“Hanshojo (1938)” is a typical Shochiku-style woman’s film in the late thirties. The film is rarely seen today, and is not listed in imdb. Keisuke Sasaki, the director of the film, dedicated his whole career to Shochiku. He made 57 films, mostly woman’s films Shochiku was noted for. The casts of the film are regulars of the Shochiku programmers. The original novel was written by Seijiro Kojima, who loved the complicated plots for his tear-jerkers. The plot of “Hanshojo” may be far-fetched, but it really doesn’t matter. Women suffer. Men suffer. But in the end, women suffer more.
Soukichi (Shin Saburi), an executive of the movie trading company, was successful and very rich, but his wife was hospitalized in psychiatric ward after she torched the house. He hired Misuzu (Kuniko Miyake) as a chauffeuse and a babysitter for Soukichi’s little girl. Eventually, Soukichi was impressed by Misuzu’s foreign language skills and hires her as a staff. Privately, Misuzu was attracted to Shuntaro (Daijiro Natsume) a young writer her mother didn’t approve of.
Then, Shuntaro, still straggling to publish his novel, met Oito (Hiroko Kawasaki), his little brother’s childhood girl friend. This encounter developed into romantic relationship, even though Shuntaro was not quite sure about his feelings. Apparently, Oito was not of the respectable profession, as she described herself as “a woman like me”.
Misuzu took indecisiveness of Shuntaro as “No” and Oito was very determined to get him. Shuntaro, now a bestseller writer, and Oito got married.
As if this was not enough, Soukichi fired Misuzu suddenly. He said his feelings for her was now glowing and was “inappropriate”. Misuzu, completely heartbroken, left her home and vanished. She was working as a geisha in dusty rural spas.
A few years later, Oito visited Misuzu. Oito asked Misuzu to come back with her to see Shuntaro, who was now in the death bed and wanted to see Misuzu. Misuzu agreed. Just before his death, Shutaro expressed his true love to Misuzu. Oito, now a widow leaves Japan, completely brokenhearted. Soukichi said “I have decided”, and Misuzu and Soukichi were back together.
This Shochiku’s another programmer is definitely not a masterpiece but gives us to look into the social, cultural and artistic context of the time. For example, it is very interesting to observe women and their clothes.
Misuzu, a working girl with skills, always wears western clothes. Oito, (probably) a geisha in the big city, wears a big hair and Japanese kimono. Misuzu observes the world logically and acts under clear conscience. Oito is good at playing vulnerable and manipulating people. This contrast drives the narrative, while two male protagonists are doing nothing.
But the fate turned things around. In the end, Oito, now a respectable wife of a bestselling writer, is completely defeated, while Misuzu, a kimono-wearing geisha, another “girl like me”, won the heart of the man.
During 1920s and 30s, Japan saw the wave of social-cultural movement among young generation. There were “Moga” or a “Modern Girls”, Japanese version of flappers. They wore western dresses, had their hair cut (like Luise Brooks), loved Jazz, and had parties until morning. But this was only a fad among small section of population. The rest of Japan was still in the pre-industrial era.
Here is a very fascinating figures. In 1926, Shiseido (Cosmetics Company) took the statistical data on people’s wear and hair styles in Ginza. Results were striking. Out of 1151 men, 797 wore western clothes. But for women, out of 522, only 22 wore western clothes. The rest wore kimono. This was at Ginza, the cultural center of Japan.
Before the war, only handful of women could afford western clothes and accessories. Most of women wore kimono, handmade by themselves. Only rich girls and film actresses had western clothes in their wardrobes. It was very rare for young women to pursue their career as in modern sense. Most of women worked as “helpers” in their family until they were married. In rural areas, they were either farmers or manual laborers. The marriage were not allowed unless the head of the family gave his consent. Even though the society might have become modernized industrially, the status of woman was still in dark ages. Kimonos must have symbolized this status quo while western clothes meant social awareness and modernization of woman.
Under this light, Misuzu’s life is quite unique. She belongs to working class (a chauffeuse and a babysitter) but the job requires her to wear western clothes (Japanese kimono is not suitable for driving a car). If you looked at the films (especially Shochiku’s) of this era carefully, the heroines were often in western clothes because their jobs required them. Kinuyo Tanaka in “Aizen Katsura” as a nurse, Michiyo Kogure in “Akatsuki no Gassho” (my post here) as a bus guide, for example. Even though these are complete fantasies, you just can’t make things up. You need a believable framework, and a working class girl has to have a good reason to wear western clothes. Once it’s believable, audience could immerse themselves into these fantasies. During “Aizen Katsura” craze, in one hospital, the nurses demanded their uniform to be changed to the ones Kinuyo Tanaka wore in the film.
If they wear western dress besides as a working attire, there is something wrong. In “A Woman of Tokyo” by Yasujiro Ozu, the heroine wears kimono at home, taking care of her brother, a western working clothes at work, but wears a western dress while “working during night”.
Throughout “Hanshojo”, Oito wears kimonos, but transition in kimono designs and her appearance reveals state of her mind. First, it was her big hair that signals us her profession. But as her affair with Shuntaro becomes serious, her fashion including hair styles got less loud. In the end, she is a respectable wife of a popular writer, and her kimono is almost dull.
Contemporary (female) audiences must have adored Misuzu. Most of the audience at the time might not have the skills Misuzu has (driving a car, fluent in French and so on), but wanted to become like her, modernized, independent and straightforward. And western clothes might have been one of the items. While they might not have approved Oito’s tactics to get what she wanted, audiences nevertheless must have cried over Oito’s loss in the end. She has become a respectable wife, hasn’t she ? That must have been quite an ordinance for a girl like her… but she has stolen the man from another girl… and so on. Kimono might have helped audiences to immerse in complete sympathy with Oito in sorrow.
Of course, in Hollywood films, heroine’s wardrobe has played important role as mise-en-scene. But Japanese had unique history of importing cultures and of transformation/adaptation, it may not be immediately clear to modern viewers, especially non-Japanese viewers. Even though I have very little knowledge of Japanese women clothing and its history, these are the cues I could recognize. There must be more information you could pick up from this film, if you could identify the bland/textile/dye/style of kimonos. Actually, there are other films in which the heroine wears big hair and kimono, but is not a geisha.So these cues must have been ambiguous and must be interpreted along with other context. And older generations have better eyes for those details. It is becoming a lost art.