A young, destitute couple seek survival and stability in Yuzo Kawashima’s 1956 drama, Suzaki Paradise: Akashingō (in English, this subtitle is given as Red Light, or Red Light District). Tsutae and Yoshiji spend their last few yen on a bus to anywhere, ending up on the outskirts of Tokyo’s red light district, separated from it only by an ominous bridge that is spoken of by the locals as though fearful, dreaded, even mythical. They take to their new home differently: Tsutae easily finds work as a waitress at a bar, comfortable for reasons that become clear; Yoshiji, a former office worker, has trouble adjusting, and, though it’s not put into words as such, spends much of the film depressed.
We discuss the portrayal of Tokyo’s unfortunates, their attitudes to life and to each other, and the tightrope Kawashima walks between wallowing in poverty porn and sentimentalising the couple’s situation. The motif of the bridge is a potent one, recurring throughout, and we consider how it’s used, what it signifies, and how it combines with the film’s theme of patriarchy and how it oppresses both women and men.
Suzaki Paradise is a concise and potent film, an intelligent dramatisation of social and economic issues in post-war Japan, and an expressive melodrama. It’s worth seeking out.
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A discussion on watching and experiencing Ritrovato 2000 digitally — an account of the advantages and disadvantages — as well as a discussion of the films available on Day Three: I’m no Angel (Wesley Ruggles, 1933), When We Were Kings (Leon Gast, 1997), I cento cavalieri (Vittorio Cattafavi, 1964) , documentaries on Jean-Pierre Melville, Voker Schlöndorff, as well as the day’s Bologna shorts. Today we also went off-piste but aligned with the program and discuss Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Death of a Bureaucrat (1966) and Yuzo Kawashima’s wonderful Suzaki Paradise: Red Light (1956).
I´m too distracted at the moment to write even a note on Yuzo Kawashima´s great ‘Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate’, currently on MUBI, so I merely urge those who can to see it. It´s set in a whorehouse at a time of great social change where everyone seems to be running through the corridors and up and down staircases, very bawdy and funny, with a handling of diverse characters even Altman might envy, and with a nonjudgmental look on the very questionable things people often have to do to survive. It´s a picaresque film with a typical rascal hero, Saheiji, who lives by his wits. One of the things that makes this film great is that it lacks the cynicism of the picaresque: everyone has their reasons here, understanding and usually sympathy are offered to almost every character, and the look on the situation is that of humour tinged with a bit of nostalgia. Times of change are difficult ones and everyone needs to get by as best they can. The film usually comes out third or fourth in lists of favourite films in the history of Japanese cinema and one can understand why after seeing it.
A melodrama of exquisite sadness and a worthy successor to Hungry Soul. The action seems to take place in a cloud of of jazz and melancholy. Will Mayumi (Yukiko Todorki) marry Mr. Shimotsuma (Shiri Osaka) in spite of her children´s disapproval? Will Reiko (Yoko Minamida) leave her crude and cruel husband for Tachibana (Tatsuya Mihashi), the dreamy man who loves her? If they do, what effect will this have on their children? It´s 1950s Japan, we see in the credit sequence it´s a Japan of industry, TV, neon. But have social mores modernised along with industry?
These women are given impossible choices, romantic love vs social respectability and the well-being of their children. Society will punish whichever choice they make…and so we must cry. Hungry Soul leads us, gently, understandingly, to the tears that follow in the gap of that which is vs that which should be.
I´m beginning to be more attentive to Kawashima´s skillful mise-en-scène. The lovely shot of Reiko after her dance, when the camera shifts from her with Tachibana´s flowers onto the mirror – is another life, one of soul, spirit, feeling really possible for her? The shot in the mirror shows us hope, a contrast between her current oppressive conditions of existence and …a possibility of something else.
I also noticed a lovely tracking shot as Mayumi goes to return money to her sister and the camera tracks horizontally through every room in that happy house, the type of house and home Mayumi longs for, even as her pragmatism leads her to managing a type of love motel.
The film accents the melo in melodrama. After characters are done speaking, often of melodramatic stock pharses, beautifully expressed, the music takes over and the situations soar into the real of feeling.
Note too the shadows throughout, some of it like in a noir, This is a wold where such feelings can oly be contemplated in the shadows, behind screens, in secret.
The mise-en-scène is clever in so many ways. Note how at the end , when Reiko and her husband are in the plane and he´s reading the paper, we know he´ll eventually get to the article announcing the death of Tachibana. Then the camara cuts to the newspaper article and we think he´s seen it. But no, the article is facing us. He´s reading the other page and she remains completely oblivious to the fact that all her hopes are dashed. And there´s an omniscient narrator, a gentle and kind one, who will allow a lingering of this moment of happiness which will soon come to an end.
Hungry Soul is a quick moving film that is not afraid to linger over people´s feelings, make them worthy of scrutiy, spin out every development and ramification of sadness. It´s gorgeous.
*Many thanks to Edmund Yeo for helping me match the names of the characters to the names of the actors. Much appreciated.
Japan has baby fever. Everyone wants to get married and everyone wants to have children. But the fear is that an already overburdened nation will become even more populated. To halt the population explosion Jozaburo Araki, Minister of Health and Welfare, proposes. a bill that would limit information on abortion. and contraception, possibly shut down brothels and teahouses, and delay procreation within the sacred confines of marriage. The only protest comes from the only female in the room, who sees that women and the young are the ones who will suffer most from this.
Burden of Love is a comedy, so situations begin to abound that contradict his politics. First his son Jotaro has gotten his secretary, Godai, pregnant. She´s organised the pregnancy so that the rather weak-willed Jotaro may announce their engagement to the father. She´s beautiful, educated, hard-working. But is she of a good enough family to marry his son? He doesn´t quite think so. To make matters worse, when he arrives home, his 48-year-old wife also announces that she´s got pregnant. To make matters even worse, his daughter who´s scheduled to marry a nobleman, has gotten pregnant and would show. By the end of the film, even the other daughter who hasn´t been able to get pregnant for six years, is expecting the baby and the minister himself discovers that he has yet another child from a youthful adventure of 28 years before. The minister of the in charge of checking the population explosion has caused a population explosion all on his own.
The most distinctive aspects of this comedy, and a kind of reproach to American cinema of the same period, is its ‘adultness’: the way it can talk openly and non-judgementally about abortion, contraception, whorehouses. This is a comedy that sees human relations in a complex manner. Pretty much all of the women, old and young, are pregnant in and out of wedlock. All are good people though sometimes with unattractive character traits. Marriages are loving yet problems still occur. Forgiveness is required and given. Kawashima envelops all these dilemmas with warmth and humour. All Kawashima´s characters are good people, all of them are in trouble. There are lots of misunderstandings. But because this is a comedy, all troubles will get resolved, in a loving and funny way.
The influence of American cinema is evident in the film, from the silent cinema hommage at the end, to the singing of My Darlin Clementine. And there are other aspects of American culture embedded in the film: the clothes, the jazz.
What I find most charming about all of Kawashima´s work is evident here, the focus on women in patriarchy, the dramatisation of social issues in post-war Japan, the examination of gender and power in times of change. But this film has an intelligence, complexity and warmth all its own. It´s an understanding and loving look at a social dilemma. I liked it very much and yet it´s my least favourite so far of Kawashima´s films, which says a lot more about the qualities of Kawashima´s other work than the faults with this one,
I have so many DVD´s to see, piles of them, that I tend to think everything is available at will and am shocked when I see that it´s not. The films of Yuzo Kawashima have been such a revelation to me that my first impulse was to go on Amazon to buy some more only to see that they´re not available, so I´m doubly grateful to MUBI: first for allowing me to discover major works from a major director, secondly, by programming five films together, allowing me to compare, to discover actors, to see that what at first seems simple cumulatively adds up to subtlety, complexity, and depth.
Like The Balloon, Our Town, and. Burden of Love, Hungry Soul is also about Japanese society in the process of change. Kimonos brush up against pencil skirts in the streets of Tokyo, tea ceremonies share space with westernised nightclubs, but Patriarchy still rules and there are very strict rules about what it is to be a woman in this culture.
Kawashima´s melodramas bear comparison to those of Douglas Sirk´s, not stylistically but thematically. Moments of Hungry Soul made me think of All That Heaven Allows, the widow with the children who are appalled by the idea their mother might have sexual and emotional needs, and their punitive actions once they realise she does.
Thematically the film is blunt. It begins in a hospital (see image capture above). A woman is having a hysterectomy. Peter Baran pointed out to me how one can´t imagine a Hollywood film, even today, starting with Hungry Soul´s opening line (see below)
The film then cuts to the patient, recovering in the hospital, telling her friend, ‘being a woman really sucks….Men and women will never be equal…and men have no idea of the pain women go through. At the patient´s bedside is her old friend Mayumi (Yukiko Todoroki), a lively middle-aged widow with two teenage children who´s getting by and supporting her children through school by working as an estate agent (Á very unwomanly job´). Soon Reiko (Yoko Minamida), a relative also arrives to visit. Reiko´s a young and beautiful woman trapped in a loveless marriage with a much older man for whom she´s not much more than a decorative maid and who treats her tyranically.
As the film unfolds Mayumi and Reiko develop hungry souls but they´re ones that can´t be fed. Their individual desires come crashing against social rules and regulation, spoken and unspoken, putting them in danger and leading to further loss and pain. Reiko meets a young and handsome politician, Mr. Tachibana (Tatsuya Mihashi) who awakens all the desires that she´s repressed. Mayumi is chased by Shimotsuma (Shiro Osaka), her deceased husband´s best friend. They finally have a fulfilling night but are awakened by a phone call urging her to return home where she finds that her young daughter has tried to commit suicide because she thought her mother might do what she in fact did. The suspicion of the relationship also leads her son to leave home, which is where the first part of this film ends.
For Reiko, the idea that the young politician will follow her wherever she goes both thrills and scares her. It´s awakened a passion, an idea for a future that had been dormant if not dead. For Mayumi, her whole life comes crashing around her. Moreover, the film shows us that none of these men are prizes. Reiko´s husband is an insensitive pig, but what we see of the young politician when the film allows us to see him on his own is not very appealing either: a selfish playboy who treats women badly. If he does finally seduce Reiko, will he in fact treat her any better. Even nice Mr. Shimotsuma is no prize. His wife is on her deathbead and there he is chasing the widowed Mayumi around Tokyo and Kyoto.
When I first encountered Kawashima´s work I didn´t think much of him as a visual stylist. And he´s certainly no Sirk. But as you can see below, he makes for simple, measured, but interesting and expressive images. Everything counts in these films, and the films are wise, tender and side with the powerless, like all good melodramas should. And like all good melodramas should, they certainly succeed in eliciting feeling. I want to see them all again and get to know them better.
**Many thanks to Edmund Yeo for helping me match the names of the characters to the names of the actors. Much appreciated.