I’m finishing off my week dedicated to Mikio Naruse with this 1956 drama, though he kept making films for another decade after this. One of them (When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, from 1960) is in the Criterion Collection so will eventually get reviewed here when I get to it in my regular Criterion Sunday feature.
I love Mikio Naruse’s films but I’m also very conscious that I don’t really have the language to describe them, but this was an era when (because there were essentially no women directing films, aside from rare examples like Kinuyo Tanaka, who stars in this film, and Park Nam-ok in Korea) you’d get a whole cadre of venerated older men anointed as being excellent at ‘women’s pictures’. There are barely any men in this film, but there’s still a strong sense that the women we see — from the woman who runs the business (Isuzu Yamada), to her geisha employees, her maid, her daughter (Hideko Takamine), her sister and mentor — are all essentially still powerless in a society that esteems the money of men most highly. Even a drunken family member of a former employee seems to get his way, while the woman who owns the business is having trouble keeping it going. The story is largely told from the new maid’s point-of-view, and Kinuyo Tanaka is just wonderful at giving depth to this middle-aged woman fallen on hard times, but who still has enormous empathy and a remarkable grace in dealing with all the backstabbing and various fallings out. And yet for all this behind-the-scenes drama of the geisha house, it’s still a rather gentle and sweet film — the title suggests the gentle movement of a river, but also its inevitability and unchanging nature — about events which are not particularly gentle or sweet.
Director Mikio Naruse 成瀬巳喜男; Writers Toshiro Ide 井手俊郎 and Sumie Tanaka 田中澄江 (based on the novel by Aya Koda 幸田文); Cinematographer Masao Tamai 玉井正夫; Starring Hideko Takamine 高峰秀子, Isuzu Yamada 山田五十鈴, Mariko Okada 岡田茉莉子, Haruko Sugimura 杉村春子, Kinuyo Tanaka 田中絹代; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 17 February 2019.
I went back to YouTube recently to look up this film by Kinuyo Tanaka, the second woman to direct feature films in Japan and herself an acclaimed actor of some renown. I was inspired by the writing of critic Cathy Brennan, who has herself written far longer and better pieces about the actor/director for Another Gaze magazine, and the Screen Queens blog. Sadly, there are few opportunities to watch Tanaka’s films currently, which is surprising given her fame as an actor and the recent interest in women’s filmmaking, but one can dream of proper releases one day I suppose.
I’ve watched a number of mid-20th century Japanese films recently, but I haven’t seen any quite like this film, one of the handful directed by acclaimed actor Kinuyo Tanaka — and perhaps it’s her perspective that makes a telling difference, or that of celebrated screenwriter Sumie Tanaka (no relation), who also wrote most of Mikio Naruse’s greatest works during the same decade. It’s just that I hadn’t seen many films that deal fairly frankly not just with a difficult relationship — in this case young housewife and budding poet Fumiko (played by Yumeji Tsukioka and based on a real figure) being pushed away by her philandering husband — but also with her subsequent breast cancer diagnosis which gives the film its memorable title. It is, ultimately, a weepie of sorts, with a grand melodramatic arc that deals with this woman turning her back on love, before admitting into her life a big city journalist (well, she lives in Hokkaido and the journalist is from Tokyo), as she tries to recover from her mastectomy in a Japanese hospital while still writing poetry. There are big emotions, but also some delicate observation too, and it’s a film that shows plenty of care in its creation, only a few years after Kurosawa made the rather better known cancer drama Ikiru.
Director Kinuyo Tanaka 田中絹代; Writer Sumie Tanaka 田中澄江 (based on the article by Akira Wakatsuki 若月彰, and the poetry collections 乳房喪失 and 花の原型 by Fumiko Nakajo 城ふみ子); Cinematographer Kumenobu Fujioka 藤岡粂信; Starring Yumeji Tsukioka 月丘夢路, Ryoji Hayama 葉山 良二, Masayuki Mori 森雅之, Yoko Sugi 杉葉子; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Sunday 19 April 2020.
It’s odd to watch this film expecting a supernatural horror film because those elements don’t appear until the latter half of the film, although there’s a slightly uncanny sense created all the way through. It sets its 16th century scene amongst some poor villagers, one of whom, Genjuro (Masayuki Mori), is a potter who is desperate to make money in the local town from selling his wares, having discerned that people seem to be paying more in a time of impending war, while the other (Eitaro Ozawa) wants to be a samurai but is rejected by the local clans for being a poor peasant. When the civil war comes to their very doorstep, they flee, but — much to the consternation of their wives (Kinuyo Tanaka and Mitsuko Mito) — making sure to take the pottery, intending to make money across the water. However, as the action moves across this mist-covered body of water, the film itself seems to move from the real world into a sort of supernatural state, where the dead and living interact, as previously strong family bonds fall apart under the influence of money, mingled with the desperation of a wartime economy. As such it seems to be a reflection not just on the corrosive power of capital, but on wartime avarice leading to self-destruction, the break-up of the family and ultimately death — which makes sense given when it was made. The wives thus come to play a much stronger part, as a sort of moral chorus to the foolishness of the two men, whose actions doom both families in different ways.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Kenji Mizoguchi 溝口健二; Writers Matsutaro Kawaguchi 川口松太郎 and Yoshikata Yoda 依田義賢 (based on the collection of stories by Akinari Ueda 上田秋成); Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa 宮川一夫; Starring Masayuki Mori 森雅之, Kinuyo Tanaka 田中絹代, Machiko Kyo 京マチ子, Mitsuko Mito 水戸光子, Eitaro Ozawa 小沢栄太郎; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 12 April 2020 (and originally on VHS at the university library, Wellington, May 1998).
While there are a huge number of recent biopics I can (and have) reviewed recently during this themed week on the genre, they have also had popularity throughout the history of cinema, and in many other parts of the world. Today I am focusing on two Japanese examples I watched more or less back-to-back this past year, both of which are concerned with artists, and are made by among the better directors of Japanese cinema, Naruse and Mizoguchi.
Continue reading “Two Japanese Biopics about Artists: Tochuken Kumoemon (1936) and Utamaro and His Five Women (1946)”