Film

Geisha, Gangsters, and More: Tokyo’s Underbelly Onscreen

For the next three weeks Film Forum presents SHITAMACHI: Tales of Downtown Tokyo, an expansive series dedicated to the city’s grittier east side, where filmmakers have long turned their lens.

From Drunken Angel (1948), dir. Akira Kurosawa (courtesy of Janus Films)

In Japanese, “Shitamachi” literally means “lower city,” and refers to the geographically lower-lying, east side of Tokyo, the part of town including areas like Asakusa, Ginza, and others. Historically, it has been the home to “lower-classes” (as opposed to the affluent, upper-class areas of Yamanote) as well home to “low” or “common culture.” For decades Japanese filmmakers have turned their lens to the streets of “Shitamachi,” mapping out a highly nuanced vision of this area’s cultural sphere. Godzilla, geisha, gangsters, working class quandaries and real-world financial predicaments populate Shitamachi-centered movies, elevating genre and “common” culture by way of some of the most original portraits of place and person. Yasujirô Ozu’s 1953 masterpiece Tokyo Story (often cited as one of the greatest films of all time) has its home there as does Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 Ikiru

During the next three weeks Film Forum presents SHITAMACHI: Tales of Downtown Tokyo, a series of 38 Japanese films from 1929 to 2004, including rare imports, many 35 mm prints, and some with subtitles created especially for this series. In 2019, amidst rising tides of populist politics and the ever-increasing disparity between the global 1% and literal “low-lying” communities facing very real climatological erasure, one can’t underscore enough the importance of these films. None should be missed. Here are four that epitomize Shitamachi’s richness: 

From Shitamachi (1957), dir. Yasuki Chiba (courtesy of Toho Co., Ltd.)

Shitamachi (1957), dir. Yasuki Chiba

At the heart of this series sits this deceptively simple rarity. Chiba’s 1957 film Shitamachi delicately captures the singular post-World War II efforts of working-class individuals to survive in an economically sparse, ramshackle milieu still reconciling itself with the memory of its deceased, disappeared, and distant. Everyone in Shitamachi is just trying to make things work. Mrs. Riyo (Izuzu Yamada) wanders the streets selling tea from door to door while trying to care for her son as her husband is incarcerated in Siberia. Her struggle is accentuated by the piecemeal architecture of Shitamachi in addition to the fact that her and her son’s small living quarters are in the same building as a pop-up brothel. The film follows an endearing but tragedy-ridden relationship that blossoms between Mrs. Riyo and the down-and-out (albeit perpetually alluring)  Yoshio (Toshirô Maifune); a simple, almost formulaic love story that acts as a much larger cultural critique. Shitamachi’s central question concerns how we move on without forgetting. How does a nation heal and rebuild its interior self only four years after the end of World War II without forgetting the atrocities of military conflict? A 35mm print of the series’ namesake screens on October 26th at 2:50pm.

From Drunken Angel (1948), dir. Akira Kurosawa (courtesy of Janus Films)

Drunken Angel(1948), dir. Akira Kurosawa 

A practically pond-sized stagnating puddle of typhoid-ridden water appears frequently throughout this early Kurosawa noir, where the streets appear even more bleak. Bits of trash, broken bicycles and other detritus pock this oft bubbling body of filthy water that identifies the run-down Shitamachi neighborhood. It also marks the point of intersection between the film’s titular inspiration — a frequently intoxicated doctor (Takashi Shimura) who assists the poor and transgressive — and the increasingly ill local Yakuza boss Matsunaga (again played by Toshirô Maifune). Illness is the signature theme of Drunken Angel — real physical ailment, yes, but also societal ailment. While the Shitamachi we see in this film sometimes gives the impression of a bustling downtown with a thriving economy, far worse conditions boil beneath Yakuza swagger and tattoos — children with distended bellies, a widespread bout of TB, and individuals living in wretched conditions. Throughout Drunken Angel, a street guitarist plucks away at his instrument beneath a broken archway at night, creating a refrain for this socially-conscious noir (his song is reminiscent of a leisurely, brooding Piazzola tune). Things take an even darker turn when an old Yakuza boss is let out of jail, complicating matters for the terminally-ill Matsunaga. This Kurosawa classic screens on 35mm today at 12:30pm and 4:50pm. 

From Ginza Cosmetics (1951) dir. Mikio Naruse (courtesy of Janus Films)

Ginza Cosmetics (1951) dir. Mikio Naruse

While not as widely known as the films of Kurosawa or Ozu, Mikio Naruse’s fashion a world all their own. Most men in his Ginza Cosmetics are consistently broke, begging to borrow money, kicking women out of their homes, singing poorly, in constant need of entertainment, and just generally unreliable. This leaves room for Naruse’s plain neorealism to focus on unassuming, but stalwart female protagonists. His simple scenes feature working-class women collaborating to solve their plight and support each other through economic hardship and the unreliability of their male counterparts. The film possesses a refreshingly feminist flair, especially considering the 1950s, post-war culture from which it emerged. The film’s languorous pace expresses a generosity that allows its female characters to not only grow, but it also highlights the range of personalities within this ensemble, making Naruse’s female-centered film something surprisingly radical. All but one of the men (who complicates the predominantly female world) are consummately crabby, flirtatious, and needy. While the women’s circumstances might force them to succumb to certain pre-existing roles, they grow beyond these in a film that honors them and could arguably be an early example of something that performs a female gaze. Ginza Cosmetics will screen on 35mm at 3:15pm and 8:00pm on October 21. 

From Street of Shame (1954), dir. Kenji Mizoguchi (courtesy of Janus Films)

Street of Shame (1954), dir. Kenji Mizoguchi

Mizoguchi’s Streets of Shame has its own unique take on the circumstances and struggles of working-class women. Scored by Toshiro Mayuzumi, the director’s final film opens with an impressively avant-garde soundtrack fusing theremin and electronics with voice and traditional Japanese musical elements. The same sonic landscape flanks some of the film’s most tormented scenes as Mizoguchi tracks several days in the life of a group of women working at a brothel during a time when the government was considering a ban on prostitution. While more popular tunes play in shops and bars, Mayuzumi’s surprising arrangements seem perfectly fitting for the predicament in which the women find themselves: caught between a profession hundreds of years old — one which revered such high-ranking “courtesans” — and emergent notions of “human rights violations,” perhaps fueled by a changing economy. “We’re social workers. We’re compensating you for work the government overlooks,” says the male owner of the brothel arguing in opposition to the ban. However, when one of the women returns from a harrowing evening with her child and sick husband, the madam says “Can you not look so worn out? You’re merchandise.” The film’s ingenious script offers  a complex view of matters without ever seeming heavy-handed. Street of Shame screens Friday Nov 1 at 12:30pm, 4:00pm. and 7:40pm.

SHITAMACHI: Tales of Downtown Tokyo kicks off at Film Forum (259 West Houston Street, West Village, New York) today and continues through November 7. The series is programmed by Aiko Masubuchi and is co-presented by The Japan Foundation.

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