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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