Tales of Ginza (1955)

Directed by Yûzô Kawashima; Written by Ruiju Yanagisawa

A ride through that part of town

The kids dance the mambo, they shop french fashion in U.S.-sized department stores where the girls ask for Chanel No. 5 and the boys dress like Elvis. Later, they head to the ballpark to watch baseball. After nine innings, ice cream and hot dogs, they bid each other “adieu” and head on home, biking past street artists painting cityscapes “western style”. Welcome to the Tokyo of post-war Japan.

Walking down the street past foreign cars is Wakako Kyôgoku (Yumeji Tsukioka). Dressed in a kimono, she feels out of place. Personally, she’s also unsteady ground, a soon-to-be divorcee trying to pave her own way and safeguarding her son from marital fallout. In order to bankroll her new life, she’s selling off her father’s collection of art, among them a portrait of her signed by a mysterious artist. In a moment of longing for an uncomplicated past, she goes searching for him. 

But Wakako’s story is just one of many in Ginza: There’s Mr. Coney, florist and makeshift parent to a group of orphan girls he’s hired as assistants in his shop. His other employee Jeep, a junky. Wakako’s niece, Yukino, a beauty pageant contestant with a head full of modeling dreams. These stories loop in and out, over and under each other and gives a Tales of Ginza a light and easy rhythm that’s meant to be grounded in Wakako’s central arc.  

All this paints a symphonic picture of this very particular place in time, and this portrait is vivid and alive, and efficient in including both the sunlit avenues and the seedy back alleys that connect them. A film about community, its individual arcs tell more about the passions of the time than scene directions and foreign language phrases ever could. They are, however, also the reason that no plot line in Tales of Ginza rises above B-story, and it makes for a film that feels more like drive-through tourism of an incredibly interesting place where you don’t get to make much of an emotional connection. You never want the background to be what’s memorable. 

Because the Ginza of Kawashima’s film is a vibrant, texture-rich tapestry of cultural upheaval and the fates within in. Where florists house junkies and saved orphans, dance halls sling orange juice at the bar and peddle flesh out back; where gangsters wax philosophical about the humbling force of nuclear power under bright neon lights. Flashes of brilliance you get to enjoy all too briefly. Mr. Kawashima, let me off your cinematic tour bus.  

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