The Empire of Fantasies

Geishunka (迎春花,1943) Dir. Yasushi Sasaki
In 1923, the massive earthquake hit the Kanto area. Unprecedented in modern history of Japan, with more than 100,000 causalities, the large part of metropolitan area was burnt to ground. One of the horrifying events in this catastrophe was ethnic cleansing of Koreans by Japanese survivors. Vicious rumors were spread through the frightened people in the devastated area; Koreans were poisoning drinking water, torching houses and preparing for communist revolution. Vigilantes searched for suspected “Koreans” (whoever they considered Koreans) and lynched them to death. In reality, the vicious rumors were spread by Tokyo Police Department. It may sound incredible, but Matsutaro Shoriki, the head of the Anti-terrorism unit in TPD at the time, devised the scheme for ethnic cleansing. Shoriki went on to become the owner of Yomiuri News, the largest news agency in Japan, an Class-A war criminal, and a Congressman. Many pointed out that he used this opportunity to suppress Left-wing-Labor union activities. However, there is no practical clear reason for cleansing Koreans in this context.

The whole operation was supposed to be buried under the confusion of the earthquake and its aftermath. The perpetrators thought they could erase any trace of the massacre, until the Military Police also joined this violent campaign and murdered whole family of Sakae Ohsugi. Ohsugi, not a Korean, but the leading figure of the Socialist/Anarchist movement, was one of the real targets of political cleansing. Though the operation had been already considered outrageous by even those who knew, but this went too far. MP also murdered Ohsugi’s nephew, a 6-year old boy. The killing of adults was one thing, but the killing of an innocent child was a different matter. This incident was no longer contained among groups of aggressors. The whole thing burst wide open. Lieutenant Masahiko Amakasu of MP was arrested for murder, sentenced to 10 years in prison and expelled from Army for his life. There were many indication that Amakasu did not commit the crime but was made a scapegoat for some high-ranking official in Military. The truth would never be known. 
After serving the sentence and spending some years in France on Army’s money, he found his haven in the Northeastern China. Japanese Imperial Army was developing strategic invasion plan in the area and looking for someone to do dirty jobs, such as espionage, illegal transactions, kidnapping, opium trafficking and assassinations. Amakasu was the best for the job. For years, he and his henchmen were underground operatives working for Army. Japan established Machukuo, the puppet government, in the region. Amakasu was never an official personnel of Manchukuo until he was appointed the head of Manchukuo Film Association, ManEi, in 1939. 
ManEi was established in 1937 as a propaganda machine for the Manchukuo Empire. Manchukuo covered the vast area of Northeastern China, which required a balanced maneuver through a variety of ethnicity and races. Japanese officials considered its entertainment industry as a critical element of cultural “fabrication” for governance under their policy and allocated large budget for the enterprise. Amakasu was the best man for the job; he was a right wing Imperialist to his bone, the believer of Japanese race as a ruler of Asia and viewed himself as a military officer though he was expelled from Army. The fact that he did not understand art was not an issue. It’s an entertainment industry built on propaganda. No one is looking for high art.
Usually the term “propaganda film” is used for films like “Jud Suss” or “Triumph of the Will” in Third Reich or “Why We Fight” series in U.S. This may be true for documentaries and news reels. However, especially under totalitarian regime, feature films are heavily coated with sugar of escapism, to conceal the poisonous layer underneath. The most successful films in the Third Reich were romantic melodramas of Zarah Leander such as “Die Große Liebe (1942)”. Conceived as a propaganda institute, Man-Ei was the extreme example of this trend. It produced melodramas among Chinese and Japanese to promote “racial harmony”. But it was always Chinese ladies submitted themselves to Japanese men because they realized Japanese men were gentle, caring and just. Of course, that is fantasy.
ManEi was a miniature cosmos of the Manchukuo Empire itself. Even though it was a mixed bag, the racial hierarchy was visible and discrimination was imbued in its structure. Japanese directors, actors and staffs were at the top, while Chinese staffs were there to assist them. Due to restriction on production in Japanese studios, some directors and actors sought their opportunities in this new Land. In order to save its face as a symbol of “five races as one”, ManEi employed many Chinese, Koreans, Mongolians and Manchurians. ManEi’s top starlet was Li Xiānglán, a beautiful Chinese lady who also appeared in Shochiku films opposite to Kazuo Hasegawa. However, she was actually a Japanese who spoke Chinese fluently; her real name was Yoshiko Yamaguchi (“Scandal“), a daughter of Machukuo Railway employee.
Amakasu was a mysterious man. He was a nihilist and kept at arm’s length by the high-ranking elites in Japanese politics and military. Though many considered him as a ruthless Imperialist and a scandalous bureaucrat, he was also said to be a sincere, kind man at the same time. Yoshiko Yamaguchi remembered him as an “honest, caring gentleman”. He raised salaries for both Japanese and Chinese staff (though there was a huge gap between them), brought back many technological innovations from Germany and tried to improve the quality of ManEi product. 
However, it did not mean its products were accepted by Chinese and other ethnic groups. They were to appeal anyone in the region but the production was simply below standard and horrible. In one occasion, Amakasu invited prominent critics and cultural elites from Japan to show ManEi’s high-blow film. It was said they were boring and unwatchable to death. Few showed up in the ceremony for the after the show and Amakasu drank himself to embarrassment. I saw one of their “supposedly” popular ManEi movie, “Geishunka (迎春花, 1943)“, but I must say, as a drama, it is very difficult to recommend it to anyone. It is quite interesting as a historical artifact though; you can see how Mukden looked like in 1942.
Amakasu took his own life on 20 August, 1945, five days after the surrender of Japan. He considered himself useless in the world without Japanese Empire. When he took cyanide pills, Tomu Uchida (Tuchi (1939), Chiyari Fuji (1955)) was in the next room. Uchida realized something were amiss and rushed into the room. Amakasu died in the arms of Uchida.

Geishunka, with Chinese subtitiles

Masumura, Ichikawa and Ozu

The Most Valuable Wife (Saiko Shukun Fujin, 1959, dir. Yasuzo Masumura)

Speed of Growth
In the age of global economy, a self-proclaimed expert announces “your bond is no longer as secure as it used to be” and then whole world goes berserk. A large part of transactions of securities, stocks, bonds, foreign currencies and other monetary entities is processed by computer algorithms without human intervention, in less than a microsecond over the continents. A myriad of security firms, banks, and other companies you never knew how to pronounce their names, destroy your retirement plan in two seconds. Most of us are jittery because off-shoring project in process in the floor below will mean next wave of layoffs in this floor. Yes, this is the ultimate form of the Captialism as we know it.

Strangely, it wasn’t like this always. In Japan, there was a time when economy was on the rocket of growth. No off-shoring, no hedge-funds, no layoffs. Your job was secure as long as you wished, you had dreams as the others did, your colleagues were long-time friends, marriage was a ritual, and there was no fear of losing anything you earned. “The Most Valuable Wife (Saiko Shukun Fujin, 最高殊勲夫人, 1959)” is the product of the age of fast growth and non-stop consumptions. Mihara family has three sons and Nonomiya family has three daughters. The oldest son, Ichiro, is the president of the trading company. His wife is the oldest daughter of Nonomiyas, Momoko, who nags him every moment possible and gives him every possible order on how to run his company. The second son, Jiro, an executive in the company, marries the second daughter of Nonomiyas, Nashiko. It is natural for Saburo, the youngest son of Miharas to marry Kyoko, the youngest daughter of Nonomiyas, isn’t it? Momoko is in charge. She has her scheme to match them up. It’s the first step for Momoko to control every aspect of everybody’s life. But, Saburo tells Kyoko he will not marry her. Kyoko tells him neither will she. So they team up to prevent Momoko’s grandiose plan to “conquer the world” …
Ichiro’s company is located in Marunouchi, the center of Tokyo and Japan. The employees of this prestigious company “enjoy” their status. They eat their lunch, snacks, and dinners in restaurants, spending money as fast as possible. Everyone talks fast, makes decision fast and acts fast. This speed is the speed of growth. Masumura achieves this speed not only through editing but mostly through directness. In particular, Saburo drives up the speed to the limit. He does not care if his honest opinion is too blatant. He rarely hesitates. He enjoys his status, but is never arrogant. He is not as intelligent, but knows the way around.
But where is a family in this film? Ichiro and Momoko, though a husband and a wife, don’t come off as a family. They look like extension of office colleagues. Their bedroom looks absurd, like an office. Their conversation sounds like transaction of ideas. In fact, we do not smell a scent of family in any of the characters in this film, except Nonomiyas. But this family is also bulldozed off by their own daughter, Momoko, a Capitalism monster.
Time, Money and Sickness
The Crowded Streetcar (Manin Densha, 満員電車, 1957, dir. Kon Ichikawa)
Karl Marx defined a clock as a machinery of Capitalism. It epitomizes the labor sold by an hour. Gonroku, Tamio’s father in “The Crowded Streetcar (Manin Densha, 満員電車, 1957)“, is apparently haunted by ghosts of Capitalism. He is a master of clock shop and a member of city council in Odawara. Played by Chishu Ryu, he definitely reminds us many father characters Ryu has played in Ozu films. Coupled with Gonroku’s wife (Haruko Sugimura), they seem like a couple jumped out of Ozu film and landed on Ichikawa’s world. There are Ozu train shot as well, as if Ichikawa carefully recreated Ozu’s Onomichi in “Tokyo Story” here only to destroy it. Because they are from another world, there is something wrong with them. Wall-full of clocks might have influenced their minds. As I think of it, few characters in Ozu films are in hurry, minding clocks.
If Masumura’s “The Most Valuable Wife” is about speed and consumption, Ichikawa’s “The Crowded Streetcar” is about time and money. And Sickness. Tamio, freshly out of University, lands on a job in Rakuda Beer Company, a prestigious job for a “salaryman”. He thinks he succeeded in “catching a train” of life. Even if it’s too crowded, you have no choice but take that train. Otherwise, there will be no train for you, ever. That’s his motto. He starts his new life, alone in the new city, surrounded by surreal colleagues. The first thing he learns in his new office is “Don’t be efficient, your job is rationed daily”. He finishes his work in ten minutes in the morning, and his superior tells him “No, we have a problem if you finish the work that fast”. In this world, Captitalism trained people so efficient that Capitalism itself cannot catch up. Conversely, efficient mind can calculate how the future holds along the curve of economic growth. In one scene, Tamio lectures how to calculate his own life-long earnings. That’s “Salaryman 101”. You can actually calculate the whole sum of your earnings in your entire life, including retirement plans. Whatever you do with your time, your life is predetermined once you are on that train.
If money and time dictate the life of a man, sickness is his poison. He will be thrown out of the window of the train, if he is not “functioning”. Many characters in this film end up on the pebbles along the railroads, with varying degree of miserable results. No longer were rosy pictures of future they envisioned. Welcome to the world of “losers”.

Owning and Disowning

Good Bye, Good Day (1959, dir. Kon Ichikawa)

Kazuko is a young designer in an Automobile Company. She is living with her father, who just quit his job, and her sister, a stewardess. Her father wants her to marry, but she is reluctant. Their old friend, Umeko, whispers to her father, “if you say you are going to remarry, then …”
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? “Good Bye, Good Day (Anata to Watasi no Aikotoba, Sayonara, Konnichiwa, あなたと私の合言葉、さようなら こんにちは, 1959)” is definitely Ichikawa’s “Late Spring”. But it is pitted against the background of economy growth. It is not a serene world of Noriko and her father, where the ladies enjoy tea ceremony and people go to Noh theater. It’s a world of colorful cars and business opportunity. Kazuko is independent financially and competent as an automobile designer in the age of expansion and of male dominance. She travels alone and knows what she wants and what she doesn’t need. Umeko is also a determined business woman, knowing what she wants and how to get it. By contrast, men are another variations on Tamio, only less efficient. They want their rails to be laid out, and get scared or depressed if something goes wrong. Ichikawa’s vision is more bleak and dissonant than Masumura’s world of speed or Ozu’s world of satori. One of the striking difference between Ozu’s “Late Spring” and Ichikawa’s “Good Bye, Good Day” is what a father tells his daughter when they have to part their ways. Noriko’s father tells her that they must go separate ways so that she could find her happiness. This is mainly Noriko’s business. However, Kazuko’s father, brilliantly played by Shin Saburi, tells her he has to get rid of her. In a man’s life, he tells her, one must get rid of what he owns, one by one. We sense that he is suggesting that, after a series of disowning what he once had, one will no longer owns anything and will be ready for the inevitable. Sombre as it is, it is his way to cut the rope and let her swim on her own. 
Ichikawa consciously presented his case of lost sanity and lost humane emotions, placing it parallel to Ozu’s. He couldn’t help injecting poison of postwar Capitalism into transparent pessimism. He seems to have foreseen the world where one cannot beat the feedback overshoot of our own efficiency. Or the world where one pursues the ownership of everything, including family, only to disown them in the end. However, he does not criticize such indelible nature of a modern Capitalism man. He seems to be just disappointed. 
The Crowded Streetcar

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Nobuko Rides on a Cloud


Nobuko Rides on a Cloud (ノンちゃん雲に乗る)

1955, Shin-Toho

Prod. Hisatora Kumagai, Hiroji Nakata

Dir. Fumindo Kurata

Fumindo Kurata, Setsuko Murayama
Haruko Wanibuchi, Setsuko Hara, Susumu Fujita


A little girl, Non-chan, is walking down the road crying hard. Her dog, Es, is following her. She finds a large tall tree with a nice branch extending out to the river. Non-chan climbs onto the branch, finds herself reflected on the water. She stops crying, and pretending to be a bird, she flaps her arms. Then …

When she comes to herself, she was in the clouds. She was saved by a kind old man with gray hair and beard. There, to her surprise, Chou-kichi, her classmate, is also present. He is not nice, has never been. The old man assumes they are good friends, but Non-chan denies it. They are always fighting over small things in classrooms, in the playground, and everywhere.

The old man asks Non-chan if she tells story of her life. Yes, she tells the story of her and her family, including Es. The story begins with a typical morning in her home. She wakes up, singing her favorite morning song. Her beautiful mother is cleaning the house. She shares the room with her older brother, who is mischievous and a bit rough.

She asks the old man whether he likes a kid like her brother. She thinks her brother is quite demanding and not always a good boy. The old man asks what Non-chan wishes to have. She says she wishes she had a violin. She tells the story about a wonderful man with a violin. He was a poet and his violin was so beautiful. It’s Non-chan’s wish, but she does not demand it like her brother, she says. “You know, not only he is demanding, he is a bit of a liar.”

One banana for afternoon snack. But her brother steals another one when their mother was not looking. But he made a mess on the cushion their mother had sewn. He lied that he didn’t do it. Non-chan told their parents he actually did and she witnessed it.

Or “Stop game”. Boys think it’s fun to stop trucks and cars by jumping in front of them. Angry truck driver complained to their mother. That night, their father really got mad. He beat the son in his face and said, “if I stop following the rule and beat you like this, is this OK?” This was a little lesson for Non-chan’s brother.

One day, Hashimoto, the class president, moving to Tokyo, gave a farewell to the class. The teacher named Non-chan as a new class president. She says to Hashimoto, “I am going to Tokyo.” She had been living in Tokyo until her family moved to this country due to her weak health. She is getting better, so she is going to Tokyo very soon.

That night, everybody in the family were glad to hear Non-chan was elected a class president. And there was their kind aunt, visiting them. Non-chan is happy.  But there is something wrong next morning. Her brother and her mother are not at home. Her father says he is going out for fishing as if he avoids her questions. Then she was told that her mother and brother went to see their grandmother in Tokyo, leaving Non-chan behind. They all know Non-chan wants to visit Tokyo, but they fear her frail health is not ready for the trip. But, of course, Non-chan does not understand. She thinks they betrayed her. She goes out, crying hard. That’s where the movie starts.

Non-chan tells the old man that she wants to go home. But the old man is thinking. He says she needs to pass the “test”. What test? She needs to tell a lie. Tell a lie? Non-chan is feeling uneasy. In 30 seconds. She couldn’t think of a lie and tell a lie. She cannot go home? She starts crying. The old man asks, who told you not to tell a lie? She says, nobody, I don’t want to tell a lie.

The old man decides let her go home. After angels dancing and Non-chan dancing and playing the violin, the old man and she ride on the cloud to go back. As a farewell token, the old man gives her a star.

Non-chan wakes up to find her mother is crying beside her bed. The doctor, and everybody else are present. Non-chan tells the story up above the clouds, but her mother is so afraid. Yes, she was in coma and wandering between this and the other worlds.

Non-chan recovers from this event. She is back at school as usual. And Chou-kichi is not paying attention to the class as always. The teacher checks if Chou-kichi is listening, as always. But he does not give an excuse that Non-chan is distracting him, which he did before. Something has changed a little.

Hisatora Kumagai and Setsuko Hara

Throughout her career, Setsuko Hara was plagued by health problems. There were at least two occasions of sabbatical due to illness after the war. First she was forced to have a leave of absence for a year in 1952. She came back to screen in 1953. In 1954, however, she was diagnosed as cataract. This time, she had a year and a half leave. This film was the her comeback in 1955. During her leave, she stayed with her sister’s family in Kamakura. In fact, Hara spent large part of her life with them up until this day.

This is not surprising, not only because she stayed single throughout her life, but also her carrier in film industry was initiated by her sister, an actress and her sister’s husband, Hisatora Kumagai, a prominent film director in the prewar period, and the producer of this film, “Nobuko Rides on a Clouds”. Nowadays, his name is rarely mentioned, except in connection with Hara.

In many critical stages of Hara’s career, Kumagai was always present in the background. In 1937, Hara visited Nazi Germany for the promotion of the film “Samurai’s Daughter (新しき土, 1937)” by Arnold Fanck (1). She was accompanied by her agents and Kumagai. During this trip, Kumagai saw Nazi Germany and its totalitarian regime in action. Also, he was agitated by blunt racism toward Japanese (or Asians in general) in Europe. The experience in Europe during this time of turmoil seems to have made strong impact on him, leading to the ultra-nationalistic political activism. According to her own accounts, it seems Hara herself was more or less at loss and not prepared for the popularity and attention she was exposed to in Germany (2).

Setsuko Hara in Germany, 1937

During thirties, Kumagai was one of the most sought-after directors in Nikkatsu and Toho, directing such films as “Soubou (蒼氓, 1937)” and “Abe Ichizoku (安部一族, 1938)”. But his popularity quickly waned as he concentrated his efforts on propaganda films. One of the most well-known among his works is probably “Shanghai Rikusentai (上海陸戦隊, 1938)”, largely because this PD film is widely available on DVD. Even though the film is below par even for the propaganda film of the time, the fact that Hara plays a Chinese girl made it an object of curiosity. After “Shanghai Rikusentai” and “Shido Monogatari (指導物語, 1941)”, both of which featured Hara in minor roles, Kumagai devoted his effort to activism, becoming a member of right-wing extremist group, “Sumera Juku” (3). Apparently this move made many people in film industry apprehensive of him and perplexed about his motives .

After the war, Kumagai was branded as a war conspirator and practically blacklisted for several years. Finally, in 1953, Kumagai directed the film “Shirauo (白魚, 1953)”, with Setsuko Hara in a leading role. This film was also Hara’s comeback after a year of absence in 1952. Not only that, Hara’s brother (and Kumagai’s brother in law), Yoshio Aida, was the cinematographer for the film. The film was supposed to be springboards for Kumagai/Hara families to recapture their grips in film industry. During the shooting, however, the tragedy struck. Yoshio Aida, attempting to get impressive shots of the locomotive, was hit by incoming train at Gotenba station. He died the next day. Hara was devastated. I have not seen this film, but according to reviews, you can tell the difference between the footage before the accident and those after. In footage after the accident, Hara’s acting was overly engaged, which would make you wonder if something wrong with her.

It was only thirteen days after her brother’s tragedy that the shooting of “Tokyo Story (東京物語, 1953)” started.

Non-chan was the second comeback for Hara and Kumagai. Kumagai made many attempts to comeback as a director, with Hara starring in many of them,  but received by lukewarm reactions at best. This was his first attempt as a producer solo and a venture into the territory of childrens’ film. Being Hara’s first acting role after the long rest, Kumagai seemed to have paid extra attention to her physical condition. Her shooting schedule was kept minimum (only for five days, 9 to 5) and her long-time co-star, Susumu Fujita, played her husband, probably to ease off her stress. The next film, “Utukusiki Haha (美しき母, 1955)”, was directed by Kumagai, again. She must have felt quite secure, with still weak physique, easily exhausted, under this protection of “family business”. Then she went on to the last series of films in her prominent carrier, including “Tokyo Twilight (東京暮色, 1957)” and “Late Summer (秋日和, 1960)”.

(1) The film was the first major German-Japan co-production. German version was directed by Arnold Fanck and Japanese version by Mansaku Itami, though the basic plot is identical for both versions. During the production, Anti-Comintern Pact was formed between Nazi Germany and Japan. The film was celebrated as a symbol of Coalition between two regimes.     

(2) Many of the accounts about Hara and Kumagai were from “Hara Setusko, Actress’s Showa” by Nobuo Chiba (「原節子 映画女優の昭和」千葉伸夫, Yamato Shobo, 1987) and “Japanese Cinema History” by Tadao Sato (「日本映画史」佐藤忠男, Iwanami Shoten, 1995).

(3) Many sources states that he started this extremist group and invited the followers to his house in Kamakura. I could not confirm this. From what I could gather, Sumera-juku or Sumera gakujuku was headed by Nobusama Suetsugu, the Imperial Navy General, and formed by right-wing thinkers at the time. Kumagai’s name is not in the list of executive members. It was formed in 1940 and disbanded in 1944. Strangely, it promoted the anti-Semitic view and its influence on Japanese. It has been pointed out that the group was initiated by the people who had stayed in Paris, France during early thirties.