It’s surprisingly difficult to take the measure of ANZUKKO, despite its clear story and Naruse’s unusually simple and transparent directorial approach. Its intelligent script (for the only time in his post-1951 career, Naruse took a writing credit, along with Sumie Tanaka) tosses off compelling behavioral and thematic complexities left and right: problems arise if one tries to parse this data into the causal relationships that create dramatic structure.

Based on an allegedly autobiographical novel[1] by Saisei Muro, who also provided source material for OLDER BROTHER, YOUNGER SISTER, the movie begins in 1947, in a small country town where the family of successful writer Heishiro (So Yamamura) has taken shelter from the bombing of Tokyo. Heichiro’s daughter Kiyoko[2] (Kyoko Kagawa) objects to most of the marriage prospects that her anxious parents line up for her, but finally accepts the proposal of local boy Ryokichi (Isao Kimura). It’s hard to tell whether she’s following her heart or simply taking a non-repulsive option: certainly her relationship with her father is so warm and fulfilling that her departure from home seems more a duty than a desire. “It’s bad to have girls, isn’t it?” says Kiyoko good-naturedly to her parents. “They get sent off somewhere, like lepers.”

Ryokichi’s incongruous act of smearing Kiyoko’s previous suitor with his eyewitness account of an unnamed “dirty” act performed during wartime may or may not be a foreshadowing of his defects as a husband. Switching jobs frequently and showing a taste for alcohol and get-rich-quick schemes. he eventually dedicates himself to a writer’s life, despite a spate of rejected manuscripts and no supplementary income. In the early years of the marriage, Ryokichi retains a boyish appeal and some interest in Kiyoko, so that her attempts to deflate his ego about his writing, and her superior ability to strike at his weak points, seem as if they might be aggressions rather than reactions. But before long Ryokichi descends into an alcoholic fog of spite and resentment, focusing his bitterness on the famous father-in-law who he believes has blocked his writing career. Issues of who is responsible for which marital problem are obsoleted by Ryokichi’s frightening decline into malevolence and ineffectuality. As the years wear on, Kiyoko periodically escapes the hateful marriage for stays at her parents’ home, each time visibly warmed by her father’s presence. But, even at the film’s climax, when a decisive act is mandated by both the drama and the magnitude of her husband’s offenses, Kiyoko puts on a brave face and returns to her nightmarish home, keeping the possibility of a split “as a last resort.”

The number of occurrences of phrases like “hard to tell” and “may or may not” in the above account is a measure of the ways in which a clear assignment of roles and causes is problematized. After a number of viewings and leaps at conclusions, I’ve come to feel that Naruse’s mission with ANZUKKO, unlike that of his other films, is to neutralize drama and reveal the contours of ordinary lives lived in disappointment. If we manage to ignore the cues that invite us to abstract and define the conflicts and issues at stake – and I’m unsure whether it’s reasonable to ask the viewer to lay this burden down – we are left with events and observations that address general social concerns: the obligation of families to push their children into uncertain marital futures, and the internal and external pressures that keep people in bad marriages “until they can’t go on anymore” – Heichiro’s criterion for when his daughter should think about a breakup. (In the background of the film, Kiyoko’s brother Heinosuke [Hiroshi Tachikawa] also marries and begins to suffer from incompatibilities that had been signalled during his courtship.) As much as we may rebel against Kiyoko’s decision to return to her husband, it’s not a sociological outlier.

The large amount of screen time spent with Ryokichi after he passes the point of no redemption can be repetitive and punishing, however true to life the pattern may be. And the otherwise admirable script gives Heichiro too many nuggets of poetic wisdom, making him a slightly irritating spokesman for the film’s perspective rather than a participant in the family’s psychic pile-up. Still, ANZUKKO is at the least a fascinating example of a work of art trying to destroy its own frame. One short, mundane scene from the early years of the marriage shows Kiyoko preparing for bed, seemingly about to have sex with Ryokichi, without a hint of either pleasure or distaste, and with almost no emphasis; one can imagine the moment in other Naruse films, but here it becomes emblematic of the film’s demanding agenda.

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[1] “Muro Saisei,” Wikipedia.

[2] Anzukko is Kiyoko’s nickname, and a pun: apparently the written symbols for “Kiyo” and “Anzu” (a kind of plum) are identical, with “ko” giving the form of a Japanese feminine name.