Autumn Has Already Started (Mikio Naruse, Japan, 1960)

An 11 year old country boy named Hideo (Kenzaburo Osawa) moves to Tokyo with his middle-aged, widowed mother Shigeko (Nobuko Otowa) to stay with relatives. Shigeko finds work as a hostess at a local inn while Hideo gets into scraps with the local kids at the bath house before befriending Junko (Futaba Ichiki), the 9 year old daughter of his mother’s employer. As the two children become best friends Hideo’s mother runs off with a salesman she’s met leaving the boy in the reluctant care of his relatives. Meanwhile Junko’s mother prepares for a reunion with her estranged husband and his two unlikable children. After Hideo and Junko run away to the seaside together Junko begs her mother to adopt Hideo as her brother and for him to come live with them. But the mother isn’t interested and Hideo finds himself alone except for his beloved pet beetle.

Two superbly understated performances from child actors Kenzaburo Otawa and Futaba Ichiki are the heart and soul of this wonderful film about childhood hopes and dreams that end up dashed by the realities of adult life. It has the usual elements of a Naruse film, not the least of which is a struggling working class woman (a sincerely felt performance by Nobuko Otawa) but Ryozo Kasahara’s script offers a fresh perspective because everything is seen through the eyes of the two children.  Although the younger family members such as brother Shotaro (Yosuki Natsuki) who takes Hideo for a joyous nighttime ride around Tokyo on the back of his moped and sister Harue (Hisako Hara) have much more of a zest for life Naruse doesn’t make the error of turning the older adults into uncaring monsters either. Whether it’s Shigeko’s forlorn desperation not to be left on the shelf, or the yearning of Junko’s mother to get back together with her husband, or the drunken, tightfisted character of Hideo’s uncle, (a man so mean he feeds his family with the out of date vegetables from his greengrocer’s shop) Naruse depicts these characters with a clear eye, using the honesty of the children to illuminate their foibles and weaknesses. It’s both funny and charming. That honesty supplies the film with some of my favourite moments. His attention captured by a photo in Junko’s bedroom Hideo asks the little girl if it’s her Dad. ‘He looks pretty old’ says Hideo. “No”, replies Junko, “My mother says he looks young for his age.” Lol, as they say.

There’s also a very Ozu-like moment here where the two kids exchange distinctly unimpressed looks after a shop assistant tries to ingratiate herself with them. And I loved the negotiation of a wire fence in which the 11 year olds swarm up and over like monkeys while the infants scrabble straight underneath. Naruse cleverly uses actual locations – the children frequently play on ground earmarked for construction – to imply that everything connected to Hideo’s childhood is in flux. Ichiro Saito’s wistful, melancholy music perfectly underscores the emotions on display here. It’s a funny film in many respects but also a very poignant one. Your heart just aches for Hideo when Junko suggests his mother has run off for good or when the boy goes looking for his mother at her lodgings and finds only a baseball glove intended as a present with which to buy his affections. When he responds by kicking it across the room we fully sympathise with his feelings. A memorable sequence in which Junko is taken by her mother to meet her estranged father and his ghastly kids simply underscores how much Hideo and Junko deserve to be together. The climax – in which Hideo races across town to give Junko the beetle she needs for her science class only to find an empty house and a departing removals truck – is so crushingly sad. The final scene as Hideo and his pet beetle gaze out over the sprawl of urban Tokyo – a crowded horizon of infinite possibilities and each one of them out of reach for the little boy – will, I think, strike a chord with anyone who remembers what it was once like to be Hideo’s age. This is a film full of sentiment but never once sentimental and it remains my favourite of Naruse’s exceptional filmography.

A Scoundrel (Kaneto Shindo, Japan, 1965)

14th Century Japan; against a backdrop of crumbling power structures in which the country’s rulers and their servants have been forced to flee their palaces from invading barbarian hordes, an ageing general named Moronao (Eitaro Ozawa) whiles away his time at a private court. When his courtesan Jijyu (Nobuko Otowa) unwisely hints at a Princess of rare beauty who lives in the area (Woman of the Dunes‘ Kyoko Kishida) the General instantly becomes smitten and begins sending the married woman love verses. The verses are politely returned but with each rejection Moronao’s determination that he shall have this woman – whom he has never met, much less knows – grows stronger. With Jijyu powerless to dissuade Moronao and aware that her own life hangs in the balance the general plots to isolate the Princess by ordering her husband and his troops to depart for war. But when the Prince leaves home under cover of darkness and smuggles his wife out with him an enraged Moronao instructs Jijyu that only the Princess is to be returned alive and orders a brigade to capture and execute both the Prince and his men. Needless to say, things don’t go as planned.

Another samurai drama then but of a particular type – what the Japanese refer to as ‘cruel historicals’ – films (like Inoue Umetsugu’s The Third Shadow and Tokuzo Tanaka’s The Betrayal) whose focus is not on heroic Generals or honourable samurai but on how bloody awful life was for those under them. Shindo’s film begins as an ominous chamber piece and ends up as an intense, visceral horror movie in which most of its characters end up dead or mad. The horror here coming not from supernatural demons but from Moronao’s loathsome and all too human monster whose subjects must constantly satisfy his every whim (and in the process become as monstrous as he is) merely to survive. With the bulk of the movie essentially a two-hander between the General and his courtesan it’s Nobuko Otowa’s (in real life Mrs Kaneto Shindo) magnificent performance as Jijyu that dominates the movie. As both a sort of emotional barometer of the General’s mood at any given moment and the person responsible for carrying out his orders, Jijyu at first appears to be the real power (in a neat bit of misdirection Ozawa’s General is set up for us as a harmless old fool and an early visit to spy on the Princess as she takes a bath has a distinct comic edge) but part of the film’s power is the way it slowly reverses these initial impressions.

Even when she lies and tries to emotionally blackmail the Princess into accompanying her, Jijyu never entirely loses our sympathy because, unlike Ozawa, there’s a flicker of self-awareness in her. It’s a quality seized on by the Prince who, as Moronao’s brigade of samurai close in for the kill during the film’s climax, ominously instructs Kikyu that she will bear witness to what is about to happen. Although Otowa dominates here there are fine performances from the rest of the cast with Kyoko Kishida particularly good as a woman from much the same background as Kikyu but unlike the latter one who refuses to succumb to her fate. Extremely well shot by Kiyoshi Kuroda and with an equally impressive score by Hikaru Hayashi (a scene where a demonically-lit Jijyu looks on uncomprehending as the Princess and her husband declare to each other their willingness to die rather than give in is a spellbinding example of each man’s skill), this is a superb film from Shindo featuring both his trademark theme about the resilience of the human animal and an ending that is truly the stuff of nightmares.

Wolf (Kaneto Shindo, Japan, 1955)

Not long after the end of the war a group of rookie insurance salespeople – Yano (Nobuko Otawa), Tomie (Sanae Takasugi), Mikawa (Taiji Tonoyama), Harashima (Jun Hamamura) and Yoshikawa (Ichiro Sugai) – are unable to make their sales targets. Facing the sack and with their personal lives mired in poverty the group agree to rob a cash delivery truck. But after a successful heist all are undone by their own innate decency and law-abiding instincts.

Two-thirds of Wolf works really well. The first act, a tour through the rat trap of insurance selling as big corporation Toyo Life ropes in its latest suckers, bribes them with promises of promotion and a free meal (the significance of which – given this is set just after the war with even one meal a day hard to come by for many people – shouldn’t be underestimated) and then exhorts them to aggressively target struggling people just like themselves, so puts our hapless protagonists on the spot you can’t wait to see what comes next. Sure enough the group’s attempts at selling prove disastrous. On the first day the group elder Yoshikawa gets roughed up a younger competitor, Yano is so crippled by politeness and natural reserve she can barely make an introduction and when she does get one through a friend a mandatory medical checkup reveals the enthusiastic client ineligible for cover and none of the others fare any better. It’s a strong intro but the weakness of Wolf becomes apparent in the second act when Shindo takes us into the personal circumstances of these characters. Yano turns out to be a war widow living in destitution with a child whose harelip demands an operation the mother can’t afford. Tomie, the other female in the group, lives in a crowded slum with a teenage daughter and young son and has so little money her kids have to study by candlelight. Yoshikawa is saddled with relatives forced to pawn their clothes to buy food, Harashima’s wife wants a divorce and a costly payoff and the same crippling poverty blights Mikawa’s family. Whilst we pity the characters (and the excellent cast hit every note they’re required to) none of these situations amount to much more than perfunctory scene setting and because each reacts to every predicament in the same way; concerned but noble, tearful yet sincere, there’s a lack of dramatic conflict.

Even when the five hold up a cash truck they remain unfailingly polite to the victims. There’s an unintentionally hilarious moment here when Harashima frees the drivers of the cash truck in a remote spot, apologises profusely for the inconvenience, thrusts some cash at them and even points out where the nearest cafe serving a nice iced tea can be found! Easy to laugh at this and yet to Wolf’s credit, the nature of Japanese society, the premium placed on conformity and obedience to rules that makes even the smallest of transgressions deeply felt, does come across. But even so there’s no getting away from the unfortunate fact that the characters are rather one note and the influence of Russian montage on Shindo’s work at this point, both stylistically and thematically, means there’s an unavoidable whiff of didacticism in his portrait of the downtrodden poor exploited by the manipulative rich. On the other hand, once we get to the final third covering the aftermath of the robbery the film takes flight again with a superbly rendered portrait of model citizens struggling with their newfound wealth and slowly crumbling under the guilt of their own actions with genuinely shocking results. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film in which the celebrations of its robbers has been so disturbingly contrasted with a mood I can only describe as having the feeling of a noose being inexorably drawn around the collective neck of its characters. Shindo and cinematographer Takeo Ito achieve a fearsome sense of foreboding here even in something as sunlit as the boat ride Tomie treats her children too. Wolf is like all of Shindo’s pre-1960’s work; well-intentioned, earnest drama that’s consistently good yet not great. Although you can clearly see in these early films echoes of what was to come once his masterpiece period began with The Naked Island (1960), through 1962’s Human (in which Wolf’s theme of ordinary people who commit dreadful acts only to find themselves done in, not by the law but by their own conscience, resurfaces here in this brilliant lost at sea drama), Onibaba (1964), A Scoundrel (1965) and Kuroneko (1968).

Ditch (Kaneto Shindo, Japan, 1954)

A starved, traumatised woman named Tsuru (Nobuko Otowa) wanders into a squatter camp and is almost immediately taken advantage of by two unemployed layabouts, Toku (Taiji Tonoyama) and Pin (Jukichi Uno), to fund their gambling. As Pin pretends to be a student to worm his way into Tsuru’s affections he convinces the woman to whore herself out to pay for his ‘studies’ until one day she looks into Pin’s face and suddenly, horribly, the truth dawns on her.

Ditch is a tough but fair-minded film, its theme summed up by a character who remarks ‘The tough eat the weak and that’s just the way it is.’ It neither condones nor condemns the behaviour of Toku and Pin and in fact finds plenty of moments with which to contradict our initial impressions. I particularly liked the pang of conscience that afflicts Toku as he waits for Tsuru to return from a day’s whoring. Such moments are all the more powerful for being underplayed. As is the pivotal scene when Tsuru looks into the face of the man who says he loves her, a sequence all the more disturbing because Shindo never actually shows us Pin’s face, only Tsuro’s reaction to it. Even so, Ditch has a couple of problems – a somewhat scattershot focus on various subplots and inhabitants of the squatter camp when the figure of attention should probably be Tsuru herself and a gurning, village idiot performance from Otowa who resembles a refugee from a Two Ronnies sketch. And yet … and yet, despite this apparent handicap Otowa finds something authentic and moving in her character. So much so that by the time events come to their tragic conclusion you’re as furious and sickened at the bastards who’ve exploited her and entirely in agreement with the actions of a little boy who runs up to Pin, at this point on the ground hypocritically wailing and begging for forgiveness, who kicks him hard in the face. Performances aside, the emotional impact of the film also owes much to the montage techniques of early Russian cinema not least a harrowing and brilliantly edited sequence in which the faces of all the men who’ve made her life a misery pass before a deranged Tsuruko as she waves around a gun she’s seized from a policeman. As a portrait of squalid, desperate, hardscrabble humanity Ditch is as unrelenting as anything Shindo directed and yet like most of his work that merciless gaze is balanced by a compassion for its subjects and a recognition that the worst qualities of human beings often sit side by side with the best.

An Inn At Osaka (Heinosuke Gosho, Japan, 1954)

Mr. Mita (Shuji Sano) a Tokyo insurance clerk demoted after punching a superior at work finds new lodgings at the titular inn. Confronted by a hard-hearted landlady, her lazy brother Ossan, overworked servant girls Oyone, Orika and Otsugi, a lecherous tenant and fellow employee named Mr. Noro, poverty stricken seamstress Omitsu (Sachiko Hidari), plus visits from friend and work superior Tawana and geisha Miss Uwabami (Nobuko Otawa), Mr. Mita finds himself inexorably caught up in the hardscrabble lives of those around him.

A masterpiece of Japanese humanist cinema with deeply involving characters struggling in a world where money rules. It’s well acted, both funny and surprising (Miss Uwabami, the geisha who arrives to visit Mr. Mita one evening and immediately sets the servants gossiping turns out to be anything but the whore everyone expects) and consistently impressive in the way it pulls you into the unfolding drama without ever seeming to raise its voice. All the characters here are beset with terrible financial hardships but Mr. Mita’s innate sense of decency means he can’t turn his back on any of them. Shuji Sano’s superbly subtle performance – not least the flashes of exasperation and irritation he displays at the constant interruptions on his time – means his character never becomes some sort of unbelievable do-gooder. Mr. Mita puts on a cheerful front but underneath he has his own heartache in the guilt he feels at causing his mother to worry about him and the obligation he’s inadvertently imposed on best friend Tawana to keep an eye on him at his mother’s behest. At first Mr. Mita seems more observer than participant in the mini-dramas unfolding around him (there’s a lovely moment in which Otawa’s geisha refers to him as a star in the sky looking down on everyone) until his conscience is prodded by Orika, a maid so desperate for money to support her out of work boyfriend she tries to steal money from his room. I found the film vaguely reminiscent of Sturges Sullivan’s Travels (1941)). It has something of that same idea – that of a man from a better class of society insulated by education and money who drops down amongst the hoi polloi and discovers by mixing with them what life is really about.

There’s also what may be a subtle dig here at the causes of this new world when Mr. Mita discovers the expensive blanket he purchased which supposedly comes from England is a fake. The blanket comes wrapped inside a movie poster for the Hollywood film City That Never Sleeps (1953). Was this Gosho’s way of implying that the root cause of all his character’s torments was baleful foreign influences corrupting traditional Japanese values? Could be. Then again he might just have been paying tribute to a country whose movies he admired! The performances are splendid across the board and I especially liked Nobuko Otawa as the geisha whose unrequited love for Mr. Mita is so touchingly underplayed and Sachiko Hidari as the poverty-stricken seamstress, Omitsu. What’s great is that although both suffer (the latter especially so) both find it within themselves to keep going and not give up. Gosho’s film has a marvellous way with your emotions. It can plunge you into despair at a character’s plight one moment (Otsugi’s futile pleas with the landlady to be allowed time off to visit her child) before sending your spirits soaring the next (the spectacle of the pretty girl who keeps beating Mita to the postbox and whom he admires from afar). The film’s affection for its characters extends even to the penny-pinching landlady who makes her servants lives such hell but whose plaintive “Dear..” – uttered in a moment of quiet despair to the photo of her deceased husband when it looks as though she’s going to lose her inn – makes touchingly clear that even she’s not quite the selfish monster she appears to be.

The technical aspects are also superb. Joji Ohara’s cinematography is an absolute knockout with splendidly moody, low-key lighting effects for the inn interiors and Omitsu’s home rubbing shoulders with the poetic realism of a sunlit canal in the early morning mist. In fact the lighting effects are so good they seem very much a character in their own right. A scene in which Mr. Mita calls at Omitsu’s home only to discover her father dead and the girl sitting disconsolately on the stairs relies almost entirely on Ohara’s lighting effects to sell the impact and it’s a stunner. The other major contribution is Yasushi Atagakawa’s score – a wistful, insistent melody built around what sounds like the beat of a human heart – that’s very sparingly used but enhances every scene it’s in. It’s a kind of musical analogue to this portrait of people who struggle on despite the direst of circumstances. The film culminates in a celebratory farewell party for Mr. Mita attended by those whose lives he’s touched in which the film’s theme – that we must try to smile in life even though we may be crying inside – is delivered in beautifully bittersweet form. Moreover, it feels honest and truthful, not at all saccharine or sentimental. “Money’s everything. What happened to humanity?” wonders Mr. Mita in one of his darkest moments and the genius of the film is to find the answer in acts of kindness motivated not by greed or ambition but by empathy for the suffering of others. As I said at the top, this is clearly a masterpiece and as good as anything from Japanese cinema in that decade. Those familiar with the period will know just how high praise that is but An Inn At Osaka deserves every bit of it.