Lovers who say goodbye in the last reel exist in Hollywood films — remember Rick and Ilsa in “Casablanca”? — but far more common are variations of Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard’s happy stroll into the sunset in “Modern Times.”
In Japanese films, however, the opposite was long true — an inheritance from kabuki and other older dramatic forms, perhaps, but one in tune with audiences’ taste for the tragic.
Women, particularly, loved to weep over stories of tragic love, in which two hearts that were meant to be one were pulled asunder.
This preference reflected certain realities; in traditional Japanese society marriages were unions of families, not individuals, and women had little say in the matter. The ones who resisted, who fell in love with the wrong man by the standards of parents, clan or community, were often doomed to disappointment. But even women who had never had the thrill of an illicit fling and regarded their arranged matches as fated could sympathize with the screen lovers who either parted forever — or opted for the poetic beauty of shinju (double suicide).
Before World War II, films in the sure-chigai (“ships passing in the night”) genre about frustrated lovers enjoyed enormous success at the box office. The most popular was Hiromasa Nomura’s 1938 four-part melodrama “Aizen Katsura (The Compassionate Buddha Tree)” about a young doctor (Ken Uehara) and a widowed nurse (Kinuyo Tanaka) who fall in love but are kept apart by their different status and other obstacles. In the last installment, the lovers finally unite, but the film’s object, successfully achieved, was to wring the maximum amount of tears.
“Aizen Katsura” was remade three times, once with Mitsuko Mito and Ichiro Ryuzaki in 1948, again with Machiko Kyo and Koji Tsuruta in 1954, and again with Mariko Okada and Teruo Yoshida in 1962, but none of the later versions reached the box-office heights of the original.
In the postwar period the biggest sure-chigai hit was “Kimi no Na Wa (What Is Your Name?),” which began life as a weekly radio drama on NHK in 1952. It told the story of Mariko Ujiie and Haruki Atomiya, who first meet and fall in love on Ginza’s Sukiyabashi Bridge during the Great Tokyo Air Raid in March 1945. Mariko and Haruki pledge to meet again at the bridge in six months but part without asking each other’s names. Naturally, they never make their big date and spend many heartbreaking episodes in fruitless searching and longing. Mariko finally marries another man but can never forget the hapless Haruki.
Though reminiscent of “An Affair to Remember,” the 1957 Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr film about two lovers who promise to meet at the Empire State Building, “Kimi no Na Wa” was not escapist entertainment in the Hollywood mold, but social drama that featured typical Japanese postwar types (war widows, discharged soldiers, mixed-blood children) and problems, including the eternal battle between bride and live-in mother-in-law. But the ill-fated romance between Haruki and Mariko remained its focus — and it made such a hit that the women’s side of the public bath was said to empty when it aired.
In 1953 Shochiku made the first of a three-part film version of “Kimi no Na Wa,” starring Keiko Kishi and Keiji Sada. The second part, released in December 1953, and the third, released in April 1954, topped the box-office chart for their respective years. The trilogy even inspired a fashion craze, with women snapping up copies of the “Mariko” shawl that Kishi had worn for her famous encounter at Sukiyabashi Bridge. Also, the settings for the film around Japan, including Lake Kussharo in Hokkaido where the lovers briefly reunited, became tourist meccas.
To early postwar audiences, who still had vivid memories of lovers, friends and families being torn apart by war and its aftermath, “Kimi no Na Wa” had special resonance. In later decades, as social strictures loosened, standards of living rose and Western influences flooded in, the sure-chigai formula lost its box-office magic. Screen lovers may still have been star-crossed, but the old barriers of family, money and status could no longer hold them apart with the same force.
Filmmakers came up with new ones, however. In Jun’ya Sato’s “Daite Soshite Kiss Shite (Hug Me Then Kiss Me)” (1992), the OL heroine dies of AIDS, but not before giving birth to her lover’s child. In Joji Matsuoka’s “Kira Kira Hikaru (Twinkle)” (1992), a couple who make a happy marriage of convenience are finally driven apart by the reasons that brought them together: the woman’s alcoholism and the man’s homosexuality. In Ken Yoshida’s “Koko Kyoshi (High School Teacher)” (1993), a gangly, beautiful high school girl with a troubled past falls for her handsome teacher — and insinuates herself into his life and bed. Based on a hit TV drama, the film may have devolved into tired melodrama in its third act, but it pushed the old theme of forbidden love to limits that its mostly young fans found thrilling.
But traditional cultural patterns still exert a strong hold on the Japanese audience, as Yoshimitsu Morita proved in 1997 with “Shitsurakuen (Lost Paradise),” a film based on a best-selling novel by Junichi Watanabe. It’s two over-40 lovers, played by Koji Yakusho and Hitomi Kuroki, plunge into an extramarital affair with a modern abandon, including several steamy bedroom scenes. When their affair is discovered by their respective spouses, however, they make an old-fashioned choice: committing double suicide at an inn by drinking together from a poisoned chalice. “Shitsurakuen” cleaned up at the box office, becoming, after “Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke),” the highest-earning Japanese film of the year. Also, instead of being tacky, middle-aged cheating became trendy, though few couples followed their screen models into oblivion.
“Shitsurakuen” did not turn back the clock entirely, however. More than shinju and sure-chigai, young filmmakers have been finding themes in the ongoing atomization and commercialization of Japanese society. One example is Masato Ishioka’s “Pain” (2001), whose young couple run away from the countryside to the big city with no money, contacts or prospects. Mari is drawn into the world of enjo kosai (“paid dating”), while Atsushi joins the “scout men” who recruit women for the porn industry.
The story is about the making of two professionals — one willing, one not. Atsushi takes to his new job like a duck to (dirty) water. Mari hates what she is becoming, but wants to survive. There is no melodrama in her choice to sell herself, but there is a definite chill — especially since her agent is Atsushi. This is one modern love story, it’s safe to say, that owes absolutely nothing to kabuki.