The years following World War II brought on an intensity of reflection for both the Japanese people and their American occupiers. Each side struggled to come to terms with what had happened, and to move past it. Much of this examination occurred through the lens of the movie camera.
One facet of Japanese self-reflection in this time can be found in the films of Yasujirō Ozu (1903-63). His Noriko Trilogy, considered his masterwork, included Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951), and Tokyo Story (1953). Not everyone will be engrossed by these placid works dwelling on ordinary details of family life in postwar Japan. They are infused with a craving for normalcy. The primary popularizers of Ozu’s work in the West were Roger Ebert and Donald Richie, both of whom died in 2013. Today, the Noriko Trilogy is often mentioned among the most important movies of the 20th Century.
Equinox Flower (1958) – Ozu
This film, takes on the subject of the generation gap in postwar Japan. The drama centers on tensions between fathers and daughters. The fathers are rigid and set in their ways while the daughters are rebellious and have embraced modern ideas about marriage. As expected in an Ozu film, the situations are prosaic and built for maximum identification by middle class Japanese families. Fathers are accused by petulant daughters of wanting to have things their own way. Daughters are accused of being impudent. In one family argument, a young girl dressed in American teenage style, accuses her father of being ‘feudalistic.” There is a scene among a group of fathers at a reunion where they share nostalgia for the old days of devotion to the Emperor. The father in the pivotal role gets caught in a double standard when he advises the daughter of a friend to exercise her independence while at the same time opposing his own daughter’s plan to marry a man she has met at work. These two are anxious to marry quickly as being transferred to Hiroshima. There are some soul-searching conversations about changing times as this film makes its way toward happy resolutions. This was Ozu’s first color film.
Floating Weeds (1959) – Ozu
A traveling Kabuki theater troupe arrives in a rusty ship at a seaside town. It is “twelve years after the surrender.” They make a modest musical procession through the streets to advertise their extended residency in the local theater. The actor-manager, called the Master, has a mistress who is a lead actress with the company. He also has a former mistress in this town. She is raising his grown son who thinks the Master is his uncle. The sound track has a distinctly Nino Rota quality, sounding not at all Japanese. The current mistress conceives an angry jealousy of the Master’s other family. She persuades the younger actress in the company to seduce the young man. It’s interesting that this post-war Kabuki company employs actresses in the female roles. The scenes of theatrical performance are fairly flat and uninteresting with none of the familiar Kabuki spectacle. Business goes badly for the troupe in this town and they are forced to disband. Things also unravel in the Master’s personal life as his son learns the truth of his identity and rejects his father. The Master returns to the itinerant life with his actress mistress.
On the DVD, there is a commentary provided by Roger Ebert, a devotee of Ozu. He says that he has watched this film many times over the past twenty-five years, never failing to appreciate the simplicity of its compositions and attention to the ordinary lives depicted on the screen, albeit the situation is not altogether ordinary. Ozu concentrated on character in his work treating location as mere background. This film is a remake of Ozu’s 1934 A Story of Floating Weeds. The weeds, Ebert says, are a metaphor of the aimless lives of the somewhat disreputable itinerant actors. Until recent times, Ozu’s films were rarely seen outside of Japan while Kurosawa was achieving a worldwide reputation. After 1973, Ozu began to be appreciated for his universality. This was Ebert’s generation.
Akira Kurosawa (1910-98)
Kurosawa, always in the vanguard of Japanese film popularity through the mid-20th century, made a set of films with contemporary settings to balance his better-known preoccupation with the feudal past. Stray Dog premiered in 1949, with the backdrop of ravaged postwar Tokyo. Ikiru appeared in 1952. Both films were notable for the degree to which the influence of American culture could be seen in Japanese daily life. There were business suits and ties, pleated skirts, and baseball games.
Ikiru (1952) – Kurosawa
This highly regarded though low-key movie, inspired by Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” has few awards to its credit despite being judged by Roger Ebert as Kurosawa’s greatest film. The plot is simple. An older bureaucrat named Watanabe learns that he is dying of stomach cancer. Straying from his indifferent family, he embarks on a nighttime carouse in Tokyo. In one raucous nightclub, he sings a sad traditional song and stops the revelers in their tracks. This song is called “Gondola no Uta.” Recognizing that nightlife is not the way for him, he bonds with a young female employee from his office and becomes a student of life’s simple joys. Though she becomes wary of the old man’s intentions, she teaches him that she finds her joy in helping children.
He returns to his office and makes it his dedicated quest to build a playground despite massive bureaucratic opposition. He dies as the playground is finished and there is a memorable flashback scene with him sitting on the swing at night singing his song. The final third of the movie, which goes on too long, is set at the old man’s wake. The gathered bureaucrats argue over what it was that transformed him and to whom the credit for his achievements should go. In the background, there are many insights into ordinary life in urban Japan after the war.
Kenji Mizoguchi (1898 – 1956)
Director of Ugetsu, Mizoguchi was the third of the triad of “masters of Japanese Cinema” in the 1950s. He is best known for his films that dwell on the plight of traditional Japanese women, and is responsible for a share of the many films about women who are forced into real or virtual prostitution. While the Japanese directors mentioned above made their reputations with iconic films of the 1950s, all of them produced work in the 1930s that gave them the foundations for creating their masterpieces.
Osaka Elegy (1936) – Mizoguchi
This is one of many movies about a woman trapped between the traditional culture of Japan and the modern world. The setting is Osaka in the 1930s. Ayako works as a telephone operator in a financial services office. Interestingly, the costuming of the employees is half traditional and half modern, some business suits and some kimonos. When the debts of her miscreant father and resentful older brother become overwhelming, she feels compelled to accept a proposition from her employer to become his mistress. She loses her submissiveness, becoming headstrong and brazen, but the way of the fallen woman leads to despair. See also The Life of Oharu (1952).
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The subject of the geisha acts as a magnifier for explorations of women’s roles in traditional and modern Japan. Many Japanese films have attempted to uncover the paradox of the geisha, and Hollywood too has wandered into this territory with uneven results.
Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)
Based on the novel by American writer, Arthur Golden, the story is set in 1920s Kyoto, but the movie reflects a millennial point of view. Secrets are revealed, and still, the subject remains a paradox. This film stepped into a minefield of controversy.
World War II: Aftermath
There is a film genre that grew out of the war in which screen time is divided between the Japanese and American points of view. Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) is a classic example. It reflects a grudging respect for the aggressors at Pearl Harbor. The movie below is a more recent example. Movies about the war in the Pacific will not be covered here, though some may be found in Oceania.
A joint American-Japanese production, this movie takes pains to give attention to both sides of the story of the early stages of the American occupation of Japan in 1945. Tommy Lee Jones plays General MacArthur in a performance, not calculated to heap undue respect on the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers. On arrival in Tokyo, he gives a lower-ranking general, named Fellers, the task of gathering evidence on whether Emperor Hirohito should be held accountable for ordering the attack on Pearl Harbor. The ultimate penalty would be hanging.
General Fellers is at the center of a subplot involving his search for the Japanese girl he fell in love with while at college. There are flashbacks to the early days of their courtship, before she returned abruptly to Japan. It is something of a distraction from the movie, but it is not difficult to understand why the filmmakers felt it necessary to add some romance to their historical drama. Partly because of his empathy for Japan, Fellers is torn on the question of whether the Emperor should be held accountable for his country’s transgressions in wartime. Lack of concrete evidence adds to his ambivalence. He finally decides to recommend that the American government take the high road. It would be more productive to give Hirohito credit for bringing about the surrender, and to seek his help in rebuilding the nation. MacArthur is not pleased with this as he was hoping to make a grandstand move that would help to ignite his planned campaign for the presidency at home. He changes his tune, however, when he meets the diminutive Emperor face to face. Hirohito is a frail and gentle man, not the stuff of warlords or shoguns, and there are still many in Japan who believe him to be a living god.
During the Pacific War, my father was on an aircraft carrier somewhere in the area of the Solomon Islands. The Allied forces were advancing steadily across the island chains toward Japan at great cost of lives and resources. President Truman was faced with a world-shaking decision for ending the war swiftly. As I write this, I have found a documentary film on Netflix, called Hiroshima, which details the fateful decision process for the United States and the deep commitment to warrior honor that prevented the Japanese from surrendering when warned of the holocaust that was about to be visited on them.
Hiroshima mon amour (1959)
This French film appeared at the height of the Cold War when many in the West lived with a persistent fear of Russian bombs raining down on them. Still in high school, I saw this film soon after it was released in the U.S. It did not play in my hometown, but I found it in an art theater on a trip into New York City. It was the first time, as I recall, that my attention was turned to the 1945 atomic bomb attacks on Japan. More than 100,000 people died at Hiroshima. These events were not much discussed after the war. Hiroshima mon amour was a New Wave film from France: very stylized, very arty, very apt for deep conversations in sidewalk cafés. This high concept piece from a non-American filmmaker gave audiences in New York and other urban centers the distance required to contemplate the very nearly unthinkable.
The movie is about a French actress who is in Hiroshima to make an antiwar film. She has met a Japanese architect, fallen in love with him, and now must leave him. Much of the dialogue is delivered in that almost comically urgent style characteristic of overly self-dramatizing films from France in that time. In the background, there are fragments of memory from the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima. The actress seizes on these images as metaphors of her own sense of desolation. Was this intrusion of buried memory into modern life that riveted moviegoers in the late 1950s.
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Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)
Unlike many other films written and/or directed by Paul Schrader, this is not a mainstream movie. He has written and directed this one as a personal tribute to Yukio Mishima, a writer greatly admired in modern Japan. The action is framed by events on the last day of Mishima’s life, November 25, 1970. True to his times, Mishima is a man obsessed by ideology. He deplores the westernization of Japan since the war, and particularly abhors materialism. He has assembled a private army of like-minded soldiers and has plans to seize the reins of government and restore the Emperor to his throne.
On this morning, he is joined by four of his hand-picked men on a drive to military headquarters where they intend to act on their plan. At the end of the film, they will capture a general in his office and demand that the garrison be assembled in the courtyard below. Mishima will address the military men and women from a porch roof, exhorting them to change sides and join him in his mission. They respond with loud taunts and insults. In defeat, he will return to the general’s office to commit seppuku, ritual suicide. The body of the film is filled with autobiographical material and surreal reenactments of scenes from Mishima’s most famous novels. The film, presented as a fictional treatment of Mishima’s life and death, has never been officially released in Japan.
The Hollywood Perspective
While the “masters of Japanese cinema” were turning out their best known films in the 1950s, a few American films turned their lenses to issues arising from GIs returning stateside with foreign brides. The burning issue here was racism, which was about to come under intense media scrutiny in the American South.
The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956)
Based on a 1951 novel and the 1953 Broadway show, this concoction goes for laughs. It dwells on the fumbling efforts of US Army occupiers to indoctrinate Japanese citizens to American ways. Set in a village in Okinawa, this mission experiences a reversal with the Americans learning the customs of the traditional teahouse. Marlon Brando plays a wily Okinawan translator, local guide, and gofer. Glenn Ford plays the offbeat officer in charge of the re-education operation. He is quickly won over to Japanese culture, partly through the charms of a pretty Japanese geisha, called Lotus Blossom. Paul Ford plays the commanding general and does his usual job of embodying official incompetence. In this film, tradition trumps authority. Though it is guilty of cultural stereotyping, the film gets credit for helping the American public adjust to the idea of interracial marriages. Marlon Brando took the expected flack for playing a character not of his own race. His portrayal seemed exceptionally sympathetic, however, when compared with Mickey Rooney’s outrageous caricature of a Japanese man in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Based on the 1953 Broadway show and 1951 novel by James Michener, Wikipedia says Sayonara is “quasi-autobiographical.” The author married his third and final wife, a Japanese woman, in 1955. Marlon Brando plays the alter ego role in the movie, but the situation is vastly different from Michener’s well-known experience in the military, or in Japan. Brando plays Ace Gruber, a fighter pilot in the Korean War. He is transferred to a base in Japan where, after some romantic complications with the general’s daughter, he meets the elegant and aloof lead singer of a Japanese musical troupe. Vignettes from Japanese theater performances, including kabuki, a musical revue, and a puppet drama, are used to advance the plot. Red Buttons plays an enlisted man who marries a Japanese girl. In the end, both men face severe discrimination from the US Army in carrying out their marriage plans. A regulation is put in place forbidding contact with “indigenous personnel.” More than his other works on similar themes, Michener’s crusade against prejudice and support for interracial marriage is brought home forcefully in this story. Both of the primary love interests are played by Japanese actresses, but the only important Japanese male character is played by Ricardo Montalban.
A Majority of One (1961)
Robert Osborne introduced this movie as famously miscast. Rosalind Russell plays an older Jewish woman in Brooklyn whose daughter is married to a diplomat. When her son-in-law is assigned to the American embassy in Tokyo, she is persuaded to travel with them. Onboard the ship crossing the Pacific, she meets a cultured Japanese man, played by Alec Guinness. There is tension at first, because she lost a son in the war with the Japanese and he lost a daughter at Hiroshima. She is warned by her daughter and son-in-law that Guinness is an important Japanese businessman involved in delicate negotiations with the embassy. Difficulties increase once they are settled in Tokyo and Guinness appears to be alienated by Russell’s indifference. The crisis affects diplomatic relations. Russell seeks out Guinness at his beautiful home with traditional gardens and is invited to dinner. They are reconciled. Mama becomes a hero to her children. To their surprise, the idea of marriage is raised. A dialogue on bigotry is commenced. Discouraged, she boards a Pan Am flight and returns to New York. In a final scene, Guinness visits her in Brooklyn and their admiring friendship is rekindled. He has been assigned to a UN post in Manhattan. The casting is perhaps not ideal, but both of the leads are very competent actors and do a creditable job of carrying off this drama of postwar reconciliation. Russell was Irish Catholic and Guinness was British.
Tokyo is the cultural and political hub of modern Japan. It is an electronic sound and light mixer, a pop culture compactor, bringing East and West together in a frenzy of imagery. It is also home to more then thirteen million people, most of them hard working and law abiding citizens. In earlier centuries, the city was called Edo. The name was changed in 1868 as Tokyo became the new capital of the restored empire. Over the years, it has been destroyed and rebuilt many times. Already in this post, there have been movies that picture Tokyo in recovery after the fire bombings of World War II (Tokyo Story, Stray Dog, Ikiru). For a more extreme view of Tokyo’s post-nuclear era, see the Godzilla franchise in my earlier entry on giant creatures.
Below is a brief collection of movies reflecting just a few of the many facets of Tokyo life. I have neglected police procedural and gangster films set in Tokyo because I have found little that distinguishes them from the crime dramas of other world cities. Tokyo also produces a vigorous brand of pornography, but you will not find it here.
Shall We Dance? (1997)
Set in Tokyo, it begins with an explanation that ballroom dancing is considered inappropriate by traditional Japanese people. Touching or embracing in public is just not done. This story follows a middle class corporate accountant who is working hard to pay his mortgage and care for his wife and daughter in the suburbs. He is plagued with the feeling that there must be something more to life. One evening, while riding the Tokyo subway, he catches sight of a beautiful woman in the window of a ballroom dance school. He is inspired to sign up for dance classes. He must start in a beginners group and does not get the beautiful woman for his teacher. He works hard and progresses steadily. This is his guilty pleasure and he does not tell his family what he is doing. After a time, he is good enough to be enlisted for dance competitions where teachers are the partners. All of the students in this school are lonely men. The accountant’s wife becomes suspicious and hires a private detective. Only at the end, does he achieve meaningful contact with the beautiful teacher, who has the body of a gazelle. There is no romance. He is shy and awkward and she is entirely professional. The film concludes with a final dance between these two. It is manipulatively sentimental, but still a very entertaining film.
Tokyo Godfathers (2003) – Anime
A strange brew of Japanese and American styles and traditions, this animated film opens with a celebration of Christmas on the streets of Tokyo. There is a Christian sermon attended by the three key characters: a homeless man, a teenage runaway girl, and a “trans woman” who refers to herself as a “homo.” They discover an abandoned baby in a garbage dump and set out to find the parents. In the course of this journey, all of their complicated personal issues are brought to the surface. The text on the DVD box speaks of the film’s ability to evoke real human emotion. In reality, it raises questions on why an audience would care about hand-drawn caricatures of human beings caught up in situations that are much too complex for them. These questions are artfully considered and offer insights into unique elements of Japanese culture and what they have in common with urban settings around the globe.
Lost in Translation (2003) – American
Sophia Coppola’s much-discussed film seemed a good bet, but was disappointing. It’s about a young woman (Scarlett Johansson), married, but adrift in Tokyo. Bill Murray is an American star brought to Japan to make a whiskey ad. He is being paid two million dollars. Scarlett is pleasant and Bill is well cast, but nothing happens. They spend time together in their high-priced hotel, and toy with the idea of an affair. It’s a world of sterile technological abundance. Nothing happens at all; they won’t even have to lie to their spouses. Lost in Translation is a film for the hanging out generation. It was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director. Sophia won for Best Original Screenplay.
Departures (2008) – Japanese
Opening in contemporary Tokyo, this is the story of a young cello player whose symphony orchestra is shut down. We hear a portion of their Beethoven’s Fifth. He and his pretty wife go back to his hometown where he searches for a job. He settles for a position assisting a ceremonial “encoffiner,” preparing corpses for the hereafter. When his wife learns what he is doing, she leaves him. Realizing the importance of his work to the families he serves, the young man remains loyal to his employer. The wife returns to announce her pregnancy and comes to a new appreciation for the encoffining when her husband’s long lost father dies. This is a beautifully rendered film contrasting modern realities with disappearing cultural traditions. It won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. This was the film that brought the Oscar back to Japan after a fifty-year dry spell.
Like Someone in Love (2012)
Set in and around Tokyo, this film offers some slices of life from several layers of the city’s social strata. It follows a day or two in the life of a young woman named Akiko. She is a university student who makes extra cash by working evenings as a high-class call girl. Her pimp, who is a well-dressed and very business-like older man, sends her on a somewhat mysterious late night call. She discovers that her client is an elderly professor and the author of many books. He does not want sex from her at all, but wants to cook her a nice dinner and have a good talk. She thwarts his plan by undressing and crawling into his bed. He leaves her there and she promptly falls asleep. In the morning, he drives her to school. She has a boyfriend, a garage mechanic who is angrily insistent on marrying her. The professor gets innocently involved and tries to protect her when things get rough. The mechanic comes to his apartment and angrily bangs on the door. When the professor goes to his window to see what’s below, a rock flies through the glass and he falls to the floor. The movie ends. This is yet another film demonstrating that at street level there is little difference between life in Tokyo and life in New York or Los Angeles.
Review for Adrift in Tokyo pending.