Song of the Flower Basket (1937)

Kinuyo Tanaka and Shuji Sano in HANAKAGO NO UTA (Song of the Flower Basket, 1937)
The story of HANAKAGO NO UTA (“Song of the Flower Basket”, 花籠の歌, 1937) revolves around a pork-cutlet diner along a cluttered back street of Ginza, Tokyo. Keizo (Reikichi Kawamura), the owner and the master of the diner, and his daughter Yoko (Kinuyo Tanaka) are running a small but successful business. The Chinese chef, Mr. Lee (Shin Tokudaiji), cooks the best pork-cutlet, as they say. Two of the most frequent customers are Ono (Shuji Sano) and Hotta (Chishu Ryu), a pair of rather lazy collage students. The story goes into a wicked spiral when Ono is arrested for a murder of a girl he once knew. Yoko becomes frustrated and nervous, while Hotta tries every possible means for his friend’s release.
I found the film depressing. I felt it more depressing than it needed to be. Gosho excels at creating chaos in a small world of otherwise charming ordinary people, and his earlier films, such as THE NEIGHBOR’S WIFE AND MINE (1931), THE BRIDE TALKS IN HER SLEEP (1933) or BURDEN OF LIFE (1935), are full of adorable silliness. In HANAKAGO NO UTA, however, these silliness gave away to somber sighs. The atmosphere is rather chilling, especially the diner, – claustrophobic, low-ceiling, poorly illuminated – the kind of a place you would find in a forgotten cul-de-suc of a forgotten street. The characters are also gradually plastic and discolored. Kinuyo Tanaka’s rosy cheek in black & white becomes just pale gray, while young Shuji Sano even loses his famous plastered smile. Though Hotta and Mr. Lee – great acting by Ryu and Tokudaiji – bright up the scenes a little, the overall somberness suffocates the story. Is it a sign of time, maybe?

Unusually heavy snow covered streets of Tokyo on February 26, 1936. Failed coup d’etat,- 226 Incident, as it has come to be known – has sputtered the mist of blood on this snow. Young officers, – intelligent, royal, and particularly vulnerable to the ideal of revolution – mobilized the troops to occupy several key locations and assassinated a few politicians. The troops and the officers were called “bandits” by the enraged Emperor Hirohito himself, and their revolution fell apart. Yoshishige Yoshida’s COUP D’ETAT (1973) is a fantastic version of the event, largely told from the perspectives of those involved in the coup. Ono and Hotta in this film were in the same age group as these rebel officers. History largely has forgotten about them, tens of thousands of Onos and Hottas, living in small rooms and apartments in shadows of Metropolis, only trying to get a decent job and survive. What did they see and how did they feel on that day?

Kinuyo Tanaka and Chishu Ryu

There had been signs, – eerie rumors, vicious voices, hateful eyes, spine-chilling words – sneaking into small cracks of minds of people. Several days before the coup d’etat, a strange rumor – Osaka was destroyed by a huge earthquake – spread around in Tokyo. Next day, another rumor of an assassination. Numerous kinds of agitprop pamphlets of dubious origin were sold on streets. Ministry of Interior granted more power to Special Unit in Security Police after the coup, effectively kicking off the Orwellian state. Yes, that is what you call, ‘dark times’.

Shin Tokudaiji and Kinuyo Tnaka

So, I find it all the more remarkable that HANAKAGO NO UTA mirrors the other side of the time, largely forgotten, having died with the fading memories of Onos and Hottas. The film never mentions the incident, not even a hint of social anxieties. But it’s all there. When Yoko sighs in the deserted diner, her nervous trembling would echo just a little in my head. Their anxiety was not a concrete fear, not yet. It was twisted melancholy, as if listening to rumbling ground far away.
The film opened in January 1937 and in July of the same year, the Marco Polo Bridge Incident erupted. It was no longer a ‘conflict’. It had become an official war.

Directed by Heinosuke Gosho
Written by Kougo Noda and ‘Goshotei’ (Heinosuke Gosho)
Based on the novel by Fumitaka Iwasaki
Cinematography by Masao Saito
Starring Shuji Sano, Kinuyo Tanaka, Reikichi Kawamura, Shin Tokudaiji, Chishu Ryu

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Lunchbox and Life Insurance


Michael Koresky explains the word ‘flunky’ from the title of Naruse’s silent film as ‘a loose translation of koshiben, which denotes a low-wage earner who brings his lunch to work’. I think this is excellent translation to capture the essence of the film in a single word. To help us understand how an insurance agent Okabe would have lived back in 1931, I explore a little bit more.

Koshiben, short for Koshibento, literally means a Bento (lunchbox) strapped to one’s waist (or back). This is the image of a worker bringing his own lunch to the office. The word seems to have entered into Japanese vocabulary back in Edo era, first to describe lunchbox for travelers, then lower-class government clerks, who bring such lunchboxes to office. Throughout 19th century, office clerks and workers were called as such rather contemptuously (1). Since Tokugawa/Edo-era feudal system was based on hereditary social classes, these lower-class clerks and bureaucrats would stay as they were (and their ancestors had been) for all their lives. Then the Meiji Government tried to modernize the society through legislation and deregulation in the last half of 19th century. One of the most influential social transformation was brought by modern education systems, which was established in 1872. Education created the class of people who were not only able to read and write but also to engage in more “intellectual” labor. And of course, modernization of commerce and industry, especially through technologies from Europe, expanded the capital of the nation to invest in more modernization including armament. These nation-wide revolution resulted in radical shift in labor force. In 1850’s, more than 80% of population was farmers; by the time of Naruse’s FLANKY, WORK HARD, it was less than half (2). These educated people anticipated the higher income and better social status. Instead, most of them ended up being “Koshiben”, precisely because there were too many of them.
The emergence of “intellectual” workers and their struggle, especially after the market crash of late 1920’s, brought about the theme of contemporary ‘being’. People no longer fight against Nature (as farmers do) to survive, but juggle papers and numbers to bring food to the table. These lower-class white-collars were poignantly photographed in silent films of 1930’s, such as Okabe in FLANKY, Okajima in Ozu’s TOKYO CHORUS (1931) and the memorable Father in I WAS BORN, BUT…(1932). Their parents believed higher education would secure better paying jobs and social status, but the reality has bitten their hope hard. You would recall the quiet abandon in the conversation between the mother and her son in Ozu’s THE ONLY SON (1937).

I found it striking that Okabe in Naruse’s FLANKY is a life insurance salesman. The film was made during the darkest hour in the financial sector during the worldwide Depression and especially the Japanese insurance companies were hit hard (3). To patch up their losses, the companies drove their salesmen to ever-fierce nasty competition, which actually resulted in legislation to prevent excessive marketing and sales fraud (August 1931)(4). To the contemporary viewers, the feud between Okabe and his rival to win the contract must have been a familiar one, though exaggerated and hilarious. Another interesting point, I think, is that the concept of life insurance is diagonally related to Naruse’s own obsession – exchange between a man’s life (a woman’s life, rather) and money. He repeatedly worked on the variation of this kind, – parents forcing one’s daughter to marry a wealthy man, a family trying to separate two lovers based on their financial decisions, or a mistress searching for her soul only to be trapped in web of wealth. During thirties, this genre of poor women’s tale was popular, but Naruse emphasized this concept of exchange in a way nobody else did. He consciously photographs the persons in charge, – parents, a wealthy man etc. – manipulating a heroine’s circumstances so that they would be benefited financially. Life insurance is not about selling loved one’s life, but the fact that Okabe cunningly promoted the insurance to a wealthy woman when her son had gone missing is all the more discomfiting.
Since Okabe is employed by the insurance company, he must have some level of higher education. Okabe and his wife must have seen better times, as evidenced by their wedding photograph. However, their life is not what they envisioned. It is full of cliche for those who are living just below the poverty line. Dodging the landlord for overdue rent, not being able to afford their kid’s toy, mending a hole in a shoe. Okabe’s profession is all the more remarkable, since it has little to do with necessity of daily life, but with investing in the future. He is probably a man most far removed from the vision of future, just trying to make ends meet. This irony was still amusing in this film, but Naruse’s later films resonate with more somber tones, deeper in agony and abandonment. For those who are not born with prestige, affluence doesn’t come easy. It usually means putting price tags on their bodies, literally.

Written and Directed by Mikio Naruse
Cinematography by Mitsuo Miura
Produced by Shochiku Studio
Starring Isamu Yamaguchi, Tomoko Naniwa

(1) Shokyoku Shibata (1897-1966) has written an excellent essay on this class of white-collar workers and their portrait in modern literature (‘Meiji No Wadai’, Chikuma Gakugei Bunko, 2006). ‘Ukigumo’ (Teishimei Futaba), ‘Namiki’ (Touson Shimazaki) and ‘Mouri-Sensei’ (Ryunosuke Akutagawa) all describes the scene Koshiben workers going home, seemingly depressed. The street that runs over the Kanda Bridge was called ‘Koshiben Street’ (a part of Hongo Street today), because many clerks were working around the area.

(2) The figures are from “100 Modern Japan Cartoons” by Isao Shimizu. One of the selected cartoons in the book is called “The Hell of Salarymen”.

(3) Of the 33 insurance companies at the time, 28 of them were not able to pay the dividend.

(4) Japanese version of the law can be read here.

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Ozu Goes to Nanking

Ozu and two gentlemen from I WAS BORN, BUT… (1932)


I posted some photographs of directors and one young actress from prewar Japanese cinema magazines in the past weeks. Today, I post three daring photographs of Yasujiro Ozu, to commemorate his 110th anniversary.


The first photograph is from 1932. This was taken during the shooting of I WAS BORN, BUT … (1932), the film I consider the best among his extant silent works. According to the caption, these two kids had fallen ill during the shooting of the film previous year, and the production had to be stopped. Now, apparently these rascals were feeling better (is that a cigarette?) and Ozu was getting ready to shoot these pivotal scenes near the railroad. This photograph was on the March 21 issue of Kinema Junpo. The fuse of war was ignited in January in Shanghai and its flashes flew all the way to the theater screens as the film frames flickered.


Ozu was drafted to Army twice. From 1937 to 1939, he was dragged around in China, as a soldier in a chemical weapon unit. He was discharged in June 1939, and this photograph was taken upon his return to the good old Shochiku Studio in July. The guy greeting him is Yasujiro Shimazu. A man must have experienced so much when his face shows a twinkle of relief but carved with unspeakable.



Two Yasujiros


In the photo below, the guy in the center is not Ryu Chishu from TOKYO STORY (1951), but cunning resemblance tells us that his style grew out of himself. Ozu’s colleagues, film critics and publishers threw a welcome-back party in a typical Ozu setting with Sushi and beer. Lots of beer. Several months after this photo, Ozu’s script, HE GOES TO NANKING, was rejected by the Censorship Office. There was a scene in the script that a man is to go to the war and his last supper at home was Ochazuke (green tea over rice). They didn’t like it. The Censorship Officer told Ozu that this guy’s family should send him off with more ceremonial meals, like Sekihan. When idiocy is given a voice, it shrieks triumphs of obscenity.



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