Keisuke Kinoshita’s Marriage: Love in the Occupation of Japan

    On August 27, 1945—mere weeks after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and six days before the official surrender to the Allied Powers—the postwar occupation of Japan effectively began when western military forces landed in Tokyo Harbor. Although he wouldn’t arrive for another three days, the United States’s Gen. Douglas MacArthur was placed in charge of the occupation as SCAP (Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers) and tasked with “re-educating” the Japanese people. Per many U.S. politicians of the time, extreme nationalism and militarism had pushed Japan into its earlier expansionist history; MacArthur’s mission was to quench said influences and transform the island country into the “Switzerland of Asia.” Fully aware of the media’s influence on the public, he authorized the immediate creation of the Information Dissemination Section for the purpose of censoring Japanese literature, radio, and—of course—movies.1

    On September 22, the Information Dissemination Section was rebranded the CI&E (Civil Information & Education) section2 and initiated new directives on what was allowed, not allowed, and recommended in Japanese motion pictures henceforth. In addition to identifying forbidden subjects—e.g., nationalism, militarism, and themes of vengeance—the CI&E advocated making new films that promoted democratic values. Favorable topics included soldiers reintegrating into society (Hiroshi Shimizu’s 1948 Children of the Beehive), the emancipation of women (Akira Kurosawa’s 1946 No Regrets for Our Youth), the peaceful formation of labor unions (1946’s Those Who Make Tomorrow, directed by Kurosawa, Kajiro Yamamoto, and Hideo Sekigawa), and social tendencies such as young people obeying their hearts—rather than their parents—in determining who they marry.

    One of the directors most active on this latter front was Keisuke Kinoshita. The son of grocers in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, Kinoshita decided at age eight that his destiny was to become a movie director and as a child even attempted to run away to Kyoto (where most period films were shot). After graduating from a photography school, he started his film career in the laboratory department at Shochiku’s Tokyo location, later became chief cinematographer to Yasujiro Shimazu, graduated to the role of assistant director, and in 1943 began helming movies of his own.3

    Kinoshita’s later role as a director of democratic films was, in some ways, foreshadowed by his wartime efforts. Despite their outwardly fascist appearance, these films often included moments of pacifism and forward thinking. 1944’s Army, for instance, followed militaristic parents transforming their weak son into a dedicated soldier but concluded with the mother tearfully chasing her child through the street as he marches toward deployment. Tadao Ikeda’s screenplay had simply described the mother seeing her son off, leaving the finer details up to the director,3 and Kinoshita delivered an emotional climax implying anti-militaristic sentiment. Although critics and filmmakers have argued more nuanced interpretations of this ending, the finale allegedly provoked accusations of treason;4 the Information Ministry denounced Army as an anti-war film;5 and Kinoshita consequently didn’t direct again for the remainder of World War II.

    Also noteworthy in these early films was sympathy for the romantic pursuits of young Japanese. The overtly nationalistic The Living Magoroku (1943) contained a subplot focusing on an interclass couple initially forbidden to marry but who ultimately receive blessings to be together; a young woman in Jubilation Street (1944) resists efforts to be married off, electing to wait for the man she loves, and even receives an apology from her meddlesome mother. This empathy continued—and was welcomed—in Kinoshita’s films of the immediate occupation years: a daughter in Morning for the Osone Family (1946) rejects an arranged marriage proposed by her militaristic uncle; a repatriated soldier in The Girl I Loved (1946) peacefully allows his crush to marry the man of her choosing.

    Then came the director’s 1947 gem Phoenix, which placed the clash between young couples and disapproving parents at the forefront and featured physical acts of affection previously outlawed in Japanese movies. The nation’s pre-war censors associated kissing with western behavior and the most private of acts between married couples; as a result, love scenes in foreign movies were typically axed, and Japanese films with kissing scenes were yanked from distribution—even if they managed to initially clear the censors, as was the case with Keisuke Sasaki’s Women Are in Every World (1931). But once the CI&E came into power and began actively encouraging love scenes—under the argument that Japanese needed to outwardly express their feelings—more and more films began showing scenes of physical love, sometimes for sensational effect, other times to accentuate relations between the characters. Kinoshita’s Phoenix featured two moments of unsimulated kissing between stars Keiji Sada and Kinuyo Tanaka and treated them as emotional climaxes in the story.6

    Although not as strong a film as Phoenix, in some ways Kinoshita’s next project, Marriage (1947), was his ultimate depiction of romance in occupied Japan, as it cast its young lovers and their plight within the confines of an actively struggling society. Kinoshita’s previous films glossed over postwar hardships: The Morning for the Osone Family concluded with the dawn of occupied Japan and looked positively toward the future; The Girl I Loved acknowledged World War II but didn’t passionately address major changes thrust upon the nation; and Phoenix, set primarily in wartime, shied from addressing negative consequences of foreign control. However, while the CI&E and CCD (Civil Censorship Detachment, the military board that screened finished movies prior to release) outlawed criticism of the occupation, Japanese films of the late ‘40s increasingly showcased the immense poverty that was sweeping over the country. Kinoshita’s Marriage was one such film, following two young people struggling to find happiness amid a society overrun with stagflation.

    The Housing Census of 1948—conducted one year after the film under discussion—found that 2-6% of Tokyo households consisted of “temporary housing, generally built by the resident himself, [often] sheds constructed with metal sheets, scrap lumber, etc., temporary shelters made in burnt buildings and those covered with tent or marshreed screens.”7 The dramatis personae of Marriage aren’t quite as bad off, as they live in a traditional home, but nonetheless must contend the widespread unemployment and surging prices. (The national wage index of 1947 was a harrowing 20, compared to the index of 100 from ten years earlier.)8 In an early scene, a mother (Chieko Higashiyama), her youngest grown daughter (Kuniko Igawa, the romantic interest in The Girl I Loved), and her adolescent son (Shozo Suzuki) sit around their table talking about: how only the family’s daughters are drawing income; how the son might have to drop out of school to save money; how they’re resorted to pawning possessions to pay bills; how prices keep rising; and how there’s no end in sight for the dire situation they live in. Complications deepen when the father (Eijiro Tono) turns down a well-paying job upon learning his prospective boss is profiteering—and serving a clientele of fellow profiteers—while the working class continually suffers. Due to these financial woes, the elder sister, Fumie (Kinuyo Tanaka), puts off marrying her fiancé, Sugawara (Ken Uehara).

    Kinuyo Tanaka had previously enacted the controversial climax of Kinoshita’s Army, then came to represent young Japanese seeking romantic emancipation in Phoenix; now she was a working-class daughter sacrificing happiness for her family’s survival. In Marriage, the war separated Fumie and Sagawara for three years, mass poverty keeping them from tying the knot an additional eighteen months. However, compared to Kinoshita’s previous film, familial opposition is a significantly less contending force. Fumie’s parents, from the beginning, have given their blessing; Sagawara’s ailing mother (who remains off-screen throughout the movie) tries to dissuade the union simply on the grounds that Fumie’s parents might not financially recover anytime soon; through a mediating sister (Yukiko Kuji), she tries to persuade her son to marry someone else. At the picture’s end, Sagawara receives word that his mother’s close to death; in what surely pleased the occupation censors, Fumie’s parents encourage her to accompany him to his hometown in Kyushu, to pursue her own life and happiness.

    The screenplay, by director Kinoshita and Kaneto Shindo, uses extensions of the poverty theme to further enhance the era in which this picture was made. One striking—albeit narratively inconsequential—“time capsule” moment consists of Sugawara and Fumie watching labor union activists march through the city. As mentioned earlier, the peaceful formation of labor unions was among the subjects heartily recommended to Japanese filmmakers in the occupation’s early years—as it was likewise being encouraged to working class people at this time. 1946 had witnessed new legislation such as the Labor Union Law and the Labor Relation Arbitration Law, and the movies were among the industries nurturing organized labor. In 1946, the All-Japan Film Employee Union Association—a parent organization for the studios’ individual unions9—was formed, and Toho, which possessed the strongest union among the film companies, propagandized the movement with their much-derided Those Who Make Tomorrow (1946).

    The labor union scene in Marriage is also contextually fascinating as it appeared at a time when the occupation began shifting its outlook on workers’ movements. As cold war tensions escalated between the United States and the Soviet Union—and in the wake of contentious strikes throughout 1940s Japan (most notably at Toho, which endured three strikes between 1946-1948, the third of which warranted military attention)—labor unions came to be associated with communism and were deemed a threatening practice—to the point where Gen. Douglas MacArthur suppressed a general strike scheduled in winter 1947.10 The occupation didn’t outright ban depictions of labor unions in movies, but CI&E’s censors received new instructions: to closely scrutinize such scenes and as early as 1948 were removing those deemed contentious (i.e., ones villainizing capitalists).11 Kinoshita’s Marriage was released in March 1947—between the banned strike and the tightened censorship—and might’ve been one of the last occupation-era scenes to depict vocal cries for reformism. (The activists call out, “We have tolerated exploitation for too long! The poor, rise!”)

    Amusingly, the film’s least “democratic” moments are those between the two lovers, as there are no climaxes of physical affection like in Phoenix. This may stem from the personal politics of leading actor Ken Uehara. Uehara had been a major star since the ‘30s and was frequently paired alongside Kinuyo Tanaka in love stories such as The Compassionate Buddha Tree (1938), which shattered pre-war box office records, spawned numerous sequels, and—in accordance with pre-occupation censorship—contained no love scenes of “western” fashion.12 Uehara in fact had been the first choice to play Tanaka’s partner in Phoenix; however, the actor declined that part due to the kissing scenes. Per his belief, because kissing in public was still uncommon in Japan, there was no need to depict it in motion pictures.13 Perhaps for this reason, the romantic scenes in Marriage remain largely at arms-length; the closest the stars come to Hollywood-style intimacy is during a ballroom dance.14

    Marriage begins similarly, pictorially, to how it ends. The opening shot is a distant view of the two lovers as seen from the street of a Tokyo suburb. The final shot shares the exact same framing, except now the subject is Fumie racing through a snow flurry to catch up with Sugawara as he boards a train—all accompanied by the soothing music of Chuji Kinoshita (brother of the director and his frequent composer). Keisuke Kinoshita would continue making films throughout his long, productive life, including another occupation-era romance (1949’s Here’s to the Young Lady, which tackled the subject of arranged marriage and—despite ending with the heroine choosing her partner out of love rather than coercion—required deletions per the censors.)15 But of all his films in that latter category, none captured occupied Japan as vividly as this one. While little known outside of Japan, Kinoshita’s Marriage is a film of great historical interest, reflecting a nation undergoing immense change.


    1. Hirano, Kyoko. Mr. Smith Goes to Tokyo: Japanese Cinema Under the American Occupation, 1945-1952. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992, pp. 34-5
    2. Ibid, p. 34
    3. Bock, Audie. Japanese Film Directors. New York: Kodansha International, Ltd., 1978, pp. 192-6
    4. High, Peter B. The Imperial Screen: Japanese Film Culture in the Fifteen Years’ War, 1931-1945. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003, p. 93
    5. Bock, p. 197
    6. Hirano, pp. 154-9
    7. Dore, R.P. City Life in Japan: A Study of a Tokyo Ward. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1958, p. 51
    8. Partner, Simon. Assembled in Japan: Electrical Goods and the Making of the Japanese Consumer. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999, p. 72
    9. Hirano, p. 213
    10. Ibid, p. 239
    11. Ibid, p. 315
    12. Barrett, Gregory. Archetypes in Japanese Film: The Sociopolitical and Religious Significance of the Principal Heroes and Heroines. Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 1989, p. 128
    13. Hirano, p. 160
    14. Uehara’s conviction didn’t last. In Kozaburo Yoshimura’s Night River (1956), he performed a very steamy, erotic love scene with Daiei starlet Fujiko Yamamoto.
    15. Hirano, p. 70
    Patrick Galvan
    Patrick Galvan
    Patrick Galvan is a film journalist who specialises in Japanese and early Chinese films. In addition to Our Culture, he has contributed to such online & print publications as SYFY WIRE, Toho Kingdom, and The Lost Films Fanzine. Author of the biography Ruan Lingyu: Her Life and Career (2022).

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