Crumbling family relationship in post-war Japanese cinemaAfter the 2nd World War, Japansociety was still suffering from the destructive World War 2.
Its increasingcomplexity and people’s struggles comprehensively captured by various directorsthrough time. The transforming and decaying relationship within Japanesefamily, influenced by up-and-downs in social, economic and politicalconditions, is captured in Tokyo Story(Tokyo Monotagari) by YasujiroOzu, and A Japanese Tragedy (Nihon no Higeki) by Keisuke Kinoshita. Byanalysing the mutually supplementary features of the two films, anunderstanding of what 1950 Japanese home drama films are typical of, as well aschanges in the contemporary society, especially within families, can beachieved. General audience, who has little or no Japanese films knowledge, butwant to take a brief look in the 1950s Japanese society, may find this paperrelevant. The root of the destruction of the Japanese familyin Tokyo Story of Yasujiro Ozu can beboiled down to the change of pace in the society.
When Japan enters the post-warreconstruction era, the rhythm of living changes, and everything speeds up. Thefilm tells the story of an old couple, Shukichi and Tomi, setting off from asmall town called Onomichi to visit their married children in Tokyo. After theirjourney, Tomi is critically ill and passes away, with the children arriving intime to only witness her death. Ozu has said of Tokyo Story that he had tried, through the relationship betweenparents and their grown-up children, to portray the destruction of the familysystem in Japan.1The signs of this statement can be clearly seen in the film. According to Asiantraditions in general, and Japanese traditions in particular, it is common forthe parents to live with their eldest son. However, in Tokyo Story, they live alone in a small town with their youngestdaughter, Kyoko. Since the opening moments of the film, the crumblingrelationship and family traditions can be noticed.
Throughout the visit of theparents, the audience can see the coldness in the way the children treat theirparents. In Koichi’s house, they have to stay at home all the time because theson is too busy with visiting patients to notice the parents. In Shige’s house,it is very visible that she treats them like a burden, from deciding that herparents did not need to eat the expensive cakes that her husband bought toordering her mother to use old sandals. She, ironically, becomes a stranger, asher father comments “A married daughter is a stranger”.
The parents immediatelynotice that their children are considering them as a burden, but do their bestto not complain and go along with their children, such as obediently going tothe resort in Atami. However, disappointment and hurt begin to bleed throughtheir dialogue, as Shukichi said to his wife in a jokingly manner: “We arereally homeless now”. The death of the mother also supports Ozu’s portrait ofthe crumbling Japanese relationship. Beside the mother’s dead bed are all ofher children, who arrive just in time of her departure. The simple proverb thatKeizo says to his colleague and whispers to himself at the funeral, “Be kind toyour parents while they are alive, filial piety cannot reach beyond thegrave.
“, becomes sadly meaningless, as he is the latest to arrive. Shige alsobreaks into tears, but according to her actions after the funeral, likedemanding possessions of her late mother right after the funeral and leavingalmost immediately, those tears can just be accepted as “a sudden recognitionof the transiency of life rather than the expression of intimate grief.”2The funeral of the mother, ironically, could be the only occasion for thefather to see all his children at the same time, but as soon as the childrenfeel they have completed their duties, they rush back to their own life as soonas possible, too tangled up in their jobs. Ozu describes the changes of socialrhythm through shots of the bustling city Tokyo with building clusters, orclose-ups of smoke rising from factories along the railway, weaved among thetranquil daily life in the parents’ small town.
The crumbling family is somehowthe accurate description of the current status of the Japanese family system,as Ozu tends to transmit the whole society together with its inner problem,into the form of a family. In his films, the whole world exists in one family,a crumbling one.3 In the same year of the release of Ozu’s Tokyo Story, Keisuke Kinoshita also bringsin one of the creations that he retains deepest affection for- A Japanese Tragedy. If in Ozu’s Tokyo Story, the disintegrating relationshipsin Japanese society is compressed in a family, A Japanese Tragedy zooms out from the tragedy of a mother in hersmall family to the tragedy of the rapidly changing and deforming Japan, withinwhich Japanese family systems and its obligations saw its destruction.4The widowed mother, Haruko who lost her husband in the war, has to work as manykinds of degrading occupation in order to raise her two children Utako andSeiichi. However, as they grow up, inculcated by the false tales from theiruncle, that “their mother is off having a good time in her flashy clothes”,which leads to their lack of respect and affection for their mother, incontrast to her struggles.
The ending of this film is classic of a tragedy:Haruko throws herself into a running train after being rejected by her son, whois now adopted by a wealthy family in Tokyo, and her daughter. A Japanese Tragedy is considered a”haha-mono” film, in which the mother figure must suffer and sacrifice a lot inher life. Kinoshita succeeds in build the mother figure in his film towardsthat direction, and adds on many things of his own. The film is a comprehensivedisplay of contrast between the coldness and disrespect of the children and thesacrifice their mother has made, through flashbacks that are heavily used. Whenthe grown siblings are having a meal in a restaurant, a flashback of theirchildhood is shown, in which they were also eating and the mother, appearing tobe very exhausted, came back home with black-market rice. When Haruko is beingbeaten by a male customer, she also recalls crying alone when fixing herchildren clothes and fanning them while they were sleeping peacefully.Flashbacks, as well as many fast-cut scenes often interrupting the movie informs of news, do an excellent job of passing the image of the society on tothe audience.
The opening shows a sequence of news about war trials, theEmperor, riots, crimes, disasters, etc. Then, titles “Life is not easy” and”All over Japan there is darkness” are shown, and finally the titles of themovie- “A Japanese Tragedy”, whichactually reappears as a newspaper title later on. It is certain that at this point,the picture of the chaotic upside-downs in the Japanese society has beenenvisaged in the audience mind. Besides characterizing the 1950s Japan’s socialbackground, these cross-cuttings and flashbacks are also utilized by Kinoshitato blame the children’s disrespect for their parent and their mother’s tragedyon the distortion of the society. The children see a Japanese girl and anAmerican soldier kissing, then immediately, they see their mother intimatelyhugging and laughing with another man in front of a shop, and at that exactpoint, the last bit of their respect for their mother is shattered. Kinoshita,with his magnificent manipulation of time, pushes forward a message thatclarify the relationship of Haruko’s family tragedy and the current socialconditions in Japan: “The war was a case of insincerity, deceit, and thedistortion of the meaning of democracy in the post-war era is just as impure,resulting in children who destroy their parents out of avarice and contempt.”5Kinoshita’s A Japanese Tragedy and Ozu’s TokyoStory both place the blame for the disintegration of Japanese family system on the changing society.Ozu, in Tokyo Story, reveals thedisappointing side of the new Japanese society through the conversation ofShukichi with his fellow and of the 2 old parents.
In the night Shukichi meetshis old acquaintances, they also discuss about children not meeting theirexpectation: “I thought my son was much better, but it turns out he is only asmall neighborhood’s doctor”. Whenthe old couples are on the way back to Onomachi, they complain about how theirchildren have changed, and express their disappointment: “Koichi has changed.He used to be much nicer before”. Kinoshita, in A Japanese Tragedy, characterizes the society in a more intenseway.
The fast-cuttings of newspaper titles and broad contemporary scenes interweavedin the flow of A Japanese Tragedyserve the purpose of highlighting, as well as condemning the chaotic society atthe time. There is one moment in A JapaneseTragedy a teacher replies to a student that he himself was deceived as manyJapanese into believing the war was good. At this point, all the tragedies ofHaruko’s family, as well as the Japanese society are explained. The two filmsboth portray the chaos in the changing Japanese society at the time, and focuson the undermined family structure amid the aggressive changes, which makes themcharacteristic of the 1950s “Shomin Eiga” era. However, Kinoshita’s A Japanese Tragedy draws a darkerpicture of the failing family system and the society compared to Ozu’s Tokyo Story. In Tokyo Story, although the relationship within the family is visiblycrumbling, but the children, as well as the in-laws such as Noriko, Shige andKoichi’s spouses, still retain, to an extent, respect and care for theirparents.
Tomi passes away, but she still be mourned by all her children andhusband, and still has a proper funeral. In Haruko’s case, she desperatelymakes effort to reach to her children, who cruelly reject and despise her,despite all the unknown scarification she has made. The son even tries to beadopted to a wealthy family. When he meets his mother in his new house, all hetalks about was changing his family record, while her daughter, after spoilinganother’s family life, disappears.
At the end, an emotionally and physicallywrecked Haruko commits suicide, and dies a hurtful and unlamented death on therailway. Compared to Ozu’s approach to the destruction of family relationshipthat is to “accept that life is disappointing, and lower expectation”6,Kinoshita drives home the starkly contrasting “extreme parental self-sacrificeand severe neglect on the part of the children in return”, with not only thedisrespect for the parents but also shame, scorn, exploitation and abuse7.In Kinoshita’s A Japanese Tragedy’sworld, the family system has become seemingly irremediable, corruptedby the outside, impersonal political and social forces. Even in respect of thebackground music, its pessimism prevails. While Ozu’s Tokyo Story’s background music is slow and provokes vague sadness,Kinoshita’s A Japanese Tragedy isfilled with blaring political speeches, heavy kettle drums, bells and cymbals,and grief-stricken cries, projecting the tumultuous society and its collapsingmorals.Thus, A Japanese Tragedy is ofa greater shade of darkness compared to that of Tokyo Story.
In conclusion, Ozu’s Tokyo Story and Kinoshita’s AJapanese Tragedy could be considered as representative movies of the 1950sJapanese “Shomin-geki Eiga”. Despite different approach and characterization ofa mutual topic, they are both successful in describing the struggle of thebroken down Japanese traditional family system in a Japanese society that wereundergoing drastic changes, but AJapanese Tragedy by Keisuke Kinoshita, takes a step further into the darkcompared to Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story,in terms of both storyline and background elements.1 Audie Bock, Japanese directors.2 Audie Bock, Japanese Directors.3 Anderson, Riche, The Japanese films (Artand Industry).4 Audie Bock, Japanese Directors.5 Audie Bock, Japanese director.6 Bock audie, Japanese directors7 bock audie Japanese directors