Filmmakers in Gritty Tokyo, Not a Cherry Blossom in Sight

What is shitamachi, besides the title of a major series of Japanese movies starting Friday at Film Forum? Easier to say what it’s not. It’s not tea ceremonies in the imperial gardens. It’s not high fashion in Harajuku or the neon frenzy of Shibuya. It’s definitely not Bill Murray lounging, lost in translation, in the minimalist splendor of the Shinjuku Park Hyatt.

The full name of the 38-film series, “Shitamachi: Tales of Downtown Tokyo,” offers a partial explanation. But having begun as a designation for the eastern, low-lying, more working-class areas of the Japanese capital when it was still called Edo, shitamachi has lost some of its geographic specificity through centuries marked by earthquakes, fires, bombings and chaotic growth. (Ginza may now be Tokyo’s high-end shopping district, but when Mikio Naruse made “Ginza Cosmetics” in 1951, it was still shitamachi.)

Through time the word has come to refer to quadrants of the mind as much as the map, denoting a rambunctious spirit, an earthy frankness, a mercantile impulse and a healthy grudge against the upper classes who oppress and marginalize. It also implies nostalgia, for better times that might have come before the shogunate, or before World War II, or before the great recession of the early 1990s.

While the films in the series may not always be tied to particular neighborhoods, this shared sensibility translates into the physical environment. You know you’re in shitamachi cinema when you’re in a cramped, crowded alley lined by nagaya, the traditional family rowhouses, as in Sadao Yamanaka’s prototypical shitamachi story, “Humanity and Paper Balloons” (1937).

You might also find yourself in a bustling brothel (Yuzo Kawashima’s “Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate,” 1957), wandering through a sketchy street market (Akira Kurosawa’s “Stray Dog,” 1949), in the shadow of giant smokestacks (Heinosuke Gosho’s “Where Chimneys Are Seen,” 1953) or picking up orders to go from the catchily named No Kidding Noodles (Kawashima’s “Suzaki Paradise,” 1956).

And you will end up, in nearly every movie, alongside or above a river, usually the Sumida, which passes through shitamachi-identified wards like Adachi, Arakawa, Sumida, Koto and Taito. Barges, warehouses and scrubby, empty patches of riverbank are constant motifs. The water separates the fictional red-light district Suzaki Paradise from the more respectable but grindingly poor and boring environs on the other side. The singing and dancing anti-imperial protesters of Shohei Imamura’s “Eijanaika” (1981) run into violent reality when they try to cross the river into the tonier precincts of Nihonbashi. Much of the action of “Where Chimneys Are Seen” takes place in the shadow of a towering levee that doesn’t keep the river from flooding the neighborhood when the rains are heavy.

Building around the flexible concept of shitamachi has allowed the guest programmer of the Film Forum series, Aiko Masubuchi, to put together something quite different than the usual Japanese film roundup. Rather than two weeks of the Yasujiro Ozu or Akira Kurosawa canon or a collection of samurai or yakuza favorites, the series is a cross-section of the country’s cinema, roaming periods (from Ozu’s 1933 “Woman of Tokyo” to Nami Iguchi’s 2004 “The Cat Leaves Home”) and genres.

Familiar titles like Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” and Ozu’s “Tokyo Story” share the schedule with virtually unknown (in America) films like “Kigeki: Nippon No Obaachan,” Tadashi Imai’s 1962 comedy about a pair of rogue grandmothers, or “Shitamachi Sunshine,” a 1963 romantic melodrama directed by Yoji Yamada, overseer of the long-running Tora-san series (itself a prime example of shitamachi). Masubuchi estimates that roughly half of the 38 films have not received theatrical distribution in the United States.

Pure genre films are the exception, but they’re present — Seijun Suzuki’s “Kanto Wanderer” (1963) is a B-movie yakuza entertainment, but the small-time scrambling of the gangsters, the nostalgia for a more prosperous and chivalrous era and the harborside Shinagawa setting are all shitamachi signifiers.

The majority of the series, however, represents what is known as shomin-geki, or realist, slice-of-life movies usually about working-class characters. It’s a style heavily associated with Ozu and Naruse, who between them are represented by seven films.

Of more interest, though, are less familiar examples like “Humanity and Paper Balloons,” which Masubuchi — who grew up on the east side of Tokyo in shitamachi areas — called the classic shitamachi film, one that lays the groundwork for the genre.

The film opens as the residents of a claustrophobic alley react to the suicide of a neighbor, with curiosity but also with irritation when the investigation keeps them from getting to work. It all turns out well, though, when the barber Shinza (Kan’emon Nakamura) baits their landlord into supplying sake for a wake that turns into a raucous block party.

Yamanaka, in his last film, neatly balances the comedy of the small community’s scrappy recalcitrance with the story’s darker strains. Unno (Chojuro Kawarasaki), a down-on-his-luck samurai, stoically endures a string of humiliations as he tries to collect on a debt owed to his dead father. The rebellious Shinza, meanwhile, who won’t accept that a man of his station can’t do whatever he wants, is regularly beaten and harassed. Standing up for yourself in shitamachi is a difficult and dangerous business.

Perhaps the best discovery of the series is “Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate,” a finely honed comedy that placed 40th in a list that Akira Kurosawa’s daughter compiled of 100 of her father’s favorite movies. Like “Paper Balloons” it’s set within a self-contained community, taking place mostly inside a brothel that serves as a crossroads for its Shinagawa neighborhood. Samurai, monks, con men, noodle sellers and peddlers of books and kimonos pass through, on easy terms with the squabbling prostitutes and a browbeaten crew of serving boys.

In true shitamachi fashion, fellowship does not prevent anyone on the premises from sponging or grifting. The monks don’t tip, the samurai don’t pay and a carpenter whose tools are held against his debt gets them back by selling his daughter to the house. The hero of the piece, the “wastrel” Saheiji (Frankie Sakai), puts off paying his bill by simply refusing to leave. Shitamachi may be “a region that is both physical and imagined, with very blurry borders,” as Masubuchi says, but when you’re there you know exactly where you are.

“Shitamachi: Tales of Downtown Tokyo” runs through Nov. 7 at Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, Manhattan,

Mike Hale is a television critic. He also writes about online video, film and media. He came to The Times in 1995 and worked as an editor in Sports, Arts & Leisure and Weekend Arts before becoming a critic in 2009. @mikehalenyt Facebook

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