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Related Reading: Japanese Film Directors by Audie Bock.


Nihon no higeki (1953)
[Tragedy of Japan/A Japanese Tragedy]

MochizukiA Japanese Tragedy opens to an urgent, chaotic montage of intercut documentary footage and newspaper articles that illustrate the austerity of life in post-occupation Japan. At a shabby, rundown inn in the tourist town of Atami, an itinerant musician (Keiji Sada) plays a melancholic serenade (aptly titled Resort Town Elegy) under an open window, and is invited inside by a senior bar hostess named Haruko Inoue (Yûko Mochizuki) to entertain a group of inebriated businessmen for the evening. Widowed during the Pacific War, Haruko has provided for her children over the turbulent years through the few meager - and often disreputable - enterprises afforded her gender and social class: black market profiteering of household goods, accepting a benefactor's proposition, working as a prostitute in the pleasure quarters. Now aging and estranged from her adult children, her sole consolation is in the knowledge that her son, Seiichi (Masami Taura) is doing well in his medical studies, and that her daughter, Utako (Yôko Katsuragi) is a highly desirable marriage candidate who speaks fluent English. However, Haruko's devoted, idealized images of her children's welfare soon prove to be tenuous when Seiichi's unexpected visit reveals that he is petitioning to be removed from the family register in order to be adopted by a wealthy family, and that Utako's purported expenses for dressmaking classes and English lessons are being squandered on vain and selfish interests. Alternately haunted by memories of a desperate and ignoble past, and faced with a seemingly hopeless and lonely future, Haruko struggles to come to terms with her family's inevitable dissolution.

Keisuke Kinoshita creates a bleak, affecting, and insoluble portrait of postwar existence in A Japanese Tragedy. Using temporal shifts that interweave verité-styled flashbacks and actual newsreel footage within the fictional narrative, Kinoshita creates a relevant and insightful account of the personal toll of war and the slow, agonizing process of recovery: Seiichi and Utako's reunion at a noodle shop that momentarily cuts to an image of a similar situated, hungry and impatient Seiichi as Utako cooks by an open fire; Haruko's near-hysterical entreaties to a dispassionate Seiichi that is interrupted by a silent episode of Haruko and other villagers fleeing from the police; Seiichi and Utako's avoidance of Haruko that transitions to an extended flashback showing two occasions of the children hiding - as Haruko unsuccessfully attempts to evict her abusive brother-in-law from their land, and as they discover their mother's prostitution through an isolated soundtrack of Haruko's playful laughter towards a prospective client on the street. Repeated images of trains in motion and bustling stations further reinforce the film's figurative sense of passage that reflects Japan's own transition from its oppressive militaristic past, towards a tenuous and politically unstable democracy. In the end, a lone image of Haruko in long shot standing at the top of a train station staircase as commuters hurridly rush past captures the emotional desolation of the individual human struggle against a formidable and unrelenting tide - a sad and haunting reminder of the anonymous victims of an interminable and irreconcilable tragedy.

© Acquarello 2003. All rights reserved.

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Nijushi no hitomi, 1954
[Twenty-Four Eyes]

Twenty-Four EyesIn the idyllic, rural Inland Sea island of Shodoshima in 1928, a group of children run towards a laden caravan in order to bid farewell to their kind and affable sensei (teacher) who is leaving the village to be married. A young, motivated teacher named Hisako Oishi (Hideko Takamine) has been recruited from the industrialized side of the island to serve as her replacement, but the villagers are skeptical of Miss Oishi's suitability for the teaching position in the remote peasant community, observing that the sophisticated and well-educated teacher commutes to the local school on a fast, new bicycle (a rare sight in the poor, working class village) and wears a modern, Western suit. Even the reserved senior teacher (Chishu Ryu) at the elementary school humbly remarks "Why'd they send such a good teacher here? The principal is a funny one." The novice teacher has been entrusted to the care of twelve first grade students - seven girls and five boys - the innocent and endearing twenty-four eyes who would look to Miss Oishi for guidance during their formative first year of school. The parents are quick to notice Miss Oishi's unusual teaching style: preferring to address the children using their nicknames, learning about each student's family, playing outdoor exercises in the open forest, teaching them traditional folksongs instead of prescribed school anthems. Her unorthodox methods generate gossip within the community, a tension that is exacerbated when a storm damages the coastal home of a student named Nita (Kunio Sato), and a lighthearted moment with the children brings the frustrated and desperate ire of another coastal resident. The school days pass uneventfully until one afternoon in the playground when some of the boys decide to play a practical joke on the unsuspecting Miss Oishi and unintentionally cause a disabling injury. In a tender and amusing episode, the children decide to visit Miss Oishi, hungry and ill prepared for the long and physically demanding journey, and the puzzled teacher encounters the children crying uncontrollably as they walk along the bus route to her house. The happy reunion inevitably leads to reconciliation and community acceptance, and a promise to return to the school when she is ambulatory. However, Miss Oishi's prolonged recuperation prevents her from making the arduous nine mile, 50-minute bicycle trip to the village school. At the urging of her protective mother (Shizue Natsukawa), Miss Oishi reluctantly agrees to transfer to the combined, upper grade elementary school near her home, where she is able to commute by bus. However, Miss Oichi will again reunite with her class five years later, amidst the austerity and toll of a global economic depression, Manchurian conflict, and red scare, as the students, now adolescents graduating from elementary school, struggle to retain hope and optimism in an environment ravaged by poverty, misfortune, increasing militarism, and political uncertainty.

Based on the Sakae Tsuboi novel, Twenty-Four Eyes is a haunting, compassionately realized, and profoundly affecting portrait of humanism, innocence, and the personal toll of war. Filmed from a low camera angle, and using exquisitely composed crane, long, and medium shots, Keisuke Kinoshita visually conveys a sense of distance that, in turn, reflects the innocence of the children's perspective and the seeming insularity of the villagers: the long bicycle commute; the children's outdoor activities singing folksongs; Miss Oishi traversing the empty school yard after being admonished for broaching the subject of communism in class. Note the increased frequency of close-up shots as the students leave the nurturing environment of the classroom to face the austerity and turmoil of the outside world, in essence, defining their individuality and character as adults: the encounter with Matsue (Sadako Kusano) at a short order restaurant; the graduation ceremony; the shot of the schoolboys, now enlisted men, marching off to war. The final, bittersweet image shows the beloved, aging sensei, slowly traveling through the inclement weather of the unpopulated, rural countryside, momentarily stopping to allow a bus to pass through the empty road, before resuming her lonely journey home - a poignant reminder of the dignity, perseverance, and tenacity of the human soul against the travails and disillusionment of profound and irrevocable change.

© Acquarello 2002. All rights reserved.

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Narayama Bushiko, 1958
[Ballad of Narayama]

Tanaka/TakahashiNarayama Bushiko opens to the obscured face of a joruri narrator against an oddly colorful curtain backdrop announcing the commencement of the play, Narayama Bushiko, based on the ancient legend of Obasute, to the distinctive sound of a shamisen from the traditional nagauta accompaniment. The curtains are pulled to the side to reveal a strangely surreal and highly formalized setting of an ancient tribal village. A solemn, aging woman named Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka) curiously approaches the edge of a large earthenware vessel, momentarily hesitating, before being distracted by the approach of a messenger. Orin receives word that a recent widow named Tamayan (Yûko Mochizuki) is eligible for marriage to her widowed son, Tatsuhei (Teiji Takahashi). It is welcomed news for the gracious and dignified Orin who sees Tamayan's arrival into the household as a means of passing on her domestic obligations to the family in preparation for her ascent to Mount Narayama in the coming year. Traditional customs dictate that the village elders be carried to the summit of Narayama upon reaching the age of 70 in order to maintain the population balance and ensure the survival of the community. Tatsuhei's son, Kesakichi (Danko Ichikawa) disapproves of his father's remarriage, arguing that as the eldest son, he is entitled to marry his impregnated lover, a burdensome, selfish, and incompetent housekeeper named Matsuyan (Keiko Ogasawara). On the day of the Narayama festival, a hungry and apprehensive Tamayan arrives at Orin's house and is eagerly greeted by Orin. Orin's kindness and generosity touches Tamayan deeply, and she develops genuine affection for her new mother-in-law. However, in order to accommodate the recent additions to the family, Orin decides to perform a harrowing personal sacrifice - eliminating the tenacious symbol of her vitality that has become the object of ridicule by the younger generations - and initiates the sacred ritual for her inevitable journey to Narayama.

Based on the novel by Shichiro Fukuzawa, Narayama Bushiko is a haunting and deeply affecting portrait of love and humanity struggling against the rigidity of tradition, obedience, and sense of duty. Using jarring, anachronistic imagery and unusually stylized artificial lighting, Keisuke Kinoshita presents a relevant examination of the pervasive national ideology of wartime Japan that underscores the dichotomous, and often self-destructive conflict between personal conscience and social conformity: the idiosyncratic fusion of traditional (kabuki) and modern (film) dramatic media; the perversion of cultural and moral norms within the primitive society (disrespect for elders, disposability of life, regression of human logic into base instincts for survival); and the incongruous, final shot that juxtaposes ancient and contemporary images to evoke timelessness, passage, and transience. Inevitably, Narayama Bushiko becomes a haunting allegory on the perils of blind allegiance, martyrdom, and repression - a humanist reflection of the profound introspection, cultural erosion, and ideological ambivalence of postwar Japan.

© Acquarello 2002. All rights reserved.

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