Fukagawa Waste Incinerator (1929) (1)

Earthquake and Transformation

On September 1, 1923, one of the largest earthquake in modern history of Japan hit the Kanto area. The death toll was more than 100,000, and the city was devastated by collapse, landslide and most of all, fire. The whole city was destroyed.

Ozu has just started as a camera stuff in Shochiku, when the earthquake devastated the area. During the studio shutdown, he and his family had to rebuild their life again from scratch.

This devastation initiated change in the city. Even before the earthquake, there were scholars and policy makers who insisted Tokyo need the redesign, new urban planning. And they saw this total annulment of the previous progress as an opportunity. Wider streets, new bridges over Sumida river, safe and modern school buildings and rearrangement of government functions. These transformations were discussed and planned along with the research on disaster-proof architecture. They concluded that reinforced concrete structures were the most durable and safe (2).

But at the same time, private sectors feverishly developed the residential areas. This led to the amalgamation of many styles in architectures, from cheap to extravagant, from kitsch to sophisticated. The landscape of the city gradually lost the unity it once had.  Tall concrete buildings towered over small cheap tenements, Some were modern, some were traditional, and the others were plain functional. Compare the photo below to the one from the earlier post. It is the same Nihonbashi area.

Nihonbashi (1929) [via.Japan Society of Civil Engineers, JSCE Library]

Population, Emergence of New Class

Another change was increase in population.

After the World War I, population in Tokyo gradually increased. The earthquake did not deter this trend, and more people immigrated from rural parts of Japan. According to Statics Department of Tokyo, 10.2% of national population lived in Tokyo in 1940, compared to 5.5% in 1910. The reasons for this rapid increase were heavy industries and railroad systems (3).  The heavy industries had emerged around Tokyo area, which provided the better paying jobs compared to rural agricultural economy. The railroad systems covered the most parts of Japan by this time and had become the artillery of the Japanese economy. Tokyo became much closer than it used to. It may not be a coincidence that Ozu’s two most frequent images were factory chimneys and railroad.

Then the new social class emerged. Intelligentsia/white collar workers. They were college-educated, intelligent but still struggling. They could afford a small house in suburbs but it was not the community he/she was born into. They were mostly immigrated from rural areas to have higher education, followed by jobs.

This community of nomads was the theme of Ozu’s “I Was Born But, …“. Kamata was the terminal for Mekama-Line, privately-owned railroad company. These real-estate development by railroad companies were quite important in this particular time of the history. They proposed the concept of “Denen-Toshi” or “Pastoral city” to public, and those new class of white collar cherished the idea (2), (4).

One another interesting point to note. Another factor for population increase was survival rate of small children in Tokyo (3). Sanitary condition and medicine were improved, thanks to government effort and import of western medicine. You can recall most of Ozu’s films during 1930s deal with sick children. “”Sonoyono Tsuma”, “Floating Weed”,”Tokyo Chorus”, “The Only Son” and so on. And they recover.

“The Only Son” and Fukagawa

New and Old Eidai-bashi (Eidai-bridge)(1927). One of many bridges reconstructed after the earthquake. In Ozu’s “The Only Son”, the taxi carrying the mother and the son crosses this new bridge.

Fukagawa, the Ozu’s birthplace, went under drastic change. After the earthquake, the place was gradually occupied by factories and warehouses. And poverty-stricken low-income tenements filled in.

… the vast blue skies are above us, but only we can see the steel bridges and gas tanks afar, along with  some clouds, no sight of a kite, or a raven even, and only we can hear dull noise of factories afar like hum of the wind. (5)

Kafu Nagai, a Japanese novelist and embodiment of Eddoko, wrote this passage in “A Stroll in Fukagawa (Fukagawa no Sanpo)” in 1934. This sounds peculiarly familiar. It reminds us of the atmosphere in Ozu’s “The Only Son (1936)“. And the location of the son’s house is in Fukagawa.

The Only Son (1936)

The hollowing shot of the “incinerator” is actually the view of Fukagawa Waste Incinerator, built in 1929. This was the first modern waste management facility in Japan. During 1930’s, there were complaints and reports of bad air, yellow fumes and unbearable smell in Fukagawa area. On a windy day, these pollution reached Ginza.

“The Only Son” provides the picture of Tokyo as a place where nomad’s dreams were incinerated. The mother works in the factory. Cocoons may evoke an image of birth and sacrifice. And the Incinerator, the consumption and waste.

I wonder how the contemporary audience perceived the image of the Incinerator. The facility made the news because of its pollution, but there was no Internet, no TV, few magazines, and very limited numbers of photos on newspapers. I suspect that very few people in audience were able to recognize the Fukagawa neighborhood, let alone the Incinerator. To general audience, the image of the Incinerator may have been just an incinerator in a barren land.

But, to Ozu, it must have had a different meaning. He was an Eddoko but a nomad at the same time. He lived in Fukagawa until he was nine, but he spent his adolescence in Matsuzaka. His view on Tokyo and on people in Tokyo is always ambivalent. He refuses to show “New Sumida River” with the modern bridges but used the incinerator as a backdrop. He ruthlessly describe Ookubo and Ryosuke’s demise in Tokyo, but with deep sympathy.

In “A Stroll in Fukagawa”, Kafu Nagai declares,

… After the Earthquake, urban Tokyo recovered quickly and its landscape has changed. As walking through the new concrete streets and gazing upon Fukagawa in this new age, I feel I have to realize that the time has come for me to outgrow old aesthetics, as late as it may be. (6)

Despite of his declaration, Nagai still tells us the better days of Eddoko aesthetics throughout his essay.

This dislocation, or a feeling of dislocation is running deep in Ozu’s images as well. Tokyo has to be the center of Japan, the guiding light in Japanese modernization, and able to swallow up anything it needs. Dislocation is only temporary. But this realization coexists with sentimental refusal toward the changes.

Still, you could have smell the old Tokyo’s fragrance in 1936. But after 1945, the fragrance is just imagination.

In the next part, I will explore postwar Tokyo and “Tokyo Story”.

(1) Tokyo Education Committee (Website)
(2) “To The Cities”, A History of Modern Japan, 10, Hiroyuki Suzuki, Chuo Kouron Sha, 1999
(3) Statistics Study Group of Tokyo (Website)
(4) “Landscape of Suburbs, From Edo to Tokyo”, Tadahiko Higuchi, Kyouiku Shuppan, 2000
(5) I have to apologize for my poor translation.  Here is the original Japanese text.


The complete text is available here.

(6) Again, my poor translation destroyed Nagai’s impeccable writing.


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