Jinsei no onimotsu / Burden of Life (1935)

23 02 2013

It’s somewhat fitting that I saw this so recently after Shimazu’s A Brother and His Younger Sister as this effort from Gosho also represents the shomin-geki genre beginning to work itself up the social ladder. The family here might a little below the one in Shimazu’s film, but they are certainly middle class. It seems that towards the end of the thirties, the genre began to concern itself more with being character-driven home dramas. This is essentially what they always were, but there’s a level of privilege found in the families of these two films that isn’t the norm. It’s not overwhelming, if anything, it’s fairly subtle, but it’s worth noting.


Shozo and his wife Tamako exhaust themselves trying to pay for their daughters’ marriages and in the process, they seem to forget their much younger son, Kanichi. While his sisters are all young adults, one of whom is already a mother, Kanichi is still a young boy. The age difference seems to suggest his conception was something of a mistake. This sentiment is followed by Shozo himself who confesses such an opinion of his son night after night to his wife. After the elder couple marries off their final daughter, they are jubilant until Shozo realizes he still has to worry about his far younger son. He suggests that they don’t pay for schooling and send him out into the working world, which motivates Tamako to leave and take Kanichi with her.


Despite the 65 minute running time, Gosho seems to have a little fun with the structure of his film. One might think he needs to quickly devote his energy to the “main” story (the one I’ve described above) but he takes his time. Instead, he begins with a focus on Itsuko and her (comically) deceitful husband. This is something of a secondary narrative, but the storytelling strands in the film never feel like simplistic linear narratives. I mean, the film unfolds in a linear fashion but there isn’t the sensation, like there is in most films (even great ones), that the director is deliberately concerned with the pace of his storytelling. Nothing is rushed here by Gosho, and as cliche as it sounds, it really enhances the film’s realistic qualities.


There are also some pretty fantastic performances here. Tatsuo Saito plays Shozo perfectly: when he reveals just how much he doesn’t care for his son, we are stunned. As a peripheral character in the film even points out, it’s easy to see his side of things. The words he has for his son (which he never says to Kanichi’s face, thankfully) are so disheartening one would think that if Kanichi heard it, it would be the foundation for several years of therapy. Masao Hayama is likewise impressive as Kanichi, playing his hidden fears for his father’s presence off as something not so tragic. There’s a particularly heartbreaking scene where Kanichi plays with his friends. As supper time arrives, children begin to leave as their appetite gets the best of them. Kanichi encourages the few remaining to continue playing with him as although he is most likely as hungry as they are, he is willing to do anything to stay away from his father.


It’s important to note that never in the film is Shozo presented as being abusive to any of his kids or his wife, but this of course does not make his behavior remotely acceptable. In something of a hokey turn, he eventually realizes the error of his ways when, free from the restrictions of his wife, he explores the nightlife with some coworkers. The hokey turn comes when he spots a flower boy who reminds him of his son. There’s another crucial moment in this stretch where he talks to a barmaid. She calls him father, which of course triggers his fatherly duties. He asks her about this and the discussion leads to the barmaid’s age. She tells him she’s nineteen and we see something remarkable in Shozo’s face. The barmaid is presumed to be younger than any of his daughter and he realizes the preposterous nature of his actions. He leaves immediately afterwards.


The film doesn’t really have time for much more to happen outside of what I’ve described and a few episodes that do enhance the characters. This seems like a reduction of Gosho’s accomplishment, but it’s not. Even within such a tight frame, he squeezes fascinating characters from material that might have given us forgettable side characters in the hands of a lesser director. Itsuko is of particular interest, if only because she’s played by the legendary Kinuyo Tanaka. Although she collaborated with Gosho before in Madamu to nyobu (1931 – considered Japan’s first talkie), this is the earliest I’ve seen her. Perhaps it helps to be a fan of hers to begin with, but her performances here is nice and subtle. She has a wonderful moment where she asks her mother for money, and she plays off her mother’s concern with wits. Meanwhile, she sees through her husband’s white lie that would have given him an excuse to hang out with a pal. There’s an interesting bit of class politics there as well, as her husband refers to the family’s problems as “typically bourgeoisie” but nothing more is made out of this. Given the character’s comic personality, I think we’re supposed to scoff at his assessment rather than agree with it.




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