Nobuko (Meiko Takamine) arrives at her new job, teaching at an exclusive girl’s academy in Tokyo. Once there she finds herself mocked for her rural accent, and criticised for staying with her aunt (Chōko Iida) who runs a geisha house. Moving into the boarding hall to save on further embarrassment, Nobuko finds herself a new enemy in the shape of Eiko Hosokawa (Mitsuko Miura): the spoiled daughter of the school’s main benefactor.
Nobuko (1940) was made in the middle of director Hiroshi Shimizu’s most critically successful period. While Shimizu’s most famous works originate from this period – including Mr Thank You (1936), The Masseurs and a Woman (1938), and Ornamental Hairpin (1941) – Nobuku tends to be overlooked in their favour. It is a deep shame, as this modestly plotted schoolyard melodrama has a great deal to offer fans of Japanese women’s drama.
Films such as this offer a fascinating profile into Japan’s changing society over the first half of the 20th century. Nobuko comes from a rural area, as betrayed by her provincial accent, and it leads to widespread criticism and mockery. She is, as far as her colleagues seem concerned, a foolish ‘country bumpkin’ and therefore less intelligent and sophisticated. At the same time, as a younger and more recently educated woman, Nobuko has ideas and attitudes on teaching young women that chafe with her conservative and old fashioned headmistress.
Meiko Takamine is superb in the lead role, and she draws every inch of sympathy and appeal from the character. It is an early performance for Takamine – only four years after her on-screen debut – and it follows her appearance in Shimizu’s The Masseurs and a Woman. She would go on perform in films by a near-who’s-who of Japanese directorial talent, including Kenji Mizoguchi, Heinosuke Gosho, Mikio Naruse, and Kon Ichikawa.
The film’s other key character is Eiko, a bratty, rebellious, and sulky senior student who delights in misbehaviour and mischief. She jeers and teases, lies and cheats, and because of her family connections goes almost entirely unpunished by her teachers. In Nobuko she finally encounters someone unwilling to simply tolerate her antics, and she works perfectly as a focal point for Nobuko’s struggles: fitting in, challenging the educational status quo, and earning the principal’s respect all ultimate rely on how the teacher disciplines and turns around the student. Mitsuko Miura balances the requirements of the role well, since there is a fairly well-signposted pivot for the character that she capably handles.
This is a relatively intimate and low-key drama, but it is also an excellent example both of Shimizu’s directorial style and of Japanese pre-war cinema in general. It may take some tracking down – an English subtitled DVD was released in Japan as part of a large boxed set – but for fans of the style and period it is worth the effort.