“You’re Poor, Too”: Ozu After the War

03/06/2013 4:00 AM |

A Hen in the Wind (1948)
Directed by Yasujiro Ozu
March 9 at 92YTribeca

Yasujiro Ozu’s films changed as his society did. His films, frequently dealing with the problems of poor and working-class people, often responded to specific Japanese social conditions. The rapid editing of the melodrama That Night’s Wife (1930) helps the viewer sympathize with a man who’s stolen medicine for his sick daughter and must escape police at a time when Japan was in an economic crisis. In his wonderful early comedies, such as I Was Born, But… (1932), the camera roams as freely and as openly as the mischievous pair of young brothers it follows, reflecting playful optimism for a country returning to prosperous times. The Only Son (1936) looks with conflicted eyes upon Japan’s increasing industrialization, however, as its gaze literally floats between that of an old woman who’s sentenced herself to a lifetime of factory labor for her son’s sake and that of the grown man himself, a poor doctor ashamed to show her that he hasn’t done better.

Ozu stopped making films between 1937 and 1939 in order to serve in the Second Sino-Japanese War, and then again between 1943 and 1946 as the result of a military deployment to Singapore. A Hen in the Wind was the second film (following 1947’s Record of a Tenement Gentleman) that he made after returning to a country devastated by WWII. Hen takes place in a US-occupied Tokyo filled with high metal towers and low ramshackle homes. The poor young woman Tokiko (Kinuyo Tanaka) raises her four-year-old son alone while waiting for her husband Shuichi to return from the war. She’s helped by friends and neighbors to the extent that their rationed food can be shared. When her son suddenly grows sick, she must prostitute herself in order to pay for his doctor. A friend angrily asks Tokiko afterwards why she didn’t try to borrow money from her, to which Tokiko responds, “Because you’re poor, too.”

Shuichi (Shûji Sano) eventually comes home, and the husband and wife’s initial uncontainable pleasure at seeing each other is soon confronted with two moral choices. First, she must choose whether to tell him what she has done in order to save their child’s life; then, if she does, he must choose whether to forgive her for doing something that will bring them disgrace. As with both earlier and later Ozu films, the film balances different characters’ perspectives, earning sympathy for each—Tokiko, like many women, is doomed to suffer, while Shuichi’s mind struggles against rigid guidelines of how a man should behave.

Hen contains solitary people, whether isolated in close-up or walking alone, who want to break their solitude to help each other, but believe that they can only go so far. Throughout, it is suggested that Japanese society has repressed people so thoroughly that they have grown expert at punishing themselves. This sense remains in Ozu’s subsequent films, such as the celebrated Late Spring (1949) and Tokyo Story (1953), both domestic tragedies of aging parents sacrificing themselves for their children, and both made while Japan was still recovering from the war and on its way to the multi-sector boom that has since become known as “the Japanese post-war economic miracle.

Even the great prosperity reflected in a late film like Equinox Flower (1958)—screening on a double-bill with A Hen in the Wind, and the first of four color films Ozu made before dying on his 60th birthday—is complicated by an awareness of future, perhaps necessary, loss. The film orchestrates bright color, smooth movement, and light music in what seems to be cheerful unison as a family goes out to a park together for one of the last times. The patriarch Wataru (Shin Saburi) is a successful Tokyo businessman whose advice for a young married couple to find happiness contradicts his own goal of an arranged marriage for his adult daughter, Setsuko (Ineko Arima), who has already chosen her future husband. One day the man, Taniguchi (Keiji Sada), a junior executive soon to be transferred to Hiroshima, enters Hirayama’s office and asks for Setsuko’s hand. The old man must decide whether to maintain tradition or grant his daughter her wish, and Setsuko’s response to his initial resistance is simple: “Why can’t I find happiness on my own?”

Unlike in earlier Ozu films, the characters in Equinox Flower are not poor or working-class but upper middle-class, frequently placed among trees and flowers, suggesting how they are firmly established within a newly blooming culture. The presence of the responsible, ambitious Taniguchi, who will soon move his talents from Tokyo to another rebuilding city, suggests that in the future it can continue to bloom. The war is long gone, to be remembered only with fond sadness as a time when survival dictated that the family unit stay intact. “In the dark, we used to think we might all die together,” says Setsuko’s mother Kiyoko (Kinuyo Tanaka), who longs for everyone to remain together while still supporting her daughter’s desire to leave. Things are different now, after all, and the old ways shouldn’t stay. Unlike A Hen in the Wind, the mood surrounding Equinox’s central conflicts is gently melancholic rather than desperate. A man must still decide how great an obstacle he will be to his family’s future peace and happiness, but in this film one senses that things will work out for the best.

Thanks to Chuck Stephens for research help.