Three Japanese Films

by Mark English


Japanese filmmakers have always admired certain European and American models and in many cases were well-read in Western literature. It is hardly surprising, then, that Western influences are evident and European and American references and allusions occur very frequently in early and mid-20th century Japanese films. Not all such references are positive, of course. Suspicions and resentments about forced Western interventions and intrusions have a long history in the Far East.

It is not always easy for us to interpret the significance of direct and oblique references and allusions in foreign films to other cultures. Take Yasujirō Ozu’s Late Spring, which was made during the American occupation. Though the film is not political in the normal sense and is very much focused on family relationships, certain allusions to American culture are obviously pointed and some plot elements (relating to traditional beliefs and the visit by father and daughter to Kyoto, for example) were affected or constrained by political censorship by the occupying powers.

But I want to talk here about three lesser-known movies, each – like Late Spring – very personal, deeply Japanese and featuring parent-child relationships as a central element.

The Only Son

The Only Son (1936) was Ozu’s first feature with synchronized dialogue. The musical score is by Senji Itō (who also wrote the music for Ozu’s Late Spring and Early Summer as well as Tamizo Ishida’s Flowers have Fallen (see below)). The film is about the relationship between a widowed mother and her only child. He goes to Tokyo and loses touch with his mother for some years. Then – prefiguring Ozu’s later masterpiece, Tokyo Story (1953) – she pays him a visit.

One of the lighter scenes of The Only Son takes place in a cinema. As a treat, the son has taken his mother to see her first talking picture. It is an odd choice: Unfinished Symphony, a kitschy Anglo-German biopic about Franz Schubert, complete with strikingly Aryan heroine (the singer Marta Eggerth). The son is embarrassed as his poor mother keeps drifting off to sleep.

But these were troubled and violent times and Ozu’s focus in this film is on personal relationships in the context of grinding poverty. In an iconic scene, the son expresses regrets, telling his mother that he wishes he had stayed with her in rural Shinshū as she herself had wished instead of seeking to further his education in Tokyo, essentially at the expense of his mother’s (always tenuous) financial security and her comfort in old age.

The soul-crushing monotony of the provincial silk mill and the flat, ugly landscape of a poor sector of Tokyo, with tall chimneys belching smoke nearby, represent Ozu’s version of William Blake’s “dark Satanic mills.” But, unlike Blake – whose head was full of Christian myths and radical politics – Ozu is more interested in depicting the pathos and tragedy of life than in elaborating apocalyptic visions. Or, for that matter, in making strong political statements or agitating for some imagined social, political or economic remedy.

Culture – and, by extension, politics – is important and can modulate our personal realities but the pathos and tragedy of life is inescapable precisely because it is tied not just to culture but also to the biological cycle of life, aging and death. The quote (from the short story writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa) which Ozu chose to serve as the epigraph for The Only Son underscores this point: “Life’s tragedy starts with the bond between parent and child.”

Like Ozu himself, Akutagawa was personally focused on the power and nature of parental bonds. Raised by his extended family due to his mother’s mental problems, Akutagawa remained obsessed with his mother, and his suicide at a relatively young age appears to have been related to anxieties that he had inherited his mother’s illness. His son, Yasushi Akutagawa, was a noted composer who wrote scores for many films, including An Inn in Osaka (see below).

Flowers Have Fallen

Based on a play by Kaoru Morimoto, Flowers Have Fallen was made in 1938 and directed by Tamizo Ishida. A young Kon Ichikawa also worked on the film. It is set in a geisha house in Kyoto during the brutal civil war which led to the Meiji Restoration. The film is the product of a Japanese, Western-literature-influenced theatre group. It has the feel of a Chekhov play but is supremely cinematic. It is completely devoid of sentimentality and false optimism.

Flowers Have Fallen is not easy to watch for modern audiences but it captures perfectly the interplay between private and communal concerns against a backdrop of looming political and economic crisis. The politics of the civil war were driven by the decline of the feudal order and differing views on nationalism and how best to maintain Japanese independence and identity in the face of challenges from Western imperial powers. There is violence in the streets outside and references to the politics of the situation in dialogue, but personal concerns take precedence. The young daughter of the owner of the geisha house, while very close to her mother, wants to escape the way of life which she was born into. Her mother is portrayed as a brave and fair-minded matriarch who is desperately trying to keep the business going in troubled times and who genuinely cares about all the women and girls under her care.

An Inn in Osaka

Heinosuke Gosho’s An Inn in Osaka (1954) is a very different style of film but there are strong thematic parallels with Flowers Have Fallen. The film is pervaded by a kind of spiritual vision which draws heavily on Confucian values. Gosho saw himself as a humanist but his humanism differs markedly from Western varieties.

The plot of An Inn in Osaka is based on a novel written by Takitarō Minikami in the 1920s, though the action is transposed to the post-World War 2 period. There are various Western references – including allusions to the quality of Western manufactured goods (a watch bought in Paris, imported English woolen blankets). Social stratification and desperate poverty are central themes of both the book and the film, and Yasushi Akutagawa’s wistful musical score catches and intensifies the mood of (qualified) fatalism.

The main character of An Inn in Osaka reminded me of the protagonist (played by Conrad Veidt) of Berthold Viertel’s melodramatic fantasy, The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1935). It can be taken for granted, I think, that the well-travelled Gosho had seen Viertel’s film which was extremely popular in its day.

The two films are very different but both portray the interactions between a stranger and a group of impoverished and desperate people in a heartless and business-orientated world. The Passing of the Third Floor Back is a pious and sentimental fantasy (based on a story and play by Jerome K. Jerome) and the stranger is a kind of Christ figure. An Inn in Osaka, by contrast, is a realist drama. Its protagonist is all too human, the grandson of the founder of a large company who has been sent to work at a branch office of the company as punishment for a violent outburst. He feels that he has failed his old and ailing mother whose framed image sits on his desk in his room at the inn.

At the emotional center of An Inn in Osaka is the strong affection which a local geisha develops for the visitor, an attachment which is not fully reciprocated. “We live in separate worlds,” he tells her. Though the direction by Heinosuke Gosho is not as smooth or controlled as Ozu’s or as the work of Tamizo Ishida in Flowers Have Fallen, the narrative is compelling and the emotional impact undeniable.


5 responses to “Three Japanese Films”

  1. Peter Smith

    I loved your essay.

    You said
    very personal, deeply Japanese and featuring parent-child relationships as a central element.

    Parent-child relationships are far deeper, more demanding and more restrictive in Confucian cultures than in ours. See this article about filial piety:

    According to the traditional texts, filial piety consists of physical care, love, service, respect and obedience.[25] Children should attempt not to bring disgrace upon their parents.[26] Confucian texts such as Book of Rites give details on how filial piety should be practiced.[5] Respect is envisioned by detailed manners such as the way children salute their parents, speak to them (words and tone used) or enter and leave the room in which their parents are, as well as seating arrangements and gifts.[27] Care means making sure parents are comfortable in every single way: this involves food, accommodation, clothes, hygiene, and basically to have them “see and hear pleasurable things”, in Confucius’ words,[28] and to have them live without worry.[12] But the most important expression of and exercise in filial piety were the burial and mourning rituals to be held in honor of one’s parents.[29][15]

    Filial piety means to be good to one’s parents; to take care of one’s parents; to engage in good conduct not just towards parents but also outside the home so as to bring a good name to one’s parents and ancestors;[30] to perform the duties of one’s job well (preferably the same job as one’s parents to fulfill their aspirations)[12] as well as to carry out sacrifices to the ancestors;[31] not be rebellious,[14] to be polite, and well-mannered; to show love, respect and support, to be near home to serve one’s parents;[32] display courtesy;[28] ensure male heirs,[12] uphold fraternity among brothers;[citation needed] wisely advise one’s parents, including dissuading them from moral unrighteousness;[32] display sorrow for their sickness and death;[33] bury them and carry out sacrifices after their death.[34] Furthermore, a filial child should promote the public name of its family, and it should cherish the affection of its parents.[12]

    Filial piety is regarded as a principle that ordered society, without which chaos would prevail.
    It is the fundamental principle of Confucian morality

    Here in the West we shunt our elderly parents into retirement complexes, care homes and hospices, while we wait for our inheritance. The common refrain – you gave me a shitty childhood so what do I care now?

    The marked decline of filial piety in our Western societies is mirrored by a corresponding growth in ageism, an attitude of mind as invidious as sexism and racism.

  2. Ira Glazer

    See Shohei Imamura’s ‘The Ballad of Narayama’. It’s about the mythical Japanese tradition of ‘ubasute’ whereby once a person reaches a certain advanced age, they are taken to a remote, desolate place and left to starve to death. The film is a masterpiece.

  3. A couple of the films mentioned in my piece are available (with English subtitles) on YouTube if anyone is interested.

    Here is a link Hana chirinu (1938) known in English as Flowers Have Fallen or Fallen Blossoms.

    And here is Ozu’s The Only Son (1936). Love that vibraphone at the opening credits…

  4. Wonderful essay, Mark. As with any good film criticism, it invites us to watch the films. I managed to find Flowers Have Fallen on Youtube – what a dark, sad tale, but compellingly directed, with great performances. Only Son also sad, but in a different, oddly affirming way. Ozu I’ve long admired, though I haven’t been able to catch many of his films; but I have seen both Late Spring and An Autumn Afternoon ; saw An Autumn Afternoon many years ago, but it left a powerful impression – I can still remember the restaurant scene as if I saw it last week.

    One of your best essays, and one of the best essay I’ve seen here at EA. Much thanks.

  5. EJ, thanks for that. I have seen An Autumn Afternoon and (as you suggest) it’s a film that lodges in the memory. The fate of “the Gourd” for example. Ozu does failure and disappointment particularly well, the pathos of mundane existence.