Japanese Post-World War II Melodramas

Japanese post-war melodramas are a reflection of the very delicate shape of society in Japan Post-World War II. Japan was occupied by American forces from 1945-1952 following the War. The American occupation aimed to demilitarise, disenfranchise, and disassemble the Japanese Empire. It had been deconstructed in the aftermath of the atomic bombs from Enola Gay and subsequent loss of the War. Japanese culture had become fractured, and American occupation had assuredly impacted society in the way of an American mindset. The American dream preserved ideas of any individual overcoming the odds and finding success in society. The essence of self determinism grew and had started to raise questions of individuated subjectivity. This was particularly present in the deconstruction of the hierarchical military-imperial structure in Japan. Due to the patriarchal nature of Japanese culture, males seemed to have been more displaced by this fracture. However, the role of women was impacted to a contrapuntal effect; this was essentially a time for women to find new meaning in their life, a liberation from a suppressive system. The Japanese melodrama embodies some of this cultural reform. I will explore these new found ideas of individuated subjectivity with the use of two melodramas. The first of which is Ukigumo “Floating Clouds” (Mikio Naruse, Japan, 1955) and, Ikiru “To Live” (Akira Kurosawa, Japan, 1952).

Ukigumo follows the story of Yukiko Koda, played by Hideko Takamine and their romantic relationship with Kengo Tomioka, played by Masayuki Mori. During WWII, a married Kengo is stationed in Indochina where he falls for Yukiko and promises to leave his wife for her. Following the War, they meet again and he continues to have the affair up until his wife’s death. Kengo Tomioka is a cold womaniser that never respects women, and Yukiko is a naive, resourceful woman who can’t help love Kengo. The melodrama sets up the characters in very different places following the War. Where Kengo once had a high status in a military based role, he finds himself lost and miserable when he returns home to care for his ill wife. In many ways, Kengo found his worth in his Indochina stationing, free of home responsibility, and able to secretly fall in love with Yukiko. His subsequent displacement results in his depression, which is present at the beginning of the film when Yukiko confronts him about his wife. She remarks at her old, frail demeanour. Kengo doesn’t make the effort to look up or respond, simply keeping his head to the ground, instantly changing the subject to provide Yukiko with money. Kengo’s post-war displacement is evident in his unhappiness as he relies so much on his belief in a traditional role that all he can seem to offer to Yukiko is money. Naruse includes the fractured subject of Kengo’s identity as a result of the fractured state of Japan at the time; Alain Masson states “his style is complex and rent with oppositions – refers to them as antagonisms – between the calm surface of everyday routine and the base blackness of the world; between fracture and composure; between delicacy and brutality”. (Masson, A., 1990) Kengo’s reserved, often cold demeanour is a mask to hide the fear of questioning his new identity and his role as a husband and as a provider for Yukiko now that the War is finished.

 Yukiko Koda alternatively, is a typist stationed in Indochina, she does not possess any power, prestige or wealth during the War. The male characters that work with Kengo make condescending, sexist jokes towards her. Kengo finds no need to address it, instead being passive as his privilege allows his ignorance to prevail. Yukiko has little to no respect due to her place in society. The disbandment of the military imperial system provoked new ideas of self and Yukiko then finds herself in a different society. “Naruse is a materialist par excellence. There is no escape from the world as it is…In Naruse’s world, there is no transcendence, only daily bodily existence subject to social and economic conditions”. (Freiberg, F. 2002) The melodrama presents Yukiko as a character that grows in spite of these conditions. Yes Yukiko must resort to becoming a mistress at one point when she is poor, but takes advantage of the world, earning respectable money using her skills to take advantage of a society that had previously confined her to a subordinate position.

In Ukigumo, Yukiko’s sense of individuated subjectivity is in question but she has respect for herself and she doesn’t let difficulties cloud her sense of direction. This is evident in her relationship with Kengo. Yukiko may be seemingly weak initially as she is bound by her love for Kengo. Naruse often aims to restrain his characters by their needs in a world that offers little escapism. Freda Freiberg notes “His characters battle to satisfy basic physical, social and economic needs. They seek comfort and security in relationships with family, friends and partners” (Freiberg, F. 2002). In the final act of the film, Kengo finds a job abroad and decides to move away, Yukiko falls ill despite wanting to follow him wherever he goes. Her paranoia takes over and she follows him until her illness causes her death. Within the mise en scène the desperation of Yukiko is captured in the shots tracking her following him from one side of the room to the other and often framing Kengo with his back to her. Naruse, despite showing Yukiko’s strength and perseverance, is ultimately bound by her physical needs, “If they end up where they started, it is only after they have explored all their social, economic and sexual potential, or resolutely refused some options because they are incompatible with their personal (or socially conditioned) self- respect. No happy endings for Naruse, but there are incredibly enlightened defeats.” (Bock, A. 2010). The final scene of Yukiko’s death is bitter sweet, when she dies in Kengo’s arms, he realises too late that it is only her he could ever love. Kengo’s questions of self are only realised because of the actions of Yukiko and her love for him. This love gave purpose and meaning to their lives, Yukiko expressed this throughout the film, whereas for Kengo, it was only in those final moments, he realised that caring for and loving each other gave the purpose he had longed for.

Naruse’s melodramas explore feminine identity to such a great extent that it sets itself apart from other melodramas. “The unusual insight into feminine experience, the acute understanding and detailed elaboration of women’s feelings that mark Naruse’s films are also due in part to the collaboration of women as scriptwriters, often adapting women’s novels”. (Russel, C. 2018) Women often contributed a lot to the story of Naruse’s films which may help to explain how the female characters appeared as vividly in-depth and complex, a considerable counter to the likes of Kurosawa, who would often romanticise the idea of a more traditional female role, similar to his Mother. “Women were still expected to make extreme sacrifices so that their fathers, husbands, brothers, or sons could advance…She simply had such a gentle soul that she did these things naturally” (Akira Kurosawa, 1982) Kurosawa would show this change and growth in post-war Japan, but had an androcentric approach with female characters often supporting the male protagonist. Naruse had a known affinity with female novelist

 Fumiko Hayashi. Catherine Russel notes, “His identification with her professional and personal difficulties inspired a lot of his masterpieces, which are adaptations of her” (Russel, C. 2018). Because of this, Naruse’s portrayal of female characters in his melodramas are complex and defined by perseverance and strength and liberates the portrayal of women in a way that was refreshing to Japanese Cinema up until that point, exploring questions of women in a reformed society.

Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa, 1955) questions our purpose in life in a very metaphysical manner. Kurosawa uses the main character, Kanji Watanabe, played by Takashi Shimura, to question the meaning of life on a simple, yet universal scale “Sometimes I think of my death. I think of ceasing to be…and it is from these thoughts that Ikiru came.” (Akira Kurosawa, 1982). Ikiru meaning “to live”, studies Kanji, a miserable government office worker, who finds out he has terminal stomach cancer and only a matter of months to live. After meeting a young woman, Toyo Odagiri, he discovers there is much more to life and he wants to succeed in changing wasteland into a children’s play-park. Japan in 1952 had already started to inherit new ideas of capitalism and democracy under the American occupation. Scholar, Jared Bernstein reflects on the darker side of the American dream, “The [American] dream favours “you’re on your own” over “we’re in this together” (Bernstein, J. 2015) There are political and social undertones in the way Ikiru promotes a separation from traditional ties to social groups such as company and even family, instead prioritising and striving for personal achievement. Kenji questions himself and finds value in his personal aspirations to pay for the play-park, rather than invest it in his will.

This question of individuated subjectivity is very present at the beginning of the film when Kenji is at his desk surrounded by piles of papers, he has unimportance amongst stacks of modernity. Shimura focused on his physical presentation in order to play the character. He was inspired by traditional forms of Japanese theatre from 15th Century Japan which focussed mostly on movement. “Noh theatre is structured around song and dance. Movement is slow, language is poetic, tone is monotonous, and costumes are rich and heavy”. (Japanese Theatre Centre, 2021) This slow methodical movement captures the contemporary enslaved man in Ikiru. The omnipresent narrator of the film describes him as being alive, but dead and not knowing it. This has two meanings, the character will soon discover his looming death, but he is also not truly living up until that point. Kurosawa identifies this as the main hurdle for Kanji to overcome “when facing death, he finally realises that he has led a meaningless life—that he has not lived at all”(Thatcher, L. 2012). When stunned by his impending death, Kenji tries to discover fulfilment by seeking comfort in his family and in getting drunk. Nothing seems to give him comfort in embracing his fate.

Kenji comes across Toyo Odagiri who wants to quit her bureaucracy job. Kenji is mesmerised by her zest for life and there is a juxtaposed relationship between the two of them. Kenji is death and Toyo is his antithesis: life. This is clear in the scene where they are eating together at a table. The shot frames the characters in the forefront of the shot facing each other whilst with a deeper depth of field, a group of young girls in the background are celebrating a birthday, an ironic cinematography choice to frame a dying man within a Birthday party. “Binary opposition is an important concept of structuralism, which sees such distinctions as fundamental to all language and thought and is seen as a fundamental organiser of human philosophy, culture, and language” (Dundes, A. 1997). This binary opposition between life and death fittingly precedes the turning point in the film, when Kenji realises his purpose. This is the moment the character comes to the crossroads between life and death.

Kenji is an allegory for the internal philosophical investigation that everyone undergoes. He is bound by external factors; his social status, his job and relationships with those around him. Then Kenji discovers his purpose in life, which is to exercise compassion. Contributing to something besides himself by building the children’s play- park. A reminder that his life has purpose, he leaves a small legacy that will outlive him. By the end of the film, when Kenji has died, there is a flashback to his final moments, alone singing on the swings. The shot slowly creeping towards him. We are perceiving him within the transcendental domain, a perspective that is realised throughout the film with the use of the narrator. To the amusement of the viewer, Kenji remains meaningful, we remember him at the ceremony we never saw, the opening of the park, where we are told he is relegated to a seat at the back, with his contributions ignored. “We Leave him smiling with infinite amusement. By the close of the film, the indifferent gods have embraced him”.(Gordon, J. 1997) Kurosawa’s delicate exploration of individuated subjectivity relates to contemporary audiences even today; but especially in the context of the film released at the time, displaying Kenji Watanabe in his final moments reflecting on his life finally being fulfilled.The question of self is an occurrence throughout Post-World War II Japan. Ukigumo shows characters that reflect the political, social, and historical context of Japan in challenging perceptions of female roles in society, exploring the effects of demilitarisation, and the societal displacements felt from the War. Ikiru interrogates Post- War Japan in an internally metaphysical respect, asking the average ‘1950s office worker’ to question purpose, and happiness. The Japanese Melodrama deals with individuation in a way that communicates very important, moral, ethical, and even spiritual questions of the individual in the new Japan, challenging conventions, tradition, and the human condition.

Related films to check out:

‘ Individuated Subjectivity’ written by G.M.M. (1/3/2021)

Ukigumo ‘Floating Clouds’ (Mikio Naruse, 1955, Japan)

Ikiru ‘To Live’ (Akira Kurosawa, 1952, Japan)

The Idiot (Akira Kurosawa, 1951, Japan)

Tsuma no kokoro ‘A Wife’s Heart (Mikio Naruse, 1956, Japan)

Related texts:

 Balazs, B. (January, 1966). Theory of the Film. In: D. Talbot (Ed.)Film: An Anthology. Berkeley: University of California. Beda, K. (January, 2015) Melodrama and women Analysis Film Studies Essay. Ny pub. Available at: https:// http://www.ukessays.com/essays/essays/film-studies/melodrama-and-women-analysis-film-studies-essay.php

Bernstein, J. (May, 2015) The American Dream: Aspirations and Realities. On the Economy. Available at:https://jaredbernsteinblog.com/the-american-dream-aspirations-and-realities/ 

Dundes, A. (November, 1997) Binary Opposition in Myth: The Propp/ Levi-Strauss Debate in Retrospect.western States Folklore Freiberg, F. (May, 2002) The Materialist Ethic of Mikio Naruse. Senses of Cinema. Issue 20. Available at: https://www.sensesofcinema.com/2002/feature-articles/naruse/ 

Gordon, J. (April, 1997) Kurosawa’s Existential Masterpiece: A Meditation on the meaning of Life: Springer Jang, A. (December, 2017) Strange Women: The evaluation and comparison of female characters in Akira Kurosawa’s films. Faculty off the History Department California Polytechnic state University. San Luis Obispo. Available at: https://digitalcommons.calpoly.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1044&context=histsp 

Thatcher, L. ( March, 2012) Ikiru- Akira Kurosawa and what what it means to live. Lisa. Thatcher. Available at: https://lisathatcher.com/2012/03/07/ikiru-akira-kurosawa-and-what-it-means-to-live/

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