The Cinema of Gosho Heinosuke: Laughter Through Tears



A Book by Arthur Nolletti, Jr.

University of Indiana Press, 2005.

Hands-down the definitive English text about Japanese film director Heinosuke Gosho (and really the only work in English to take a comprehensive look at his nearly fifty-year career in movies), Arthur Nolletti, Jr.’s Laughter Through Tears is a book that is at once dense with precise and valuable observations, and at the same time lighthearted, breathable, and perfectly navigable as such an exhaustive surveying should strive to be. Its author locates an essential kernel – not a theme so much as a tone – in each of the director’s existing films, a bittersweet coalescence of pain and joy that make them special. This can be found through a wide range of films that span different genres, topics, and styles. Primarily, but not exclusively, focusing on the everyday lives of ordinary people, Gosho sought out the beauty hidden within sad situations, as well as the sadness to be found beneath life’s pleasures.

In his introduction, Nolletti makes it seem as though he began his personal odyssey as a neophyte, having been bound to the director’s work through a happy accident, quickly filling the role of chronicler of all things Gosho. Fortunately, however, he in fact has a much broader ability to interpret and compare films than he lets on, unlike other writers who are monogamously attached to a single director. He breaks down significant scenes shot by shot (a particularly important method for reading a director who favored narrative construction through editing), draws parallels with such Gosho contemporaries as Shimazu and Mizoguchi (never affording them an undue level of coverage), and generally proves why he considers this body of work so special. In other words, he isn’t short of perspective, as personally invested in Gosho’s films as he is.

At times the points become a little repetitious (one would soon tire if keeping count of the number of times Nolletti uses the words “laughter” and “tears” in the same sentence – perhaps he should have adopted Joyce’s word “laughtears” for efficiency) but thankfully the films and periods of Gosho’s career he chooses are varied enough so that the discussions take many forms, even if the final analyses may seem a bit one-note. The “Goshoism” to which Nolletti continually returns is the common thread that he picks up throughout all manner of genres, including ‘nonsense’ comedies of the silent era and junbungaku (‘pure literature’ films), a distinctive mark that make Gosho films inimitable and cohesive in terms of his whole career.

Still from 'The Neighbor's Wife and Mine'

The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine (1931)

The author’s devotion mostly proves helpful, carrying insights particular to a devotee, but can also be an overwhelming distraction. It is apparent that the reader is in capable and comprehensive hands; Nolletti has seen nearly every extant Gosho film, and knows them intimately. However he also rarely agrees with any of the other sources that deal directly with Gosho’s work, often only including them in the text to show how his own interpretations diverge from “popular” readings of the films. It sometimes feels as though no one gets it right but he. In spite of this the notes are a wealth of literary and cinematic cross-references, freeing the book from the overly territorial or proprietorial feeling of the author’s use of quotations in the chapters themselves.

In his survey of Gosho’s career, Nolletti singles out a few of the most important films to write about, ones that were well-known (if not blockbusters) and that best represent the continuities that the author wants to show. He moves chronologically, through early comedies of the 1920s and ’30s, a break during the artistic oppression of wartime, a new discovery of romanticism in the late 1940s, to his most enduring social films of the 1950s, followed by a final period of restless innovation. Gosho directed possibly more than 100 films, and seems to have been very hit-or-miss throughout. It would seem all of the films of the 1920s are lost, with only a fraction of those of the prolific 1930s still surviving. The author divides Gosho’s 1930s into two types of comedy: ‘nonsense’ (largely slapstick) and shomin (slice-of-life), the former represented by The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine, the latter by Burden of Life.

The central epithet in Burden of Life is just that: a “burden,” as Fukushima, the father in a middle-class family, refers to each of his children. In the case of his two grown daughters, the release of that burden means marrying them off, which gets accomplished early on in the film. For his young son, Kan-chan, who is probably about eight years old, the sentence will be much longer. The father considers the boy a failure and longs to be rid of him, making no secret about his feelings. Yes, there is laughter through tears here, but it seems to be our laughter in light of their tears. There are moments in the film that are so horrible that they make us laugh, but it is a sort of stunned laugh, barely empathetic. The boy’s mother ends up taking him away with her to live elsewhere, and Fukushima tries hard to convince her to return, minus their son.

Burden of Life feels, at the end, a very disturbing film in its own way, but Gosho’s efforts to make it true to life strengthens its resolve to the themes, as close as it sways to dark satire. It is so narratively slight that it feels like an overlong public service announcement on valuing your children’s individuality. One parent excoriates the young boy, the other feels pity for him. This is clearly no way to grow up. In Nolletti’s chapter on the film, however, he positions it as an important bridge between the ‘nonsense’ comedies and the shomin-geki where he would find his favored niche. Is the father’s disapproval meant to be funny? While the film feels like a consummate shomin-geki one starts to see Nolletti’s point when he describes how absurd the father is. This doesn’t diminish how disturbing the film is, and the roughly-drawn characters and the happily dismissive conclusion, if anything, constitute its closest ties to facetious comedies. The seriousness of what the film deals with (in spite of its light treatment) connects it to Gosho’s adaptation of Dancing Girl of Izu, a film that seems to be, in terms of Gosho’s ‘30s films, the most ideal example of the humor and pathos blend that Nolletti cherishes. (It actually oozes that blend, and at times goes overboard with that tone of contrast, but generally keeps an even keel). It is silent, and its narrative intertitles seem to be a nod to Kawabata’s book, making up for the instances in which he and screenwriter Akira Fushimi changed the story, at the same time enhancing the histrionic tone of the film.

Still from 'The Dancing Girl of Izu'

The Dancing Girl of Izu (1933)

Just as The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine is partly defined by its specific locale (according to Nolletti, a a recognizable suburb of Tokyo), Woman of the Mist is tied to the Shitamachi district where it takes place, an area that has a subgenre of films all to itself. In the film a young man named Seiichi has begun secretly dating a woman named Teruko, neglecting his studies and causing his concerned parents to become highly suspicious. His mother decides to invite over her brother, a married and childless man named Bunkichi, to come and talk some sense into Seiichi. The young man reveals to his uncle that he has been seeing Teruko and that she is now pregnant. The uncle makes the decision to take the fall for him, claiming that he had an affair with the woman (whom he had never met up to that point), sacrificing his personal and professional life for the promising young man. An Ozu film this isn’t. Highly accomplished in terms of creating fully imperfect characters that also possess believable integrity, the film is a good example of the director essaying into more serious realms – and, unlike in Burden of Life, ones that we aren’t just inclined to laugh at. We feel pain with the characters’ pain, and the accompanying joy with the few moments of beauty that crop up. The laughter and the tears are genuine and well-deserved in this film. Nolletti concludes about it:

In Woman of the Mist, however, his blending of melodrama and the shomin-geki goes beyond the usual notion of “Goshoism,” prompting us to deeper feeling and thought about the many contradictions – and injustices – that are part of life. Thus, Woman of the Mist is more than a character study or a melodrama or a shomin-geki drama. It not only sums up Gosho’s work in the 30s but also effectively points the way for his work to come.

Indeed, the textures and feelings of daily life found in the shomin-geki echo into later works that could more easily be defined in terms of melodrama, psychological study, or historical picture.

In the body of the book Nolletti devotes less than four pages to discussing Dispersing Clouds (and then, partly used as a comparison to Elegy of the North), clearly considering it a minor work. In it a young girl from Tokyo named Masako, falls ill while on a trip to the countryside with her friends. They take her to a local inn where she is gradually nursed back to health by a kindly maid named Osen, along with the help of a country doctor, a young man who teaches her about the difficulties of living in a place with few modern amenities. She gets visited by her busy stepmother, with whom she clearly has some underlying tensions, and then by her yet busier father, but she seems in no hurry to return to the city. Getting to know the maid and the doctor, she finds that both also come from Tokyo originally, but have come to the countryside to escape from their painful pasts and to become immersed in a different and less hectic way of life.

Still from 'Woman of the Mist'

Woman of the Mist (1936)

She goes with the doctor to a rural village where he wants to open a clinic for local children. In spite of Masako learning a lesson about caring for others in the village it is always apparent that she will eventually have to return to Tokyo. She’s been taken there by fate, not propelled there by loss as the doctor and Osen have. It is an interesting point that they are the two she has befriended, not the local personalities of the innkeeper’s wife or daughter, who seem too difficult for her to get along with. There is a commentary on class inherent in the characters’ relationships, but it never materializes into anything meaningful, becoming more like a background tone than a full-fledged statement. Compare the innocence of the film – however shot through with sensuality, as Mark Le Fanu points out – with the themes of Where Chimneys Are Seen (1953) or Woman of the Mist, and it seems like a simplistic bid to sweep its characters’ psychic woes underneath the carpet of family, and then further, underneath the much larger carpet of war.

Avowedly auteurist as the book is, Nolletti says relatively little about cinematography. The bulk of the technical discussion concerning how the images form the narratives is dominated by editing, which is given such thoughtful and in-depth treatment as to more than make up for separate deficiencies. The focus on editing gives the author something concrete with which to pin down Gosho’s work, for the director was never as formally and thematically consistent as Ozu, to his credit. Nolletti uses, as comparison, Ernst Lubitsch’s analytic editing (which he cites as a major influence on Gosho’s methods) and Frank Borzage’s use of decoupage. It’s unclear whether or not Gosho watched any of Borzage’s films, but the latter represents an American soulmate of his, in both style and theme.

The running social commentary throughout Gosho’s films seems to experience precipitous peaks and troughs, sometimes dictated by external conditions, and possibly culminating with Innocent Witch (1965) a wartime drama that Nolletti characterizes as most jarring and tragic. At times he tries to portray Gosho as an auteur with a vision that radically breaks with accepted norms, but never entirely follows through with the thought, always leaving it at the wayside. It always seems secondary to his central concern of the laughter/tears quotient. If not altogether radical, films from this period at least have relevance to call their own. Nolletti explains:

In An Innocent Witch and Rebellion of Japan [1967], Gosho’s focus on the impact of the war on the main characters implicitly invites audiences to reflect on the relevance of that event to their own lives, especially at a time of unparalleled economic growth. In The Hunting Rifle [1961], which is set in the present, Gosho invites reflection on the impact of prosperity itself… These three films may not ask us to laugh through tears, or even to laugh at all, but like all of Gosho’s melodramas, they are infused with pathos. They compel us to care.

In his discussion of Growing Up (1955) (which sounds as though could be the most despairing of Gosho’s mature shomin films of the 1950s), the film makes a point of “unmasking of societal contradictions and revealing the attendant psychic tensions.” In such a disturbing slice of life, which deals with the varying levels of abject slavery experienced by women destined to lives of prostitution, how intent is Gosho on “lacerating” notions of gender roles in society? The answer should be obvious, given Gosho’s leftist credentials (he participated in sit-ins during the late 1940s strikes at Toho studio, putting an end to the most lucrative passage of his career in order to show solidarity with the workers). But at the same time the author’s proclamations themselves don’t constitute an adequate endorsement of this view, and since there isn’t much else to draw from, the reader is left with an incomplete picture of Gosho’s politics, and the feeling that some of these social readings of his films are imposed, at times overbearingly. However manifest the film’s critiques may be, they do not, themselves, add up to a deep commitment to social change.

Still from 'Dispersing Clouds'

Dispersing Clouds (1951)

Nolletti insists especially in this chapter on pointing to Gosho’s social commitment through the film, but if anything this brings home the fact that the reader cannot have developed a very solid or consistent idea of Gosho’s own motivations and opinions. While it wasn’t the author’s intention to create a portrait of what Gosho was like, it seems a blind spot in his otherwise comprehensive survey. While relying too heavily on real-life activity and proclamations of an artist may actually debase one’s reading of the work in question (particularly, in the case of observations as rich and acute as the ones in this book), there seems a certain failure to connect the interpretations to the social issues that they touch upon, making the films an end unto themselves. If one wanted a better idea of what Gosho was like as a person, they may turn to his autobiography. But when does anyone read an autobiography to get a truthful perspective on a personality?

Perhaps Gosho’s views will remain obscure, behind platitudes and quotable proclamations, not to be spelled out through his work. Through the fog comes Elegy of the North, a sort of twisted Brief Encounter, representing an atypical take on romance straight out of Gosho Land. Nolletti places the film among Gosho’s various and variously-successful career departures of the late 1950’s. Two others about which he writes at some length are The Fireflies (1958) (an attempt at a straightforward war drama) and Yellow Crow (1957) (a film that experiments with color to create a portrait of a troubled young boy). None of these, including Elegy of the North, seem to fit comfortably in any of the book’s hard-won postulates concerning what makes a Gosho film, and thus become stand-alone oddities.

The heroine of the film, infinitely more complex than that of Dispersing Clouds, is unusual for any sort of film, she being deformed both physically and emotionally. Like Masako, she gets compared to the Mona Lisa and, like Masako, she is without her mother. There is something uncanny in Reiko’s youthfully uninflected face. She registers emotions, but we can visibly see how they come to her through a filter of cognitive distortion, all blunted to become disquietingly single-pointed. To Reiko, torturing other people is sport. At home the young woman, who can’t be older than twenty, is nagged by her father and grandmother for being tomboyish and unmarriageable. She goes on dates with Katsuragi, a married man who, unable to understand her, settles for being possessed by her. He sketches pictures of Angkor Wat, a place he visited a long time ago, and which Reiko looks at with fascination. The cavernously overgrown temples form a symbol of what she sees as something nestled within his life and out of her reach, something serene, mysterious, and far-away that she wants to hold some personal meaning.

Early in the film Reiko, hanging around his family’s house, sees his wife Akiko bidding farewell to her lover, a student named Tatsumi. Reiko decides to stalk them, watching their drama play out from a close distance, eventually befriending them without revealing who she really is. The secrets she knows about the prim and glamorous Akiko, along with the dual life she has fashioned for herself, seem to bring enjoyment to her strange, adolescent mind. It isn’t happiness, but the thrill of the hunt. At one point, likening Akiko to a swan, she then mimes being a swan-hunter, turning a compliment into an obscure threat.

Still from 'Elegy of the North'

Elegy of the North (1957)

Katsuragi immediately detects her schadenfreude but continually forgives her for it. After she tells him, in a letter (which she watches him read from nearby) about the wife’s affair, they have a scene together in which he bends her backward in a kiss, the camera taking a close up of her arthritic arm hanging stiffly by her side, numb to what the rest of the body is feeling. This is a wonderful and very dark view on a sort of human desire, wherein we are detached emotionally, physically bound by suffering more than by happiness, wanting to stifle rather than to uplift. Involvement is sustained through torment, but that too must be mutual to continue, lest one of the lovers get killed off by it. Fearless, conniving, suspicious, and cynical, Reiko is like a sleuth, wanting to unravel emotional bandaging and to further prod what lies underneath, to treat another person’s world as grotesquery that matches her own. The further she insinuates herself, the more chaos she introduces, until all the walls have been knocked down and she is left with only the aftershocks of her obsessions.

In two lengthy chapters, Nolletti favors Where Chimneys Are Seen and An Inn at Osaka (1954) as significant examples of the way Gosho uses the essences of everyday life as a peculiar type of dramatic fodder, which highlights the humor and the pain latent all the time, making of those situations a double-sided mirror whose two facets are of equal importance. A film like Elegy of the North shows an additional degree of complexity to Gosho’s films after his wartime hiatus. In it the main character’s perversity comes from her uncanniness, far removed from lasciviousness or violence. Her imbalances reveal, by proximity, those of the supposedly more stable people she sets out to destroy. Nonetheless her lover defiantly clutches onto his own equanimity, frustrating her. In spite of the masochism and bizarre attractions the film grows, it also manages nostalgia, acute expression, and powerful atmospheres like those that make Woman of the Mist such a treat.

Still from 'Burden of Life'

Burden of Life (1935)

Nolletti’s book is essentially a tour-de-force, even if his accolades sometimes lack creativity or stray into unsupported hyperbole. Laughter Through Tears is, ultimately, thought-provoking, enjoyable, and successful in fulfilling its aims. Nolletti’s deep admiration is infectious, and even if the reader doesn’t love all of Gosho’s films (or any, for that matter), he or she will probably come away from reading the book feeling at least some of it has rubbed off. Above all the book is a masterful and scholarly survey, but one that doesn’t ever ring free of its emotional attachments. Tear streaks and giggling fits notwithstanding, the book retains a worldly lucidity, shedding most consistent light on an artist of multifaceted ambitions and persistently flowering trajectories.


One Response to “The Cinema of Gosho Heinosuke: Laughter Through Tears”

  1. Bill Routt said

    This is one of the best film book reviews I have ever read. I am currently working on a long piece in which a reference to a Gosho film occurs, and your review of Nolletti’s book has explained to me everything I needed to know about that film.

    I would like to credit you directly in the list of references appended to my essay, but I think that the only reference here is to the webpage itself. If you would like an author by-line, please contact me by email.

    Bill Routt

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