So I’ve been a bit between projects lately, which always lends itself to not getting a lot accomplished. I find that the movie blog stuff goes a lot easier when I have a focused set of tasks with an end goal, but right now I’m a little burnt out from franchises and not particularly interested in going deep on a director, so I figured I’d branch out a bit.
Among my experiments has been subscribing to Hulu Plus. Hulu’s kind of the bastard child of streaming services, I’ll admit, with lots of TV (which I don’t really watch) and weird restrictions and ads all over its content (even if you pay for Plus). But there’s one thing it has that completely justifies (to me) its $8-or-so-a-month pricetag: The Criterion Collection.
For anyone who doesn’t know, The Criterion Collection is a prestige home video label that regularly puts out what are considered the gold standard in DVD/Blu-ray releases of classic, foreign, and art films. They created the idea of a commentary track. They helped standardize widescreen presentation on home video. They are, in short, rad as hell.
They’ve also put hundreds of titles on Hulu Plus. The great thing about the Criterion stuff on Hulu, though, is that none of it has ads and a lot of it is super obscure. Obscure to the point you can’t even get some of it from Netflix on disc. Obscure to the point of being out of print or unreleased yet anywhere else.
So in the interests of sharing little-known movies with you, I figured we’d make this a recurring thing. For today’s entry, we have two silent Japanese movies from the 1930s. Next week? Who knows. That’s part of the adventure.
Apart From You (1933)
Apart From You is a drama from lesser-known Japanese director Mikio Naruse. I say lesser-known only because compared to Kurosawa or even Ozu (who we’ll get to later) Naruse was relatively unknown until after his death when his films began to get releases outside of Japan.
Apart From You is what’s known as a josei-eiga, or women’s film, which had something of a second-class status in Japanese cinema over the typical crime dramas or samurai epics associated with the country. That’s a pity, because Apart From You is a genuinely great movie.
The movie centers around a pair of geisha: the middle aged Kikue and the younger Terugiku. Kikue is working past her prime as a geisha mostly to support her son Yoshio. Yoshio is embarrassed by his mother’s profession and has started cutting school to hang around a local gang. Terugiku was forced into the geisha lifestyle by her disfunctional family, made to work to support them. When Yoshio and Terugiku form an attraction, Terugiku tries to reform Yoshio both for his sake and that of the suffering Kikue.
What’s interesting about the movie is that it doesn’t rely upon the traditionally ephemeral mystery of geisha to glamorize the two women who form the core of the movie. Kikue is introduced early on sitting in front of a mirror, plucking grey hairs while discussing her situation to Terugiku. Terugiku, in turn, is shown as only begrudgingly stepping into the exhaustive, party atmosphere of the geisha. During the day she is tired and muted, carrying around a world-weariness that is greater than her years would suggest.
Towards the midpoint of the movie, Terugiku takes Yoshio to her home village, impoverished and remote, where he sees the treatment she receives from her alcoholic father and her ungrateful family. When she expresses her desire to no longer be a geisha, her father threatens to put her younger sister into the life instead. The defeat becomes ammunition to try to convince Yoshio that what his mother does she does for him. Young and proud and headstrong, the advice seems to fall on deaf ears.
There’s a soft nature to the whole thing (even excepting the film stock itself, which is old enough to have taken on a faded, silvery, luminous quality) that lends a quiet honesty. The character moments are not melodramatic, but grounded in the truths of how people live. There isn’t a lot of Hollywood in this movie, and its lack of real climax or happy resolution might not be for everyone, but it feels real in a way that so few films–then or now–can accomplish.
Tokyo Chorus (1931)
On the other side of the coin we have Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Chorus, which centers around salaryman Shinji Okajima. We’re introduced to Okajima as a goof and a layabout during his school days, the class clown being dressed down by his strict teacher Mr. Omura during morning drills. We quickly find that Okajima as an adult isn’t much better, a nice guy without a lot of ambition or sense.
We’re introduced to him dealing with his petulant son, a boy whose main goal is to get a bike so he can hang out with all the other kids. Living in the pre-war Showa period, it’s a time of pretty aggressive poverty, something equivalent to the US Great Depression. Yet Okajima, on urging of his wife, promises that he’ll use his coming bonus at work to get a bike.
His job is in insurance, a small business climate that already has touches of the salarymen culture that would rise up in post-war Japan. The workers are afraid to speak up when one of their own is fired for selling policies to two clients who died shortly thereafter, but Okajima tries to galvanize the workers to complain only to have them all pressure him into addressing the boss. Okajima walks in and makes a scene, both mocking the boss and expressly stating his disagreement with the firing. He’s quickly given the same dismissal as his coworker for his troubles and sent home defeated.
What follows is a series of misadventures as Okajima tries to deal with the demands of living while unemployed. He gets an old, run down scooter to try to placate his son. He has to sell one of his wife’s kimonos to pay for a daughter’s illness. Okajima struggles to find work, overqualified for most of the menial jobs left. He ends up running into his old teacher, Mr. Omura, now running a restaurant, who might have the means to help him out if Okajima can swallow his pride enough to meet Omura’s exacting demands.
Like Apart From You, Tokyo Chorus is a small film, with limited ambition and modest characters. But unlike the previous film, Tokyo Chorus plays out with a warmth and humor that belies its dark material. Okajima is sympathetic but easy to mock, as petulant as his son at times, constantly huddled on the floor in what can only be described as a pout. But the people he encounters are equally foolish, from his boss with his elaborate fan-waving to Mr. Omura with his bullheaded teacher mentality that never really goes away.
I’d liken Tokyo Chorus in some ways to a Chaplin film. Not in physical humor, but in a sense of irreverence towards the social strata that one encounters in life, felt especially keenly by the poor. It’s easy to draw parallels when Chaplin’s Tramp exists in a similar depression-era society, but it is the warmth with which Chaplin made those movies that makes it easy to draw the comparison. I would also liken it to Bicycle Thieves, though certainly less bleak and eschewing realism for soft satire. Okajima is a man who suffers to try to be a man his son looks up to. But like most comedic heroes, Okajima is doomed to failure again and again.
And that’s the real magic of Tokyo Chorus. It deals with serious issues in a way that isn’t completely farcical, but it is clearly a comedy and allows itself to be small and relatable and still funny in its own small ways. Its the small character touches, not gags or jokes, that drive the story forward and make it something special and human.