Not too many years after DAUGHTERS, WIVES AND A MOTHER, Naruse and screenwriters Toshiro Ide and Zenzo Matsuyama again depict a casually venal family that makes life difficult for a widowed, virtuous woman in its midst (a daughter in the earlier film, a daughter-in-law here). As in DAUGHTERS, the family dynamic is somewhat reminiscent of TOKYO STORY, although Naruse makes STATUS’s aged patriarch (Chishu Ryu) an ignoramus who would be at home in TOBACCO ROAD, while his reasonably sympathetic wife (Haruko Sugimura) is not averse to using daughter-in-law Yoshiko (Hideko Takamine) as a shield in family intrigues. Against a backbeat of petty financial squabbling among the family’s seven siblings, a number of soap-opera-ready plot threads jockey for place – but even an unexpected fatality at the film’s climax can’t prevent the siblings and their spouses from trying to wheedle money from each other between greetings to mourners at the funeral service.
Ide and Matsuyama’s script, never exactly subtle, occasionally suggests willful parody. (One of the eligible men tempting the family’s several unmarried daughters sets a new standard for geographical obstacles to romance: he is a meteorologist who has accepted a job at the summit of Mount Fuji!) Naruse tends to dial up the surrealism when his material isn’t ideal, and here he seems stymied by long-enduring heroine Yoshiko, who for much of the film seems to exist only to set off the pettiness of her in-laws. Her concern for the education of her only son Ken (Kenzaburo Osawa) is poised to become a key issue when the boy unexpectedly commits suicide, but her conventionally emotive response constitutes one of Naruse’s weakest and least complex climaxes.
Still, the film offers compensations for its underrealized central character. Naruse often gives the unenlightened family an appealing vulgar energy, as in the strikingly photographed scene of wastrel brother-in-law Masaaki (Tatsuya Mihashi) improvising a seaside dance for his in-laws. The rather vague affinity between the meteorologist Aoyama (Yosuke Natsuki, the teenage cousin in THE APPROACH OF AUTUMN) and family daughter Natsuko (Yoko Tsukasa) gives Naruse the opportunity to construct a playful shadow narrative, completely revising our perception of the romance with a single light-hearted comment. But by far the most powerful material is the subplot of the mother’s long-lost son from a first marriage, Musumiya (Akira Takarada), who materializes in the family’s midst 45 minutes into the film. A dashing figure who catches the eye of daughter Umeko (Mitsuko Kusabue, in a memorable performance, both threatening and banal), Musumiya becomes smitten with Yoshiko, whose initial favorable opinion of him is eroded by a host of reports that he is an opportunistic con man. We see enough of Musumiya’s maneuvers to believe the bad word on him, but his stunned dignity and nervous little smile as Yoshiko quietly but brutally rejects his overtures and banishes him from the family create one of the most heartbreaking moments in a directorial career long on doomed, polluted romantic relationships.
Naruse seems more inclined than usual to editing ploys and formal symmetry in A WOMAN’S STATUS. Movements of the film generally end in exterior shots of the family store, varying only slightly from each other; the repetition does not prevent Naruse from making interesting variations, such as when he obtains an ominous effect by carrying the unmotivated sound of a random police siren from the previous scene over this exterior. The most assertive formal play occurs during a simple scene in which four different family members enter the kitchen where Yoshiko is working, to ask her help or to make demands of her. Naruse breaks the scene down with cross-cutting between almost identically framed medium shots of Yoshiko and her supplicants, even driving the mechanical repetition home by refusing to establish one of the entrances. Such editing ideas are perhaps too conceptual to become emotional high points. The same cannot be said, however, of the gentle mockery of the film’s final montage, in which the children of the family are filmed one at a time in a lovely series of leisurely long shots, through windows and across rooms, as they idle around the house waiting for the return of the parents, not yet aware of a last-minute development that will frustrate their latest grasping maneuver.