The Road I Travel with You (1936)

Author: Miles Imhoff
August 16, 2014
Note: review may contain spoilers

The Road I Travel with You is a 1930s Japanese melodrama.


I know that seems like an abruptly succinct opening to a review, but that's really the best description of what you're going to get if you decide to track this one down. There's nothing particularly groundbreaking, there are no standout performances, and the only thing that even has a chance of sticking with you is a single track from the musical score. Expect the predictable or predict the expectable; either way, don't anticipate too much.

Kasumi and Asaji hold a candle for one another, but alas, financial struggles are pressuring Kasumi's family to thrust the young woman into the arms of an older suitor whose wealth can offer her family some much-needed stability. Only Kasumi and Asaji's mutual acquaintance Tsukiko and Asaji's brother Yuji remain on their side. As pragmatic expectations threaten to extinguish their young romance, Asaji apparently elects to pursue a path of escape via suicide. Will Kasumi follow suit, and what will become of their friends and families?

It's a cookie-cutter melodrama, plain and simple. Like I said, there really isn't much in the way of an interesting hook to reel you in like some of Naruse's other pictures from this time period. What does stand out is the score, which leaps back and forth between borderline dissonance and borderline cloyingness (cloyingosity?). There is one truly memorable theme in the latter category called "Souvenir", and though I'm not too sure if this was simply a popular tune from a bygone era or an original by Noboru Ito, it actually sticks with you for a while.

Music aside, the plot is about as straightforward as one would expect. You would almost certainly have to be a newbie to Japanese drama for there to be any significant surprises. Asaji the pessimist and his brother Yuji the optimist are the sons of their father's mistress, a diehard pragmatist who seems to balk at the very notion of young romance. Kasumi is the delicate-as-a-petal love interest and the long-suffering victim of her parents' own overly pushy brand of pragmatism. Yuji falls for Tsukiko, the girl whose face instantly captures his heart during a fateful bus ride, but Yuji is pressured by his mother into accepting a marriage proposal by a wealthy family of lumber wholesalers instead (more on that later). Ultimately, Tsukiko struggles with her own feelings for Yuji in the wake of the unfolding tragedies near the climax. The tragedies in question just so happen to be the staple of (hyperbole alert) 1 in every 3 Japanese melodramas: the double suicide... er... correction: a nonsynchronous, apparent double suicide in this case.

Despite the ostensive mediocrity of the narrative, that is to say, it's hackneyed predictability... the film at least seems to characterise the star-crossed lovers in a light of desperate heroism as opposed to rebellious villainy. It's almost a stealth attack on the restrictive, social mores that would have robbed youth such as these of their free will. At the time, this was surely more of an issue as Japan was being yanked into modernism as it clung steadfastly to some semblance of traditionalism. Perhaps the most telling hint of this simmering cultural dilemma is when we learn that a wealthy family has offered their daughter in a proposal of marriage to Yuji. It almost seems like a throwaway subplot, but when it's revealed that the family in question is composed of well off lumber wholesalers whose business dates back to the Edo period, we may finally have a clue about the filmmakers' intent here. The question is, how did the Japanese view the Edo period in contrast to their swiftly modernising nation in the 20th century?

It's rather a bold and somewhat generalised question, but if you'll indulge me for a moment, I'd like to fast forward 15 years to Kenji Mizoguchi's The Lady from Musashino. A rather reprehensible college professor named Tadao Akiyama instructs his class about the Edo period: "... then came along Tokugawa Ieyasu and an age of rationalism. He consolidated the feudal system and used Confucianism to help maintain this system. Confucianism exalts loyalty and filial piety. This led to an erosion of basic freedoms, creating a restrictive and uninteresting society. This is how things remained until very recently. In the lower classes, therefore, the only form of rebellion was to commit suicide or adultery. That's my theory, anyway!" The gentleman in question was shamelessly using this logic to rationalise his own adulterous exploits; nevertheless, this one piece of dialogue may sum up the retrospective view of the Edo period among Japanese modernists in a way that Westerners can intimately understand. Sure, it's fun to watch movies where a samurai slices and dices his way through a myriad of enemies, but the glam and the glitz that come from flashing a katana around are merely illusory. It truly was a period defined by strict sociopolitical hierarchies and limited personal freedoms. It can make for a pleasant afternoon to watch a morosely falling rain splash onto the gritty streets of Edo in a cinematographically brilliant black-and-white jidaigeki, but actually living there would have been a completely different story.

Let's return to the The Road I Travel with You and the proposal offered by the offscreen lumber wholesalers to Yuji. It's absolutely dripping with what must have seemed like dangerously retrogressive overtones to modernists at the time. A young woman's parents approach a handsome stranger and offer to adopt the young man into their clan to arrange for the betrothal of their daughter to this virtually unknown newcomer. Their daughter is married off, Yuji almost invariably lands a job with the lumber wholesalers, and the whole shebang has all the signs of that telltale restrictiveness that characterises the famous era when the wholesalers' business was founded. A similar situation unfolds in the main plot, specifically in regard to Kasumi's arrangement. It's not just the young ladies who are getting shamelessly objectified here, it's also the young men. Filial piety forces the key players to the brink of unhappiness, but do you remember what the only two forms of rebellion were from the quoted line in the later film? We see the former (suicide) ostensibly executed twice in this movie. It would seem that the filmmakers are unequivocally telling us that the system is broken.

So in at least one regard, the narrative does manage to pull itself together just enough to compete with its contemporaries, but it still lags far behind. Requiring a completely different movie from 15 years down the road to truly understand what this film might be going for doesn't really make for stellar cinema. The Road I Travel with You is still pleasurable insofar as nothing unexpectedly horrible happens. What about the suicides, you might ask? When you've seen as many J-dramas as I have, the whole suicide thing just doesn't seem to faze you anymore. You kind of half expect it. Do I recommend this film? If you've just over an hour to kill, I guess it wouldn't hurt.