Saturday, August 20, 2011

Masumura, Ichikawa and Ozu

The Most Valuable Wife (Saiko Shukun Fujin, 1959, dir. Yasuzo Masumura)

Speed of Growth

In the age of global economy, a self-proclaimed expert announces "your bond is no longer as secure as it used to be" and then whole world goes berserk. A large part of transactions of securities, stocks, bonds, foreign currencies and other monetary entities is processed by computer algorithms without human intervention, in less than a microsecond over the continents. A myriad of security firms, banks, and other companies you never knew how to pronounce their names, destroy your retirement plan in two seconds. Most of us are jittery because off-shoring project in process in the floor below will mean next wave of layoffs in this floor. Yes, this is the ultimate form of the Captialism as we know it.

Strangely, it wasn't like this always. In Japan, there was a time when economy was on the rocket of growth. No off-shoring, no hedge-funds, no layoffs. Your job was secure as long as you wished, you had dreams as the others did, your colleagues were long-time friends, marriage was a ritual, and there was no fear of losing anything you earned. "The Most Valuable Wife (Saiko Shukun Fujin, 最高殊勲夫人, 1959)" is the product of the age of fast growth and non-stop consumptions. Mihara family has three sons and Nonomiya family has three daughters. The oldest son, Ichiro, is the president of the trading company. His wife is the oldest daughter of Nonomiyas, Momoko, who nags him every moment possible and gives him every possible order on how to run his company. The second son, Jiro, an executive in the company, marries the second daughter of Nonomiyas, Nashiko. It is natural for Saburo, the youngest son of Miharas to marry Kyoko, the youngest daughter of Nonomiyas, isn't it? Momoko is in charge. She has her scheme to match them up. It's the first step for Momoko to control every aspect of everybody's life. But, Saburo tells Kyoko he will not marry her. Kyoko tells him neither will she. So they team up to prevent Momoko's grandiose plan to "conquer the world" ...

Ichiro's company is located in Marunouchi, the center of Tokyo and Japan. The employees of this prestigious company "enjoy" their status. They eat their lunch, snacks, and dinners in restaurants, spending money as fast as possible. Everyone talks fast, makes decision fast and acts fast. This speed is the speed of growth. Masumura achieves this speed not only through editing but mostly through directness. In particular, Saburo drives up the speed to the limit. He does not care if his honest opinion is too blatant. He rarely hesitates. He enjoys his status, but is never arrogant. He is not as intelligent, but knows the way around.

But where is a family in this film? Ichiro and Momoko, though a husband and a wife, don't come off as a family. They look like extension of office colleagues. Their bedroom looks absurd, like an office. Their conversation sounds like transaction of ideas. In fact, we do not smell a scent of family in any of the characters in this film, except Nonomiyas. But this family is also bulldozed off by their own daughter, Momoko, a Capitalism monster.


Time, Money and Sickness


The Crowded Streetcar (Manin Densha, 満員電車, 1957, dir. Kon Ichikawa)

Karl Marx defined a clock as a machinery of Capitalism. It epitomizes the labor sold by an hour. Gonroku, Tamio's father in "The Crowded Streetcar (Manin Densha, 満員電車, 1957)", is apparently haunted by ghosts of Capitalism. He is a master of clock shop and a member of city council in Odawara. Played by Chishu Ryu, he definitely reminds us many father characters Ryu has played in Ozu films. Coupled with Gonroku's wife (Haruko Sugimura), they seem like a couple jumped out of Ozu film and landed on Ichikawa's world. There are Ozu train shot as well, as if Ichikawa carefully recreated Ozu's Onomichi in "Tokyo Story" here only to destroy it. Because they are from another world, there is something wrong with them. Wall-full of clocks might have influenced their minds. As I think of it, few characters in Ozu films are in hurry, minding clocks.

If Masumura's "The Most Valuable Wife" is about speed and consumption, Ichikawa's "The Crowded Streetcar" is about time and money. And Sickness. Tamio, freshly out of University, lands on a job in Rakuda Beer Company, a prestigious job for a "salaryman". He thinks he succeeded in "catching a train" of life. Even if it's too crowded, you have no choice but take that train. Otherwise, there will be no train for you, ever. That's his motto. He starts his new life, alone in the new city, surrounded by surreal colleagues. The first thing he learns in his new office is "Don't be efficient, your job is rationed daily". He finishes his work in ten minutes in the morning, and his superior tells him "No, we have a problem if you finish the work that fast". In this world, Captitalism trained people so efficient that Capitalism itself cannot catch up. Conversely, efficient mind can calculate how the future holds along the curve of economic growth. In one scene, Tamio lectures how to calculate his own life-long earnings. That's "Salaryman 101". You can actually calculate the whole sum of your earnings in your entire life, including retirement plans. Whatever you do with your time, your life is predetermined once you are on that train.

If money and time dictate the life of a man, sickness is his poison. He will be thrown out of the window of the train, if he is not "functioning". Many characters in this film end up on the pebbles along the railroads, with varying degree of miserable results. No longer were rosy pictures of future they envisioned. Welcome to the world of "losers".


Owning and Disowning


Good Bye, Good Day (1959, dir. Kon Ichikawa)

Kazuko is a young designer in an Automobile Company. She is living with her father, who just quit his job, and her sister, a stewardess. Her father wants her to marry, but she is reluctant. Their old friend, Umeko, whispers to her father, "if you say you are going to remarry, then ..."

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? "Good Bye, Good Day (Anata to Watasi no Aikotoba, Sayonara, Konnichiwa, あなたと私の合言葉、さようなら こんにちは, 1959)" is definitely Ichikawa's "Late Spring". But it is pitted against the background of economy growth. It is not a serene world of Noriko and her father, where the ladies enjoy tea ceremony and people go to Noh theater. It's a world of colorful cars and business opportunity. Kazuko is independent financially and competent as an automobile designer in the age of expansion and of male dominance. She travels alone and knows what she wants and what she doesn't need. Umeko is also a determined business woman, knowing what she wants and how to get it. By contrast, men are another variations on Tamio, only less efficient. They want their rails to be laid out, and get scared or depressed if something goes wrong. Ichikawa's vision is more bleak and dissonant than Masumura's world of speed or Ozu’s world of satori. One of the striking difference between Ozu’s “Late Spring” and Ichikawa’s “Good Bye, Good Day” is what a father tells his daughter when they have to part their ways. Noriko’s father tells her that they must go separate ways so that she could find her happiness. This is mainly Noriko’s business. However, Kazuko’s father, brilliantly played by Shin Saburi, tells her he has to get rid of her. In a man’s life, he tells her, one must get rid of what he owns, one by one. We sense that he is suggesting that, after a series of disowning what he once had, one will no longer owns anything and will be ready for the inevitable. Sombre as it is, it is his way to cut the rope and let her swim on her own. 

Ichikawa consciously presented his case of lost sanity and lost humane emotions, placing it parallel to Ozu’s. He couldn’t help injecting poison of postwar Capitalism into transparent pessimism. He seems to have foreseen the world where one cannot beat the feedback overshoot of our own efficiency. Or the world where one pursues the ownership of everything, including family, only to disown them in the end. However, he does not criticize such indelible nature of a modern Capitalism man. He seems to be just disappointed. 

The Crowded Streetcar



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