Parting is sweet sorrow in silent ‘Apart from You’

I’ve never watched a Japanese silent movie before but the Criterion Collection makes this possible and watching “Apart from You” gives you a sense of how the Japanese felt about the geisha in the 1930s. This is a Mikio Naruse film so don’t expect a happy ending.

The 1933 movie’s Japanese title is “Kimi to Wakarete” (君と別れて)and while the translation is close it doesn’t convey the full meaning. In modern Japanese, the third-person pronoun is “anata” and not “kimi.” Usually “kimi”  (君)denotes a more personal relationship because it is used in informal speech.

The verb form of wakareru is the imperfect, suggesting there is something that shall follow as if the sentence is incomplete. The verb wakareru 別れる means to part from people (人と別れる)but it is also similar to the verb wakareru (分かれる )which means to branch off from and in turn is used to form a word that means a turning point (分かれ目).

In the movie, we read that the women are using “atashi” instead of “watashi” or “uchi” (from my experience in modern Japan atashi is used in the Kanto area while uchi is used in the Kansai area) and that along with the final train scene on the Shinagawa platform sets the action in Tokyo. Shinagawa was one of Japan’s oldest stations, opening service between Shinagawa and Yokohama in 1872 and was part of the Tokaido Main Line.

The action is set in contemporary times and parallels the rise of the modern western world against the old ways, a low-end middle-aged geisha Kikue (Mitsuko Yoshikawa) in her decline while her younger friend Terugiku (Sumiko Mizukubo) is on the rise and the contrast between love and duty.

The place is also suggested in Kikue’s (菊江) name, meaning both chrysanthemum (the flower of the Emperor’s crest) or 菊 and Edo 江戸, the old name for Tokyo. Her relationship with Terugiku is also seen in their names, Teru meaning to shine 照ら and giku (菊) is also chrysanthemum. I wonder if the choice was also related to the 1887 Pierre Loti French novel “Madame Chrysanthème” or the 1893 André Messanger opera by the same name. Kiku can also be a homophone for the verb to listen or hear (聞く).

There may also be significance in the son’s name, Yoshio (義雄). The first character  義 stands for justice, righteousness or humanity. It is the first character of giri 義理 meaning duty and sets up this story to be about giri-ninjo 義理人情 or duty and human feeling. The second character of the son’s name means hero or great leader.

Akio Isone who plays the son if older than the student would be and we’ll have to forgive this. After all, consider how old the “kids” in Glee are. That makes his behavior seem more acceptable for a certain age group than a mature man of college age. Yoshio is a student, most likely in middle school.

From the beginning we understand that the geisha’s work is at night. Yoshio is a latchkey kid, with no father. His mother is away at work and  can’t mind his activities during the night. He’s begun to run with a rough crowd and ditch school. Kikue realizes this when a classmate comes by to inquire about Yoshie. The classmate looks at the small apartment and sees the signs of Kikue’s work–the kimono and the shamisen. The boy has a torn uniform an his book bag is falling apart. While Yoshio’s uniform looks better, he has holes in his socks, something that would be obvious when entering any Japanese house. When Kikue scolds Yoshio about his absence from school, he blames her. What does she expect considering the embarrassing work she does to support them?

Yoshio is fond of Terugiku, at this point in a brother manner. Terugiku invites Yoshio to take the train to visit her family. Terugiku has a younger sister, Misako, who cares for her infant sibling and a younger brother who meets the two as he returns from shopping and Yoshio and Terugiku are on the way to the family home. But the boy trips and breaks a large bottle and the eggs has has purchased. Terugiku gives him the money to replace them.

At her home, her father is there, drinking. We see that the mother spins thread or yarn (in the background) and yet it doesn’t seem that the father works at all. The father drinks cup after cup of sake in beautiful thin ceramic cups. Times are rough and he’s determined to sell his next daughter Misako into a geisha house. Terugiku is determined to earn enough money to support her own family and allow happiness for her sister. Like Kikue, Terugiku realizes that it is unlikely she will have her own family or home. She reminds Yoshio how kind his mother is, compared to her father and her powerless mother.

Back at home, Kikue becomes despondent, drinking excessively while with one of her patrons. We have already seen her looking in the mirror, troubled by the growing number of grey hairs. Naruse contrasts the growing influence of the West and the modern world with the aging shamisen-paying Kikue. In another room in the geisha house, younger clients are being entertained by music on a phonograph. Instead of sake, they are drinking beer–one mindless lyspilling some on a geisha’s expensive kimono. Instead of the traditional Japanese dances, one of the geisha entertains this younger group of men with their slicked back hair by performing a flamenco, complete with a flower in her hair, spit curls and a dress and fringed shawl.

Naruse intercuts this dancing with the struggle between Kikue and her patron as she attempts to commit suicide. The struggle between old and young isn’t just a matter of age, but also tastes. Terugiku appears to be more of a traditional bent and the modern lifestyle of Tokyo may not be a good marketplace for her in the near future.

With his mother taken ill after her suicide attempt, Yoshio decides to quit his gang, but as we all know, that isn’t easy. Terugiku is injured when she intervenes between Yoshio and his gang. Her hospitalization becomes the final period these three will be together because Terugiku has decided to go somewhere she can earn more money to keep her sister from following her way of life.

With the imagery of the chrysanthemum and the use of the character 照, you can’t help but wonder if the subtext is about Japan and the imperial family. The character for teru is also used for Amaterasu 天照, ruler of the sun and the supposed mother of the first emperor, Jimmu. From her is where the Japanese emperors get their right to rule. The chrysanthemum is the crest of the emperor. “Apart from You” came out after the 1931 invasion of Manchuria and Japan’s 1933 resignation from the League of Nations, but before the Sino-Japanese War in 1937. Emperor Hirohito had ascended to the throne in 1926 and Japanese imperialism had already begun with the acquisiton of Taiwan in 1895, Korea in 1905 and southern Manchuria in 1905 (from the Russians).

Internationally, the Great Depression was under way, beginning with the stock market crash in 1929 (Black Tuesday). By 1933–the year the movie “Apart from You” came out, Japan had mostly recovered, but there was a growing military influence in the government. Japan is not yet a rich nation; it is still hindered by unequal treaties it was forced to sign with the Western powers such as the U.S. The unequal treaties caused much animosity toward Europe and America and was used to support the rising imperialistic aims of an increasingly military government.

Director Mikio Naruse 成瀬 巳喜男 was born in Tokyo (20 August 1905) and directed his first film for Shochiku in 1930 (Mr. and Mrs. Swordplay). He quit Shochiku to join the company that became Toho. His first major movie was the 1935 “Wife! Be Like a Rose” which was the first Japanese film released in the U.S.

Naruse is best known for his shomin-geki (dramatic movies that focused on the working classes) which usually focused on female protagonists and economic hardship. These are not  action-filled plots with epic tragedies, but gentle dramas delineated the small, minor sad moments of the lives of every day people. Known as mono no aware, it is one of the cultural traditions of Japan which relates both to Buddhism and the cherry blossoms. It denotes an awareness of impermanence or the transient nature of all things. A single human life is compared to the blooming cherry blossoms which only last for a few days and then are swept away in the wind.

Naruse would return to the topic of geisha in Japanese society as well as that of a woman burdened with supporting her whole family by taking unsavory work (the 1951 “Ginza Cosmetics”) or finding that age has lessened her value at such work (“the 1960 “When a Woman Ascends the Stairs”).

What makes “Apart from You” worth watching is that you can see the quiet character development and subtle visual cues about character and economic status as well as the influence of modernization/westernization. This Japanese view of geisha in deeply contrasts Hollywood movies such as “Memoirs of a Geisha.”

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