September 2021, arsenal cinema

Against all odds
 – Tribute to the Japanese screenwriters Yoko Mizuki and Sumie Tanaka

BANGIKU, 1954

Bar owners, saleswomen, secretaries, geishas, housewives, mothers, daughters; many of the films made by Mikio Naruse in the early 1950s focus on women. Women of different ages, who live in modest conditions, have difficult family set-ups or are at turning points. Women who often suffer from loneliness and struggle to earn respect, self-determination, independence and their place in a rapidly changing post-war Japan. They make for complex and sometimes contradictory protagonists, who are finely depicted with a precise and sympathetic gaze but also one that has no illusions. Many of these female characters – for example in MESHI (Repast, 1951), YAMA NO OTO (Sound of the Mountain, 1954), BANGIKU (Late Chrysanthemums, 1954) and UKIGUMO (Floating Clouds, 1955) – came to life in the screenplays and literary adaptations of the two most important female screenwriters of the time, Yoko Mizuki (1910–2003) and Sumie Tanaka (1908–2000). The two were exceptional beings in the Japanese film industry, in which for a long time, women – apart from actresses – were tolerated at best in the areas of make-up and costume. They established themselves in the early 1950s and each wrote between 30 and 40 screenplays into the 1960s, including for Kozaburo Yoshimura and Kinuyo Tanaka (Sumie Tanaka) and Tadashi Imai, Masaki Kobayashi and Kon Ichikawa (Yoko Mizuki). The start of their careers was marked by repeated collaboration with Mikio Naruse. We present eight films that represent this successful period of work, which was formative for all three participants.

UKIGUMO (Floating Clouds, Mikio Naruse, 1955, 10.9.: Introduction: Kayo Adachi-Rabe & 18.9.) After the war, the young and penniless Yukiko (Hideko Takamine) returns to Japan, which is bleak and desolate, and immediately sets about to find Kenkichi (Masayuki Mori), with whom she had an affair in Japanese-occupied Vietnam. When they meet in Tokyo there is no more talk of living together, as he had promised. The city in ruins becomes the location of a destructive love story: the more Kenchichi – an irresponsible womanizer – withdraws, the more obsessively Yukiko clings on to her love. These two uprooted figures meet in dreary dwellings and cheap eateries, taking long walks through the city’s streets and alleys, drifting until they embark upon a final journey. UKIGUMO is one of Naruse's most ambitious works. The complex narrative structure and the numerous flashbacks and ellipses can be attributed as much to the film's literary inspiration (a novel by Fumiko Hayashi) as to Yoko Mizuki's screenplay, which condensed the novel's ending significantly and not only that.

MESHI (Repast, Mikio Naruse, 1951, 11. & 20.9.) Naruse’s first adaptation of a novel by Fumiko Hayashi also marked the beginning of his collaboration with Sumie Tanaka, who worked on the film’s screenplay with Toshiro Die. At its center is Michiyo (Setsuko Hara), one of the first strong female characters in the director’s oeuvre. Michiyo has grown increasingly disillusioned after five monotonous years of marriage marked by money problems and the disdain of her husband (Ken Uehara). The situation worsens when his niece pays a visit, flirting unashamedly with her uncle when he takes her out. Michiyo decides to visit her parents in Tokyo to get some distance and independence. This is the point when Hayashi’s unfinished novel comes to an end. Tanaka and Ide’s screenplay, which ended with the couple getting divorced, met with great resistance from the studio and the producers and was never realized. This is reportedly why Tanaka withdrew from the project prematurely.

SHUU (Sudden Rain, Mikio Naruse, 1956, 11. & 17.9.) Naruse’s fourth “marriage film” was a counterpart to MESHI. Yoko Mizuki was inspired by a play for this tragicomic portrait of Fumiko (Setsuko Hara) and Ryotaro (Shuji Sano) whose marriage has come to a low point. Grim marital scenes are triggered by small things; the dreary Tokyo suburb in which they live and their unfriendly neighbors (including grotesque marginal characters) seem to exacerbate their serious relationship problems. The alienation of post-war Japanese society does the rest. The eponymous sudden rain punctuates the situation’s procedural nature, acting dramatically and atmospherically as well as symbolically.

YAMA NO OTO (Sound of the Mountain, Mikio Naruse, 1954, 12. & 21.9.) With its big garden in quiet Kamakura, not far from Tokyo, the Ogatas’ idyllic estate gives the impression of being lost in time. Kikuko (Setsuko Hara) and her husband Shuichi (Ken Uehara) live here with his parents. She cares for her in-laws lovingly while he has a mistress in downtown Tokyo and often returns drunk late at night. A deep affection develops between Kikuku and her father-in-law and the story of a failing marriage turns into an existential melodrama. Though she was largely faithful to the novel by the Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata on which the film is based, Yoko Mizuki did make a decisive intervention in her screenplay by shifting the focus from the father-in-law to Kikuko, whose perspective in the emblematic final scene literally reaches into the space.

INAZUMA (Lightning, Mikio Naruse, 1952, 13. & 17.9.) During the day, Kiyoko works as a guide accompanying bus tours through Tokyo’s upmarket shopping and entertainment Ginza district. In the evening, she returns to the cramped dwellings where she lives with her mother. She is also exposed to one her three half-siblings, who - with an eye on her own financial gain - wants to set her up with a rich baker. The life insurance policy that her other half-sister receives after her husband's death also sets off the covetous family members. Disgusted by her relatives’ selfishness on the one hand and inability to cope with life on the other, Kiyoko moves out. But family bonds are often close and contradictory in Japan. Naruse’s study of a patchwork family and the emotional entanglements was based on a pre-war novel by Fumiko Hayashi, which Sumie Tanaka transposed to post-war Japan, removing several of the plotlines.

OKAASAN (Mother, Mikio Naruse, 1952, 14. & 18.9.) This “film about simple people and hard work” is based on a short story that won first prize in a writing competition. Yoko Mizuki took up the comparatively cheerful, even sentimental, tone and created a basis for Naruse’s typical “mother film” genre. In a series of episodes, the much-deprived life of a family of four trying to keep its head above water in post-war Japan unfolds. After much effort, the family is able to open a small laundry but then both the father and son die. It is up to the mother (Kinuyo Tanaka) again to keep the business and the family afloat. The price is high when she succumbs to family pressure and has to sever a bond that is thought to be improper. This is a film about everyday life, small things, quiet rituals and the loneliness of a mother.

BANGIKU (Late Chrysanthemums, Mikio Naruse, 1954, 15. & 22.9.) Four retired geishas, four days. Sumie Tanaka and her co-author Toshiro Ide weave characters and episodes from three short stories by the writer Fumiko Hayashi into this portrait of four middle-aged women each confronted with different problems (money, love, family) but determined to find their place in the modern world, regardless of all the adversities and disappointments. The film begins and ends with Kin who speculates on the real estate market, lending money and regularly collecting the interest herself. For example, from her three former colleagues: the bar owner Nobu, Tamae who works in a hotel and Tami who gets by with black market activity. Undramatic but with moments of comedy, this is a character study of four women who live outside traditional norms.

NAGARERU (Flowing / A House of Geisha, Mikio Naruse, 1956, 16. & 19.9.) Naruse‘s films are often described as being flowing. In the depiction of his protagonists, there are no dramatic highpoints and events happen steadily, as if in flow. Misfortune, though unstoppable, occurs in NAGARERU as if by the by, in the form of the collapse of the Tsuta geisha house. The constant coming and going of geishas, delivery men, relatives and moneylenders cannot hide the fact that business is bad. The madam Tsutayako accumulates terrible debts in order to uphold standards but there are few revenues, little prospect of patrons and plenty of competition. One after the other, the members of the household grasp that the world of geisha houses is coming to an end. A classic ensemble film, NAGARERU boasts a wealth of famous stars (including Kinuyo Tanaka and Hideko Takamine) and a variety of plotlines, which are sometimes humorous. In a tour de force, Sumie Tanaka and her co-author Ide distilled all this from Aya Koda’s extensive novel. (mg)

In cooperation with the Japan Cultural Institute in Cologne (The Japan Foundation) as part of this year’s anniversary celebrations for “160 Years German-Japanese Friendship”.

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