I have always thought that the word kushou [苦笑] means (by dictionary definition and popular usage):
To smile at something that is bitter to you and look bitter while you smile.
But over the years of having watched dozens of Japanese films, including nearly everything by Yasujiro Ozu [小津安二郎] (1903 – 1963), I am beginning to think that there is another kind of kushou. A more subtle kind perhaps. It is namely:
To smile at something that is bitter to you and not look bitter while you smile.
For some reason, I have only spotted that smile in Japanese films so far. You will know that smile instinctively once you have watched enough of them (whether they are directed by Ozu or not, for his influence is lasting and widespread). It is the Kodak smile that you usually only see in advertisements of toothpaste, shampoo, cosmetics or the like. If a shot of the smile were taken out of the context of the film, you might even be fooled into thinking that the smile was induced by joy. But that smile always appears in some tragic context.The first time I saw it was in Tokyo Story (1953). It was a scene where an old couple visits their daughter-in-law, Noriko. Their son had died some eight years ago and Noriko, by her own choice, never remarried. She keeps to her own way in a rather depressing flat and has a clerical job to support herself. Her in-laws say to her, ‘The world is full of not very nice things, is it not?’ And she smiles and nods. That is the Kodak smile that I speak of. It struck me that although they are talking about how the world is not a very nice place, her smile seems to say otherwise, as though there is more to the world than just being not a very nice place, and what that ‘something more’ may be is unspoken and can only be guessed at from her smile.
You see that Kodak smile in films other than those by masters of New Wave cinema. The Hidden Blade [隠し剣 鬼の爪] (2004) by Yamada Yoji was one of them. The scenario goes like this: A samurai’s wife sacrifices herself knowing that her sacrifice will be in vain. Another samurai (who sympathizes with her) says to her that it is foolish to sacrifice herself for nothing, but she says nothing and only responds with that Kodak smile.
Another example I can think of would be Fukasaku Kinji’s Omocha [おもちゃ] (1999) – also known as The Geisha House. In the story, a young girl who is soon to debut as a geisha visits her secret crush at his workplace and smiles that Kodak smile as she looks back at him (who did not know she was visiting) with yearning as she leaves.
I think of that Kodak smile as a window to a mode of life that is very different from the American mode. In America, the underlying worldview is that everyone deserves to be happy and there is something wrong with you if you are not happy like everyone else. The mode of life in the films of, say, Ozu is just the opposite. It accepts that life is 80%-90% suffering and the heroes in the films of Ozu are those choose to live in a slower tempo of emotional life. They are not in a hurry to move away from the past. They are not in a hurry to fall in and out of love. They are not in a hurry to head for the easy way out. They are not in a hurry to fall for shallow excitement or instant happiness (whatever ‘happiness’ means). They are not in a hurry to be ‘cool’.
I really like the films of Ozu. I really do. Some people may think of him as dated and his characters old-fashioned, but I have to agree with what one of his characters says in The Munetaka Sisters [宗方姉妹] (1950): ‘What is new is not like the length of fashionable skirt – shorter this year and longer next year; what is new is what never becomes old.’