Yoji Yamada (2): The Blue Collar Awareness of 'Sunshine in the Old Neighbourhood'

The Strangers Upstairs (1961), the directorial debut of Yoji Yamada, was released as a "Sister Picture", the opener of a double-feature programme, in December 1961. The management of Shochiku didn't consider this film remarkable and so rejected Yamada's promotion to be a regular director. His next chance came after a year. The singer-actress Chieko Baisho was awarded Best Newcomer Singer with her debut song Shitamachi's Sun. Shochiku decided to make a film out of that song, with Baisho as the heroine. The film has the same title as the song, but the film is now known in English as Sunshine in the Old Neighbourhood (1963).

Sunshine in the Old Neighbourhood

Born in 1941, Baisho completed her training at Shochiku Music and Dance School in 1960 and joined Shochiku Revue (SKD) right after. She joined Shochiku's film department in 1961 and made her screen debut in Noboru Nakamura's Hanjo (1961). Her second film The Puddle (1961) won her the Best Newcomer Award of Japan Producers' Guild. Baisho already took part in more than 20 films before Sunshine in the Old Neighbourhood, some as the lead actress such as Masahiro Shinoda's Our Marriage (1962).

Movies with direct connection to pop songs is called kayo-eiga and Yamada was no stranger to them. Shinoda's debut feature One Way Ticket to Love (1960) is one such film and Yamada took part as assistant director. The film was based on Neil Sedaka's worldwide hit One Way Ticket but the story is an original creation, set in the sleazy world of striptease and popular music, with a complicated sexual entanglement between five characters.

Sunshine in the Old Neighbourhood is almost free of such sleaziness. Shitamachi refers to an area of mostly lower-class dwellings of the old Tokyo. It covers well known districts such as Nihonbashi, Kanda, Asakusa, and even stretches to Shibamata, in which the Tora-san series is set. Yamada and his screenwriters visited Shitamachi and wrote an original script partly based on their observation.

Baisho portrays Machiko, a soap factory worker who lives with her grandmother, father and two kid brothers, one studying in a high school, the other in a middle school. Machiko is in a relationship with Michio (Tamotsu Hayakawa), who has a desk job in the same factory. Michio is preparing for an internal examination that could make him a regular employee. Perks include higher pay and a transfer to the head office in the business district of Tokyo. Michio promises to marry Machiko if he passes the exam, they'll then settle down in the new apartment blocks sector (danchi) in the suburbs.

Kenji, Machiko's younger kid brother, is caught shoplifting. Only then does Machiko know that he's been hanging out with Ryosuke (Homare Suguro), a steel worker. Ryosuke commutes on the same train as Machiko and has been admiring her for over a year. He confesses his love brusquely and gets rejected. Michio turns up third in the exam but there are only two regular positions this year. One is taken by Kaneko (Kyosuke Machida), he's handsome, smart, sociable and a ladykiller. But Kaneko runs over a neighbour of Machiko with the company car.

Michio reports the accident to the company and Kaneko's promotion is revoked. Michio fills in. (It reminds us of Yoji Yamada's eventful entrance of Shochiku.) Machiko now sees Michio as a slimy and materialistic man and ends their relationship. She turns to Kyosuke, who has a lower education level but a more upright character.

White Collar as Villain

It would be too far-fetched to see Sunshine in the Old Neighbourhood as the prototype of Tora-san, but many elements of Tora-san are already there: Shitamachi, Baisho who portrays Sakura in Tora-san, and a preference of the blue collar against the white collar. Ryosuke's secret admiration of Machiko is a forerunner of Hiroshi's silent love of Sakura in Tora-san. In the first film of the series, Tora causes the cancellation of Sakura's engagement to her co-worker, the son of a company executive. While in Sunshine in the Old Neighbourhood, Machiko refuses to marry a white collar worker and chooses a blue collar man instead. The only difference is that Machiko makes the choice herself while Sakura somehow has it forced on her.

Sunshine in the Old Neighbourhood

Even before WWII, a sizable portion of the Japanese population had university education. Many low level white collar jobs were taken by university graduates after fierce competition. Sunshine in the Old Neighbourhood doesn't make explicit references to the education levels of Machiko, Ryosuke, Michio and Kaneko, but it is highly probable that Michio and Kaneko have to have a degree to qualify for their current positions. On the other hand, Machiko's kid brother Kenji feels ignored because the family's attention is on the older brother, who is preparing for his university entrance exams.

To Machiko, Michio and Kaneko are both morally compromised. After Michio gets his promotion he asks for Machiko's hand, fulfilling his promise. Instead of accepting Machiko asks him, would he still propose to her if he doesn't get promoted? Michio says no. That makes Machiko realize they don't share the same values and so she breaks off their relationship. At the beginning of the film, Machiko and Kaneko have a game of ping-pong during break time. With many bywatchers around Kaneko refuses to yield a point to Machiko.

But the biggest moral error is sex. Kaneko's biggest sin is his promiscuity. He hooks up with Machiko's co-worker and dumps her once he has slept with her. Then Kaneko fixes his sight on another girl. Michio lives alone in a small, rented room. With just the two of them Michio asks Machiko for sex but she says no. The higher education level of the white collar doesn't make them noble, they even have looser morals than the blue collar. Apparently such moral standard was dictated by the requirements of the "Ofuna style" of Shochiku and a backlash to the promiscuity of the Shochiku New Wave but Yamada's grand body of works consistently show a high level of caution regarding sex, one may even call him prudish.

The Reluctant Comedy

In the heyday of Japan's post-war economic boom, a symbol of the white collar lifestyle was the apartment buildings in the suburbs. Some of these so-called danchi were subsidized by the government. But its demand exceeded supply and had to be allocated by ballot. One had to meet the minimum income requirement to enter the ballot. Michio will meet the requirement if he gets promoted. A friend of Machiko marries a white collar worker and wins the ballot to a danchi unit, against a 200 to 1 odds. But soon enough that friend becomes a "golf widow". Her husband goes home late every day, then plays golf with his boss on Sundays. Such miserable life puts Machiko off and makes her stop fantasizing about the white collar lifestyle and be contented of living in Shitamachi. Susumu Hani's She and He explores the sense of alienation of a danchi housewife, it was released in 1963, the same year of Sunshine in the Old Neighbourhood.

The Strangers Upstairs has the intention to be a comedy but fails to deliver the goods. Sunshine in the Old Neighbourhood doesn't share the same goal but contemporary viewers burst out in laughter in a scene quite unexpected by Yamada. That scene occurs after the car accident. Representatives of the company visit the injured and tries to work out a compensation deal with his family. The neighbours gather outside and gossip. This scene is full of funny moments. The neighbours try to figure out how much the fruit basket costs. A fat lady suggests getting hit herself and asks for compensation. A neighbour laughs, saying the car will be smashed to pieces.

In an earlier scene, after Kenji's shoplifting, his father reminds the grandmother to keep her mouth shut about the incident. At this moment and from the background, a neighbour asks about the shoplifting. The shot composition in this scene is reminiscent of the numerous moments in the Tora-san series when the print shop boss tries to stick his nose in.

Sunshine in the Old Neighbourhood was released in April 1963 and performed poorly at the box office. Since this film was the main feature and intended to milk the recent popularity of Baisho, the poor box office performance was proof enough that the film was disappointing. A notable shortcoming of the film is the scarceness of Baisho's singing. Baisho's hit song is only briefly featured in the opening and the ending. And the mood of this black-and-white is dark and didn't fulfill Shochiku's expectation of "sunshine". Thus Yamada wasted his second chance. But there was a third chance and Yamada finally made his break with a comedy. To be continued.

See also: Yoji Yamada (1): The Beginning of His Career


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