Early postwar Japanese films focused largely on questions of survival: dying in battle or from tuberculosis or maybe falling into crushing poverty. Let’s look at a few winners of Japan’s oldest film prize, the annual best film award from Kinema Junpō magazine. Many films from the late 1940s and early 1950s were explicitly about the struggle to come to terms with defeat in the war.
A Ball at the Anjo House
The 1948 winner was A Ball at the Anjo House. It’s about the decline of a family in the postwar world.
The wealthy and cultured Anjos are losing their improbably spectacular seaside mansion because of postwar land-reforms that have crushed their income. Moreover, the family patriarch has gotten himself deep in debt to a shady wartime profiteer, a man he mistook as a friend.
The film title comes from the family’s plan to throw one last farewell ball: a farewell to their mansion and their way of life.
A Ball at the Anjo House addresses tragedy, loss, and defeat. It borrows from Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, but it also resembles Gone with the Wind. The female lead is strong, and the men are useless. In Gone with the Wind, father sits with his pile of Confederate currency, and says mother will know what to do, when mother is—of course—dead.
Similarly, in A Ball at the Anjo House, father is paralyzed by indecision, and swings between murderous rage and suicidal self-loathing. In both films, it’s the female star—Vivien Leigh or Hara Setsuko—who struggles to salvage the family even as their way of life is being swept away. Some critics find A Ball at the Anjo House to be film formulaic and melodramatic.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Rise of Modern Japan. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
In 1949, the winner for best film was Drunken Angel, a movie about a gangster dying of tuberculosis as he’s being treated by a physician who’s drinking himself to death. It’s the first collaboration between the actor Mifune Toshiro and the director Kurosawa Akira, the pair who would go on to create quintessential samurai films like Yojimbo and The Seven Samurai.
In Drunken Angel, Mifune plays a dissolute gangster with a heart of gold. Kurosawa would later cast him as a dissolute samurai vagabond, also with a heart of gold. Like many Kurosawa films, Drunken Angel is ultimately about redemption. However, the environment reeks of poverty, despair, deceit, corruption, sickness, and death.
Until We Meet Again
The 1951 winner was Until We Meet Again. This is the story of two young lovers, Saburo and Keiko, who meet in the Tokyo subway during an air raid. Keiko’s family members are snobs and militarists, and hate Saburo. So, the romance ends tragically when Saburo gets his draft notice and goes off to die—and that’s before they are able to consummate their love.
One can get a sense of the film from the first few frames itself. We see someone, probably a returning soldier, slowly making his way along a muddy trash-filled street. One leg is swollen and crammed into a tattered shoe. The other leg is missing, replaced with a cheap make-shift metal prosthesis. The film opens with that anonymous battered soul limping past the splendid mansion of Keiko’s family.
The movie poster shows the film’s iconic scene: Saburo and Keiko, their love as pure and doomed as Romeo and Juliet, as they share a kiss. However, they are separated by a pane of glass. So, it’s not a subtle film; WWII destroyed pure young love, and the people who promoted the war were evil. But even if it isn’t subtle, the film is powerful and evocative.
The 1956 winner, Floating Clouds, was based on a 1951 novel of the same name. It’s about two lovers, Yukiko and Kengo, who meet in Vietnam under Japanese rule during the war.
In postwar Japan, they have had a turbulent on-again off-again affair for years. He’s married and won’t get a divorce; both are struggling economically and emotionally until Yukiko dies of disease. Thematically, it’s about the loss of empire and the loss of identity—again, poverty, rootlessness, and despair.
The novel and film both are somewhat problematic because they’re unabashedly nostalgic for the days of the empire. In Yukiko’s memory, Vietnam seems like a paradise: lush, warm, fragrant, and beautiful. Yukiko is just a secretary, but she has purpose in life, and respect. Contrast this with postwar Japan, where life is bleak, poor, cold, harsh, and corrupt. Yukiko is lost in this world, both physically and spiritually.
So, here are four best-film winners in the decade after the wars: each different, but with some common themes. The Japanese people had experienced the thrill of a massive empire, and then crushing defeat, humiliation, poverty, and turmoil. So, postwar culture explored these same themes.
Common Questions about Japanese Cinema in the Postwar Period
It is the story of the decline of a family in postwar Japan. The Anjos have lost their income as well as their beautiful beach mansion due to land reform, and the father of the family has got himself in heavy debt to a wartime profiteer who pretends to be a family friend. A Ball at the Anjo House addresses tragedy, loss, and defeat.
The film Drunken Angel is about a gangster who suffers from tuberculosis and is dying, while the gangster’s physician himself is a heavy drinker. Drunken Angel is ultimately about redemption, but the environment reeks of poverty, despair, deceit, corruption, sickness, and death.
Until We Meet Again is a postwar Japanese film that tells the story of two young lovers, Saburo and Keiko, who meet in the Tokyo subway during an air raid. Keiko’s family members are militaristic and snobbish, and they hate Saburo. The romance ends with Saburo’s death.