The Lights of Asakusa, 1937

A well-crafted riff on Yasujiro Shimazu’s familiar shomin-geki films, this time transplanted to a group of Western opera stage actors working in the bustling theater and entertainment district of Asakusa in old downtown Tokyo, The Lights of Asakusa is a charming and elegantly realized ensemble slice-of-life serio-comedy. Centering on the acting troupe’s attempts to harbor a virginal young chorus girl from the lecherous advances of one of the theater’s most powerful patrons – and abetted in no small part by the troupe director’s wife and principal actress Marie (played by the legendary screen and stage performer, and frequent Ozu and Naruse actress, Haruko Sugimura) – the plot provides a simple backdrop for the ecletic personalities of the film’s cast of characters: a struggling painter who derives inspiration from European art, a veteran actor who contemplates retirement after being jeered onstage, a lonely arcade worker who longs to escape the tawdry lights of the district, a well-intentioned actor (Ken Uehara) whose off-stage samaritan deeds and insistence on fairness and righteousness rival the heroics of his on-stage persona, an older, world wise chorus girl who takes it upon herself to protect her young co-worker’s honor. Eschewing plot in favor of richly textured characters, the film is a thoughtful and affectionate portrait of camaraderie, pragmatism, and human decency.

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