Heinosuke Gosho (1902-1981) was one of Japan's most important film directors for several decades of the twentieth century. He directed the first "talking" picture in Japan in 1931 and came to excel in what film historians classify as Japan's "shomingeki" genre, or movies that depict the lives of the lower and middle classes with both realism and humor. An essay in International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers noted that "throughout his career, Gosho expressed his basic belief in humanistic values," and commended "the warm, subtle, and sentimental depiction of likable people" in his films.
Rags to Riches Tale
Gosho's own life seemed fodder for a Cinderella-style plot: he was born in Tokyo on February 1, 1902, to a mother who was a geisha and renowned beauty. His father was a well-to-do tobacco merchant who refused to marry her, and thus Gosho spent the first years of his life in Tokyo's old shitamachi district downtown, an area he later portrayed in films. When he was five years old, however, his father's legitimate son died, and Gosho became his heir and lived an affluent childhood thereafter. He was groomed to take over the family business by his father and grandfather—though he was never allowed to call his biological mother "mother" again. Meanwhile, she and the rest of his siblings lived in hardship. "What Gosho could not help but appreciate, in short," wrote Arthur Nolletti Jr., in an essay on the director for Reframing Japanese Cinema: Authorship, Genre, History, "were the contradictions in life—and the fact that nothing was black or white. … It is this knowledge, this unerring sense of life's injustices, contradictions, and complexities, that lies at the heart of Gosho's films, giving them an expansiveness and generosity of spirit."
Gosho's father and grandfather owned stock in theaters—urban Japanese had been enthusiastic cinema-goers since the onset of film-entertainment industry in late 1890s—and he enjoyed free passes to them, which ignited his artistic ambitions. He became a fan of German director Ernst Lubitsch and reportedly saw his Marriage Circle 20 times. He was also fascinated by the work of Charlie Chaplin. Gosho attended Keio Commerce School and graduated in 1921, but his decision to enter the film business instead of the family tobacco concern was greeted with much opposition.
Young Filmmaker in Breakthrough Era
Gosho's first mentor was Yasujiro Shimazu, a filmmaker at the prestigious Shochiku-Kamata Studio in Tokyo. He began working there in 1923, the same year the great Kanto earthquake destroyed much of Tokyo and Yokohama. The studios and theaters were quickly back in business to provide respite for citizens rebuilding their lives. There was also a sense of revitalization and change in the national mood. Studios, eager to meet the demands of the growing numbers of cinema-goers, began making more and more of their own films instead of relying on imports from the United States and Europe, and Gosho was able to master the necessary skills quickly. He earned his director's certificate in 1925.
His first work was Nanto no haru ("Spring of Southern Island"), for which he also wrote the screenplay. This triumph, however, was marred by personal tragedy, for his beloved younger brother was diagnosed with polio and lost the use of a leg. Gosho grew despondent, as Joseph Anderson and Donald Richie's volume The Japanese Film quoted him as saying: "I lost my way for several years, and my personal life began to fall apart." He admitted to attempting suicide even, but "as in all my efforts during this period, I failed." Finding solace in work, Gosho began working at a fast pace, and in two years directed more than a dozen films. His fourteenth, Sabishiki ranbomono ("Lonely Hoodlum"), depicted a romance between a young city woman from a good family who falls in love with rough horse-cart driver from the countryside. Sabishiki ranbomono became Gosho's first box-office hit.
Created Sympathetic Characters
Perhaps because of his brother's difficulty, Gosho was interested in creating characters with physical or mental handicaps. This is explicit in Musume ("A Daughter"), from 1926, and 1928's Mura no hanayome ("The Village Bride"). The latter's story centers on a beautiful young woman from a rural village who is betrothed in an arranged marriage; before the wedding, she suffers an accident and is permanently disabled. Her parents decide to have her younger sister married in her stead. Critics and audiences did not rate the films favorably, and Gosho was stung by the negative reaction. "Gosho's intention, however, was to illustrate a kind of warm and sincere relationship born in pathos," according to an essay in International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. "Today, these films are highly esteemed for their critique of feudalistic village life."
In 1931, in part because of his lack of recent commercial success, Shochiku-Kamata bosses told Gosho that he would make Japan's first "talking" picture using the new sound technology. Other directors in Japan were leery of the form, fearing failure, but Gosho rose to the challenge and expanded a two-reel into a feature film that was a great success. The film was called Madamu to Nyobo, ("Next Door Madame and My Wife"). The comedy revolves around a playwright who suffers from writer's block and is increasingly plagued by noises that disturb his concentration, from the cry of a child to live jazz music emanating from the rakish couple next door. At one point the lead whistles a tune, the melody of which was Gosho's homage to a popular song featured in one of France's best known films from the era, Ren, Clair's first sound picture Sous les toits de Paris ("Under the Roofs of Paris"). The film had recently debuted in Japan.
Films Gently Satirized Japanese Society
Gosho went on to make several successful comedies in the 1930s. Among his best were Hanayome no negoto ("The Bride Talks in Her Sleep") from 1933 and Hanamuko no negoto ("The Bridegroom Talks in His Sleep"), released in 1935. Nolletti discussed these, along with Madamu to Nyobo, in his essay. "Regarded in their day simply as 'entertainment,' today they are considered classics. … Virtually plotless, these comedies take a wholly trivial matter and use it as a springboard for a succession of silly-some would even say 'stupid'-gags." The Hanayome and Hanamuko pictures each featured newlywed couples and their meddlesome family, friends, and neighbors. Both proved popular with the Japanese public, portraying the sense of community that it valued, while at the same time poking fun at the societal pressures individuals often faced because of that closeness.
Gosho also returned to the silent-film medium on occasion. These included Lamuru ("L'Amour"), about a country doctor worried about his son's decadent lifestyle, and Izu no odoriko ("Dancer of Izu"), a doomed romance between an itinerant dancer and a Tokyo college student. Both were released in 1933. The theme of the latter Gosho returned once more to one of his most acclaimed works, Oboro yo no onna ("Woman of Pale Night," also called "Woman of the Mist"), which premiered in 1936. He penned its screenplay himself. It is the story of a childless couple, Bunkichi and Okiyo, who run a dry-cleaning business in Tokyo. Bunkichi seems at first to be a henpecked husband, but reveals himself to be much slyer as the story progresses. Bunkichi's widowed sister Otuju works as a maid to help her son Seiichi become a lawyer and dreams only of success for him. Seiichi prefers novels and a geisha girl. On one hand, Gosho's film served as a standard social drama that upholds the conservative Japanese traditions of personal sacrifice toward a common goal and the exaltation of family values. However, it also depicts the younger generation defying its elders' wishes, and the ultimate futility of any sacrifice in the end.
Took Wartime Hiatus
By 1941, Japan had been drawn fully into World War II, and Gosho was offered a post at another prestigious studio, Daiei, the same year. The wartime era, however, was also one of a new government mandate for the film industry, decreeing "national policy" storylines which did not demean or diminish Japanese society or culture. Gosho found it nearly impossible to work within such constraints and made just four films between 1940 and 1945. He helped usher in a new era in Japanese cinema with the highly regarded Ima hitotabi no ("One More Time") in 1945, a love story set before, during, and after World War II.
In the 1950s, other Japanese directors such as Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu gained international prominence for their groundbreaking films. Japan's film industry started to produce far more socially critical films, and Gosho's work became part of this new wave. In 1951, he founded his own production company, Studio 8 Productions, and he was happiest to make his own works, free from studio dictates. One of these films was the 1953 Entotsu no mieru basho ("Four Chimneys"; also called "Where Chimneys Are Seen"). The film centered on the lives of two couples in a poor, industrialized section of Tokyo. Entotsu no mieru basho was awarded the International Peace Prize at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival that year. His 1955 project, Takekurabe ("Growing Up"), starred Hibari Misora, a teen pop star in Japan at the time. It was the singer's only serious film role, one in which she portrayed a young woman in nineteenth-century Japan whose origins predestine her career as a prostitute.
For a number of years Gosho served as president of the Japanese Association of Film Directors, retiring from the post in 1975. Eleven of his films won "Film of the Year" honors from Kinema Jumpo, Japan's leading film magazine. His final work was a filmed puppet play, Meiji haruaki ("Seasons of Meiji"), in 1968. He died on May 1, 1981, at the age of 79 in Shizuoka, Japan. Over the next few years his films enjoyed a revival among Japanese-cinema enthusiasts and were celebrated posthumously at retrospectives in Paris, London, and New York City. His earliest surviving work is Madamu to nyobo, the 1931 work that broke the sound barrier in Japanese film. Gosho's cinematic output-some 80 films over 40 years—ranged in theme from comedy to family melodrama to social commentary, and critics remember him as a director and screenwriter who adeptly captured the humanity in his stories, no matter what the genre.
Anderson, Joseph, and Donald Richie, The Japanese Film, 1982.
Currents in Japanese Cinema: Essays by Tadao Sato, translated by Gregory Barrett, Kodansha, 1982.
International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 2:Directors, St. James Press, 1996.
MacDonald, Keiko I., Cinema East: A Critical Study of Major Japanese Films, Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1983.
Reframing Japanese Cinema: Authorship, Genre, History, edited by Arthur Nolletti Jr. and David Desser, Indiana University Press, 1992.