Conversations in Silence 2: Fukujuso and Queer Japanese Cinema in the 1930s

I reported on the first edition of Conversations in Silence back in April. On June 11, we held the second session at Haremame, again with Kataoka Ichiro serving as benshi and Kikuchi Naruyoshi deejaying music. This time the theme was “LGBT” and we showed a rare and fascinating film made by Shinko Kinema in 1935 entitled Fukujuso (director: Kawate Jiro). The film was released as a “sound-ban,” which means it had music and possibly sound effects on the sound track, but the sound no longer exists, so we showed it as a silent film. It is based on one of the stories in Yoshiya Nobuko’s Hana monogatari, and was the first of a couple films made at the time using that work. What was so interesting about the film was that it appears to strongly depict the love between two women.


Often considered a pioneer of shojo shosetsu, Yoshiya has garnered much interest recently, as her stories narrated in elegant Japanese of the friendships of young women, often in boarding schools, have been interpreted through queer readings as explorations of lesbian sexuality. In the United States, for instance, Sarah Frederick at Boston University has been writing on and translating Yoshiya’s literature (here is one essay).

I cannot comment on Yoshiya’s work as a whole, but what struck me on seeing the film Fukujuso after reading the short story is that it is bolder if not more “queer” in its depiction of same-sex relationships than its source. The original story, published in Shojo gaho in 1916, is written in exquisite and considerably polite Japanese, and presents the tale of Kaoru, a teenage girl who lost her mother at an early age and is so delighted she will be getting an “older sister” (onesama). It is hard for her to understand this woman is entering the household as the wife of her older brother. Hard times befall her as the family loses its fortune and the sister has to leave the home. Kaoru must go to a boarding school when her father and brother go abroad to revive the family business. It is at a school bazaar, where Kaoru is pressured to sell the family flower, a fukujuso (Amur adonis), that the older sister comes to save the day. 

There are significant differences in plot between the film and the story. First, in the film the older sister Miyoko (Hisamatsu Mitsue) is made to be suffering from tuberculosis and her appearance at the bazaar leads to her final collapse. The narrative thus continues for a good time after it ceased in the original. The setting is also different, as the opulent Western-style home in the original (probably in the city) is switched to a respectable Japanese-style home in the countryside. Finally, reflecting the times, the father and brother don’t travel to America but to the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo. Kaoru (Egawa Nahomi) also departs for there in the final scene. 

What struck me as most significant about its difference was the film's depiction of Kaoru’s love for Miyoko. In the novel, Kaoru is in some ways the epitome of the shojo, or young adolescent woman, which thinkers ranging from Otsuka Eiji to John Treat have theorized as a sort of third sex, a gender not confined to the male-female patriarchal dyad, as if living the time before sexual difference is recognized. Kaoru in the original story is so pure that she just cannot understand why the servants are calling the older sister “Mrs.” (okusama)—as if she cannot comprehend that such a relationship between a man and a woman exists. The narration augments this by tying its perspective to that of Kaoru, and never suggesting the marriage until Kaoru starts hearing the word “okusama.” 

In the film, however, Kaoru is aware of the marriage from the start, and the film makes sure we are as well. Yet her reaction is still strong if not stronger over losing this “sister” to a man: she rips up a photo of the couple and runs out of the house when her brother asserts his position. It is as if Kaoru is less the shojo than a mature woman who loves Miyoko with full knowledge of sexual difference. For added spice, the film shows Miyoko passing her wedding ring to Kaoru on her deathbed.

As Kikuchi-san and some in the audience argued, Fukujuso can still be read within the genre of “S” (esu), which depict the more sisterly and less sexual relationships between women pursued by many of Yoshiya’s novels as well as by cultural phenomena such as the Takarazuka Revue. Kikuchi-san asked what was in the diary that Miyoko gives to Kaoru to share with her brother at the end, and speculated it was more sisterly. (A friend imagined they might be poems in the style of Yosano Akiko’s tanka written to her friend Yamakawa Tomiko, which is an intriguing possibility.)

Perhaps it was the significant difference between the original story and the film that led me to read the latter as more lesbian than “S”. But I should point out that it is likely that many of those going to the film in 1935—attracted by the series title “Hana monogatari”—would have read the original and noticed the changes as well. Kataoka-san didn’t make a copy of it, but he recalls seeing an ad for the film, possibly in Shinko Kinema’s magazine, that showed Kaoru and Miyoko framed in a heart. It would be interesting to see if there are any fan letters to that or some other magazine that reveal similar reactions. (Yoshiya’s later stories can be bolder in their depiction of same-sex relations, so I did speculate in the after-film discussion that the film may be adapting not just the original story, but also the boldness of later Yoshiya work. But that is just speculation.)

Not much is known about the director of Fukujuso, Kawate Jiro. He made about ten films at Shinko Kinema, a second tier studio largely financed by Shochiku that made some good films, but mostly by directors such as Mizoguchi Kenji who seemingly used the company as a transition point when moving between studios. (Shinko Kinema was part of the merger that created Daiei in 1942, although its Tokyo studio—where Fukujuso was filmed—eventually became what is now Toei’s studio in Oizumi Gakuen.) He then moved into short documentaries (bunka eiga) before leaving the industry (the Japanese Wikipedia lists no known date of death). According to an entry on Kawate written by Kishi Matsuo for a Kinema Junpo dictionary, Kawate came from a poor family and constantly battled the studio in an attempt to make films that better reflected his background, so perhaps he was attracted to this story of one of society’s “others” who abandons Japan at the end (perhaps like the “others” in Shimizu Hiroshi’s Japanese Girls at the Harbor [1933]]). Stylistically, Fukujuso has a significantly modern touch and features quite a number of bold, if not also playful uses of the camera and editing (examples of what David Bordwell has called flourishes). Kawate also directed the second film in the Hana monogatari series, Tsuriganeso, but unfortunately the print of that film in the National Archive of Japan is missing about a fourth of the original length.

Fukujuso is worth a look and encourages us to think more about alternative depictions of sexuality in prewar Japanese cinema. Despite the popularity of Takarazuka, few films at the time (with Kimura Keigo’s 1942 Utau tanuki goten being one exception) emulated the Revue’s practice of using an all-female cast with women playing the male roles. But with the popularity in Japan of Maedchen in Uniform (1931) a few years before, and later films such as Ishida Tamizo’s Hana chirinu (1938), which also features an all-female cast (although in female roles), perhaps there are multiple routes for considering the alternative sexualities that female spaces in cinema, and the relationships developed within them, posed for female audiences in particular. 

For those in Japan, please join us for the last edition of Conversations in Silence, when we will be presenting Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), again at Haremame on August 13. The notice is here.

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