January 24, 2017
Ginza Cosmetics (1951) is an unassuming, nearly plotless wander through Tokyo from director Mikio Naruse. It is remarkable for how unremarkable it is, focusing on the everyday lives of bar hostesses at a failing nightclub. Anticipating the setting of his 1960 masterpiece When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, Ginza Cosmetics takes place in a world absent of functional men. They have all been lost to gambling, infidelity or the war. The ones that are left are damaged beyond recovery, appendages to a barstool. So the women make do with what is available to them, treating romance as their business and making arrangements with bucktooth middle-managers to create the illusion of intimacy. The film, diffuse in its focus, touches on these faux-mances but also finds time for the afternoon wanderings of a latchkey kid and his exhausted bar hostess mother, whose schedules are almost exact inverses. When he is wandering the city, she is holed up inside a bar, and when he is in bed asleep, she is finally freed into the night. Ginza Cosmetics is streaming on the Criterion Channel of FilmStruck, along with eleven other Naruse titles.
Ginza Cosmetics is generally regarded as the beginning of a career revival for Naruse, who says, “I seemed to have relaxed” starting with that film. I haven’t seen any of the 1940s work which is held in such low esteem (perhaps it’s due for reevaluation?), but Ginza Cosmetics exudes what seems to be a newly found calm.According to Catherine Russell’s The Cinema of Naruse Mikio, the director described the film as one on which he tried “to avoid sentimentality.” And in that he succeeds. The spoke in this loosely organized tale is Yukiko (Kinuyo Tanaka), an aging bar hostess with an adorably cherubic son named Haruo (Yoshihiro Nishikubo). The bar is in danger of shutting down, so Yukiko spends her time tracking down deadbeat customers, luring investment from lecherous businessmen and fruitlessly trying to keep Haruo in her sight. The other women at the bar, Le Bel Ami, each have their own little tales. Shizue (Ranko Hanai) has shacked up with a grim-looking older man to enable greater freedoms – one of them is to invite one of her younger, more handsome suitors to visit. This turns out to be Ishikawa (Yuji Hori), a sensitive factory worker who Yukiko is tasked with showing around Tokyo for an afternoon. There is a flicker of attraction, but it is soon snuffed by Yukiko having to rush home to find her wandering son. What would be a major plot device in any regular melodrama is here just another dream deferred.
The screenwriter of Ginza Cosmetics, Kishi Matsuo, was a former film critic who wrote admiringly of Naruse’s 1930s films – he described Chocolate Girl (1932) as “pleasurable Americanism.” The script was adapted from an Inoue Tomoichiro short story, but Naruse requested it be made more realistic, using the Hayashi Fumiko story “Fallen Women” as a model. Fumiko would later be a source for some of Naruse’s greatest films, including When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. According to Audie Bock, “Kishi rewrote, embellishing with locations, characters, and conversations he and Naruse knew from their own Ginza back-street bar-hopping.” While much was shot on sets, a lot of the fascination of the film is seeing the location shooting in and around Tokyo, some parts still rebuilding from WWII.
It’s tempting to guess which stories came from Naruse’s drinking days – I would surmise the story of the tone deaf sadsack baited into singing by bored bar girls is one. This painfully shy, painfully untalented young man has a crush on Yukiko, who holds sympathy but nothing else for him. Tanaka gives a finely gradated performance, displaying the borders of Yukiko’s essential kindness. She will endure the man’s singing without complaint, but not the hand around her waist. The most telling sequence about her character is the one of the drunk who skips out on a bill. Yukiko tracks him down at a neighboring bar, and is suckered into believing that one of his friends will come with the money. Instead he sneaks out the back door. Though she is close to aging out of the job – “Once you hit 40, you can’t really do it,” she says – Yukiko still manages to believe the best, or at least the bare minimum, in her fellow men and women. But she is often mistaken.
Another phantom man in her life is Fujimura (Masao Mishima), a one-time guardian angel who helped pay for the birth of her son, after the father fled. Now fallen on hard times, Fujimura shows up to ask for cash. Men want to use her as a sop for their loneliness or a handy bank account. Ishikawa does not ask anything of her, and so Yukiko becomes intrigued. He is the first fully functional male she’s encountered in ages. Yukiko escorts him around town, showing him her city, finally able to share her enthusiasms to a sympathetic ear. But this is all very brief, just a scene or two, until Yukiko has to rush back home and search for Haruo, who has once again wandered off. Yukiko’s younger sister takes over the tour guide duties, and the amorous interest as well. Barely a flutter passes over Tanaka’s face at the passing of this brief flirtation. It speaks to the million tiny heartbreaks that Yukiko must have suffered through the years that this latest one barely registers. So she returns to work the next day, the routine renewed, her situation unchanged. She has a job, a roof over her head, and Haruo. It will be enough, for now at least.