The Elegant Life of Mr Everyman (Eburi manshi no yûga-na seikatsu, Japan 1963)

Eburi (Kobayashi Keiju) and his long-suffering wife played by Aratama Michiyo

Eburi (Kobayashi Keiju) and his long-suffering wife played by Aratama Michiyo

The Japanese film industry has been criticised in recent years for not supporting Japanese films overseas and for poor presentation of films to festivals and sales agents. There seems to be some substance to this but as far as archive prints are concerned there are usually prints available from various cultural agencies and it was good to see The Elegant Life of Mr Everyman as part of the Japanese Foundation Tour. The screening was at HOME in Manchester and was introduced by Jonathon Bunt from the University of Manchester. He promised us a good time with the film and some good laughs. He also pointed out that the director Okamoto Kihachi was part of the generation of filmmakers who experienced war service as young men and that this was perhaps an important influence on the film, as well as Okamoto’s approach to satirising the growing materialism of Japan in the early 1960s. The film did indeed provide what was promised. I admit that at this stage I knew nothing about Okamoto and it wasn’t until I’d done some research that I realised I actually owned DVDs of a couple of the director’s films.

Okamoto Kihachi is profiled on the Midnight Eye website. Born in 1924 he was conscripted and sent to fight in 1943 aged 19 and experienced the deaths of many of his fellow conscripts (he told an interviewer that young men born in 1924 suffered the highest rate of deaths from the fighting). His battlefield experiences surely informed his approach to action films, including several well-known chanbara or ‘samurai’ films with Mifune Toshiro (e.g. Samurai Assassin in 1964 and Sword of Doom in 1965) which were thought to have changed aspects of the genre, moving away from themes of ‘honour and heroism’ to focus on ‘death and misery’ (as Tom Mes puts it on Midnight Eye). The Elegant Life of Mr Everyman belongs to the part of Okamoto’s output that focused on experimental genre pieces – but it clearly has autobiographical touches too.

The film is an adaptation of a novel by Yamaguchi Hitomi (which may also be autobiographical). It tells the story of Eburi – an office-worker or ‘salaryman’ in an advertising company. ‘Eburi’ is an Anglo-Japanese pun which rhymes the Japanese name with the English concept of the ‘everyman’, making the character a good fit for a satirical narrative. (I’m indebted to the notes written by Tony Rayns for several insights like this.) Eburi’s main vice is to get (very) drunk one night a week in various bars. On one occasion he somehow allows himself to be persuaded by a young couple who are editors to write a piece for a magazine. He feels compelled to write the piece despite not having a subject. Finally, in desperation, he writes autobiographically about his experiences of marriage and being a father while coping with his own irresponsible father – an unscrupulous businessman who borrows money, spends it and then bankrupts himself on a regular basis, expecting Eburi to bail him out each time. Eburi is amazed when the magazine piece is successful and he is persuaded to write a second. This narrative structure allows Okamoto to present the events of Eburi’s life and then, when Eburi wins a literary prize, to regale his younger colleagues with more stories about his literary life. Here Okamoto deploys the full range of cinematic devices with stop motion animation and a form of drawn animation popular in Japanese advertising at the time (but more Western than the early styles of anime) as well as montage sequences, freeze frames, jump cuts and extended flashbacks to Eburi’s earlier experiences. (See the trailer below.)

There were several younger students of Japanese in the audience and I don’t know how many of the jokes and references they got. Okamoto was contracted to Toho and one of the directors for whom he worked in his early career was one of the most celebrated directors of the period, Naruse Mikio. So at one point he refers to a Naruse classic Late Chrysanthemums (1954) and then later to Steve McQueen and Yukio Mishima as celebrities. McQueen was only then in the early part of his career – but perhaps famous in Japan because of The Magnificent Seven? At one point Eburi’s 12 year-old son is watching a TV Western and Okamoto was a big Westerns fan himself. Mishima (1925-70) was a celebrated and controversial Japanese writer and provocateur. The script by Ide Toshiro is very well thought out. Eburi is supposed to have been born in 1926, the first year of the Showa era. This means that he is just old enough to have been conscripted in the final months of the war and he is shown as an incompetent infantryman in training in one of the flashbacks. In other scenes we see him trying to come to terms with the Americanisation of much of Japanese life during the Occupation and its aftermath and, with the advent of economic growth, the beginnings of the consumer society. At 36 it is already clear that he belongs to a different generation than his younger office colleagues. Several reviews describe Eburi as ‘middle-aged’ at 36 – which is probably accurate for an early 1960s attitude!

What makes this film particularly interesting for me is that it comes from the period when the Japanese New Wave was beginning to have an impact on the Japanese studios. Okamoto seems to have a singular take on what a film might be. The film also lines up alongside similarly satirical/absurdist films in other New Waves. One UK review I read suggested that Eburi is a figure like Tony Hancock. I can partly see that but my first thought was the satire shows on UK TV in the early 1960s and the writers that came from them such as Marty Feldman or other writers such as Charles Wood (The Knack 1966, How I Won the War 1967). Eburi’s story might be culturally Japanese but it definitely has universal features widely applicable in other film cultures of the 1960s. I’m very pleased to have seen it. I wish now I could find the Noh musical Oh, Bomb which Okamoto made in 1964 – or a subtitled version of his Western East Meets West (1995).

Japanese trailer (no subs):

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