- Ravi Swami
"Shozo, A Cat & Two Women", Dir: Shiro Toyoda, 1956
Updated: Dec 7, 2020
There is an unintentional pattern emerging in the films I'm watching which is that at least three in the past few days share a release date of 1956, and span wildly differing genres and countries of origin.
True to form, Shiro Toyoda's 1956 film "Shozo, A Cat & Two Women" was a random choice in the streaming service I use, and while I'm fascinated by Japanese cinema in general and in particular cinema that followed in the wake of WWII, I had little idea of the film and certainly had no prior knowledge of it.
Since my lockdown viewing has been a case of watching films I felt I *should* have watched, in the sense of required viewing if you like films, this amusing gem of a film would simply have slipped under the radar.
Based on a novel by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki, Toyoda's film is, on the face of it, a domestic drama that could be easily dismissed as a soap opera - Shozo (Hisaya Morishige) is rather unhappily married and lives with his wife (Isuzu Yamada), his mother (Yuko Minami), and his cat, Lili, in a rural coastal town. His affection for Lili runs so deep that it becomes a source of strife, added to which his wife and mother do not get on.
Shozo's marital problems are compounded by an extramarital affair with a younger, vivacious woman (Kyōko Kagawa) who epitomizes the "modern", emancipated Japanese woman - she wears Western clothes, chews gum and is promiscuous - quite the opposite in fact of Shozo's demure, kimono-wearing wife #1, who doesn't really love Shozo but is guided by tradition to be a loyal and subservient wife.
Shozo's scheming and ambitious mother persuades him to eject his first wife - a housemaid by profession - from the family home and move his girlfriend in, knowing that she will bring a large dowry because of her wealthy father, and allow her to keep her small shop business, but there are strings attached - part of the marriage deal involves giving up some the ownership of the business and the home attached to it, to the new wife's family.
In the middle of this drama is the cat Lili, a source of refuge for the likeable but indolent Shozo, and his main interest besides his new wife, who uses sex to manipulate him and assert herself over both him and his mother.
Shozo's wronged first wife moves in with her sister and concocts a plan to get him back that involves the cat, knowing that he will always put his cat first over and above any relationship and this eventually drives a wedge into his relationship with his new wife.
The film climaxes with a literal 'Cat-Fight" (sorry) between the two women and concludes as Shozo is reunited with Lili in the middle of a downpour as he goes in search of her after the poor animal is thrown out by his first wife in a fit of anger when the hoped-for reunion is once again sabotaged by Shozo's attachment to Lili.
The story fits into a genre in Japanese fiction of browbeaten husbands in a society where cultural and societal constraints on women meant that they had little or no voice, and the film illustrates the postwar tensions that resulted from the influences of Western ideas about sexual equality, but what could easily have been a heavyweight message-laden film is rendered as a gentle domestic farce, possibly appropriate for Japanese audiences in need of relief and the affirmation of old-world values after the horrors of the WWII.
For me, an added bonus and pleasant surprise came from a moment of recognition when Shozo's younger second wife idly sings the lyrics to "Mambo Bacan" ,covered by the popular "Enka" singer Izumi Yukimura, and released in 1956, the same year as the film and whose album I have had on my phone for some time :)