Shibuya Minoru at the Berlinale

A Good Man, A Good Day

For me, film festivals are all about new films, so I normally shun retrospectives honouring classic films or deceased directors. The Berlinale’s presentation of eight Shibuya Minoru films was a special case: while all of the films were from the 1950s and 60s, they will have been a new discovery for most audience members, since Shibuya’s work has never been available on DVD outside Japan. A retrospective of Shibuya Minoru was screened at last November’s Tokyo FILMeX and picked up by Ulrich Gregor for the Berlinale’s Forum section. At the Berlinale, it seemed that audiences shared my prejudice against old films: the three Shibuya screenings I went to attracted a respectable showing, but the cinema was far from packed. It was a testament to the quality of Shibuya’s work that the screening ended with applause, even though the director had passed away some 30 years ago.

Shibuya’s 1960s films share some features with the work of Ozu Yasujiro, a more familiar name from this period. The characteristically low camera height would have felt normal to domestic audiences who sit, eat and sleep close to the floor; for Western viewers, this lower-level perspective on the action is unusual. Similar to Ozu, too, is Shibuya’s recurring theme of family relationships in a changed, and still changing, post-war Japan. The similarities end here, though: while Ozu tended to focus on quietly pleasing aesthetics, and tenderly moving portrayals of parent-child and husband-wife dynamics, Shibuya’s films are a livelier affair. They are marked by their humour, from light comic banter to satire. Yet because Shibuya’s films treat relevant topics, they are more than just entertainment: they complete the portrait of 1950s and 60s Japan, rounding out Ozu’s lyricism with silliness, sexuality, and even despair.

Yopparai tengoku (Drunkard’s Paradise, 1962)

This was the first Shibuya film I saw, and the one with the most sobering conclusion. At first, Drunkard’s Paradise portrays drinking as a minor (and entertaining) vice: its worst effects are embarrassing behaviour, a diminished bank account and an overnight stay in a prison cell. But the film also explores more serious potential consequences of drinking, through a believable scenario involving four central characters: a father and son, the son’s fiancée and a famous baseball player. When one of these characters becomes violent after drinking, it brings about a dramatic change in the lives of all four. One of the problems explicitly addressed is that at that time in Japan, drunk people were not held responsible for their actions.

Drunkard’s Paradise can become oppressive at times, as its characters are crushed by needless tragedy. The audience is rewarded, though, first by the film’s opening comic scenes, and later by complex character development. Although the film’s premise seems designed to show that alcoholics bring unhappiness on themselves, the film is not so simple or moralising as this. All four characters are sympathetic, inviting the audience’s compassion: their justifications can always be understood, if not accepted.

Kojin kojitsu (A Good Man, A Good Day, 1961)

After the bleak black and white images of Drunkard’s Paradise, the saturated colour of A Good Man, A Good Day was a welcome surprise. This was a film more uniformly comic in tone, although it too addressed important social issues, this time of class. The good man in question is an eccentric mathematics professor who wears his shoes on the wrong feet and ignores people who don’t interest him. This doesn’t help his daughter’s marriage prospects: her fiancé’s family is none too sure about hers.

The film’s even tone is more reminiscent of Ozu than Drunkard’s Paradise, but with Shibuya’s characteristic dash of comedy: the professor is unimpressed by his daughter’s fiancé until the young man has the nerve to call him an ‘old fart’. This points to the film’s satire on status: although the professor is venerated at the university, he only gains wider respect when he wins a prize from the Ministry of Culture. In a nod to contemporary reality, the professor’s daughter is adopted, having been orphaned by WWII bombings: this too is a source of prejudice against the family. Unlike Drunkard’s Paradise, though, A Good Man, A Good Day ends happily.

Daikon to ninjin (The Radish and the Carrot, 1964)

All three films that I saw happened to include the prolific actor Ryu Chishu in the role of the father. His acting capabilities were showcased beautifully, as the fathers are quite different in each film: a drunk, a scholar, and an ordinary man with a secret. Ryu also appeared in almost every one of Ozu’s films, but The Radish and the Carrot has an even stronger link to this director: it is based on an unfinished script that Ozu was working on just before he died. It is the story of a family man who disappears, leaving his wife and four daughters wondering whether he has run away or been kidnapped. Only in his absence does the man’s family really start to think about him, considering their relationship to him, and what secrets he might have. The film’s title stems from his daughter’s comment after he leaves: they think of him as ‘a radish or a carrot on the kitchen floor’ – necessary, then, but unremarkable. The film teaches us not to take our family for granted, certainly, but it also recognises that family can be a burden on us as individuals.

Alison Frank