Three Sisters with Maiden Hearts (1935)

Author: Miles Imhoff
June 23, 2014
Note: review may contain spoilers

... and now we arrive closer to Toho's roots than ever. Although this isn't exactly Toho Film No. 1, only a handful of the studio's titles precede this one. Though I haven't been with Toho Kingdom since the very beginning, I'm about 90% sure I've been visiting the site since late 2003. In those early days, I recall opening the Movie List and scrolling through the vast catalogue of eye-catching titles. There was always one that caught my attention, and I'm sure it has captured the gaze of many other visitors, as well: Three Sisters with Maiden Hearts. Located at the very top of our cinematic registry, this shy little entry was nestled all by itself in the lonesome 1935 category for the longest time. Just what is this enigmatic film all about? Let's find out!

Hahaoya is the harsh caregiver of several young girls. One of her three biological daughters, as well as a trio of foster daughters, are sent out night after night into the streets of Asakusa, Tokyo to earn a living as shamisen players (a talent which they learn through their mother's strict tutelage). The youngest biological daughter, Chieko, is treated with the greatest degree of kindness among her sisters and raised in a manner closest to the norm, but her secret infatuation with a gentleman named Aoyama has altered the young woman's personality as of late, rousing suspicions. This is an especially troublesome thought for Hahaoya, for she has not forgotten that her eldest child, Oren, ran away with a piano-player named Kosugi...

Meanwhile the middle child, Osome, struggles not only to fend off problemsome customers and compete with more talented entertainers, but also to maintain the morale of her foster sisters. When Hahaoya discovers unauthorised contraband purchased through their meager earnings, she callously prepares to discipline the girls. Despite having had a particularly rough night during which her shamisen was unintentionally damaged during a tussle with a drunkard, Osome still elects to selflessly assume the blame. In the ensuing argument, Osome, fed up with Hahaoya's calculating coldness, further damages the instrument (now intentionally) and retreats to her room.

The following day, Osome encounters her estranged sister, Oren, and they begin to catch up. It turns out that shortly after Oren and Kosugi had made their escape from Asakusa (following a run-in with some shady acquaintances of Oren), Kosugi lost his job and was forced into a far more laborious line of work. He contracted a severe lung disease, and things have become unbearably miserable for the two. Now, Kosugi intends to return to his family in the country in an attempt to recover, but Oren requires some much-needed capital for train fare. She decides to meet up with some of her old acquaintances, and they offer her a job. Little does she realize who's involved and what it entails...

What might perturb some people is just how little seems to get resolved by the time appears onscreen. No success is made with Hahaoya, who remains as venomous as ever; no headway is made with Oren, who remains as reckless as ever; and no progress is made with Chieko, who remains as blissfully unaware as ever. In fact, nobody seems to change for the better, even in the slightest. This movie is about the perseverance of one character, a pure heart with whom we, the audience, fall deeply in love. So with three of the main cast down, who's left?

Well, we never get all that close to the foster sisters, so that leaves Osome. She is the film's true heroine. Her endearing is spirit is simply an overwhelming joy for the viewer. She contrasts the deliriously naïve, carefree spirit of Chieko and the edgy, do-what-it-takes attitude of Oren. Osome cares for her foster sisters, protects them, and encourages them. She lends an open ear to her sister Chieko, and even shields Oren from the dreadful consequences that her recklessness had wrought. With a heavy heart, she endures the jibes of drunkards and the melodious tunes of talents that far exceed her own. Her rage only ever boils to the surface when her mother, devoid of any warmth, pushes her a mite too far. Nevertheless, it manifests only as frustration, not malice. Her fortitude is also unmatched by any character, as she bravely intervenes when Aoyama has a brush with Oren's disreputable friends.

The plot isn't exceedingly deep, nor does this film leave us with any difficult questions to ponder. What it does give us is a glimpse into Osome's tragic life, her hardships and her ability to retain some semblance of humanity in spite of all the bitterness and apathy she encounters. In fact, this movie probably would have achieved a greater level of accuracy were it entitled One Sister with a Maiden's Heart, but I guess that wouldn't have been quite as catchy...

Above all, this movie is an ol' timey feast for the eyes and ears. The sights are rich with a stunning visual style that draws you into Tokyo's nightlife in the 1930s. The sounds carry you back to a Japan that hasn't yet fully taken the plunge into Westernization. Do you like shamisen music? Personally, I love the percussive twang of the Far East's answer to the banjo, but if you find it even the least bit grating, you're going to have a difficult time trudging through this film. Though the orchestral score has a decidedly Western flare, the fact that four of the main characters are frequent shamisen players means that you're going to hear a lot of shamisens. If you have an aversion to Japanese folk music, turn back now. If you're a fan, press on... it adds a wonderful atmosphere to the movie.

For years I'd wondered about this film, with it's deceptively cloying title that elicited thoughts of upper-crust, kimono-clad young women with First World problems. Nothing could be further from the truth; this is a gritty melodrama about a group of young ladies who look up on the proletariat (this was the Great Depression, after all). It's actually pretty scary to watch these characters, ranging from adolescence to early adulthood, wander about the seedier venues of Tokyo's nightlife just on the off chance that they might earn a measly few sen here and there. Uncomfortably realistic, brandishing a dark edge, and offering no satisfying degree of resolution, Three Sisters with Maiden Hearts is a film perhaps better suited to scholars, hobbyists, and those with compatible niche interests as opposed to a general audience, at least nowadays. Even still, it's worth a look, if only for the historical significance of seeing one of Toho's earliest pictures.