[Film] The bitter Kodak smile in Japanese cinema

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.

Tokyo Story [東京物語] is a 1953 Japanese drama film directed by Yasujiro Ozu.

Tokyo Story [東京物語] is a 1953 Japanese drama film directed by Yasujiro Ozu.

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.
I have also seen that Kodak smile in Kenji Mizogushi’s Uwasa no Onna [噂の女] (1954). It was a scene where mother and daughter discuss how this world is full of suffering and how things usually do not turn out to be the way you want. It was the same smile that appears on the mother’s face as she says that.
Owasa no Onna [噂の女] is a 1954 Japanese drama film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi.

Owasa no Onna [噂の女] is a 1954 Japanese drama film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi.

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.’


[Film] My top 10 Japanese films


7 thoughts on “[Film] The bitter Kodak smile in Japanese cinema

  1. I haven’t watched any of the movies you mentioned, but, unless what I have in mind is just completely off what kushou really is, I think I saw it quite often in Anime/Manga and, actually, quite a deal of English classic novels have something just like that. (The Victorian Age especially I’d say.) “The Scarlet Letter”, has this character of the church cleric Dimmesdale and methinks he is pretty much an embodiment of this bitter smile across his whole life the novel covers. (At least in my imagination going by the novel description.)
    I think among the more recent anime titles Aldnoah.Zero (season 2 mostly) has a bunch of such smiles with the character of Slaine. With all the shortcomings the series has, that part was somehow pretty engaging to me. (And now I know it has a name! Wohooo~)
    Hyouka has some very nices such smiles with the character of Satoshi as well.

    But I agree, there are characters and people, who would just sit in their “hole” and not really move out, despite fully knowing about the hole not being really anyhow a healthy thing. Such people would usually get bashed for being all emo and depressive and not willing to make any change onto their situation and are thus miserable, useless creatures in the west. To me it always had a flavour of “Well, it just can’t be helped. (Because this is me.)” Like people not being able to doing anything about their situation, because that would go against their character and personality and they are not able or willing to change that.

    I still remember vividly talking to a certain somebody about Slaine from Aldnoah.Zero. The series has Slaine walking tightropes all the time, but when he went off onto that track, he couldn’t stop anymore, even through he fully knew, that would not make him happy. That wasn’t his goeal anyway. The series ends with his failure and him inviting (with a bitter-not-so-bitter smile) his his protagonist rival to end his life as a finale and a later meeting from eye to eye between the two and having pretty much their first real conversation.
    Slaine is very much miserable, for anything he tried being in ruins and not even death being allowed to him. He gets an explanation, why that was not allowed to him and he bursts into tears. After the protagonist guy leaves, he is being placed back in his cell, and a fleck of sunlight shines on him and he gives off another bitter-but-not-so-really-bitter-bitter-smile about him being behind bars.
    What she had wished for Slaine all the time was about like somebody going to him, shake him a few times or give him some slaps and tell him, he has lost his way, is just wrong, and make him realize he is wrong and stop it already. Somewhere before the finale, he had sent off his subordinates to spare them from losing, and all she thought about that was a half satisfied “He at least got it after all (that he is wrong)!”. (Through all of his subordinates still went out to fight and most died, and she was one of many who thought they were just totally dumb for doing that.)
    That really had me puzzled a bit. For me it was pretty obvious, that Slaine had known full well, he was wrong all the time, but he still continued self-deprecatingly nonetheless. Because that was just his sort of character. (He started out as a naive, goodnatured innocent boy who then got his hands dirtied right at the beginning of the series.) But then I already new, what she would have said, if I said, it was obvious, without the need of asking: “He couldn’t have. Otherwise he wouldn’t have done all of what he has done and we would have no plot.”
    I didn’t really like that burst into tears. It’s making it like he just got salvaged back onto his innocent self, after the weight of the hole he placed himself willingly just got to be too much for himself after all, just by a few words. It makes everything coming before it, look so very cheap. (Well, the Happy Ending part of the whole war was ludicrously cheap anyway.) She wanted to see that character be happy. And it actually wasn’t even enough. She actually wanted to see more rewarding stuff for him. To her it was rewarding.

    This made me think of a paradox, most people don’t ever seem to cross ways with.
    There is this attitude that something is just wrong, when your are not happy.
    They also have the attitude of you should always be true to yourself, or do what you want. If you don’t, you are wrong, too.
    – What if a character doesn’t want to be ‘happy’? What if that stat is excactly what makes his character? Such a character has zero chances to ever get accepted into such a society that so widespread in the west, unless they discard one of the two. Or get labled as a chronic depressed sick person.
    A former classmate also made an interesting statement back in school, about Kant’s Categorical imperative 8and in extenton to the Golden Rule): “Wait. What if that person is a masochist? Wouldn’t this render the whole thing into complete nonsense? The masochist should NOT treat me like he’d like to be treated.” He only got weird looks. He tried to justify his stance, but he still only got weird looks here. Most took it for a joke, because masochist for the teenagers was much too sexualised yet.
    Sometimes I get the impression, the people in the west really have been brainwashed from birth on so the paradox can’t even emmerge. And their worldview is very limited to that, to the point to anybody with it could well be an alien (a dangerous one at that).

    … Actually that reminds me Asano Inio’s Oyasumi Punpun, which I have just finished reading a few weeks ago. It illustrates that almost perfectly, especially close to the end. Punpun starts of as an innocent boy, a lot of bad things happen, basically he and his family, all of them are just wrecked. Punpun gets to be an adult, and at one point, he has a girlfriend, they get along, he would have anything considered “happiness” – and he runs away from it. (His uncle has a parallel subplot and has a similiar situation, but he stays and at the end of the series his daughter gets born, he sees hope, but at the same time there is a hint of despair inside right that.)
    I didn’t really like the series (a lot of me just makes me go “ugh”), but the ending, especially the last chapter, really left me with a lasting impression. Punpun meets his first crush Aiko again, and Aiko is very much miserable and they had all the chances in the world to get out of the hole, but just don’t. Can’t. In the end, Aiko chooses death by suicide to put an end to it, Punpun likewise tries is by stabbing him, but his former girlfriend shows up again and prevents him from doing so. (And the author, wouldn’t let him either, because death is just too easy and clean.) The series ends of a character who left the stage very much in the beginning of the series, meeting up with PunPun after some 10 years and all he sees of Punpun is that he must have had some serious trouble (scar in the face), but he is fetched up with his girlfriend, who has her child in her hands and she joins back into her circle, where all of them are happily waiting for punpun to join them Punpun waves goodbye with a smile and he waves back knowing well, that they probably will never meet again. from the loks of it, Punpun found happiness. But knowing all of his life is right the opposite, he gt the most painful, worst ending for his character. (Although there are hints in the second last chapter, that his character is basically fanding away and being replaced by something else.)
    In a way, it’s genius to have PunPun be this weird bird caracature in the whole series, that leves anything for your own imagination. In another way, Punpun is just the character who must of had a lot of bitter smiles (especially the last one), which end up being just toally weird caracatures. But at least Aiko had a real lot of nice ones. (Both in the dictionary sense and your own.) They were really pretty to look at, Inio is really good with expressions.

    … And. I think, Fumi Yoshinaga does a great job in this department as well.

    Another thought that occured to me: There is in fact a very easy way to check what sort of people you are dealing with. Have them read the Manga and watch the Seisouhen OVA of Rurouni Kenshin and say, which one they prefer. Almost anybody, who seriously thinks, that Seisouhen is better to their taste has a really high chance of being an oddball within society here. People here generally seem to love “salvation” things that make characters get on the track of being happy. (I think, that’s probably coming from Christianity with Jesus’s sacrifice after all.) And while salvation in death is better than nothing, it still sucks.

    Anyway, it’s nice to know it’s name. (Looking at the Kanjis, it was almost to easy to be guessed…) I usually went by the description of “self-deprecating smile”, which never really seemed to hit the nail completely, because it would precondition the character or person sharing the same values as the common view, which doesn’t have to be the case.

    (But, I can’t agree on the Tokyo Story smile of the image. It doesn’t look like a joyful smile at all to me. I would have rather called it smile of awkwardness until yesterday. The Uwasa no Onna one does look like it however.)

    • Some of these movies and others by the same directors should be out of copyright by now, so it should be fairly easy to track them down on the internet.

      I never made it through ‘Aldnoah.Zero’ but I think Yang Wendi from LOGH may be the sort of guy who wears ‘kushou’ perpetually on his face – in the sense of ‘to smile at something that is bitter to you and look bitter while you smile’ (remember I have listed two descriptions of ‘kushou’ – and this refers to the first one.)

      On a side note, I wonder how the 2017 remake for that by Production I.G. is coming along. I flipped through the new manga adaptation by Ryu Fujisaki but found nothing that wows me. If anything, it just makes me nostalgic for Katsumi Michihara’s artwork.

      ‘Oyasumi Punpun’ is on my to-read list, as I have heard good things said about it from people whose tastes I trust.

      I like the Seisouhen OVA more than the manga – not that I need any more confirmation of being an oddball character!

      The’ Tokyo Story’ smile is what I meant by ‘to smile at something that is bitter to you and *not* look bitter while you smile.’ That’s what I mean when I said: ‘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.’

      • Oh, interesting, I might go an check them out when I find the time then.

        Aldnoah isn’t really great, I think, but I’d say it’s decent enough to have been entertaining. Some motives in there quite appealed to me.
        I would with Yan Wenli from LOGH. I haven’t read the new manga, the mere announcement of Ryu Fujisaki doing an adaption onto the franchise made me go like “for real?!” I really disliked his Sould Taker series, some one shot of him was exceptionally stupid for me and while I did sort of like Shiki’s art which was … surreal? and fitted to this sort of horror-mystery suspence and trying to imagining the art style with a grounded serious story that LOGH is, it made me think something along the lines of “This must end up being a unwanted parody!!”
        I didn’t dare to go finding it out yet, through.
        I mus say thourgh the Katsumi Michihara artwork doesn’t appeal to me at all. I still like the anime one best of them all.

        Asano Inio in generally is really high quality. The only thing I mourn over his works is, he never mangaged to write and draw about something that appealed to me a lot and not including just something I found annoying or downright utterly disgusting.

        With the Tokyo Story smile what I meant is, even if looked at it isolated, it doesn’t look to me like a unbitter smile or some smile, that may be smile out of joy, at all.
        Isolated it looks to me like an “awkward smile”. Something like, somebody said something, he is serious about it. You acually don’t agree or think it’s stupid, but tact dictates, you may not do anything to kill this persons mood. This is the sort of smile that I would expect then to come, with the person being a normal average skill level person. (And well, mostly either business people or East Asians.) One who tries to play along, but is not good enough of an actor to hide the felt irksomeness and uncomfortability of the dishonesty vs. tact in it completely.

    • Just playing the devil’s advocate – so the first thing that crosses your mind after reading this description of ‘kushou’ is a face drawn by human hand rather than facial expression on an actual human being you have seen? 😉

      • In fact, the first thing that crossed my head of was indeed drawn as well.
        And no matter how much I think about it, I don’t think I actually get to see this in real life much at all. It might be that the western culture isn’t really an advocate of this smile. Because this smile indicates this sort of lifestyle, which as you say, is considered just wrong in the west. People wouldn’t do something like that, when they are educated into considering it wrong. They would wind up looking like fools and or even lunatics.

        • Well, I suppose expressions on faces drawn with a pen have a greater psychological impact on you two then faces of real human beings. 🙂

          I personally think the classic bitter smile is that of Tony Leung Chiu-wai in ‘In the Mood for Love’ directed by Wong Kar-wai.

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