For Euro/Americans, Mariko Okada is one of the great unknowns of Japanese cinema, not unlike Kinnosuke Nakamura. Tracing her career back through IMDB, we can see that she was the top-credited female in most of her films, almost from the beginning of her career. The only time her name drops down to second or third place in the credits is when she is sharing the screen with Hideko Takamine or Setsuko Hara. But the few of her movies known outside Japan are precisely those movies, or jidai-geki like Samurai Saga in which the dramatic focus and bulk of the screen time is devoted to the men. The movies she headlined before Akitsu Springs have almost never been available, and there is very little biographical information about her from the usual sources.
Akitsu Springs provides Okada with the very definition of the star vehicle, the kind of grand love story designed for female stars at the top of the studio pyramid, like Garbo, Crawford, or Bette Davis in her Now, Voyager mode. In case anyone didn’t already know Okada is the star, she gets an extra credit before the Shochiku logo, and later in the credits it is called a Mariko Okada Project; she even designs the costumes. Presumably she picked the director as well, Yoshishige Yoshida, at this time still a newby in the system but a man she would shortly marry and for whom she would provide the clout that would get his very avant-garde independent films into general distribution, which provided her with her only serious international exposure.
Hence we have to conclude that she was a Star, but because she made the “wrong” kind of movies, she has received almost no notice outside of Japan and is not much noted in film histories,* rather like Constance Bennett, the highest paid actress of the early thirties or Claudette Colbert, the top paid star of either gender during the late thirties in Hollywood.
Akitsu Springs is a love story, pure and simple, something like Snow Country but told from the woman’s viewpoint. Okada is the daughter at an inn in Akitsu in the mountains. As a teenager, she falls in love with Shusaku, who comes there to die from TB during the last days of the war but due to her nursing and the mountain air manages to survive. Over the next 17 years, he returns at moments of personal crisis but never stays, eventually marrying a woman in Tokyo. As she says at one point, she has spent her life watching him leave. This is a chaste romance, however, with their first sexual relations coming at the end of the film.
As a star romantic vehicle, the movie hits all the basic points. Okada ages from teens to mid thirties, which allows her to age but stay beautiful throughout. She suffers for love. She nurses her man, waits for her man (who isn’t really worth it), runs her family business alone after her mother dies, and then loses the business as tourism changes in the sixties. There are farewells at the train station.** She has not one but three bathing scenes,*** though she never shows more than head and shoulders above the water. She giggles and laughs and has a crying scene that is real sobs. And of course she gets an extended death scene.
In fact, she gets two death scenes. When young, she agrees to a double suicide with Shusaku but when he starts to tie her arms so she can’t swim after they jump into the river she gets the giggles, putting an end to the mood.
As so often happens with this particular genre of movie-making, any description of it seems to carry a belittling tone from the writer. I don’t intend that. This is a superbly done love story, comparable to the best examples from other countries.
But it is still a Japanese movie, not merely because the heroine wears a kimono. For one thing, the crying scene isn’t because of Shusaku’s actions; it comes when she realizes that the war is truly lost. Her emotions, while visible, are always underplayed and, until the final sex scene, there is almost no physical contact between the two. And while Okada is the star, there is a remarkable shortage of close-ups of her face.
Because it covers 17 years, the movie naturally touches on the changes in Japan during that time. Shusaku is first seen in the burnt ruins of an aunt’s house, where a frightened neighbor describes to him how the survivors had spent 24 hours in the river to avoid the heat of the fires. Only as you gradually work out the geography of the rest of the story do you realize this is Hiroshima. Okada hears of the Japanese surrender when she passes a nearby military hospital where they are all in formation listening to the radio,
and she comments that she can’t understand a word the old man was saying (the Emperor spoke a dialect used only in the Imperial confines, so many people who heard the broadcast had to have it re-translated into their local dialects to understand, and no one outside the Palace had ever heard the Emperor speak before). In a later visit, the inn is packed with visitors, but they are all GIs.
Yoshida and his photographer Toishiro Narushima provide a lushly beautiful movie that takes full advantage of both the gorgeous scenery of the Ukutsu area and the traditional Japanese architecture of the inn itself.
Like all good star vehicles, it does what it is suposed to do: tell a good story in an interesting way while making sure the star gets to show off her variety and strengths. Straightforward love stories from Japan are pretty rare for non-Japanese audiences to find — Till We Meet Again is the only one that comes to my mind at the moment — so it would be worth a visit for that alone. But it is a superior love story in both its look and its performance, and also a chance to see one of the least known of the Japanese female stars of the era.
- * The movie was not even seen in the US until 2005 or in Europe until 2008, always in film festivals, and my DVD came from Britain.
- ** I think romantic films lost one of their greatest assets when we quit riding trains. Waving people through airport security or even watching them drive off just doesn’t have the emotional impact of seeing them torn away from you and receding into the distance.
- *** One of her earliest available appearances is in Floating Clouds where she has a bathing scene with Masayuki Mori, shot from a much higher angle and with much clearer water than any of these three.