In nineteen forty-seven, a year and a half after the end of WWII, Japanese film makers were still facing war-time shortages, as were most of the people, for many things.  Lack of reliable power, shortage of film-stock, lighting, dollies and other standard movie-making equipment for the former; food, clothing, household furnishing, adequate housing for the later.  That year two interesting directors each made a film, both about war-widows as it happens.  One, a sad retrospective of a happy mid-war courtship, the other a comic laced story about an orphan and a gruff widow.

Keisuke Kinoshita was thirty-five years old when he made Phoenix / Fushichô (1947,) his seventh film as a director, and the first to deal with the aftermath of the war.  The first four had been made in war-time Japan and a fifth, after the war, was about a family during the final year before surrender [see here and here for reviews.] In Phoenix a young widow, Sayoko [Kinuyo Tanaka] and a four-year old son, are coping with their new life as she remembers the whirl-wind weeks of a courtship.

After the flames running through the opening titles, the war is mostly invisible.  We know of it because Shinichi [Keiji Sada], in a flash-back, is called up and after a few weeks of training is sent to the war with only a single week back at home; we know also, because in movie real-time she is a widow.  The time and circumstances of his death are not mentioned. 

A good deal of the film portrays materially comfortable family life, despite the war. While much of Japan was barely recovered two years after the war –fishing and merchant fleets all but destroyed, a very poor rice harvest in 1945– the Aihara family is doing quite well, in a big western house with fine furnishings, household help, and an automobile at hand.  A well dressed and obedient child is being raised by a doting mother, a maid and a gruff grandfather.

As Sayoko begins to flash-back to meeting her not-yet-husband, it is war-time, but the scenes together in a book-shop or eye-flirting on the train give no hint.  The men are all dressed in western suits and hats.  Wives and mothers seem to be in kimono.  Younger women “code switch” between kimono and western women’s attire.

As in many Japanese movies of the time, the renditions of emotion seem theatrical.  It’s hard to know if it represents “real” emotion of Japanese people, or “movie” emotion, understood as such by viewers.  Even at her father’s unexpected death and funeral, when we expect high emotion, she seems theatrically overwrought.  It is here where Shinichi makes his first promise of life-long love and protection.

The cultural messaging gets even more interesting about now. With her own father dead, an uncle and aunt come to tell Sayoko she must marry someone wealthy, for the sake of the family.  She stoutly refuses and those family ties are ended in a walk-out.   Shinichi’s father is of the same mind.  War or not, there is no reason his son should pick his own wife.  A surprise Christmas visit by Sayoko to the family home begins a series of scenes in which the father cruelly speaks of her to his son, telling him he has someone much more suitable in mind.   The climactic scene comes in a later fierce argument between the young woman and the older man who has come, a day before Shinichi arrives for his last visit, to tell her there is no way they are to marry.  Considerable histrionics, no little bathos and the illumination of cherry blossoms in the sunlight finally changes his mind.  The two are married, which we don’t witness; have conjugal relations, which neither; and he dies, nor this either.

Kinoshita scripts some mild anti-war sentiment in a sentence or two for the drafted Shinichi.

“My duty as a man born in this country is to be in the army.  Even if it’s against our will, we have to fight.

A lively march tune takes a group of new soldiers along the streets of town. Excited cries of “Banzai!  Banzai!” are heard.  To Americans this is forever associated with a war-cry of a terrible enemy, to Japanese then and now, it is a cry of celebration — at a wedding, a graduation.  A sign along the route reads “An entire nation of 100 million as one.”  There is no consciousness of themselves as aggressors, only the obligation to be part of the nation, now under attack. Not any different from citizens around the world.

Other cultural curiosities are a long take of children singing Twinkle-Twinkle Little Star, in Japanese,   and one of the characters playing Chopin on the family piano.

There aren’t any surprises in Phoenix, though I am not sure what is meant by using “Phoenix” as the title, if that is a good translation of the title, Fushichō,  in Japanese.  Perhaps Sayoko and her son, and by implication, Japan, is rising from the ashes of war.  It’s not the usual heroic use of the Phoenix symbol, but if that is what is meant, it will do. More likely, as I read the meaning, it means the beginning of a new era, of happiness and grace. Looking at the well-off middle-class as Kinoshita is doing, it seems true.

Ω

Yasujirô Ozu was nine years older than Kinoshita, and with thirty-nine films as a director when he made Record of  a Tenement Gentleman, also in 1947.  It was his first post-war film after returning from his third period of Army service, this time in Singapore, apparently free to do as he wished during the Japanese occupation. Mostly he watched movies, including many from the U.S. 

The story he tells in Tenement Gentleman can be told in a nutshell: A widow takes in an “obstinate” orphan boy and grows to love him.  That doesn’t begin to suggest the pleasure of watching the movie.

Tane, the widow, lives in a make-shift neighborhood on the outskirts of Tokyo, makeshift but impeccably kept.  The small homes of a half a dozen people share a common courtyard, the residents constantly dropping in on each other for a chat or to ask each other to try their sources for hard-to-get goods.  Rationing is in place but beets and other staples keep them from starvation; rice is sometimes not available. These are different folks than those of Kinoshita’s concerns (above,) and continue the liberal concern in the movies of the 1920s for the poor and exploited.  One of the residents is practicing his fortune-telling and painting. Another is elected to head the neighborhood group.  A younger men brings home a silent ragamuffin of an orphan, Kohei,  about seven years old who is, to add to his problems, not very cute.  His room-mate won’t hear of allowing the child to spend the night.  “I don’t like kids,” he says.  “Why not try Tane, across the courtyard?” She doesn’t want him either and we get to know her crusty persona as she flicks her fingers at the boy saying “shoo, shoo.”

A third neighbor also refuses but they decide to draw lots.  In a sly bit of cunning, Tane “wins.”  The boy stays with her, and she is to take him back where he got separated from his father, a carpenter looking for work.  Unfortunately Kohei is a bed wetter, well a futon wetter, which does not endear him to the old lady.  “Don’t call me old-lady,” she tells him. “Lady will do.”  She sets him to work fanning the hung-out-to-dry futon so the wet-spot will go away faster, and he will remember his transgression.

The expedition to find his father, about an hour and a half away, turns up nothing but slight remembrances of him.  In a marvelous set of scenes Tane takes Kohie to the beach and tries to ditch him.  No good.  He is younger, faster, and attached.  Back they go.

Whenever it seems as though the adults are being quite mean to the little man, when their “scolding” gets too harsh, or the lack of offering food, too thoughtless, the light, cheerful score comes along to assure us, like a stuffed animal a child, that things are really going to be all right.  We are reminded more than once of American film stylists of a similar temperament, directors Ozu was evidently familiar with, and fond of.

According to many observers, who think of Ozu as one of the giants of early Japanese cinema, his good-natured humor runs through all his films.  Tane and a younger woman friend trade quips, a bit barbed, and the older woman is always cautioning her to mind her tongue “or I’ll hit you, ” which would be a mighty blow indeed.  A sweet community song, with chopstick drumming accompaniment, signals the warmth that begins to rise for the boy.

“Record of a Tenement Gentleman shows the difference a child can bring to an otherwise lonely existence.  It even seems to suggest that this might be a path to happiness for many of post-War Japan’s shattered families and communities, but the point being made is not one of advocacy but of celebration : Look how our opinions can change.  Look how we can move from bitterness to happiness.  Even Ozu’s more downbeat films take delight in the complexities of human emotion.” [Very nice post on Ruthless Culture.]

When the father appears, having searched for days, Tane is both saddened, and cheered.  After having condemned the missing man as a worthless and cruel father she now finds him quite admirable, a man  “who knows all the forms of politeness.”  Gifts are exchanged and father and son head off in the evening dusk to continue their lives.  Tane and her neighbors meditate on the joy children can bring and the new hope in Japan.

Of the Japanese directors I’ve been looking at, particularly for how they treated war and post-war themes, Ozu is the least known to me.  From what I’ve seen, and read, he is certainly worth a broader look.

Record of  a Tenement Gentleman, is really quite a wonderful small [1 hr 12 min] film which, even if you are not a Japanophile, I think you would enjoy.  Available at FilmStruck.

I have to say, the title puzzled me a good deal.  There is neither a tenement nor a gentleman nor a record in the movie.  Here’s a good explanation in Wiki:

The accepted English title of the film is based on a misreading of the Japanese title Nagaya shinshiroku (長屋紳士録)A nagaya (長屋) is a row of houses with shared dividing walls but separate entrances – what would be called ‘terraced houses’ in the UK, ‘row houses’ in the US. Shinshiroku ( 紳士録: literally, ‘gentleman’s record’) means Who’s Who. A better translation of the title would be A Who’s Who of the Backstreets.

 

 

 

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