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What Made Her Do It?

"Life is a path of suffering that leads to death..." So begins What Made Her Do It? (1930, Japanese: 何が彼女をそうさせたか). (Silent film based on a Shingeki play and directed by Shigeyoshi Suzuki.)

Sumiko, an innocent girl who dreams only of attending school, is sent by her father to Nitto to live with her uncle, whom she hasn't met. On the way she becomes lost and, tears streaming down her face, eats her last shred of bread as a train of cheerful passengers passes. Desperate and alone, she encounters an old rickshaw man who kindly takes her in for the night and gives her plenty of food. The next morning he leads her to the outskirts of Nitto, where they part.

Upon arriving at her uncle's, she hands him and his wife a letter from her father. The house is filled with boisterous kids and an endlessly crying baby. She's unable to read and so doesn't know what's written in the letter, though her aunt and uncle now do. Sumiko's father has informed them that he would commit suicide after his daughter's departure, and he asks them to take care of her. They pocket the enclosed money meant for her and then welcome her into their home only to abuse and neglect her, then sell her to a traveling circus.

The circus master is even crueler than her aunt and uncle. Sumiko is forced into the act of a knife thrower, also the circus master, and she faints out of terror. Time passes and she grows accustomed to her new, miserable life, but the master takes all the performers' money, and they have little to eat. One finds coins among Sumiko's personal belongings, including a silver coin given to her by the old rickshaw man. Accusing her of theft, they beat her and take the money. But the others revolt, and during the mayhem, Sumiko and Shintaro manage to escape.

Hours later, a bad twist of fate separates the two when Shintaro is hit by a car. The story jumps to a year later, when Sumiko is in front of a judge after having been used by a band of thieves. She's sent to the poor house, then sent to work as a maid for the town councilor. There she joins the other servants and tends to the daughter, who hurts her tooth while eating from a bowl of rice Sumiko has prepared, as raucous jazz seems to blare from the gramophone (some comic relief here). But can't the young lady bone the fish herself? bemoans Sumiko, the first protest we hear from her lips, though soft and weak in its delivery. If she has to do it on her own, she'd rather not eat it, the sempai says. To which, after all the hardships she's persevered through, Sumiko replies, What an inconvenience for her. The other servants burst into laughter.

Sumiko doesn't clean up. She leaves the water running, again, scolds the counselor's wife. Sumiko, angry, throws a dish through the papered square of a shoji. Sumiko is sent back to the poor house.

Three years pass and we find her at the house of a Biwa instructor, which she has to take care of. As luck would have it, she spots Shintaro, alive and well, through the door. And he explains the accident that separated them years before. He wants to call on her again, he tells her, as the instructor arrives back home. The instructor then grabs her wrist with perhaps rape on his mind. She manages to break free and runs from the house, down dark narrow streets. She finds Shintaro and, with the happiness of a married women, lives with him, as sweet music plays to convey the peace she's found, which is short-lived.

From the theater where he works, Shintaro receives a telegram informing him he no longer has a job there. Unemployed and desperate, the pair decide to drown themselves in the sea. Some fishermen, who see them on the beach, suspect they might be there to do just that, and later a number of boats go out to search for them. Sumiko is alive. She's sent to a Christian reformatory for young women, where she learns that her husband survived his suicide attempt as well. The woman who tells Sumiko this also convinces her to write a letter to him, promising Sumiko that she'll bring it to him soon after she's granted her freedom to leave the reformatory. Writing letters to those outside the reformatory is strictly prohibited and regarded as an unforgivable sin by the headmistress, who happens to find the letter on the floor after it slips out of Sumiko's friend's kimono.

Sumiko is admonished for her behavior and told to confess her sins in front of everyone. She cannot bare the shame, though, and points up at the crucifix and screams, That God of love is a lie! It's all lies! Even though I've asked for forgiveness, you still want to shame me. If God were love, I would already be forgiven. I'm better off without such a God. The garden of angels is a lie! It's all lies! No one can stop her as she hollers maniacally and throws the Bible at the crucifix. Later that night the building is suddenly engulfed in flames. The headmistress flees. The cross burns. The inmates frantically try to escape. Someone accuses Sumiko of starting the fire. Yes, I did it. Burn, burn! she rejoices. The film ends with the question: What made her do it?


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