The aftermath of the Second World War left clear traces in the Japanese film world, namely in the form of censorship. The main task of film censorship was to keep out all depiction of “feudal” practices. This meant that no costume films could be made and references to the samurai and their weaponry were completely out of the question. As a result, a forgotten genre was revived, the shomingeki, dramas about the common man and woman. Yasujiro Ozu (“Late Autumn”) is the grand master practitioner of this genre. These films mainly focused on women. Since the war had claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Japanese men, it forced women to bear the brunt of the post-war chaos.
With “Tragedy of Japan”, director Teisuke Kinoshita (“Twenty-Four Eyes”) provides an intriguing picture of post-war Japan. This is a very uncertain period in Japanese history for many families where fathers or sons have died in battle and there is hardly any money to get food on the table. The opening images therefore show fragments of chaos. Riots, bribery scandals, suicide and political intrigue set the tone. Central to “Tragedy of Japan” is the family relationship between a mother and her two children. Partly due to the increasing influence of the Western world, these mutual ties change and gaps arise within the own family.
It is almost painful to watch Haruko (Yûko Mochizuki) sacrifice her own life for the welfare of her children, but they cannot appreciate it. Her son Seiichi (Masami Tauri) wants nothing more than to be adopted by a wealthy family in order to realize his dream of having his own hospital. Her daughter Utako (Yôko Katsuragi) has lost her faith in the male gender due to bad childhood experiences and in fact even the belief in the future. This manifests itself in an affair with her English teacher, resulting in a scandal. The end cannot but be relentless. No matter how hard one tries to escape the disaster, this is not always possible. Kinoshita opts for an interesting structure of his film, through many and short flashbacks we see how Haruko had to do her utmost time and again to keep her children alive. Not only was rice bought and sold on the black market, everything went through the black market at that time, but she also prostituted herself in a kind of restaurant. These so-called “hostess” jobs were a way for many women to survive and support their children in the years after the war. This type of service, which is a cross between catering and prostitution, is known in Japan as mizu-shohai, or “waterworks”.
The images are often beautiful, how wonderful it is to see the old Japanese masters at work. Musicians in dark alleys, dancing geisha, grieving women and the landscape of Japan. Kinoshita immediately grabs you, despite the slow pace, the story continues to intrigue throughout the entire playing time, partly due to the flashbacks and intermezzos. It is striking that a political statement has not been made, because the ordinary citizen is a victim of powers over which he has no control. In many scenes you do taste the bitterness that resonates about the living conditions, perhaps that survival also did not require too much attention to be paid to politics.
The drama of the common woman is painfully portrayed in “Tragedy of Japan” and it will therefore be difficult not to feel a little depressed after seeing the film.