An extremely well-constructed film (Toshiro Ide gets sole writing credit), contained in scope but successful on all levels. We get a lot of subtext right off the bat, as the marriage between Kiyoko (Hideko Takamine) and Shinji (Keiju Kobayashi), elegantly introduced via a precise cut between reverse-shot long shots in an alley, functions on such a purely practical level that its shortcomings are conspicuous. Naruse effortlessly establishes the limitations of the couple’s happiness with a few simple, stylized expressions of their disengaged affect; what makes his approach distinctive here is probably less a matter of directorial proficiency than of mere willingness to show mundane behavior that others romanticize by instinct. The couple collaborates efficiently on a plan to build a cafe next to their shop until their efforts are waylaid by one of Naruse’s most destructive families: Shinji’s supremely negative mother (Eiko Miyoshi), his wastrel older brother Zenichi (Minoru Chiaki), and his sister-in-law Kaoru (Chieko Nakakita) form a temporary alliance to apply pressure to the couple to give the money for their cafe project to Zenichi for a dubious business opportunity. The film is dominated by the torturous family atmosphere that cracks Kiyoko and Shinji’s marriage like a walnut: their superficial bond easily damaged, husband and wife take every opportunity to flee the household separately, leaving the merciless family to overpower the one left behind. Shinji’s favored venue of escape is a friend’s geisha house (Machiko Kitagawa is memorable as Shinji’s unstable geisha companion), whereas Kiyoko becomes an apprentice at a nearby restaurant and finds love outside the marriage with her friend’s brother Kenkichi (Toshiro Mifune), a bank employee who secures a loan for her. Naruse and Takamine illustrate Kiyoko’s attraction to Kenkichi with a pleasing subtlety that is nonetheless unmistakable: a slightly defeated matron at home, she erupts in small explosions of laughter with Kenkichi, basking in serenity even when discussing with him her insoluble problems. By contrast, Naruse’s portrait of marital discord is unvarnished, with both characters risking our sympathy with imperious behavior or veiled cruelty. “They didn’t particularly like each other when they married,” says Kiyoko’s friend Yumiko (Yoko Sugi), and Naruse and Ide harness the film’s suspense to our uncertainty about the depth of the couple’s mutual dissatisfaction.
Naruse builds into the film a shadow narrative that asserts itself only at the climax: Shinji’s final demonstration of decency, far from moving Kiyoko to affection, creates only a bitter sense of obligation in her; and the seemingly resolved narrative staggers forward for a few more scenes as Kiyoko works on suppressing feelings larger than any that her marriage has inspired. So the conventional “marriage tested and restored” plot, complete with the hope of financial success at the end, coexists with a mirror-image “happiness promised and withdrawn” dynamic. (Kiyoko’s last news of Kenkichi – that he “just laughed” when asked whether he and Kiyoko were involved – pops out of the background chatter like a miniature version of James Mason’s final offscreen gesture in Ophuls’ THE RECKLESS MOMENT.) As a small compensation for Kiyoko’s loss, Naruse and Ide gently transform the poisonous family into a more benevolent environment, now that struggle has become useless.
Takamine is very good, throwing in a nice impression of a stereotypical cheerful hostess in the restaurant scenes. Many filmmakers would present such flexibility of self-presentation as insincerity, but Naruse always accepts it as natural and never underlines it. And Kobayashi once again distinguishes himself as one of the Naruse actors best equipped to demonstrate a divided nature.