Someone Who Looks Like Gary Cooper

Green Mountains (1949)


This is part five of “Films of 1949” series (Part 1, 2 3 and 4).
In his “Truth of Cinema”, Tadao Sato vividly describes (1) the conversation among young workers in the office immediately after the war; What will be your choice? Arranged marriage or “romantic marriage”? Arranged marriage is the marriage in which partners are introduced through parents or relations; it does not require romantic relationship prior to marriage. “Romantic marriage” is realized through the romantic relationship between partners. Many old folks, such as my uncles and aunts, or those who had been in their teens or twenties in late 40’s or early 50’s, told me the similar discussions had taken place everywhere from living rooms to classrooms. For example, majority of the students, especially female students, were for “romantic marriage”, some told me. They thought marriage after romantic relationship would bring gender equality and respect in family, which had not been a top priority in “traditional” Japanese families. In younger minds, there was more weight on individual, independence, dignity and respect while less on politics of family structure. Arranged marriage was something of old, archaic, and most of all, chauvinism. It was linked to failure of the old society, of the patriarch system ominously dictated in the Imperial legal system.

How was the arranged marriage like? The basic process is quite aptly described in Ozu’s “Late Spring”. It’s a process of two families with a pivotal “go-between”. Usually, this “go-between”, the matchmaker, is consulted by the parents, whether he/she knows someone with a proper background (social status, income, age, and most of all, family) matching their expectations. The matchmaker can be family relations such as uncles, aunts or grandparents, or their boss in workplace, sometimes respected members of society, such as doctors or representatives of city council, or some professional matchmakers. The photo of their son/daughter along with description (prepared by his/her parents) is entrusted to the matchmaker, who communicates with the other parents. The photos are exchanged between families through the matchmaker, then usually parents judge the candidate first. If the parents are satisfied, they ask their son/daughter if he/she is interested. If no party signals refusal, the matchmaker arranges the meeting of two families. 
As you can see, the whole communication is processed through their parents. A century ago, judgment was rested on the elder male of the family (father), who sometimes commanded the marriage without consent from their son/daughter. They were allowed to do so legally, for the civil laws did define the role of father as such. This patriarch system was so total and unforgiving that even divorce settlement was insanely unjust towards women. When the wife commits adultery, it would not only constitute the ground for divorce, but also it was a crime. If it was a case of adultery on part of the husband, …. well, practically nothing happened.
Many members of SCAP, influenced by the New Deal Policy of 1930s U. S., saw this Imperial Constitution and its legal system deeply flawed, especially in terms of human rights. Beate Sirota Gordon, a staff member in Douglas MacArthur’s SCAP, the former Times Magazine researcher and the most diligent interpreter (she was raised in Japan until she was 18) in the team, was responsible for many aspects of the Constitution of Japan, notably Article 24. She was only 24 years old when the Constitution was enacted.
Article 24. Marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes and it shall be maintained through mutual cooperation with the equal rights of husband and wife as a basis.
With regard to choice of spouse, property rights, inheritance, choice of domicile, divorce and other matters pertaining to marriage and the family, laws shall be enacted from the standpoint of individual dignity and the essential equality of the sexes (2).
Beate Sirota Gordon (via
It is said that many Japanese cabinet members and politicians opposed this Article, insisting that their prewar family system was the Japanese cultural tradition and sacred.

However, such an abrupt change in gender politics did not transform the public overnight. Public conception of gender roles had been so irreversibly etched by the structure of the previous system, from minute details in everyday life to popular arts, such as literature, theater and cinema, that they reacted to the notion of “equal rights”, without comprehending its contextual meaning. This tendency seemed to be amplified proportionally to age; older the person is, less likely to welcome the new challenge. The attitude toward gender-political-cultural event such as marriage widely varied from generation to generation during the years of occupation and well into sixties. If we take this background in our view as we appreciate Ozu’s “Late Spring”, Imai’s “Green Mountains”, Kinoshita’s “Here’s to the Girls” or “Yabure Daiko”, we can find dynamic diversity of gender culture in making.
At one end, Imai’s “Green Mountains” was the celebration of the New Era. It uncompromisingly condemns the repression of sex, chauvinistic male promiscuity or reactionary attitudes toward anything in general. A (fake) love letter to a high-school girl (Sugi) becomes the center of controversy in the rural community. The community is divided on the matter of love, jealousy, ill-intended plank and accepted morals of men and women. Up until then, people accepted display of chauvinism such as married men flirting with Geishas in broad daylight while “ordinary” women were confined in the web of morality. This has to be changed, for democracy is finally here. Men and women were free to love each other and they would reach to marriage on equal terms, under their own will. Imai constructs the dichotomy of this old/new, projected in the most simple framework of democracy. This approach apparently worked in 1949 and the film was spectacularly popular and critically acclaimed (3). Also the film explores the underlying linkage between gender inequality and military invasion of the Empire. So significant is the suggestion that antagonism toward romantic relationships resonates with violent behavior. When local high school bullies starts picking on Rokusuke, thinking he is a soft womanizer, Rokusuke experiences hard time refraining himself from using physical force. He declares that he denies any use of physical force in any situation, no matter what. The behavior and psychology of these local bullies immediately reminds us the practice of “comfort women” in Korea and China during war years. Rokusuke’s refusal to degrade himself to their level is the symbol of new male, liberated himself from the notion of being “manly”.
Green Mountains
However, the conceptual rendering of gender equality in this film apparently lacked another dimension. It was a two-dimensional map, without no altitude labeling. It successfully condemned the behavior of the feudal males, but it failed to deliver how they could achieve new standard in real life. It assumes the romantic relationships come naturally. People had to navigate through valleys and mountains of real world. Like finding your partner. Of course, it was, is and will be the subject of all human suffering and joy forever, but it took much more than courage to start the relationship in 1949 Japan. Even if they longed for romantic relationship, they lacked experience. It shows in statistics; in late 1940s, 60% of marriage was still through arrangement, while 21% through romantic relationship. It took another two decades to reverse this ratio. 
Far from this almost vulgar jubilate by Imai, Ozu quietly defends the value of family in his own terms. In view of enactment of New Constitution two years earlier, it is possible to read his “Late Spring” as somewhat oblique critique toward overt individualism. Or at least it suggests that rapid change was outpacing what Japanese people could digest.
The case for “Late Spring” will be examined in the next post.
(1) “Truth of Cinema”, Tadao Sato, p.61, Chuko Shinsho, 2001
(2) From website for “Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet”
(3) So popular was the film and its original novel that the remakes hit the screen almost every decade, culminating to additional four versions (1957, 1963, 1975 and 1988). It was turned into the convenient star vehicle showcasing young actor and actress pair whom production company wanted to promote for a quick cash, and it never failed. Spanning over four decades, the reading of this idealism has changed. It would be interesting to compare the versions to see this transformation.
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88 Keys

Here’s to the Girls (1949)

This is part four of “Films of 1949” series (Part 1, 2 and 3).

The Ikedas lost all the glitters and glamor they once had. A decade ago, they were the respectable clan of respectable society. The end of the war brought them a period of humiliation, disgrace and loss, enormous loss. The head of the family was thrown into jail, their properties were liquidated and prospect of regaining the past glory is dim. Their beautiful daughter, Kyoko, whom her parents and grandparents had envisioned bright future, and possibly a marriage with a handsome young man from a family of at least their caliber or preferably much more distinguished, is now dating some fellow from streets (Keizo). Then, this uneducated man surprised them with an unexpected gift; a piano. They lost their piano when they had to raise money, and since then, it had become the unhealed scar among them, especially to Kyoko. It must have been a symbol of Kyoko’s unadulterated childhood, of better days with echoes of Chopin, Mozart or Beethoven ringing in their faded memory. When a piano is delivered unannounced, Kyoko is visibly bewildered. It is not a bewilderment of pleasure. It’s a scar wide open.

“Here’s to the Girls (Ojo-san Kanpai)” is probably the most charming statement on division, deconstruction and infusion of class hierarchy in postwar era. Keisuke Kinoshita deals this subject with just a right amount of humor and sincerity, otherwise it would have been too somber a subject. Keizo is not molded into a stereotypical money-monger and Shuji Sano splendidly crafted a character of an independent entrepreneur with good intentions. Kyoko is a sensitive, yet battling woman of noble bleed, well-played by Setsuko Hara. A piano was one of the focal points of their relationship.

In Japanese cinema of 30s and 40s, piano was inherently linked to women of the upper class. The instrument had become the symbol of luxury, especially for a heroin whose life had tuned sour after the war. Through this instrument she would express her emotions, battered feelings or complex anguish. In “No Regrets for Our Youth“, Yukie (played by Setsuko Hara three years earlier), almost violently exerts all the musical power of a poor instrument, as if to curse the world beyond her safe haven. Apparently, Kurosawa found an effective vehicle for cinematic narrative. 

Piano, by its nature, is a fixture in a house. It is not mobile, as violins or guitars, nor cheap. Furthermore, Japanese-style house was not ready to accommodate such a totally foreign object (,yet). Playing the piano on chair was not a part of life on tatami. In prewar era, it leads to the image of piano in a Western style house (only affordable to rich one percenters), with a drawing room full of sofas and couches (only affordable to rich people with nothing to do).
After the war, rich families of conglomerates and royal heritage were stripped of privilege, and money flowed into new class of riches, of black-market, of trading or of people who were keen on changing tides. Change in social class structure made this immoblie object quite cumbersome presence. This image was reflected in many of postwar cinema. Some, as in No Regrets, completely abandoned the instrument to meet new society, while others tried to redefine it in a new environment.

Good Bye (1949)

Funakoshi, a head of the powerful, influential family, invites Tajima (Masayuki Mori) to meet his daughter, who, Funakoshi claims, is madly in love with him. Tajima, a Casanova with cheap moral, already had severed ties with all his girl friends (ten of them!) for this occasion, expecting marriage with this unknown but promising rich girl with huge fortune. To convince his former girl friends to give him up, he had asked his black-marketeer, Kinuko, a beautiful woman but with vulgar speech with no manners, to masquerade as his wife. It worked nicely, and he is convinced he is on the way to the Society (though he started to feel funny about this cute black-marketeer). Now, to his astonishment, Funakoshi’s daughter, Kinoko, is the dead-linger to this black-marketeer, in a beautiful white dress, playing the piano. As sleazy as ever, he pretends to know the piece she is playing, “Ah, I love Chopin”, to which Kinuko replies with dreamy eyes, “I love listening to this Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, under moonlight.” Then, she switches to Jazz, smiling to completely dumb-folded Tajima.

This lightweight Japanese version of screwball comedy, “Good Bye”(1), is full of amusing antics of battle of sexes between Mori and Takamine with delightful result. Here, piano is the instrument to arm Kinuko/Kinuyo’s (Yes, they are the same, after all) against Tajima’s womanizing. Masquerade between Kinuko, a rich society girl, and Kinuyo, a black- marketeer, is amply suggested by switch between Moonlight Sonata and Jazz (in some sense, Kinuko/Kinuyo is cinematic predecessor to Eliza in Cukor’s “My Fair Lady”). Both in “Here’s to the Girls” and “Good Bye”, men are completely ignorant of western classical music. (In “Here’s to the Girls”, Kyoko plays Chopin while Keizo asks if it is Beethoven.) Though this ignorance is for comical effect , it evolves into the vital plot element at the end of “Here’s to Girls”. I wonder if the audience at the time knew Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata or Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu. It is more likely that majority of audience identified with Keizo’s bewilderment or Tajima’s pretense.
Piano plays various key roles in other films of 1949. In “Ginaza Kankan Girl”(Takamine’s next film), Oharu, played by Shizuko Kasagi, “Jangle Boogie” girl, dreams about playing the piano which she used to have (presumably before the war). Kurosawa’s “Stray Dog” brings us to suburban idyll scented with piano study. In “Yabure Daiko”, another screwball comedy (somehow reminds me of My Man Godfrey) directed by Kinoshita, a spoiled son (played by Kinoshita’s brother and composer, Tadashi Kinoshita) sings a silly song about tyrannical father, self-made business man (Tsumasaburo Bando). The song is about a blown drum, allegory to their father losing grips in the society. It is a revolt against father-centric family; another ignorant man, trying to imitate other rich families, bought a piano as an ornament to his house. Now it is playing a song condemning his Hitler-like behavior. Piano is now transforming itself from a fixture in an affluent household to an instrument of liberation.

Ginza Kankan Girl

In forties and fifties, (Western) music industry in Japan was still in its infancy, though population of musically inclined steadily increased. To answer demands from the domestic market, Yamaha ramped up mass production of piano in those years, under tight quality control. This modus operandi brought amazingly uniform set of products, devoid of rich color or tone, especially suited for population of the uninitiated. In 2009, sixty years later, the penetration of the instrument into Japanese household was around 25% (2). You can find Yamaha Music School or any other music schools for extracurricular studies in any neighborhood. Some kids practicing Mozart or Ghibli song on the piano used to be a staple of suburban noise-scape. The instrument did in fact liberated Western music to larger population and many of us today wholeheartedly smile at Tajima’s ignorance.

(1) The film is based on the unfinished novel by Osamu Dazai. The half of the film was written by Hideo Oguni for the film. Also, the original title of the film was “How to handle women”.

(2) Census of general durable consumer goods, 2009, Ministry of Economy and Industry

Copyrighted materials, if any, on this web page are included as “fair use”. These are used for the purpose of research, review or critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).