Crumbling of what 1950 Japanese home drama films

Crumbling family relationship in post-war Japanese cinema

After the 2nd World War, Japan
society was still suffering from the destructive World War 2. Its increasing
complexity and people’s struggles comprehensively captured by various directors
through time. The transforming and decaying relationship within Japanese
family, influenced by up-and-downs in social, economic and political
conditions, is captured in Tokyo Story
(Tokyo Monotagari) by Yasujiro
Ozu, and A Japanese Tragedy (Nihon no Higeki) by Keisuke Kinoshita. By
analysing the mutually supplementary features of the two films, an
understanding of what 1950 Japanese home drama films are typical of, as well as
changes in the contemporary society, especially within families, can be
achieved. General audience, who has little or no Japanese films knowledge, but
want to take a brief look in the 1950s Japanese society, may find this paper
relevant.

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The root of the destruction of the Japanese family
in Tokyo Story of Yasujiro Ozu can be
boiled down to the change of pace in the society. When Japan enters the post-war
reconstruction era, the rhythm of living changes, and everything speeds up. The
film tells the story of an old couple, Shukichi and Tomi, setting off from a
small town called Onomichi to visit their married children in Tokyo. After their
journey, Tomi is critically ill and passes away, with the children arriving in
time to only witness her death. Ozu has said of Tokyo Story that he had tried, through the relationship between
parents and their grown-up children, to portray the destruction of the family
system in Japan.1
The signs of this statement can be clearly seen in the film. According to Asian
traditions in general, and Japanese traditions in particular, it is common for
the parents to live with their eldest son. However, in Tokyo Story, they live alone in a small town with their youngest
daughter, Kyoko. Since the opening moments of the film, the crumbling
relationship and family traditions can be noticed. Throughout the visit of the
parents, the audience can see the coldness in the way the children treat their
parents. In Koichi’s house, they have to stay at home all the time because the
son 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 her
parents did not need to eat the expensive cakes that her husband bought to
ordering her mother to use old sandals. She, ironically, becomes a stranger, as
her father comments “A married daughter is a stranger”. The parents immediately
notice that their children are considering them as a burden, but do their best
to not complain and go along with their children, such as obediently going to
the resort in Atami. However, disappointment and hurt begin to bleed through
their dialogue, as Shukichi said to his wife in a jokingly manner: “We are
really homeless now”. The death of the mother also supports Ozu’s portrait of
the crumbling Japanese relationship. Beside the mother’s dead bed are all of
her children, who arrive just in time of her departure. The simple proverb that
Keizo says to his colleague and whispers to himself at the funeral, “Be kind to
your parents while they are alive, filial piety cannot reach beyond the
grave.”, becomes sadly meaningless, as he is the latest to arrive. Shige also
breaks into tears, but according to her actions after the funeral, like
demanding possessions of her late mother right after the funeral and leaving
almost immediately, those tears can just be accepted as “a sudden recognition
of the transiency of life rather than the expression of intimate grief.”2
The funeral of the mother, ironically, could be the only occasion for the
father to see all his children at the same time, but as soon as the children
feel they have completed their duties, they rush back to their own life as soon
as possible, too tangled up in their jobs. Ozu describes the changes of social
rhythm through shots of the bustling city Tokyo with building clusters, or
close-ups of smoke rising from factories along the railway, weaved among the
tranquil daily life in the parents’ small town. The crumbling family is somehow
the 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 brings
in one of the creations that he retains deepest affection for- A Japanese Tragedy. If in Ozu’s Tokyo Story, the disintegrating relationships
in Japanese society is compressed in a family, A Japanese Tragedy zooms out from the tragedy of a mother in her
small family to the tragedy of the rapidly changing and deforming Japan, within
which Japanese family systems and its obligations saw its destruction.4
The widowed mother, Haruko who lost her husband in the war, has to work as many
kinds of degrading occupation in order to raise her two children Utako and
Seiichi. However, as they grow up, inculcated by the false tales from their
uncle, 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, in
contrast 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, who
is 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 in
her life. Kinoshita succeeds in build the mother figure in his film towards
that direction, and adds on many things of his own. The film is a comprehensive
display of contrast between the coldness and disrespect of the children and the
sacrifice their mother has made, through flashbacks that are heavily used. When
the grown siblings are having a meal in a restaurant, a flashback of their
childhood is shown, in which they were also eating and the mother, appearing to
be very exhausted, came back home with black-market rice. When Haruko is being
beaten by a male customer, she also recalls crying alone when fixing her
children clothes and fanning them while they were sleeping peacefully.
Flashbacks, as well as many fast-cut scenes often interrupting the movie in
forms of news, do an excellent job of passing the image of the society on to
the audience. The opening shows a sequence of news about war trials, the
Emperor, riots, crimes, disasters, etc. Then, titles “Life is not easy” and
“All over Japan there is darkness” are shown, and finally the titles of the
movie- “A Japanese Tragedy”, which
actually 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 been
envisaged in the audience mind. Besides characterizing the 1950s Japan’s social
background, these cross-cuttings and flashbacks are also utilized by Kinoshita
to blame the children’s disrespect for their parent and their mother’s tragedy
on the distortion of the society. The children see a Japanese girl and an
American soldier kissing, then immediately, they see their mother intimately
hugging and laughing with another man in front of a shop, and at that exact
point, the last bit of their respect for their mother is shattered. Kinoshita,
with his magnificent manipulation of time, pushes forward a message that
clarify the relationship of Haruko’s family tragedy and the current social
conditions in Japan: “The war was a case of insincerity, deceit, and the
distortion 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.”5

Kinoshita’s A Japanese Tragedy and Ozu’s Tokyo
Story both place the blame for the disintegration of Japanese family system on the changing society.
Ozu, in Tokyo Story, reveals the
disappointing side of the new Japanese society through the conversation of
Shukichi with his fellow and of the 2 old parents. In the night Shukichi meets
his old acquaintances, they also discuss about children not meeting their
expectation: “I thought my son was much better, but it turns out he is only a
small neighborhood’s doctor”.

When
the old couples are on the way back to Onomachi, they complain about how their
children 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 intense
way. The fast-cuttings of newspaper titles and broad contemporary scenes interweaved
in the flow of A Japanese Tragedy
serve the purpose of highlighting, as well as condemning the chaotic society at
the time. There is one moment in A Japanese
Tragedy a teacher replies to a student that he himself was deceived as many
Japanese into believing the war was good. At this point, all the tragedies of
Haruko’s family, as well as the Japanese society are explained. The two films
both portray the chaos in the changing Japanese society at the time, and focus
on the undermined family structure amid the aggressive changes, which makes them
characteristic of the 1950s “Shomin Eiga” era. However, Kinoshita’s A Japanese Tragedy draws a darker
picture of the failing family system and the society compared to Ozu’s Tokyo Story. In Tokyo Story, although the relationship within the family is visibly
crumbling, but the children, as well as the in-laws such as Noriko, Shige and
Koichi’s spouses, still retain, to an extent, respect and care for their
parents. Tomi passes away, but she still be mourned by all her children and
husband, and still has a proper funeral. In Haruko’s case, she desperately
makes 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 be
adopted to a wealthy family. When he meets his mother in his new house, all he
talks about was changing his family record, while her daughter, after spoiling
another’s family life, disappears. At the end, an emotionally and physically
wrecked Haruko commits suicide, and dies a hurtful and unlamented death on the
railway. Compared to Ozu’s approach to the destruction of family relationship
that is to “accept that life is disappointing, and lower expectation”6,
Kinoshita drives home the starkly contrasting “extreme parental self-sacrifice
and severe neglect on the part of the children in return”, with not only the
disrespect for the parents but also shame, scorn, exploitation and abuse7.
In Kinoshita’s A Japanese Tragedy’s
world, the family system has become seemingly irremediable, corrupted
by the outside, impersonal political and social forces. Even in respect of the
background music, its pessimism prevails. While Ozu’s Tokyo Story’s background music is slow and provokes vague sadness,
Kinoshita’s A Japanese Tragedy is
filled with blaring political speeches, heavy kettle drums, bells and cymbals,
and grief-stricken cries, projecting the tumultuous society and its collapsing
morals.Thus, A Japanese Tragedy is of
a greater shade of darkness compared to that of Tokyo Story.

 

In conclusion, Ozu’s Tokyo Story and Kinoshita’s A
Japanese Tragedy could be considered as representative movies of the 1950s
Japanese “Shomin-geki Eiga”. Despite different approach and characterization of
a mutual topic, they are both successful in describing the struggle of the
broken down Japanese traditional family system in a Japanese society that were
undergoing drastic changes, but A
Japanese Tragedy by Keisuke Kinoshita, takes a step further into the dark
compared 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 (Art
and Industry).

4 Audie Bock, Japanese Directors.

5 Audie Bock, Japanese director.

6 Bock audie, Japanese directors

7 bock audie Japanese directors