Ayako Wakao was a big star among young audiences during the early fifties. With her pure ingenue looks that would have made her an ideal teenager even in America, it’s easy to see how. Like Mie Kitahara, she personified a new kind of Japanese girl/woman for audiences eager to find a new, modern expression. Underneath that innocent and beautiful exterior, however, lurked a dynamic, powerful actress who eventually and fortunately found a way out of her stereotype, producing some of the most dramatically varied and powerful women of the sixties, often in movies directed by Yasuzo Masamura.
Blue Sky Maiden marks the first time the two worked together, but it is nothing like their later collaborations. It is only Masamura’s first or second film, when he was still doing whatever the studio assigned him to do, and Wakao had not yet convinced the studio to expand her casting, despite her mean-spirited turn in Street of Shame. Thus, it provides us with a good look at what the younger audiences were watching just before the Nikkatsu action films began to appear.
Wakao is in full teenager mode, just graduating from school. She is on her way from the country village where she has grown up (for her health) to Tokyo in order to at last meet her father when her grandma informs her that she is in fact her father’s illegitimate child. When she reaches Tokyo, her father’s real wife puts her to work as a maid, sleeping in the storage room under the stairs. Her cheerful spirit, independence, and willingness to work soon wins over not only the younger son but also the young man the family’s sister has her eyes on, and she is forced out of the house. The movie then shifts into a search for her real mother, with whom she is of course ultimately reunited. She returns only briefly to her ill father to tell him he must be reconciled with his real wife and forget about her and her mother (not to mention the wealthy husband she has found).
In other words, sentimental nonsense. Wakao’s a bit too old to be Pollyanna — she has graduated from high school, after all — but the character is in the same mold. Still, Wakao is so fresh, so enthusiastic, and so sincere (and so attractive, let’s admit), you can put up with it all, even if you don’t like this kind of movie.
Masamura was the first Japanese director to study in Europe, but there’s nothing notably European about the film. In fact, it is the most “American” film I’ve come across at this date:* from the circle skirts and sheath dresses to Dad’s tail-finned Chevrolet, from the ping-pong match to junior’s baseball obsession and the elder son’s jazz band, everything is “modern” and Americanized.
Not even the maid wears kimono, and the children don’t bother to come greet father when he returns (though everyone still takes off their shoes). Yet there seems to be neither criticism nor celebration of the changing world, such as can be found in the Sun Tribe movies. The whole thing could have walked off the back lot in Hollywood with Natalie Wood or Margaret O’Brien with very few if any changes other than the marriageable age of the heroine.
The blue sky reference comes from her teacher, who tells her to always look at the bright blue sky to cheer herself up, which she manages to find ways to do even in Tokyo.
It is pure studio product, made to pre-sell to its audience, but it is also a nice reminder that there was more to the fifties Japanese youth market than pop star musicals and the fisticuffs of the “borderless action” movies. Like so much Hollywood output, it is a view of a dream more than any hint of reality for 98% of the audience, but dreams are, after all, one of the major reasons we go to the movies.
* Despite the content, there is rather a lot of low-angle camera placement, but it seems to be slightly tilted to make Wakao more heroic rather than to echo Japanese traditions, and in particular to get as much sky behind her as possible whenever she is alone outdoors.