It is of continuing interest to me how people in all their cultural wrappings respond to portrayals of themselves as told in myth, story and cinema, especially as regards war, the threat of war, war itself, or life after a war.  How are pride and patriotism shown,  opposition, guilt, repentance or sorrow?   A few weeks ago I began looking at Japanese films from WW II and the years just after, beginning with Keisuke Kinoshita’s Army/Rikugun. and Akiri Kurosawa’s The Most Beautiful.  This week I’ve seen several more, by the same two giants of Japanese cinema, though they weren’t yet giants.

Kinoshita, still during war-time,  made Jubilation Street, (1944,) a story about residents of an old, well-tended Tokyo neighborhood, being evicted so the government could use the land for the war effort.  The war itself does not enter, except as the deus ex machina forcing the move. Kinoshita, apparently under close government observation, managed to make this quiet, small (1 hour 13 minutes) movie about the reactions, fears and hopes of half a dozen of the neighbors.  On a still, immaculate street, cherry blossoms prominent in the background, two women start the morning.  One is dusting and cleaning.  She has time on her hands because students no longer come for koto lessons.  The other says she just leaves the dust, because she is pregnant, and they will soon be moving.  A few families, it seems, are still undecided about where they might go.  One couple argues, politely, over whether to move to the country (the man) or to find another house in Tokyo where there are better schools for their son and more eligible men for their daughter (the woman).  “You don’t think of anything important!” she tells him, turning away and slamming the sliding door behind her.

As the day develops, we see the son of the koto teacher, a young test pilot, and the daughter of the worried mother, exchanging private, very restrained, declarations of love.  The mother and son have words over their missing husband/father.  The daughter pushes back against her mother’s insistence on an arranged marriage; a doting father disappoints his wife by supporting the “love relation.”  An irascible owner of the local hot bath, refuses pleas from his daughter and son-in-law to join them in another place. A suspicious man is seen lurking around.  Everyone is exchanging news of where they might be going.

We see modest, concerned citizens in not so normal circumstances, behaving as ideal neighbors are supposed to behave; they often reminded me of the men and women of Frank Capra’s and William Wyler’s American films of the same time. The pressure of the move impacts them all, but door slamming is the height of emotional expression.  Arguments take place, but always couched in bows and apologies.  The notion of subservient Asian wives is sweetly belied as several go toe-to-toe with their husbands, with gestures of impatience and self-assertion familiar to viewers of American or European life and films.

While the themes of shared obedience and resilience under the demands of the war suit the propaganda desires of the government, the actuality of displacement, and disruption, birth and death tell the human side.  Mourning and loss brought on by the war are represented, as Kinoshita was to do even more strikingly in the second film he made that year, Army, which closes with a very moving long tracking shot of a mother desperate to see her son as he marches off to war.

As the film comes to a close, first in a driving rain, a baby is born, a man dies and a wayward husband mends his ways.  During the final parting, on a bright sunny morning,  the most obvious of the war-time messaging makes its way.  The Japanese flag is raised, under which, no matter how far they are scattered, they will all proudly live the new father tells them.  Several announce they will be working in war-related industry “to avenge” the death of the young pilot.  One of them confides to another,

 “It’s not just the soldiers.  We are fighting the war too.”

Not a war-time film to bring citizens to their feet with raised fists, and hatred of an evil enemy, it is quite a wonderful look at Japanese small town life, at least as shown by one immensely talented film maker, people exhorted to be their best selves, submerging inconveniences and desires to sacrifice in shared obligation.

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In 1946, months after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Japan’s surrender, no longer under war-time Japanese censorship but overseen by the U.S. occupation government, filmmakers again began to tell their stories.   Kinoshita made Morning for the Osone Family  and Kurosawa contributed No Regrets for Our Youth.  Both take up the question of anti-war feeling in Japan before and during the war.  Neither was an attempt at exculpation, of kowtowing to the occupiers by showing that not all Japanese were militarists –though guidelines were in place, and were followed.  Both men had a story to tell a story of his own relation to the war, and what they saw of its effect on the liberalization of Japanese culture in the 1920s, run over by the rising militarism of the 1930s.

Though their earlier, during-the-war movies ( reviewed above and here) were certainly morale-boosting propaganda efforts, these seem to come from singular artistic consciences, neither looking for heroes nor victims, but at ordinary folks, however small in number, whose voices and lives had been made invisible for 15 years.

Morning for the Osone Family (1944,) is a look into forbidden behavior during the war.  The Osones are a somewhat westernized family, with distinctly untraditional ways.  There are  table and chairs, a desk, a piano, wooden banisters to the second floor, western doors not Japanese shoji.   Daughter Yuko [Mitsuko Miura] wears skirts and blouses as well as kimonos. Of her three brothers, two have quite individualizing careers in mind.  The oldest, Ichiro [Toshinosuke Nagao has written an essay, “About Our Conscience,”  which has passed scrutiny by The Intelligence Agency and been published.  Middle brother, Taiji [Shin Tokudaiji] is planning to go to art school.

As the film opens, it is Christmas time and snowing, 1943,  and the family is singing “Silent Night.”  Yuko’s intended, Akira Minari, is going off to war and the wedding has been postponed.  He plays “Song of Farewell” on the piano, “perhaps for the last time” and the young people talk about the importance of artists and intellectuals being true to themselves, of  being “the conscience of the people.” In the midst of  this unexpected visitors arrive, a trio of overcoat dressed policemen– to take Ichiro away for questioning, along with papers rifled from his room.

Telephoning their uncle for help, an ultra-nationalist army colonel, Issei Ôsone [Ozawa Eitarô,] soon arrives.  Within minutes he is announcing the new reality.  Yuko’s engagement, to the son of an important arms manufacturer, has been broken off, to save the father the dishonor of becoming related to a family with a subversive in it.  But not to worry, Uncle feels sorry for the young woman and will see to a proper, and arranged, marriage.  To his sister-in-law, he recalls the family’s samurai roots, and the service of his father in the wars against China and Russia.  He wonders aloud how his brother became “such a liberal oddball,” such an unabashed Francophile.

Anti-war feeling percolates through the scenes … a comment  that the war is going badly, that the enemy has just seized Saipan, (July, 1944,) delivered with a sort of half-chuckle.   “They don’t like to hear the truth,” says Taiji’s art teacher, and family friend, “because they know the war is unjust.”  (Remember, this is being shown to Japanese audiences one year after the surrender.)

As Ichiro’s detention turns to arrest, and then prison, a draft notice arrives for Taiji.  Yuko is rescued from factory work by a secretarial job in her uncle’s office, for which she feels guilty. Uncle’s wife sends sweet jelly home with Yuko which Taiji refuses to taste, saying “The soldiers at the front are starving, while the officers in the homeland are living in luxury, It’s unacceptable!” More treasonous talk.

Colonel Uncle reassures his sister-in-law, worried about the draft resistant Taiji:

“Once he takes a beating and gets knocked about for a few months, he’ll be a fine soldier.”

When his house is damaged by bombs, the Colonel moves himself and his stern, patriotic wife, into the Osone family home.  After the surrender, he rages about Japan being sold out by the incompetent, unpatriotic politicians who did not consult with the army before signing.  He begins to hoard food and other scarce goods, leading to a furious argument with Yuko, and eventually her mother, who orders him and his wife out of the house.

Without giving away the whole story, suffice to say that some of the young men do not return from the war, and some do.  The subversive brother is released from prison, his judgment of the war now applauded by all.  The final scene, with the family looking rapturously towards the future as the sun is rising in the east, was apparently added at the insistence of the Occupation Authority’s film branch, to Kinoshita’s disgust.

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Kurosawa’s No Regrets for Our Youth is something of a strange juxtaposition between young, idealistic youth, in love,  with grueling, penitential work in muddy rice paddies.  The beginning shows even more directly than Osone Family that there was opposition to the war in the 1930s (and yes, there was some;) it is not just one young man and an essay (see above) but a liberal professor, fired for insufficient patriotism, student demonstrations,  three young people, two boys and a girl — and a triangle, naturally.

Yukie [Setsuko Hara] is the daughter of a liberal professor who holds the interest of the insouciant Itokawa [Akitake Kôno] and the more militant, determined Noge [Susumu Fujita].  The father is prohibited from lecturing at Kyoto University about 1933. They talk of organizing protests.  Soon the school is shut down and the student protest groups banned.  The militant Noge announces he is going to Manchuria, a bit of an odd choice for a young man protesting for freedom; Japan had just conquered the area. Distraught, Yukie leaves home to find work in Tokyo.  As in the Osone family, it is the mother who resists her daughter’s adventuring and the father who is understanding.

After several changes of jobs and a few years, Yukie runs into Itokawa who reveals that Noge is also in Tokyo, and now a well-regarded expert on the” Sino-Japanese problem.”  Yukie seeks him out and after an excruciatingly awkward re-acquaintance they become “husband and wife.”  He is working “on a big project” which “in ten years the Japanese people will thank me for” and about which she knows nothing.  In fact, she is much too docile and weepy for most American tastes.  Just as they are about to celebrate the completion of the project, however, he is arrested, the police walking heavy footed, without taking off their shoes, across the tatami.  After several days of interrogation and lock-up she is told that Noge was trying to “sabotage the war effort,” but that he failed.  The radio is turned on to announce, over lively patriotic music,  the successful Japanese destruction of the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor.  The calendar shows December 8, 1941.

After she is released from prison, the professor from their youth arrives from Kyoto, determined to defend Noge against the charges, only to find that he has died the night before in his cell.  Yukie returns home where her father tries to comfort her by speaking of the long struggle for freedom; that she should be proud of his efforts to keep Japan out of war.

The final third of the film lifts Yukie out of her familiar privileged and urban life to be a filial daughter to her in-laws, who had been estranged from Noge, on their small rice holding.  It is an unfamiliar and a grueling life, made worse by a  “town without pity.” Not only shunned by neighbors but openly harassed, the old couple has been working the rice field after dark. Yukie, with the courage of youth, withstands the stones and cat-calls –and her tortured, piano playing hands– and begins to work it during the day. Even a visit home, months later, does not sway her to return to comfort.  She has set down roots there, she tells her parents.  “Their lives — especially of the women — are brutally hard.” If she can improve their lives, her life will be well spent, she says. Feeling a bit silly, she says she might be called the “shining light of the rural cultural movement.”

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It’s strange to see a film about Tokyo, 1945 knowing what we now know.  The Colonel’s home has been bombed severely enough that he moves into his sister-in-law’s house but there is no mention of say, the firebombing of Tokyo (over 100,000 dead) in March of 1945 or of the August atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Of course, the occupation authorities would frown on such portrayals.  There were guidelines to be followed. According to Donald Richie in his A Hundred Years of Japanese Film, (2005), prohibited was anything to do with militarism, racial or religious bias, admiration of cruelty or unjust violence.  Encouraged were scenes of people from all walks of life building a peaceful nation, individual rights, labor unions – if not too communist in demands– and others.  It is hard to know, with any specificity, how much these guidelines influenced or were imposed on Kurosawa’s directorial choices, or those of any other director.  According to one comment from Kurosawa, film making under the occupation, though sometimes irritating,  was far easier than that of war-time Japanese censorship.

The story he tells in No Regrets for Our Youth, fill perfectly the occupation guidelines, but does not seem false.  Kurosawa, himself, was part of that young liberal segment of the generation before the war.  That there were others, is a story worth telling. That there was desire to rebuild Japan and to alleviate rural suffering is testified to in many other forms, fiction, sociology and now history.  Despite the “foreignness” of Japanese films, especially of those years, to American viewers, it is a story well told, a small, but useful, counterweight to movies and beliefs of Japanese barbarism.  There were folks, after all, who did their best in difficult times — just as we outsiders would like to imagine ourselves.

I’ve seen all these films, and more, on the very fine site, FilmStruck.com  Highly recommended.

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