by Andrea Grunert
In this year that marks the centenary of Mifune Toshirō’s birth (he was born on 1 April 1920 and died on 24 December 1997), I am still surprised how much his versatility is overlooked. He is celebrated as an international star and as an icon inextricably linked to the figure of the samurai, as in the documentary Mifune: The Last Samurai (USA/Japan, Steven Okazaki, 2015), but this tends to obscure the great creativity with which he approached all his roles. It is true that Mifune was often typecast – as a samurai or as a senior army or navy officer. However, even in his most stereotypical roles, he succeeded in creating fleshed-out individuals, employing a great variety of expressive means to make them convincing and appealing. Mifune started his career in gendai geki (1) such as Ginrei no hate (Snow Trail, Taniguchi Senkichi, 1947) and Yoidore tenshi (Drunken Angel, Kurosawa Akira, 1948), in which he played the young rebel, captivating Japanese filmgoers with his unusually intense acting style (2). In the early years of his career he was sometimes cast in romantic roles – as the young and sexually inexperienced peasant who finds love quite by chance in the third episode of Naruse Mikio’s Ishinaka sensei gyōjōki (Conduct Report on Professor Ishinaka, 1950) or the bank employee in love with a married woman in Tsuma no kokoro (A Wife’s Heart, Naruse, 1956). Film critic Satō Tadao calls Mifune the “classic example of the tateyaku” (3), the strong male in kabuki theatre (4), and states: “Since his debut in 1947 he has appeared in approximately one hundred and twenty films. However, as far as I remember, he has only played three or four love scenes, in which he was so terribly miscast that they are a clear case of the exception proving the rule.” (5) I disagree with Satō’s claim. There is a clear romantic element in the character of some of the heroic swordfighters Mifune played in numerous jidai geki (6) in the 1950s and early 1960s (7). Both here and in those films in which he was cast as the young lover, he explores the many facets of his roles through his vivid and inventive acting style, heightened by his charisma and sex appeal. This is especially true for Kinoshita Keisuke’s Konyaku yubiwa (Wedding Ring aka Engagement Ring, 1950), a film in which Kinoshita deals with love and passion in a surprisingly light-hearted manner. The topic of unfulfilled love has rich potential for tragedy, but Kinoshita chose instead a mixture of melodrama and comedy. In this film, Mifune plays a doctor, Ema, who falls in love with Noriko, the wife of one of his patients. Tanaka Kinuyo is cast as Kuki Noriko and Uno Jūkichi as her husband Michio. Konyaku yubiwa gives Mifune the opportunity to display his youthful charm in the role of a kindly young man (8) and to show his talent for comedy and for emotional intensity.
Context and characters
The focus in Konyaku yubiwa is on the three main characters and the relationships between them. At a formal level, the elegant switches between close-ups and landscape photography indicate the link between the private and the public sphere and the symbolic relevance of personal experience as a social microcosm. Most of the action takes place in the seaside town of Ajirō, in the southern part of Atami (9), and at the Kukis’ mansion in this resort. The viewer is given a few glimpses of the bustling life in Tokyo, where the Kuki family owns a jeweller’s shop. There are impressions of everyday life such as the shots of passengers leaving a train at the station or on the crowded bus going to Ajirō. The many close-ups and medium close-ups of the main characters are a clear indication that the emphasis is on human beings. Their story and their feelings give insights into Japanese society recovering from wartime destruction. A number of shots evoke an idyll untouched by the violence of war – the coastline scenery with cherry trees in bloom, the park with plum trees, the picturesque inn, the beach in Ajirō. The Kukis live in an elegant mansion, implying business success. However, this idyll is undermined by hidden fears, sexual frustration, repressed desires and jealousy. Michio, suffering from tuberculosis (10), is weakened from his illness. His tanka poems reveal his pessimistic world view as does the sad expression on his face, captured by the camera in a number of close-ups. Obsessed by his inability to lead a normal married life, he is plagued by self-doubt, making him the epitome of the defeated Japanese male, helpless and emasculated. Male vigour and youthful strength are represented by the handsome and rugged Ema, who is bursting with energy. Mifune’s muscular body, showcased in the scenes in which Ema wears swimming trunks, contrasts with Michio’s emaciated face and obvious physical weakness.
Ema is not the only character with contagious vitality. Noriko is an active woman who runs the family business, something that the men in the Kuki family are unable (Michio) or unwilling (Michio’s father) to do. This is a rather unusual role for a Japanese woman, despite the fact that during the war women had to replace men in factories and do other typically male jobs and despite the efforts of the Occupation forces to strengthen the role of women in Japanese society, who for centuries had been suppressed in a rigid patriarchal system. (11) During the week, Noriko even lives alone in Tokyo in order to fulfil her duties at the Kukis’ large jeweller’s shop. It is on one of her trips back home that she and Ema first meet. In a crowded bus, Ema, standing next to the seated Noriko, catches a glimpse of her. But instead of her face, the camera focus is on the wedding ring (12) on her finger. The ring and Ema’s shoes are the two objects that repeatedly appear, symbolizing the development of the relationship between the doctor and Noriko. The ring marks Noriko as taboo for Ema, and this situation is at the core of the complicated relationships between the three protagonists and the film’s moral discourse. Close-ups of the ring figure in the sequence in which Noriko first touches Ema, though she does so only playfully, and on several other occasions when she has already decided against deepening her relationship with the doctor. However, there is a significant moment during a trip back to Tokyo when she has – accidentally, as she claims – left the ring at home, a ring which she treasures so much that, during the war, she had hidden it from the military when they were confiscating luxury items as contributions to the war effort. Facing hardship because of her love for Michio, she now finds herself on the threshold of adultery. Torn between love for Michio and the desire inflamed in her by Ema, she reveals her feelings to the doctor, saying that she no longer looks forward to the week-ends spent with her sick husband.
The wedding ring is a symbol and a constant reminder of conjugal fidelity; and Ema’s shoes also play an important role in the relationship that develops between Ema and Noriko. In the first sequence of the film, Noriko smiles when she notices Ema’s old white sneakers, shown in close-up. When they meet in Tokyo, she offers him elegant leather shoes, finding them more appropriate for a doctor. When they meet again, she is surprised to discover that he still wears his sneakers, which he explains by saying that they are more comfortable. Following a further meeting with Noriko, who is clearly flirting with him, the confused Ema, struggling with his emotions, is heading for the station, the sneakers shown in close-up. The next shot is another close-up, now of Ema wearing the new shoes and walking in the opposite direction, towards the Kukis’ mansion. This acceptance of the gift suggests his acceptance of his feelings and hints at the possibility of adultery.
The two objects not only have dramatic and symbolic meaning but also serve to avoid excessive sentimentality and function as effective and economic narration. With its clever blend of melodrama and humour, Kinoshita’s film reveals a wide range of feelings and great human complexity. The first deliberate physical contact between Noriko and Ema is when she runs after him, bringing him the notebook with her husband’s tanka poems – really just a pretext to talk to the doctor again before he leaves for Atami. Taken aback by Noriko saying: “Your hands are so strong,” Ema replies with a big smile: “No, these are gentle hands.” Noriko playfully taps his hand, which he pulls away quickly, looking bewildered. A close-up of Ema’s face reveals his inner turmoil when he continues walking toward the trains station. However, after this scene the doctor starts to wear the new leather shoes. Noriko’s sexual desire is fully revealed in the scene in which she stares at Ema’s jacket, drenched with sweat. She touches her face with her hands as if in agony and then hides it behind them before plunging it into the garment and breathing in deeply the smell of Ema’s body. Ema’s confusion about his feelings for Noriko reaches a peak during their last meeting, when the young man, a look of despair on his face, asks Noriko if he can cry in her lap. His jacket is a symbol and a substitute for his body; but despite their attraction to each other, Noriko’s and Ema’s mutual desire will not lead to fulfilment. In the moments of intimacy – in the train, at the beach, in the park, in the inn – they reveal their feelings for each other but also their concern for Michio and, in Noriko’s case, her love for him. Desire is always accompanied by feelings of guilt, which are expressed not only verbally but also in the acting. “I can hear my heart beating very fast,” says Ema after swimming in the sea, pointing out that he has not had an opportunity to go swimming for a while and is therefore a bit “rusty”. Addressing these words to Noriko with a bright smile, they may suggest a deeper meaning. Noriko, hardly able to suppress her desire, seems to take this remark as an invitation and touches his naked shoulder. Then follows a cut to Ema’s face in close-up, looking embarrassed. Noriko, seemingly hurt by his reaction, takes a few steps back. Looking at each other, their faces have an expression of both desire and shame.
Ema acts as a catalyst, helping the couple to overcome the crisis in their married life. Noriko, feeling she is desired by a man, is blossoming again (13) and Michio awakens from his lethargy and self-pity. The first encounter between Noriko and Ema in the bus is interspersed by shots of cherry trees in bloom – a symbol of rebirth. This encounter is depicted in an almost comical manner – Ema, having lost his balance in the bus, stumbles and falls into her lap (14). The simple, jaunty tune which accompanies the bus trip contributes to the buoyant rhythm of this sequence, prefiguring the awakening of their feelings for each other. Throughout the film, these feelings are communicated superbly by the two actors. Mifune’s sense of timing, so much admired by Kurosawa (15), and his juvenile nonchalance are the most obvious features, and they make a perfect contribution to the dramatic as well as to the comic moments in the film. When they first meet in the jeweller’s shop, Ema pokes his tongue out at Noriko – a clear indication that they have already became closer (a little later in the same sequence the dialogue confirms this impression). In another sequence at the shop, Ema expresses his concern for Michio, blaming himself for wishing him dead. His face twisted with grief and his gestures – his hands running through his hair and scratching his legs – reflect his inner torment. His facial expressions and gestures are both natural and appropriate, matching the character’s youthful attitude.
Ema is depicted as a sympathetic young man who not only arouses feelings in Noriko but is very much respected by both Michio and his father. His sneakers and clothes of rather poor quality contrast with the wealth of the Kuki family, and close-ups of his face reveal how much he is impressed by the huge mansion in which his patient lives and by the Kukis’ large and elegant jeweller’s shop. They represent the kind of wealth that is completely unfamiliar to him. At one point he criticizes Michio’s self-pity, calling him superficial because he has never known poverty. However, there is a strong bond between the two men, both of whom served in the war. Ema, who confesses that he is in love for the first time, may be inexperienced in matters of love, but he is a caring person who takes his responsibilities as a doctor very seriously and has a profound desire to cure people.
A happy ending
In the second-last sequence Noriko joins Ema at an inn. The meeting takes place in a small room where dinner is served for the couple. The sequence is dramatically and visually complex, built upon facial and body expressions as well as gazes. Ema accepts Noriko’s decision to stay with her husband, but reveals his own feelings in a highly emotional manner. The focus is on Ema whose intense facial expressions, gestures and movements (16) are emphasized by camera positions and editing, to show how much he is torn between passion and duty. Both actors deliver fine and very nuanced performances in this long sequence, combining strong emotions with more light-hearted moments. One example is when the couple enjoys beers and talks about Michio’s future and his cure in the mountains.
The protagonists return to their traditional roles in society, in accordance with the moral conventions that the film clearly advocates. What has happened to Ema and Noriko was only “a passing fever”. It is not simply that Ema wears his sneakers again. Their return to traditional roles is further emphasized by the fact that Noriko abandons her western-style clothes and wears a kimono in the last part of the film. She has also decided to give up her life as a businesswoman and accompany her husband to a sanatorium in the mountains. Both Michio and Ema have a traditional view of women as faithful wives, and during the very emotional dialogue in the park, it is Ema who speaks with the voice of reason (“We need to cool our hearts”) and asks Noriko to stop crying as others are already staring at them. However, traditional Japanese masculinity has undergone some changes. Ema as well as Michio are depicted as men who admire Noriko for her vitality and treat her with great respect, an attitude more in line with western romantic concepts of love than with Japanese patriarchal traditions (17). The guilt-ridden Michio shows great understanding for his wife, and despite his increasing jealousy, he encourages her to join Ema at the beach. However, it is Noriko who plays the active part in her relationship with the young doctor, emphasized by the expensive looking shoes she offers him. Ema is depicted as an inexperienced young man, troubled by feelings previously unknown to him. Noriko assures her husband that nothing improper has happened between her and the doctor, who “is a nice man with pure intentions”. Without challenging moral conventions, Kinoshita reveals through emotionally intense moments, all marvellously supported by his cast, the conflicts that can arise from adhering to such conventions. In Konyaku yubiwa, the conflicts are resolved, and Kinoshita’s film has a happy ending not only for Noriko and Michio, for whom there is great hope of being cured, but for Ema as well who has a new patient to take care of – the young female bus conductor shown at the beginning of the film – and sees his two friends off in a joyful mood.
1 Films and tales set in the contemporary world.
2 See Andrea Grunert “Mifune Toshirō: A Star with a Thousand Faces”, https://shomingekionline.org, 31 March 2020.
3 Tadao Satō, Currents in Japanese Cinema, New York, Kodansha International 1987, p. 19.
4 The term tateyaku means literally “standing role”. It refers to the role of the heroic male in kabuki theatre.
5 Satō, ibid., p. 19.
6 The term can be roughly translated as “period film”.
7 Mifune played heroes with romantic qualities in several historical films such as Miyamoto Musashi (Samurai, Inagaki Hiroshi, 1954) and its two sequels (1955 and 1956), Yagyū bugeichō (The Yagyu Secret Scrolls, Inagaki Hiroshi, 1957), Nippon tanjō (The Three Treasures, Inagaki Hiroshi, 1959), Yagyū bugeichō – sōryū hiken (The Yagyu Secret Scrolls – Ninjutsu, Inagaki Hiroshi, 1958) and Ōsaka-jō monogatari (Daredevil in the Castle, Inagaki Hiroshi, 1961).
8 This sympathetic character matches Mifune’s image as projected in numerous fan magazines such as Kinda Eiga and Eiga Fan throughout the 1950s.
9 Atami is a resort famous for its hot springs.
10 See William Johnston, The Modern Epidemic: A History of Tuberculosis in Japan, Cambridge, Mass., The Council of East Asian Studies/Harvard University Press, 1997. It was not until the newly developed antibiotic streptomycin became available in Japan in 1948 that tuberculosis could be cured. (Cf. Johnston, ibid., p. 287)
11 For more information on gender roles in early post-war Japan see Naoko Shibusawa America’s Geisha Ally: Reimagining the Japanese Enemy, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2006.
12 The diamond ring shown in frequent close-ups is Noriko’s engagement ring she wears on the outside of her wedding ring. However, in order to avoid any confusion about Noriko’s status as a married woman, I refer to it as “wedding ring”.
13 Michio comments on the fact that Noriko seems more beautiful than ever and he also observes that she no longer wears the same clothes most of the time and pays more attention to her appearance.
14 The comic moment in the bus when Ema is thrown into Noriko’s lap has its melodramatic counterpart at the inn when the desperate Ema asks Noriko if he can “cry in her lap”.
15 Akira Kurosawa, Something Like an Autobiography, New York, Vintage, 1983, p. 161.
16 For instance, while Noriko is kneeling in front of the dinner table, Ema leaves the table to sit down first at the windowsill and then on a chair at some distance from Noriko.
17 Mark McLelland points out that the attitudes in Japanese culture with regard to sex and gender that existed in the ‚opening‘ of Japan to the West remained unchanged for almost a hundred years. “Also odd [for the Japanese] was the extreme deference that Western men paid to their ‚ladies‘, at least in public. Although in the Confucian system men of lower status were able to show respect to high-status women without compromising their masculinity, the Western practice of ‚ladies first‘ in which men deferred to women in general seemed a peculiar idea, one that was still able to amaze Japanese people even in the early days of the American Occupation that was to take place almost a century later.” (McLelland, Love, Sex, and Democracy in Japan During the Occupation, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, p. 14)