Hankyu Densha: an universe of struggling women on a Kansai railway

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Hankyu Densha, based on the homonymous novel by Hiro Arikawa, is a story about solitude, about deceived characters themselves who can’t find a way out of their problems but struggle to get rid of them. Paradoxically, an old and crowded Japanese train marching from Takarazuka to Nishinomiya Kitaguchi station is the setting for the intertwining solitary lives of a thirty-something bride-to-be, just abandoned by her boyfriend; of a school girl who suffers from isolation and incessant bullying by her classmates; of an obaachan (granma) who lives on remembrances from immemorial times; of a college student, victim of her boyfriend’s choleric fits of rage and jealousy; of a pusillanimous housewife trapped in a world of hypocrisy and sense of obligation; of two “otaku” Kwansei Gakuin students completely out of the fashionable and intolerant trend of the Japanese youth’s clothes and sheepish behavior; and of a high-school girl who sees her longed-for dream vanishing and feels guilty.

They all have things in common: they feel lonely, deluded and betrayed. Maybe the most stunning character is the one played by the once-awarded and many times nominated to best actress by the Japanese Academy Miki Nakatani, whose boyfriend justifies his leaving her for another woman –her 後輩! (her more junior colleague)- because she is strong enough to take care of herself but the new (and pregnant) one really needs him; although revenge is best served cold and she forgives them on the condition that she is invited to the wedding.

But this is also a story of solidarity, about people who see themselves in another person’s sufferings. It’s what we call empathy, that concept so well explained by modern neuroscientists through the construct of “mirror neurons”.
Those who are not capable of experiencing empathy are either stupid, or autistic or pathologically selfish and egomaniac.

The characters, one after the other, advice and interfere positively in one another’s lives. And through this process, each of them becomes aware of their own issues.

The message is clear at the end of the movie: as Shoko claims, “世界でいい部分もある”, in the world there are also good things. Let’s go and take them, no worries about impossible dreams and social conventions.

婚前特急、Konzen Tokyu, merits, demerits and broken condoms.

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When I was in my late teens my recently deceased grandmother used to advise against women in search of a young, handsome and professionally promising husband through disloyal means. Be extremely careful –she would tell me in the terrace of my parents apartment in Madrid and far from my mother’s ears-, when you go with a woman take your own condom -“globito”, little toy balloon, was the word she preferred-, don’t allow her to give you one, because she will have pierced it with a needle and that will be the end of it”. How wise my grandma was and how universal life is, no matter be Spain in the 80’s or Japan nowadays.

Toshiko, the protagonist’s best friend in the recent Japanese movie Konzen Tokyu, Express wedding or Rushing to get married, confesses Chie that she intentionally punched a hole in his boyfriend’s condom so that she could get pregnant and marry him. 24-year-old Chie gets shocked by the wedding announcement, even annoyed; but not so much for her friend’s behavior but because she has gotten a marriage before herself. And she eventually mimics Toshiko; but before that, she must decide which one of the 5 guys she is dating is the most appropriate to do so. In a comedy tone and emulating the infamous Bridget Jones, she writes in her agenda-diary her men’s merits and demerits. There is all kind of ages –from 54 to 19-, personalities –although most of them the 優しい kind type- and professions –from a hairdresser’s owner to a college student who is so young that he is cute (「若くて可愛い」, wakakute kawaii). This is the most hilarious part of the film, I must confess.

On the other side, the depiction of a multidating Japanese young woman might look hyperbolic but it’s not that far from reality in this present society of freedom, fast cell-phone-Facebook communication and lack of specificity: 用事がある, “I already have plans” can be a very effective an enough excuse to reject a date with your boyfriend-girlfriend. If s/he asks for more details, that would be considered rude and nosy, indeed.

The funny part of the story is that the supposedly liberated female protagonist is more traditional than what she believes she is herself and when she hears from one of the guys that he doesn’t consider her as a girlfriend but just as a sex-partner, she is finally aware that she is being used by the 5 guys the same way she is using them: the utilitarian sense of life and our actions many times also have an exact opposite. And she rushes to get back to a more conventional relationship.

Some interesting points and/or script lines in the movie are also stimulating for a good thinking or discussion: a female character tells one of the 5 guys about Chie that since she is beautiful she is allowed everything by everyone and because of that she grew up as a spoiled brat. How true is that and how unfair nature can be sometimes –I can’t stop thinking of Natsuo Kirino’s Grotesque and the story of the two sisters, the beautiful and the ugly one-. Connected with this is how an older person can lose his/her dignity to be with a younger and beautiful one, like the 54-year-old Masayoshi. As a Canadian colleague and friend of mine used to tell me: “Never beg a woman or she will not respect you”. But at the same time, like the writer Bernard Malamud says: “the source of youth is the presence of youth itself”. And that has a price.

There is also the topic of the selection. Which one is finally the chosen one? I won’t be an ending-spoiler but… when I asked a few female friends who haven’t seen the movie yet about it their answers were far different from what implausibly happens in the movie; it’s just a comedy, isn’t it?
The last image of a train leaving with the happy and married couple inside is just a metaphor of their future personal and material life.

Till death do us part

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A serious man, from the Coen Brothers, finally made it to Japan, 京都シネマのおかげで, thanks to Kyoto Cinema, one of Kansai’s independent cinema circuit’s movie theatre. While seeing the movie I wondered what kind of reception would be having in this country.
The film shows life in a small Jewish community in rural Minnesota in the late 60’s. Larry is a forty-something devoted husband and father awaiting for his university tenure position to become a fact, when everything in his life starts to collapse: his wife asks him the divorce so that she can marry (through the Jewish rite) their best friend; he has to move from the house to a nearby motel along with his gifted but socially retarded elder brother who eventually gets arrested for gambling and sodomy; his spoilt children actually despise him and just use him as a means to get a more comfortable life; a student tries to bribe him and subsequently threatens to sue him; anonymous letters start flooding into the tenure committee strongly criticizing him and his moral principles; the community rabbi ignores him; his attorney bill exceeds his budget; and so on.
Male middle-age crisis is said to be a disturbing event but for this poor man seems to be the end of his life. The theme the Japanese audience will be more receptive and sensitive to, I guess, is the marital issue. Strong woman –equivalent to the new 肉食女性 (“carnivore woman”) type in present Japanese society- who demands divorce and kicks the husband out of the house but at the same time asks for pension and mortgage payments.
Relationships in the long term are always difficult and marriage is like a marathon with good moments and also moments of crisis but here in Japan the stories I hear in my surroundings are quite discouraging, whether is an intercultural marriage or one between two Japanese spouses.

Case A: Young couple, both Japanese professionals in their 30’s, married after 2 or 3 years but without knowing each other quite well. Indeed, his family gets to know her only at the engagement party. He introduces her as “こちら、結婚する人です” (This is the woman who is going to get married). They buy a nice house in Osaka using a bank loan and move after the wedding along with the bride’s father, a sixty-something retired widower. Soon after the beginning of cohabitation the couple start living separate lives, he with his computer and game-boy, she at her chores and going out to cafes. The spark that provokes the final quarrel has to be with the finances. The wife expected that after marriage she would have full control of the home economy along with her husband’s salary, which he should religiously hand her every month so that she can decide how much to give him back for his everyday expenses. He refuses to give her his salary and they stop talking to each other. The father-in-law enters the dispute and states that he can’t stand to witness such miserable treatment to his daughter. The divorce is the only way-out. Since there are no kids and both are young and have jobs, separation is fast and easy.

Case B: A senior Japanese colleague of mine tells me the story of the Japanese woman he was married to for quite a few years. Since his salary was higher than hers, they both kept a common bank account where he had all his salary sent to and from which all the home expenses were paid. After almost one year he noticed that, even though they didn’t have many expenses and he hardly withdrew money from that account, it was always close to zero. He finally checked all the movements and found out that his wife had been switching every month considerable amounts of money from that bank account to another one on her name. She got scolded and lost access to the bank account although they would remain married a few more years until later quarrels were to take place.

Case C: An American young womanizer married to a Japanese woman has two kids with her but after his repeated infidelities he is thrown out of the house with all his stuff (indeed he finds one night when coming back home from a binge that the lock has been changed and there are two suitcases outside the door with his things). Afterwards he is forbidden to see his children and told by the woman to forget about them and fly back to America. He decides to stay, hires a lawyer and after 2 years he gets a weekly visit to his 7 and 5 year olds. Eventually he marries again and repeats the ritual of infidelities with consequences still to be seen. Presently he is seeking to have another baby with the new wife.

Case D: A couple by an American young guy and a Japanese young woman is formed in Hawaii while both of them are studying at the university. They get married, move to Japan and everything is happiness until a baby is born. He claims that she has changed completely since then, not paying attention to him anymore if only to scold him for small things and neglecting home despite being a homemaker. He dreams of a new job a hundred of miles away so that he can escape the intra-marital bullying during the week. Recently, they started talking seriously about divorce.

Case E: A hard-working and still attractive Japanese mother of 4 kids at 36 has to deal with a violent and jealous Japanese husband who sporadically assaults her in front of the children. Those times she arrives at the gym where she works as an aquagym trainer with bruises but nobody takes action. She finally follows friends and co-workers’ advice and divorce the guy. Now she works overtime in different places and with the economical help of her parents she can live without the husband. With 4 kids from a previous marriage it’s materially impossible for her to find a new husband if even a partner.

Case F: A Western guy, after a relatively long engagement marries a professional Japanese woman he has met at the university. Just a few weeks after marriage she abruptly comes home one day and states: I quit my job. Against the husband’s will, she becomes a 主婦 (housewife) at 27 and the husband reluctantly ends up being the only earner in the household. After 11 years of marriage, including a few episodes of reverse domestic violence (from the woman towards the man) and no kids, they finally get divorced. Now they are good friends.

Case G: An ex-NOVA Japanese student complains to her Spanish teacher about his good-for-nothing Japanese husband. They have a very small house and her husband salary is very low. Besides, he has the terrible habit of reading and often buys books. She is a home-maker and claims she should have married a man with a higher salary.

Case H: A young and nice Japanese couple is dating for two years. He finally proposes to her and when she is introduced to his family, she is rejected by the mother. They break up and she never gets to know why she was not worthy of the woman’s only son.

Case I: A young university Japanese professor from Kyoto, after obtaining a tenured position, proposes his girlfriend, who lives in Tokyo. Her parents refuse to let her go because she is the youngest and they want her to remain single and take care of them in the future. She rebels, breaks with her parents and marries the guy. They don’t celebrate any wedding ceremony because of the family argument.

Case J: In some Japanese families, when a divorce takes place and there are baby children, sometimes the husband is prevented to see them anymore –as in C, the womanizer’s case- and if the woman manages to marry again, they are raised in the supposition that the woman’s new husband is their biological father. If the children are over 3 years old at the time of the divorce, they might be told that the father has died in an accident. Everything is “for the good of the children”. In a few cases, the divorced woman, due to the stigmatization of divorce, leaves the kid with the grandmother and acts as if she is single with no children, as in Kitano Takeshi’s movie Kikujiro’s Summer, and forms a new family. Well, it could be worse, in some parts of China, baby girls used to be abandoned in train stations due to the one-child policy and the desire to have a baby boy.

Case K: Young couple formed by an American young woman and a Japanese young man, both English teachers, meet at Peace Boat while working as staff there. They start dating and eventually get married. Presently, they live happily in Kyoto sharing interests and friends.

Moral of the stories? You tell me.

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