffield to see this very fine post-war melodrama. There was also a helpful introduction by Dr Kate E Taylor-Jones from the University of Sheffield.

The film was both written and directed by Kinoshita Keisuke. He was a popular filmmaker from the 1940s to the 1980s. As was often the case in the Japanese film industry he started out as an assistant, in his case to the very fine director Shimazu Yazujirō. He developed his skills writing scripts in the 1930s and directed his first film in 1943, The Blossoming Port / Hana saku minato. The earliest of his films that I have seen is Carmen Comes Home / Karumen kokyōni kaer, a comedy with a fine lead performance by one of my favourite actresses Takamine Hideko.

The central characters and plot of this film are a widow Inoue Haruko (Mochizuki Yuko) and her two grown-up children, her daughter Utako (Katsuragi Yuko) and her son Seiichi (Taura Masami). Haruko works as a barmaid in the seaside resort of Atami. But such work shades over into entertaining male customers and prostitution. Haruko has also dabbled in the black market of the times and [unsuccessfully] in the stock market. The family suffered notable deprivation in the years immediately after the end of the war, presented as typical of the times. Because of her work in bars the children were raised for much of the time by Haruko’s brother-in-law [the husband died during the war] and his wife. They have denigrated Haruko and her work and the children have developed a contempt for their mother.

In the present of the film Seiichi is a medical student in Tokyo. He is also trying to have himself adopted by an aged wealthy couple who lost their son in the war. This seems to have been a frequent event at this time, demonstrating the importance of the son and heir in the culture. Also typical of the films is Seiichi’s dependence on his sister, [a trope in many of the films of Mizoguchi). Utako is studying dressmaking in order to gain independence: she is also studying English, a useful skill in the period. Unbeknown to her mother she is having an affair with the English teacher, Akazawa Masayuki (Uehara Ken). It is these relationships that dominate film and their downward spiral that leads to the tragic conclusion.

Seiichi and Utako

Seiichi and Utako

Whilst the centre of the film is the present and the family triangle there is much more for the viewer to take in. I felt that I really want to see this film again in order to master all is complexities. There are frequent flashbacks, but not signalled in a conventional manner and in some cases apparently not motivated by a particular character. Thus we see the family deprivation in the immediate post-war period as Haruko’s scrimps, saves and even steals to feed her children. We see how Utako and Seiichi are embarrassed, including at school, by the social contempt directed by others at Haruko’s means of supporting her family.

At least two of the flashbacks are character motivated. One, repeated, shows us Haruko’s struggles to obtain food for her children. The other, also repeated and motivated by Utako, concerns a rape. In the traditional manner of Japanese mainstream drama this is not depicted at all but symbolised by the camera shots of stones and broken glass followed by an ellipsis.

But the flashbacks also include actual footage [some of it newsreel, other shots of newspapers] of Japan at this time. The film cuts from present and past to the ‘actual’ without conventional signals. Thus it operates in the manner of montage in the Soviet usage. I felt, but was not sure, that these montages also proffered thematic comment. Certainly we saw post-war deprivation and poverty. criminality and prostitution, including provision for the occupying G.I.s. Another segment addressed corruption in government and business. There were demonstrations and strikes. Much of this was accompanied by non-diegetic music, including at one point a variant on The Red Flag. And another sequence, repeated, appeared to show homeless people, pursued by police or security forces: this footage was silent.

There is an amount of commentative techniques in the film: on the lines often associated with Brecht but equally set out for the Soviet filmmakers by Vsevolod Meyerhold, There are a number of musical numbers in the film and the most important is Resort Town Elegy. This is sung for Haruko by Takasugi (Sada Keiji), an itinerant street musician. It is he that provides the final obituary for Haruko in the company of  the cook at the bar who enjoys a friendship,  but also running verbal battles, with Haruko.

Stylistically the film is dominated by static mid-shots and plan américains. The accompanying close-ups seemed to be to be slightly fewer than was common in popular narrative film. This was also true of dollies and tracks and of low and high angle shots, though all these were used as well, often for emphasis. Much of the film was in deep focus, but there was little deep staging. The exception was a long take late in the film with Haruko at Yugowara Railway Station, [on the way back from Tokyo). She stands still and we gradually discern the approaching train in the distance: followed by three mid-shots and then a close-up of a discarded sandal.

The film was produced by Shochiku, who had a tradition in the ‘shomin geki’ film [lower middle-class dramas]: though this is closer to the lumpen proletarian situation found in some of the films by Naruse Mikio. Essentially this film is a ‘mother picture’ or haha-mono, and this genre frequently depicts unsympathetic children.  It is certainly a melodrama whilst at the same time it offers the sort of social critique more commonly associated with social realism. Kinoshita worked with a number of regular film actors and crafts people on this film: and the production values are very good. Apart from the montage sequence the style is generally straightforward, more akin to Naruse than Ozu: though the latter’s Tokyo Story (1953) also features the Atami resort. There are also parallels with the films of Kinoshita’s mentor, Shimazu Yasujiro:. I was especially struck by a couple of low-angle shots up stairwells and staircases which reminded me of Children of the Beehive (1948 Hachi no su no kodomotachi ), director Shimizu Hiroshi.

The films are still touring the UK and worth looking out for. A Japanese Tragedy was screened in 35mm. It was a fair print though it was a dupe. The definition was pretty good but the contrast was not brilliant, especially in night scenes.

 

 

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