Hikô shôjo / Delinquent Girl (1963)

31 08 2017

In 1962, Kirio Urayama released the brilliant Foundry Town, a late shomin-geki that effortlessly weaves labor and Korean-Japanese relations into the rich tapestry of a studied family drama. Released by Nikkatsu, a production company associated with slick and energetic crime dramas, Urayama’s film is a rare breed. It lacks the fervor and chaos one may read into anything adjacent to the Japanese New Wave. At the same time, it would be unwise to pin him down as old-fashioned, even if that would bring him into contact with Naruse and Ozu, two of the greatest filmmakers ever. Delinquent Girl, made only a year later, brings him closer into contact with something that resembles the New Wave’s concerns. A film about unruly youth and their agitated politics, its surface is not far from something like Cruel Story of Youth. Yet it switches up a melodrama with exploitative potential into a sympathetic, albeit broadly drawn, study.

Saburo returns from city life in Tokyo to his rural hometown. There, he is reminded of the resistance he faced during a period of youthful organization. His parents and siblings are equally confused by his inability to find steady work. In particular, his conservative brother, sees this idleness as inseparable from a leftist politics and an urban life. Saburo befriends Wakae, a young girl whose academic struggles are greatly overshadowed by the way the townspeople use her.

Wakae’s potential is seen by Saburo alone, who undergoes an attempt to Pygmalion her into an intellect like himself. He tries to finance her scholarly life, but she uses the money to attend to her more immediate needs. His reservations about her are buoyed by the endless gossip around town. Her reputation is constantly under attack, and despite Saburo’s own history of facing the town’s ire, he cannot completely believe Wakae.

Urayama sets up a melodramatic love story, a would-be apprenticeship between the titular “bad girl” and the optimistic scholar returning from the big city. Everything is drawn broadly here. The ridicule that Wakae faces seems stretched out for a fifteen year old girl. Yet, the film establishes that she’s already spent most of her life with her youth undervalued or unseen by those surrounding her. The implication of past sex work sets up a bulletproof explanation for a population of lecherous drunks that Wakae ignores in favor of the “new life” that Saburo’s interest promises. If the film unfolded in such a way, I would roll my eyes and dismiss it. But it switches from a set-up where Saburo is a master then lover to one where he is woefully unprepared to provide for Wakae. He might love her, but love is not enough for the forces bearing down on the couple. Their repeated misses with each other might read to some as graceless narrative developments, but they flesh out a romance that is initially lacking in explanation.

The film’s crucial shift, that from Saburo’s perspective to Wakae, suggests that the opening thirty minutes are a red herring. This is not a triumph of romance, but a continuation of Wakae’s hardships. Life of Oharu might be a helpful reference point here, but Uriyama does not linger in the tragedy of his heroine’s continuing disappointments. Unlike Oharu, Wakae moves on, steadily and with the hope provided by her youth. Saburo, who we once thought was our hero, becomes another detail in her life of hardship. To be skeptical of their romance is not to be skeptical of Uriyama himself, who wants us to question the impulse to buy into a relationship that seems to be tainted from the start. In cinema, it is not always right to fall in love.





Kyûpora no aru machi / Foundry Town (1962)

3 07 2015

The history of film is so large and intractable that we, as scholars, often have to take short cuts to fit history into a narrative that we can understand. One of these short cuts is the idea of the “house style” which was birthed out of 1930s Hollywood. It is largely specific to this moment in America, but many have transposed its idea (that film studios became linked with a certain genre or style) into other moments. Nikkatsu in 1960s Japan, for example, is synonymous with edgy, crime-driven thrillers that are indicative of the country’s cinematic shift into the rougher, more energetic and more violent Japanese New Wave. Kiriro Urayama’s Foundry Town has this kind of energy and it is concerned with generational conflict (plus, Shohei Imamura is responsible for the script), yet it seems more mature than the works that became iconic for Nikkatsu around the same time. If this all sounds a little vague, that’s because it is, and maybe we shouldn’t simplify a narrative about a studio or an era.

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Jun is a model student at the precipice of higher education. Her devotion to studying occurs in the middle of a great drama affecting her home life. Her father, Tatsugoro, is constantly in and out of work with the myriad foundries that punctuate the landscape of Kawaguchi. To make matters worse, another child has been introduced into the family. Through her friend Yoshie, she gets a job working at a pachinko parlor. Yoshie, a Korean-American is stressed about her family’s move to North Korea, especially because her mother, who isn’t Korean, shows no intention of moving with the rest of her family.

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Foundry Town is, much like the recently reviewed Summer Clouds, a film about labor. The film opens with the scenes of foundry life, followed by a group of workers confronting their boss about poor work conditions. Tatsugoro is the oldest in this group of workers and he’s the one most resistant to the idea of worker solidarity. When a younger worker calls out their boss for spending company funds on a mistress, Tatsugoro defends his boss and says that a man with such power would be an embarrassment if he didn’t have a mistress. Tatsugoro’s labor frames the context for the entire film. The family is in Kawaguchi precisely because this is labor he is qualified to do, and when he does lose his job(s), it is Jun who has to make sacrifices for the family.

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While we spend most of our time with the struggles of Jun’s family, it reveals itself in the end to be about her friendship with Yoshie. Their families act as parallels, Jun needs to get away from her mother and father (and their dependence on her prohibits her from leaving) while Yoshie needs to stay together with her mother, despite her protests. Yoshie’s status as Korean-Japanese is crucial to the film, even as it is never articulated to a modern, Western audience what dynamic is revealed in her identity. We see her younger brother publicly bullied by his peers. Characters repeatedly display a confusion for which Korea Yoshie “belongs to” if they even bother to consider the relationship at all.  Of course, it is in this very moment that Foundry Town makes a (successful) turn to the melodramatic. Yoshie’s brother releases a pigeon while leaving, but it causes him to cry. He can’t leave Japan, even if it hasn’t exactly welcomed him.

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The goodbyes shared between Jun and Yoshie are played in a similar melodramatic vein, but this emotional tension is brilliant in a situation that has a highly charged political context. It is seldom that the power of friendship, especially a friendship between two young girls is granted such sincerity. The economic situation of both families has forced the girls to grow up fast. Thus, its fitting that their relationship is given the attention usually afforded for adult men and no one else. The melodramatic flashes throughout the film underscore the reality of growing up, where all decisions feel crucial. Of course, they really are for Jun and Yoshie, yet the film makes an important point to sympathize with the way adults attempt to minimize their problems.

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In the end, we get something of a happy ending. Tatsugoro gets another job, with the help of the union he had resisted because of socialist anxiety. Jun, meanwhile, has already started a job and intends to pay for her schooling entirely on her own. Tatsugoro is flabbergasted by this revelation and it is very likely that we are too. It seems a bit too noble that Jun would make this big of a personal sacrifice, but she’s been making sacrifices for her mother and father (who greatly undervalue her) for a long time. Their is a political importance to her life choice, she wants to provide for herself because she doesn’t want to be drawn back into an abusive home life. Poignantly, Yoshie is never given such a redemptive moment. She still has her friendship, though, and that is important.

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