Nijiko KiyokawaMikio NaruseHeihachiro OkawaRyuko Umezono
Five Men in the Circus
Medium: film
Year: 1935
Director: Mikio Naruse
Writer: Roppa Furukawa, Kohei Ima, Ryuji Nagami
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Actor: Masako Tsutsumi, Ryuko Umezono, Heihachiro Okawa, Hiroshi Uruki, Kamatari Fujiwara, Riki Miyagawa, Ko Mihashi, Sadao Maruyama, Masako Sanjo, Kajiya Morino, Koji Kaga, Nijiko Kiyokawa
Format: 65 minutes
Website category: Japanese old
Review date: 7 January 2014
It's one of Mikio Naruse's first sound films, after he'd quit the Shochiku film company. It's about travelling circus people. It's not much fun and I shouldn't think it's a particularly popular film of his, but it's interesting for what it's saying about 1930s Japan.
What's distinctive about its circus people is that they don't like their lives. "You should quit a job like this. There's nothing good about being an itinerant entertainer." The more principled, likeable characters will also be the ones who are planning to run away from this life and get married, settle down, have an ordinary family, become a recognised violinist, etc. It's a community of people who hate this way of life. One of them makes a semi-conscious suicide attempt. "I've thought many times about running away. That was when I was young and naive."
This is no fun to watch. Either do it or don't do it! Stop moaning about it! Compare all this with Tod Browning's love of American carnivals and circus life, as shown in a number of his films from approximately the same era. It's like the difference between night and day. Browning's circus people can't imagine anything away from sawdust and the ring. They live for it. They form their own communities, as shown most notoriously in Freaks. They're different and proud of it.
Japan, on the other hand, is a country where my language students found it incomprehensible that the word "eccentric" in English could have positive connotations. The circus people here see nothing to celebrate in what they are. Admittedly some don't seem to mind the travelling life, but those are the thieves, liars and pranksters, drawing faces on a sleeping man's bald head or putting insects down someone's back.
In short, circus life is being shown here to be almost shameful. It's an environment of childishness and moral degredation and the only good people are miserable and want to get out. Oh, and family bonds are either missing (orphans), broken (deserted husbands) or unhappy.
Personally I don't like all this, but it's undeniably a strong and consistent viewpoint. It has something to say and it's saying it. It's also a reflection of its culture and its era, so the film is artistically coherent and worth your time from at least that point of view. What's perhaps less successful is that the film's cast is a bit sprawling and lacks focus. The characters include:
1. The title's Five Men, who are in fact musicians rather than clowns, acrobats or anything like that. They're a wandering brass band, trying to live off gigs like school sports days that are about to get cancelled. One's a womaniser. The others are merely prone to sexual harassment. There's a scene where the womaniser gets caught out in a lie about a stomach ache and everyone's laughing as if it's Scooby Doo. That scene doesn't work.
2. There's a different circus, which already has a band. Unfortunately they're about to go on strike at the owner's attitude.
3. That owner is being horrible to everyone because he was devastated when his wife left him. We can sympathise, but that's still not a reason to be a cock.
4. There's a minor motif of fathers and daughters. The owner has two daughters, both of whom would like to leave, while another old man regrets something he did a long time ago. "I abandoned a child. If she's still alive, she'd be about ten now." He's the film's best character, especially in his relationship with that ten-year-old girl. I liked his scenes.
5. Both daughters have slightly haunting relationships with men. Both have desires. Neither is looking likely to act on them and/or get those desires fulfilled. They'll stay with the circus, unless of course they die first.
There are some strong scenes and poignant almost-relationships tucked away in this movie. They'll linger with you, if you let them. The woman pursuing the womaniser. (The moment where she cries in a suppressed fashion is the one where we first see her point of view, but I found myself feeling sorry for her later in the scene where she's giving presents to all the Five Men.) The not-daughter. The sad lack of applause for the singer, after he's been all but dragged on stage to do something he's not trained for. The still worse reaction to the violinist. The roads not taken.
This is like watching several overlapping films. There's a strong Mikio Naruse movie here, mixed in with an drifting semi-narrative about the circus life and its insalubrious or unhappy characters. There's a movie about difficult families. There's another about poverty. On the other hand, I think there's also attempted humour, but it's not particularly successful and Naruse would do better in other films. Personally I wouldn't really recommend this one, but it's thought-provoking and I'd never just dismiss it as "bad".