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One Wonderful Sunday: Sex and Sexuality in Postwar Japan

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    lawless

    I’m going to split up the musings about Masako I threatened to post about in this comment into two: this one about sexuality, which will focus more on the relationship between her and Yuzo and on the film itself, and one about her place in Kurosawa’s depiction of women in his films.

    As Vili pointed out in his helpful and comprehensive post, there are several points in the film where Masako is clearly worried that Yuzo is asking or expecting more from her sexually than she’s willing to provide. One is when he makes a pass at her in the model home. Another is when he first broaches the topic of her visting his place (which is conveniently empty) before she distracts him with the suggestion that they attend the orchestra performance.

    She eventually accompanies him home when their attempt to see the orchestra turns out disastrously, possibly in part as an apology and almost certainly because she’s worried about his physical condition after he’s beaten up by the scalpers’ cronies. It turns out that her worry about visiting his home was justified; once again, he tries to make a pass at her (thank you, Vili, for explaining that he was trying to lock the door — I didn’t grasp what he was doing then) and she leaves. Her leaving her purse behind suggests that she hasn’t gone far and intends to return; I think, given the rain, that she simply sat or stood on the porch until she had calmed down and hoped Yuzo had also.

    I agree with Vili’s interpretation of the bear in her purse as symbolizing the desire for a child. This underlines the fact that in addition to not being able to afford to live together as husband and wife, they’re not able to afford to support a child, either. The teddy bear and its reference to childbearing may also be intended to contrast with Yuzo’s reasons for wanting more from her physically and sexually than she seems willing to go along with. I’m less certain that the knitting needle(s) are intentional phallic symbols, though they may be unintentional ones. They are put to other uses — Masako gives one of the needles to Yuzo to use as a conductor’s baton during the imaginary concert, which I think is meant to emphasize their funcionality in furthering their fantasy rather than to serve as a phallic symbol.

    As for the kissing scene at the end: this puzzled me somewhat because I’ve been given to believe that even now public displays of affection are unusual in Japan and that kissing was not necessarily a matter of course between husbands and wives or boyfriends and girlfriends. This may be more of a historical phenomenon and less applicable to a more modern time period, but it’s telling that books I’ve read that discuss the sex industry in Japan have mentioned that kissing was a separate item on the menu of services provided, suggesting that it was considered an exotic sexual practice that men did not normally receive or expect from their wives.

    While the kiss occurs in an apparently deserted ampitheatre, they were still out in the open where anyone could walk in one them. This becomes even more confusing if one assumes, as Vili suggests, that more went on in the interval between the kiss and Masako’s straightening her clothing. Why were the occupation authorities pushing such images if they were unrealistically salacious by contemporary standards and why did the Japanese film industry not point out that they would be considered morally suspect? How did Japanese audiences react to this? And did the fact that Yuzo and Masako were engaged and that the war had interrupted their plans make a difference?

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    Ugetsu

    I assume that the film was aimed commercially at a young audience, so I’m sure Kurosawa was very aware he had to be very precise in his depiction of the characters – any false note would immediately be picked up by the couples just like Yumo and Masako sitting in the cinema.

    I think sociologists argue that major changes in sexual behavior commonly occur after wars, usually in the direction of more liberalism. Normal barriers inevitably break down when couples are broken up for war, maybe to never see each other again, never mind the inevitability of an explosion of prostitution and rape in the aftermath of military invasion.

    But my reading of the situation between Yumo and Masako is less a ‘moral’ issue of whether she will sleep with him or not, but a simple pragmatic calculation that a pregnancy in their circumstances would be catastrophic. They were simply unable to support a baby. From what I know of the period, abortion was legally available, but only in expensive private clinics that would have been well out of their price range. I would imagine that a ‘nice’ girl like Masako wouldn’t have been familiar with the various forms of crude contraception that would have been used by prostitutes at the time.

    Young couples at the time would have been in a very difficult situation. Even getting privacy would have been nearly impossible – Japan is, after all, the home of the ‘Love Hotel’. And having gone to the trouble of getting some privacy, the horror of an unwanted child in those circumstances would have put anyone off sex. But at the same time, from my knowledge of Japan at the time, there wouldn’t have been the same religious dread of sex that, say, European or American Christians from conservative backgrounds would have had. In other words, they had hang-ups about sex, just different hang-ups than we’d be familiar with.

    So my reading of the crucial scene in the apartment is less that Yumo was trying to seduce Masago – more that this was a fight for them both against the depression and nihilism that threatened to overcome Yumo. For Yumo to have seduced her in that situation would not have been a failure by Masago to protect her virtue – it would have been a submission by her to the nihilism that threatened to overwhelm them both. In effect, if they had slept together then, it would have been an acceptance that they had no real future, they might as well just give in to their desires. Masago was fighting to protect them both from slipping into the well of despair that threatened to destroy them.

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    Vili Maunula

    lawless: I’m less certain that the knitting needle(s) are intentional phallic symbols, though they may be unintentional ones. They are put to other uses — Masako gives one of the needles to Yuzo to use as a conductor’s baton during the imaginary concert, which I think is meant to emphasize their funcionality in furthering their fantasy rather than to serve as a phallic symbol.

    I admit that it is a little far-fetched and lazy interpretation. But yet, it is interesting that we seem to have needles (or something like them) in two points in the film — first just before Yuzo comes onto Masako at his place, and then at the end with the kiss, and whatever happens afterwards. As both scenes have to do with sexual desire, I was (and still am) ready to go with the lazy phallic interpretation for the needles.

    lawless: As for the kissing scene at the end: this puzzled me somewhat because I’ve been given to believe that even now public displays of affection are unusual in Japan and that kissing was not necessarily a matter of course between husbands and wives or boyfriends and girlfriends.

    As far as I understand, you are right here. However, for various reasons the American occupation censors encouraged film makers to include kissing scenes, and the result was a string of films starting in 1946 that included kissing scenes — many of these films were apparently even made simply to have that scene, creating a genre typically referred to as “kissing films”.

    Books like Sorensen’s Censorship of Japanese Films, Kitamura’s Screening Enlightenment and Hirano’s Mr Smith Goes to Tokyo each briefly discuss this topic, if you want to read a little more about it.

    There is also a recent essay titled ‘”Kissing is a symbol of democracy!” Dating, Democracy, and Romance in Occupied Japan, 1945-1952’ by Mark McLelland, which I haven’t yet had the time to read, but which might answer some of the questions that you ask here. It was published in Journal of the History of Sexuality, Volume 19, Number 3, September 2010, pp. 508-535, and seems to be available as a pdf here.

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    lawless

    Vili – Thanks for those links; I’ll have to check them out later.

    Ugetsu – You’re right in noting that the inherent problem Masako and Yuzo faced was their need to avoid pregnancy, seeing as they didn’t have enough income to support the two of them comfortably, and that Japanese (and Asian, from what I can tell) views about sexuality are different from those in the West. Sex is viewed more functionally and less moralistically. Giving in to their desires (or Yuzo’s desires; whether Masako is avoidant because of the practical concerns or because she doesn’t desire what Yuzo does isn’t clear to me) would be a form of giving up, but it wouldn’t be a surprising way of finding some physical solace and release under the circumstances. Yuzo may think that’s the most or only happiness they can achieve. I hesitate to mention this, in part because I don’t know if it would have occurred to Japanese audiences at the time, but there are ways for them to have attained sexual release that don’t risk pregnancy, so it’s not a completely straightforward dichotomy. Nevertheless, Masako doesn’t seem to want any of it.

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    Ugetsu

    Lawless

    I hesitate to mention this, in part because I don’t know if it would have occurred to Japanese audiences at the time, but there are ways for them to have attained sexual release that don’t risk pregnancy, so it’s not a completely straightforward dichotomy. Nevertheless, Masako doesn’t seem to want any of it.

    This is true (which brings us back to Norwegian Wood, and the frank discussion of this during the film), but I would imagine it would have been very hard at the time to introduce that as a possibility for the couple. Better to either just pretend that they faced either a ‘go the whole way, or don’t do it’ choice, or to perhaps imply (maybe realistically) that a well brought up nice girl like Masako wouldn’t have known much about these options – presumably an ex-soldier though would have been a little more experienced.

    Incidentally, I’m not sure this is related to the topic, but one thing that has puzzled me about the film is the portrayal of the boy them meet on the hill. He is filthy and neglected, but he has a huge wad of Yen notes. Am I right in thinking that it is being implied that he is a rent boy?

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    lawless

    Ugestu – The points you make were why I hesitated to mention the matter. As for the boy with the wad of yen notes — this is the one to whom Masako gives a rice ball, y/y? — I’ve sent the disc back to Netflix, so I can’t reference the film anymore, but as I recall, he looks pretty young — ten or less. I’m not saying that makes it impossible for him to be a rent boy, but I sure hope not.

    I did think it odd that someone as destitute and hungry as he was would have that kind of cash, but didn’t think about it more deeply at the time. Is it possible he’s a numbers runner or gofer for some yakuza members? That might make more sense as a explanation; little kids can sometimes go unnoticed when an adult wouldn’t be, their smaller size might come in handy in certain situations, and they might not be punished the way an adult would be if caught. Thank, on the other side of the law, of the Baker Street irregulars who Sherlock Holmes uses on occasion to gather information unobtrusively. Another possibility is that he’s a black marketeer, possibly from items he’s scavenged.

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    Ugetsu

    Lawless

    As for the boy with the wad of yen notes — this is the one to whom Masako gives a rice ball, y/y? — I’ve sent the disc back to Netflix, so I can’t reference the film anymore, but as I recall, he looks pretty young — ten or less. I’m not saying that makes it impossible for him to be a rent boy, but I sure hope not.

    Yes, thats the one I mean. I found that scene very disturbing (as it was surely meant to be). I suspect it was intended to be ambiguous, but if he got the money by doing things for the Yakuza, its hard to believe he would have been alone – kids like that would hang out in gangs. While it may not have been the specific intention to say that he was a rent boy, there is something about his leer and arrogance that was meant to imply that he was more than a small time crook or runner.

    I suspect the intention of the scene was to demonstrate that even below the level of Yakuza/petty crime, there was another, even lower level – street prostitution, drug addiction, etc. This is something Kurosawa kept coming back to – in High and Low, for example.

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    lawless

    Vili – The article you linked to was very interesting and confirmed most of what I already thought, as well as Ugetsu’s belief that the occupation brought about a liberalization of the sexual realm. What I hadn’t realized, but probably should have, was how much the war effort encouraged women to view themselves merely as wives and mothers whose main purpose was to reproduce, not to put too fine a point on it — a viewpoint very similar to that promoted in Nazi Germany.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    There is also a recent essay titled ‘”Kissing is a symbol of democracy!” Dating, Democracy, and Romance in Occupied Japan, 1945-1952’ by Mark McLelland, which I haven’t yet had the time to read, but which might answer some of the questions that you ask here. It was published in Journal of the History of Sexuality, Volume 19, Number 3, September 2010, pp. 508-535, and seems to be available as a pdf here.

    I just got around to reading that link – its absolutely fascinating! Curious that the essay specifically singles out Kurosawa as an enthusiast for more ‘liberated’ films as I thought his films were supposed to have been a bit more restrained in that way than the mainstream ‘kissing’ films. Perhaps, as usual, he had a much more subtle and nuanced take than other film makers.

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    Vili Maunula

    I’m glad that you liked the article. I read it too, and found it quite good.

    There is another article that I found recently and would definitely recommend. It’s by Rachael Hutchinson and titled “Kurosawa Akira’s One Wonderful Sunday: censorship, context and ‘counter-discursive’ film”. The abstract reads:

    Reading One Wonderful Sunday (Subarashiki Nichiyōbi, 1947) as counter-discursive film, this paper challenges humanist readings of the film to argue for a more critical commentary on the problematic postwar. The essay investigates the labels of ‘pro-democratic’ and ‘compliant’ director ascribed to Kurosawa Akira (1910-98), stemming from the reception of No Regrets for Our Youth (Waga seishun ni kuinashi, 1946). In light of Kurosawa’s experience with negotiating censorship boundaries, the essay argues that Kurosawa’s strategy should be read in terms of creativity and critique rather than mere compliance with external demands, with a close reading of One Wonderful Sunday providing evidence of critical construction. The film is placed in the context of SCAP policy to demonstrate that such ‘problematization films’ were not only useful to Occupation aims but welcome, seen as supporting the wider goal of rebuilding Japan in a realistic way. The essay concludes that simple binary expectations, attached to terms like censorship and non-censorship, discourse and counter-discourse limit our understanding of the complex censorship process. Once the contextual location of the viewer is taken into account, however, the seeming disjunction between non-censorship and counter-discursive film are seen to disappear.

    Unfortunately, I have not been able to locate a downloadable copy. But do check it out if you have access to an article database.

    As for the boy, I never thought of the possibility of him being a rent boy. He seemed too filthy for that. But the stack of money he has does puzzle me.

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    lawless

    At this thread, Garen suggested that he might be part of a pickpocketing ring a la Oliver Twist at about the same time that I suggested that he could be a thief.

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    Ugetsu

    I don’t want to labour the point, but I think there is something about the character of the boy which goes beyond his being merely another orphan and thief. If not a rent boy, then something equivalently degrading. I assume filthy young orphan boys hanging around were a common feature of certain areas at the time – the Ozu film Record of a Tenement Gentleman ends by showing a group of these boys hanging around a town square. While the Ozu films ends with a rather solemn instruction to the audience to help take care of these poor children, Kurosawa seems to take a very different tack, perhaps intending to imply that a failure to look after the orphans will release much more malign forces. Imagine the adult this boy will grow up into – and imagine thousands more like him. Its enough to make anyone shudder.

    In one way, this is typical Kurosawa – avoiding the ‘obvious’ and simplistic approach. But it also I think fed into the general ambiguity of this film. It shows the huge problems Japan is facing, but without giving any simplistic or easy solutions, unlike equivalent other films, like Tenement Gentlemen, or Mizoguchi’s Lady of Musashino.

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    lawless

    Ugetsu – I agree with you that the boy is meant to be an implicit cautionary tale as to what society will be like later on if there are enough orphans like him and that whether he’s a thief or rent boy or black marketeer doesn’t really matter in that regard. It is typical for Kurosawa to merely observe and avoid the obvious and simplistic approach. It’s what made him a master filmmaker and storyteller.

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