Some Deaths Are of the Spirit
The ending of this movie, I must confess, is a bit "I do believe in fairies!" My understanding is that neither American nor Japanese audiences were terribly fond of it, but the French responded better. I'm not generally a huge fan of breaking the fourth wall in movies unless it's broken all along--Rob's monologue with the camera throughout [i]High Fidelity[/i], for example, or the narration in films noir. However, to have the characters turn to the camera in a single scene and demand that we respond to them in some way takes me out of the story. It kind of makes me feel creepy, to be honest. I'm well aware that the basic premise of fiction is a kind of voyeurism; we are watching people's lives, often in places where they wouldn't want us to. I get that. However, I can pretend that isn't true if they ignore us, and if they don't, they're inviting us in. But to have them notice us in a single scene while ignoring us before? Awkward.
It is post-war Tokyo. Yuzo (Isao Numasaki) is a veteran; the years since the war ended have not been kind to him. Even before the war, his girlfriend was Masako (Chieko Nakakita). They now meet on Sundays, the only day they can, and spend the day together. On this particular Sunday, all they have to spend is thirty-five yen. I don't know what the conversion rate was, but I do know that it wasn't a lot of money. Over the last two years, however, they have learned pretty much everything that can be done in Tokyo for not much money. Masako is still cheerful and full of hope and dreams. She reminds Yuzo of their plan to build the Hyacinth Cafe, a restaurant with good coffee and pastries for reasonable prices. He tells Masako not to dream, that there is no place in their world for dreams. They play ball with some boys, go to the zoo, and hope to see a concert of the music that they heard on their first date. They also quarrel and make up.
This wasn't Kurosawa's first film; he actually got his start during the war. However, this is early work of his, well before the great costume epics for which he is generally known in the US. I honestly kind of prefer the modern films, the films where he is exploring what it means to live in Tokyo in the years and eventually decades after the war. There are signs of the American occupation, but not many, and there are no American characters in the movie. They aren't important here. What matters is what the war has done to this young couple. Oh, I'm sure part of the issue is that I don't really know Japanese history, and this is an era where I get all the historical references. However, these are people trying to find their place in a changed world, and that's interesting no matter what world it is. When Yuzo and Masako first met and shared their dreams, they did so in a world where Japan was a conqueror, not conquered. Everything has changed, and Kurosawa knows that as well as his characters.
It's also worth noting that Tokyo, in this movie, is still in the process of rebuilding. When Yuzo and Masako are sharing a daydream about their cafe, they do so among ruins. There is a zoo again, and concerts, and streetcars, but there is also rubble. The most successful people we see are either black marketeers or Westernized in some way. Yuzo and Masako are trying to get by in a more traditional way, and it isn't working out for them. It is almost as though people like them are the ruined bits of the city, the bits which haven't come back yet. Tokyo is still rebuilding, and until it does, there is no place for people of honour and dignity. There is still much to be rebuilt, and it is only when everything achieves a new normal that people like Yuzo and Masako will thrive over ticket scalpers and gangsters. Now, yes, that will eventually mean Westernizing in ways that haven't always been very good for Japanese culture. But it's better than living sixteen to a house.
At the same time in the United States, veterans were going to college and starting businesses. This is the advantage of winning, or one of them--you can provide for your veterans. Pride in service is all very well, but the US was giving $20 a week for a year to its veterans, and the Japanese simply couldn't do that. By the sound of it, the Hyacinth Cafe wasn't a bad idea; certainly I quite like Masako's colour sense. However, I'm not even sure that the Japanese military received all its pay from the time of the war. I rather suspect inflation had caught up with them, too, and what pay they got wasn't worth much. I've been reading quite a lot lately about the US home front during World War II, and much of it discusses war marriages and so forth, and what people did afterward. The people in the US ended the war with great hope, in part because they'd won and in part because the country was hardly damaged at all. There was a place for our Yuzos and Masakos, and we were the luckier for it.