“[T]his drama, broadcast on public radio, became more than a shared group experience: it became fodder for a thriving mass consumer culture that involved all types of mass media from print to broadcasting.” – Jayson Makoto Chun, A Nation of a Hundred Million Idiots?: A Social History of Japanese Television, 1953-1973 (Pg. 45)
“What Is Your Name? offers a vision of a purity of romance that transcends […] the compromises made to survive the chaos of the immediate post-defeat era.” – Isolde Standish, A New History of Japanese Cinema: A Century of Narrative Film (Pg. 200)
In the early 1950s, Japan entered the final chapter of its postwar American Occupation (1945-1952), during which time at-home entertainment flourished to a degree never before seen. While television research, stalled since the war, remained low on the priority list,1 radio broadcasting expanded freely, capitalizing on pre-existent audiences and technology. Japan had conducted its first successful radio transmission in 1897, one year after Guglielmo Marconi’s pioneering research in Europe, and radio reports on enemy movement have been cited as a factor in the nation’s swift victory in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905).2 Despite the government’s hesitance on allowing new technology into non-military hands, Japanese public broadcasting debuted in the mid-’20s; by the end of World War II, 62% of urban homes and 39% of rural residences had at least one radio set.3 And following the surrender of 1945, the Occupation authorities encouraged continued use of radio—in particular, the broadcasting of English lessons as part of their mission to “democratize” the Land of the Rising Sun.4
Radio consumerism persisted after the Occupation ended in 1952. That year, a survey by NHK (Nippon Hoso Kyokai — Japan Broadcasting Corporation) found that the average Japanese listened to 3 hours and 27 minutes of radio on weekdays and up to 4 hours and 27 minutes on Sundays.5 And with the foreign authorities—and their media censorship programs — now gone, Japanese artists were free to tell stories in virtually any manner they chose. While some lambasted the nation which had subjugated them, others used wartorn/occupied Japan as a backdrop for old-fashioned melodrama — in effect modernizing time-tested entertainment formulas.
Japanese audiences have historically gravitated to tragic love stories — namely those about endlessly suffering women and weak-willed men. The early 20th century theatrical genre shinpa essentially became dedicated to such plots: geisha loved by rich patrons too timid to challenge social divides and marry them; country girls abandoned with child by fame-seeking beaus who return to them as failures.6 Established consumer demographics meant this kind of sentiment could easily migrate between media formats—especially at the film company Shochiku, whose early output in the 1920s largely consisted of adapted shinpa dramas, and who later produced Hiromasa Nomura’s The Compassionate Buddha Tree (1938). The latter, a romantic drama based on a popular serialized novel, blew away prewar box office records, spawned a chain of sequels, and has since been remade/imitated a number of times.
Romantic media thrived during the Occupation years. (Between 1945-1950, 25% of Japanese movies focused on romance.)7 While censorship forbade heroic depictions of militarism, apolitical — or pro-democratic — love stories generally cleared the American authorities’ scissors. (Keisuke Kinoshita’s 1947 Marriage was precisely the sort of the film that appealed to the Occupation: about a young woman persuading her family to let her marry for love rather than gain. Though it is worth noting the censors tended to be lenient on the subject of arranged matrimony; while denouncing the practice on paper, they allowed Kinoshita’s later Here’s to the Young Lady and Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring, both about that subject, to be made in 1949.) In subsequent decades, the “weak man and suffering woman” trope occasionally wavered — i.e., moving to television in the ‘60s as yakuza films satisfied an increasingly male audience—but remains prevalent. Today, one finds a multitude of “sick girl love stories”: Japanese movies and TV shows about the vibrant young lady who loses her heart to the quiet guy in the room and is later bedridden with some awful disease; all her beau can do is watch her wither away.8
Flashing back to the early 1950s, during the “Golden Age of Radio”: weepy escapism, regardless of media format, still attracted audiences in droves — as demonstrated by the multimedia phenomenon What Is Your Name? Taking inspiration from a foreign tearjerker, this story about star-crossed lovers began as a serialized radio drama and attained such heights of popularity that it spanned numerous entertainment venues and produced one of the big commercial sensations of the post-Occupation era. While hardly an artistic landmark, it remains a noteworthy chapter in the history of Japanese mass media—and a time capsule embodying a nation reeling from the effects of war and postwar change.
The genesis of the show under discussion traces back to a 1940 Mervyn LeRoy film called Waterloo Bridge,9 about an army captain (Robert Taylor) and a ballerina (Vivien Leigh) who meet on the eponymous bridge during the London air raids of World War I. Loosely remade from James Whale’s 1931 film of the same name — itself adapted from a Robert E. Sherwood stage play — Waterloo Bridge was a romantic tragedy: the captain and the ballerina plan to marry, but their chance at happiness is lost when he is summoned to the front and penury/sadness lead to her selling her body. LeRoy’s film arrived in Japanese theaters in the late ‘40s, and one can see its influence in What Is Your Name?
Written by playwright Kazuo Kikuta,10 the What Is Your Name? radio drama took an initial cue from Waterloo Bridge by opening in wartime: its protagonists, Haruki Atomiya and Machiko Ujiie, meet amid the 1945 Tokyo firebombings; taking refuge in the same shelter and immediately smitten with one another, they promise to meet again in six months, choosing a bridge (Sukiyabashi, in the Ginza District) as their rendezvous point. After Japan’s surrender to the Allied Powers,11 Machiko’s summoned to Sado Island by an uncle wishing to marry her off and thus misses her appointment with Atomiya. Upon finding out Machiko’s unhappily betrothed, Atomiya follows the “weak man” formula by passively wishing her the best. Alas, circumstances keep drawing the couple together; and while they never commit adultery, the deep love between them is all too apparent to those determined to keep them apart. Mixed with this central narrative are subplots involving poverty and the sex trade, domestic clashes between housewives and domineering mothers-in-law, and rising modernity in a nation under western influence. Only after Machiko has suffered heartbreak and bad health is she reunited with her love for good. (Not the result of any initiative on Atomiya’s part; simply because those standing in their way at last allow them to be together.)
What Is Your Name? started broadcasting on April 10, 1952 (mere weeks before the end of the Occupation) and quickly exploded into a sensation. Running on NHK every Thursday from 8:30-9:00 p.m., it proved so popular that the women’s’ side of public bathhouses emptied during airtime. In the provincial city of Kiryu, Gunma Prefecture, a farmer named Tsutomo Ono surveyed twenty-five women of various ages and backgrounds (factory workers, office girls, housewives) and found all but one had listened to the show. Ono’s wife, herself employed in one of the city’s many textile factories, noted that colleagues stopped their machines whenever What Is Your Name? came on—even though it meant a loss of income, as they were paid on a piece rate basis. (“Since I knew the poverty of these workers,” wrote Ono, “I was surprised at the attraction of the radio drama.”) In another factory, employees reported for work at 4 a.m., which allowed them to return home early and listen in.12
As Ono discovered, listeners had various reasons to take interest in this particular melodrama. Young, unmarried women were drawn to the platonic romance: “[I]t might happen to anyone.” “All of us heard the program as if we were Machiko.” Housewives, by contrast, were “deeply interested” in the tension between Machiko and the aggressive mother-in-law who later regrets driving her away: “It is a good teacher for our married life.” “I am a mother-in-law and want to have a pleasant home, so I want to hear that sort of drama.” The men Ono surveyed generally expressed no interest in the show, declaring it “nonsense,” although those who’d listened with their wives confessed: “It is not so bad.”13
Secondary storylines are also worth considering in deciphering the show’s appeal. For while Atomiya and Machiko survive the war seemingly without consequence — they always have well-off friends or comfortable homes to run to — other characters are hindered by the aftermath of wartime devastation. Atomiya’s companions include a former soldier caught smuggling; a pan-pan girl left with a child of mixed heritage; a sister who is mistaken for a streetwalker and arrested. Per the editors of Weekly Asahi History of the Showa Period, it was the depiction of postwar suffering and the chaste romance, together, that struck a chord with listeners. “[The secondary] characters in the story, due to war, are all burdened with an unhappy past. The sad circumstances of these characters aroused great sympathy and people centered their compassion on them, but at the same time, the love between Haruki and Machiko […] appear more beautiful than possible in a world such as this.”14 Tsutomo Ono offered the following summary in his study: “[A]s seen from the responses, admiration for beauty and purity still remains. […] The people in this story are […] figures familiar to everyone.”15 Widespread, devoted audiences resulted in What Is Your Name? breaking records with a rating of 49%.16
Immense popularity resulted in cross-platform adaptation: the radio show was converted first into a bestselling book and was soon after sold to the movies. Shochiku topped The Compassionate Buddha Tree’s box office record when they adapted What Is Your Name? into a trilogy of motion pictures — released from September 1953 to April 1954. These movies followed the radio drama faithfully, with few deviations, and per one estimate drew in an audience equal to one third of the nation’s total populace. (Tsutomo Ono’s study documents impoverished factory workers paying 2-3 days’ wages on taxi fare to get to the theater.)17
The film trilogy also unleashed a commercialism synergy that even the radio drama had been unable to produce. A popular album was made from the movies’ theme song (itself recycled from the radio show and featuring background music by Yuji Koseki, who assumed scoring responsibilities on all three films and, later, Ishiro Honda’s 1961 fantasy Mothra). The two leads’ wardrobes became lucrative clothing items: Japanese stores stockpiled “Haruki pants” for men, and millions of women scrambled to get their own “Machiko stole,” a head garment worn in the films by actress Keiko Kishi. The latter accessory was even exported to Korea, despite audiences there not having seen any of the What Is Your Name? films. Additional items in the “Machiko” brand included bathrobes, bathing suits, kimono, neckties, even non-clothing items such as pencils, perfume, harmonicas, and chinaware.18
As tour companies escorted clientele to filming locations across Japan, profits from the movies and tie-in merchandise allowed Shochiku to modernize and re-equip its production facilities—as well as establish the Shochiku Motion Picture Science Institute for the purpose of improving technical efficiency.19 And behind the scenes, a number of careers were boosted by the trilogy’s success. To begin with, there was vice president Shiro Kido. One of the key figures in the history of Japanese cinema, Kido had been instrumental in resuscitating Shochiku’s Kamata studio after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923; his guidance also helped shape the genre shomin-geki (films about the lives of the lower middle class) into its recognizable form.20 Because of his cooperation with Japan’s wartime government — which included taking credit for an article in the 1939 Film Law mandating the showing of culture films in moviehouses21 — Kido was recommended for permanent industry expulsion by the Occupation.22 The banishment only lasted until 1950, and following the immense profits of What Is Your Name?, Kido reached his career peak. Despite his having no direct involvement in the trilogy’s production, its success elevated him to the role of company president.23
Director Hideo Oba had been an established filmmaker since 1939, his past efforts including the thriller Woman in the Midst of the Typhoon (1948) and The Bells of Nagasaki (1951), one of few Occupation-era Japanese movies to address the atomic bomb.24 Despite being saddled with a contrivance-riddled story on What Is Your Name?, Oba turned out three watchable pictures through smooth guidance of the actors and — with assistance from cinematographer Takeshi Saito — a striking visual flair. He would continue directing until his retirement in the late ‘60s; meanwhile, What Is Your Name? launched his two stars to fame. Keiko Kishi, who plays Machiko, in particular, formed an impressive subsequent career in pictures such as Yasujiro Ozu’s Early Spring (1956), Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza (1974), and several films directed by Masaki Kobayashi. Co-star Keiji Sada, perfectly cast as Atomiya, became one of Japan’s most in-demand male stars and maintained his popularity until his death in a car wreck in 1964.
Aside from its historical importance in Japanese commercial entertainment, What Is Your Name? is most fascinating as a time capsule. Amid the story’s contrivances and unrelenting sentiment emerge interesting glimpses of postwar Japan. In a scene set in 1948, a middle-aged woman remarks that she hasn’t seen a Kabuki play in several years. While the script doesn’t elaborate on historical context, this line of dialogue has basis in reality. Classic Kabuki had been temporarily outlawed by the Occupation—due to frequent subjects of feudalism and revenge; however, the red tape was partially alleviated in the late ‘40s (when the above mentioned scene takes place) thanks to Faubion Bowers, an aide to General Douglas MacArthur — and fan of Kabuki — who transferred to the theater censorship division and negotiated leeway for the genre.25
As mentioned earlier, much of the story transpires amid the ruins of devastated Tokyo, secondary narrative threads focusing on those struggling through day-to-day existence. Atomiya’s sister, in the radio version, was merely mistaken for a streetwalker and arrested; in the films she is manipulated into visiting what appears to be a respectable employment office — and is instead trapped into the sex trade. Another subplot follows the pan-pan girl carrying the child of an American soldier — and the resultant prejudice from society. At one point, the kid is injured in an auto accident and a passenger in a nearby car, upon learning of the child’s heritage, merely comments “What a bother!” An earlier scene features bureaucrats debating Japan’s “need” to maintain racial purity. (“There’s something wrong with women who give birth to mixed race children.” To which Atomiya replies by pointing out the Japanese race’s origins as a mix of different ethnicities.) The script promotes compassion for people deemed lower on the “respectability” scale: understanding characters give respectable jobs to both the sister and the pan-pan girl; later, our weak-willed hero captures the heart of an Ainu girl, who is presented as a tragic figure — though the script fails to delve into the historical discrimination this indigenous group has faced.
While assuming an ostensibly progressive outlook, What Is Your Name?’s attitude toward modernity is rather two-sided: supporting the notion of marrying for love, but sympathetic for older generations under threat from social change, even questioning those who’ve embraced westernization to a radical extreme. In 1898, the Meiji Civil Code described an ideal Japanese family system as “strengthened by such Confucian precepts as filial obligation [and one that] privileged the elderly.” However, as a result of the Occupation’s wish to “democratize” Japan, this came to be replaced by the Civil Code of 1948: the new promoted direction for the Japanese was “the dignity of the individual, equality of the sexes, and high regard for offspring.”26 In the late 1940s and early ‘50s, more and more young Japanese sought lives of total independence upon reaching adulthood, the previous generation in effect being left to fend for itself. (A popular book in the 1950s was even titled Children Who Do Not Look After Their Parents.)27 This phenomenon appears in What Is Your Name?, with Machiko’s mother-in-law representing the victim and a highly westernized Japanese woman the aggressor.
A frequent negative stereotype in 1920s and ‘30s Japanese media was the modan garu (“modern girl”): typically represented as a free spirit clad in Occidental clothing. This stereotype reappears in What Is Your Name?, updated to represent the extreme independence felt among many young Japanese. Machiko’s husband plans to remarry: to a westernized Japanese girl outspoken in her intent on living with just her husband, in a “small but very modern” home. (“If we have to be mindful of each other,” the fiancée says in explaining why she won’t co-exist with parents, “then we can’t really enjoy life. […] That’s my first condition for marriage.”) When the mother-in-law, fearful of spending the rest of her days in loneliness, broaches the subject with her son, he openly blames her for driving away Machiko who, despite being trapped in a passionless marriage, sincerely tried to make everyone happy. Realizing this, she then journeys to Kyushu to find Machiko and tearfully begs her to return home. She ends up bedridden and nursed back to health by the daughter she mistreated and willingly returns home without her. Though she’s no longer in danger, as her son’s given up on remarriage; and both now realize the emotional suffering they put Machiko through, wishing her to find happiness with Atomiya instead. Only then does the husband grant Machiko the divorce she needs to be with the man she loves.
Throughout this long saga, the Occupation authorities are mentioned on occasion but never shown or outright villainized; the struggle presented is one among the Japanese as they adapt to new situations. Author Kazuo Kikuta, in describing his original radio drama, said: “In the provinces there are many people who are still suffering under traditional thought and customs. I hope they will not have to endure an unhappy married life like Machiko’s.” And yet, as we have seen through his characters — the weak-willed man, the endlessly suffering love interest, the feudalistic mother-in-law regretting her ways, the outspoken westernized girl — What Is Your Name? doesn’t support extreme modernization as a solution. As rightly noted in Tsutomo Ono’s study, the two leads are “neither extremely traditional nor extremely progressive,”28 too passive to shape their own destiny, achieving happiness when it’s given to them. (From the beginning, the characters actively campaigning for Atomiya and Machiko’s union were their friends — the people eking out a day-to-day living — and the ones who ultimately grant leniency are those who’ve dispensed with feudal ways.) And from that perspective, the mawkish and dewy-eyed What Is Your Name? is rather fascinating: an old-fashioned Japanese melodrama updated within the context of modern times.
References and further reading:
- In addition to greater interest in reconstruction efforts, General Douglas MacArthur, the official in charge of the Occupation, deemed television an unnecessary luxury item inappropriate for a destitute nation. Source: Partner, Simon. Assembled in Japan: Electrical Goods and the Making of the Japanese Consumer. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999, pp. 72-3
- Ibid, p. 14
- Ibid, p. 41
- Chun, Jayson Makoto. A Nation of a Hundred Million Idiots?: A Social History of Japanese Television, 1953-1973. New York: Routledge, 2007, p. 43
- Ibid, p. 111
- Sato, Tadao. Translated by Gregory Barrett. Currents in Japanese Cinema. New York: Kodansha International, Ltd., 1982, p. 20
- Minami, Hiroshi. “A Survey of Postwar Japanese Movies” in Kato, Hidetoshi (ed.). Japanese Popular Culture: Studies in Mass Communication and Cultural Change. Vermont: Tuttle, 1959, p. 127
- One also finds a plethora of “sick girl love stories” from South Korea, and specific films in this subgenre have been remade between Japan and Korea. For instance: Isao Yukisada’s Crying Out Love, in the Center of the World (2004) became Jeon Yun-su’s My Girl and I (2011).
- Anderson, Joseph L. and Donald Richie. The Japanese Film: Art and Industry (Expanded Edition). Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982, p. 261
- A major figure in 20th century Japanese theater, Kikuta staged Japanese versions of musicals such as My Fair Lady, Fiddler on the Roof, and Man of La Mancha. He also wrote the 1966 musical Scarlett—based on Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind—whose first production was performed by Toho’s theatrical division (Kikuta had been its managing director since 1955). Scarlett has since been translated and performed in other nations. Source: “Kazuo Kikuta, 65, Playwright And Producer, Led Toho Troupe.” The New York Times, 6 April 1973
- What Is Your Name? appears to have been primarily influenced by the 1940 version of Waterloo Bridge, which opened in the midst of war and continued in peacetime—whereas the 1931 version and the original stage play began and ended in World War I.
- Anderson and Richie, p. 261; Ono, Tsutomo. “An Analysis of Kimi No Wa (What Is Your Name?) A Serial Radio Drama” in Japanese Popular Culture: Studies in Mass Communication and Cultural Change, pp. 151-164
- Ono, pp. 155-157
- Standish, Isolde. A New History of Japanese Cinema: A Century of Narrative Film. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd. p. 200
- Ono, pp. 156-7
- Standish, p. 200
- Anderson and Richie, p. 261 and Ono, p. 154
- Anderson and Richie, p. 261
- Schilling, Mark. Shiro Kido: Cinema Shogun. E-book, 2012
- High, Peter B. The Imperial Screen: Japanese Film Culture in the Fifteen Years’ War, 1931-1945. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003, p. 121
- Ibid, p. 506
- It is worth noting, however, that The Bells of Nagasaki wasn’t allowed to be filmed until after revisions ordered by the Occupation censors. The film’s source book, too, had been subjected to censorship prior to release. Source: Hirano, Kyoko. Mr. Smith Goes to Tokyo: Japanese Cinema Under the American Occupation, 1945-1952. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992, pp. 63-6
- Ibid, p. 66
- Desser, David (ed.). Ozu’s Tokyo Story. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 31
- Dore, R.P. City Life in Japan: A Study of a Tokyo Ward. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1958, p. 135
- Ono, pp. 157-61