A Woman’s Sorrows

No other Naruse film contains so much of his personality and yet gives me so little pleasure. Naruse co-wrote, with Chikao Tanaka (a playwright who became celebrated after World War II, and the husband of Naruse’s later collaborator Sumie Tanaka[1]), a story about a young woman named Hiroko (Takako Irie, best known from early Mizoguchi films like THE WATER MAGICIAN) who marries recklessly out of unrequited love for her cousin Ryosuke (Hideo Saeki), and becomes little more than a maid for her in-laws. The film is dense with sharp social and psychological observation, especially in its corrosive depiction of the unpleasant in-law family, each member of which seems to harbor a slightly different motivation for making Hiroko’s life hell, with enough plausible ambiguity in the oppressors’ behavior to keep the malevolence within the realm of the mundane. (There’s a hint of class exploitation as well: Hiroko’s mother encouraged the marriage to relieve her family’s poverty.) Hiroko’s detached husband Horie (Hyo Kitazawa), who spends most of his time cavorting in nightclubs and brings home his acquired habit of enhancing sex with alcohol, is not a major player in Hiroko’s new life, which largely consists of fulfilling the household needs of Horie’s siblings and parents. Naruse suggests that dominance is a contagious pleasure: even in the more friendly and chaotic environment of Hiroko’s family home, her younger brother Masao (Kaoru Ito) starts to boss her around after witnessing her lowly status among her in-laws.

As always, Naruse is attentive to the grading of the drama, building up to Hiroko’s moments of crisis with accelerated cutting and visual connections among the activities in the family house. But there’s something unsatisfying about both the setup and the resolution of Hiroko’s problem. Though she is repeatedly described as “conservative and indecisive,” there’s little about her on-screen behavior to suggest that her plight is the result of a passive or denial-prone personality: she seems fully aware of and slightly above the indignities that befall her (“He seems a little frivolous, but lately all men seem frivolous,” she tells a friend about her husband-to-be Horie), and her elephant-in-the-room complicity in her own subjugation goes unexamined. A secondary focus on Hiroko’s rooftop meetings with Ryosuke lends the film a structure somewhat like that of Hitchcock’s NOTORIOUS, but has the effect of making Hiroko seem even more removed from the fray. Her ultimate decision to break the marital bond is motivated by her empathy for the desperate love that drives the estranged husband Masuda (Heihachiro Okawa) of her irresponsible sister-in-law Yoko (Ranko Sawa) to embezzle money. But it’s not clear how this subplot relates to Hiroko’s own crisis, which seems to be about self-image more than unconditional love; and her rebellion neither suggests an internal change or reveals a new dimension. With the sympathetic Hiroko losing focus, Naruse’s energy for depicting base human behavior, which occupies center stage, flirts with misanthropy. A grandiloquent ending, in which Hiroko rejects Ryosuke in favor of a vaguely described journey of self-discovery, does nothing to rectify this imbalance, and in fact is so unlike Naruse that it suggests studio interference.

The film’s visuals are often quite attractive, in the experimental style that Naruse toyed with during his early career: shadowy cityscapes, foreground obstructions, pans across spaces that open up into the background, circling low-angle dolly shots. We also get one of the director’s droll, disorienting transitions, as Hiroko’s marriage is thrust upon us via the image of the new couple upside-down in the wedding photographer’s lens.

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[1] Rimer, “Four Plays by Tanaka Chikao,” Monumenta Nipponica, 275-298.