OKOTO AND SASUKE (1935)

For past weeks, I reviewed two films by Yasujiro Shimazu, THE TRIO’S ENGAGEMENT (1937) and LOVE, BE WITH HUMANITY (1931). I assume his name is not as familiar as another Yasujiro (Ozu) among the readers. Maybe some of you know MY LITTLE NEIGHBOR, YAE (1934), which has circulated among various film festivals around the globe in recent years. Though relatively unknown today, he was the most reliable and professional director during 20s and 30s at the Shochiku and deserves more attention. 

Shimazu was one of the “founding” fathers of the Shochiku Kamata Studio (1920 – 1936), which produced many early Japanese masterpieces in “Kamata Style”. Born in Tokyo in 1897, he was the spoiled son of a successful merchant, and while tending one of his father’s branch offices, he was spending fortunes on gambling, drinking and women. Upon discovering he also spent many hours in movie theaters, his father sent him under patronage of Kaoru Osanai, the famed theater producer. Meanwhile, Osanai and his troops were invited to join Shochiku Movie Company, and under Osanai and other pioneers of Japanese cinema, Shimazu learned film-making and direction. His works began to gain momentum after the Great Kanto Earthquake (1923). He began exploring naturalistic style with more restraint, which was opposite of the archaic “Shingeki” style prevalent among Japanese films at the time. This direction resonated with the ideal of Shiro Shiroto, the head of the Kamata Studio. Shiroto also considered the modern industrialization in Japan called for the new style of films to express modern emotions among younger generations. This style, – naturalistic, modern, restrained, less-melodramatic, often social-conscious, but never nihilistic – became the trademark of Shochiku Kamata Studio products, and called Kamata-cho (Kamata Style). One of the most important films of this period was SUNDAY (日曜日, 1924, presumably lost), directed by Yasujiro Shimazu.
Always energetic, sometimes egotistical, Yasujiro Shimazu was also good at handling actors, bringing out delicate expressions and subtle nuances. 20’s was especially his most prolific period, – 101 films in total -, displaying his versatility, ranging from slapstick comedy to naval adventure to women’s melodrama. When talkies began to emerge in Japaneses film industry, he directed the most memorable of all early Japanese talkies; MY LITTLE NEIGHBOR, YAE (隣の八重ちゃん, 1934). Set in Tokyo suburb, this light romantic comedy was the defining moment of Shochiku Kamata Style. Many young future directors learned film-making under him as assistant directors: Heinosuke Gosho (TAKEKURABE (1955)), Shiro Toyoda (PORTRAIT OF HELL (1969)), Kosaburo Yoshimura (THE TALE OF GENJI (1951)), Keisuke Kinoshita (TWENTY-FOUR EYES (1954), THE BALLAD OF NARAYAMA (1958)), Noboru Nakamura (TWIN SISTERS OF KYOTO (1963)) to name the few.

Yasujiro Shimazu
The late thirties saw his most productive period. FAMILY MEETING (家族会議, 1936), MALE VS. FEMALE (1936), THE LIGHTS OF ASAKUSA (1937) and A BROTHER AND HIS YOUNGER SISTER (1939) were all critically acclaimed and immensely popular among movie-going public. The most beautiful of all his directorial works is OKOTO AND SASUKE (1935), starring Kinuyo Tanaka and Kokichi Takada. Based on the novel “SHUNKINSHO” by Junichiro Tanizaki, Shimazu created the ecstatic world of extreme sensibility. Set in mid-19th century Osaka, it is a story of a beautiful blind daughter of wealthy merchant, Okoto, and her faithful male servant, Sasuke. While the original novel is imbued with hidden eroticism and masochism, Shimazu’s film is more wholesome and “family-oriented”. But still, the chemistry between Tanaka and Takada distills the joy of two lovers on the screen, transforming the blank spaces between the frames into erotic overtones. Shimazu was said to be the master of directing actors, and OKOTO AND SASUKE is sparkled with this mastery.
He left Shochiku to join Toho Studio in 1939. Toho Studio at the time was more cooperative with the Government, which was heading into the total war with U.S. and U.K. He made several films there until the end of war. Unfortunately, he died a month after the surrender of Japan. It is tempting to imagine what he would have created if he survived and joined Shochiku again after the war. Some say Ozu paid homage to Shimazu in EARLY SUMMER (1951), which bears some similarity with Shimazu’s A BROTHER AND HIS YOUNGER SISTER. It is undeniable that Shimazu’s influence on Shochiku’s style was so definitive that Ozu, Naruse, Shimizu, Gosho and Imai owe so much to him. Shimazu’s works should be re-appreciated by today’s audience through reprisal and retrospectives.

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