As a Wife, As a Woman

In a more hieratic mode than is usual for Naruse, this intense melodrama was inspired by case studies from the Japanese domestic court.[1] It depicts an awkward but long-standing family arrangement in which Kono (Masayuki Mori) and his wife (Chikago Awashima, in her second and final role for Naruse) own a Ginza bar that has been managed for over a decade by Kono’s mistress Miho (Hideko Takamine). Miho’s discontent with her subordinate situation, fanned by opinionated family and friends, leads by degrees to a fierce contest with Kono’s wife for ownership of the bar. Because each woman sees herself, with some justification, as the biggest victim of the arrangement, no compromise can be reached, and the conflict escalates to encompass custody of the family’s two children (Kenzaburo Osawa and Yuriko Hoshi). The script by Toshiro Ide and Zenzo Matsuyama, constructed to draw attention to contemporary gender inequities in Japan, requires Kono’s utter passivity in the face of both women’s entreaties, rendering him one of the least sympathetic of Naruse’s many unpleasant male characters.

The film builds slowly and inexorably, and is at its best in its first half as it gathers social data, sketching in the fraught relationships with understatement and indirection. Miho’s habit of singing traditional songs aloud (which turns out to be a clue to a later plot surprise) is both a showcase for Takamine’s clowning and a fecund ambivalent sign, connoting both happiness and sadness. Naruse manages this ambivalence beautifully by lingering on and isolating her singing scenes, varying the tightness of the frame to bring out different emotional overtones. As the irresolvable wife-mistress conflict gradually takes center stage, and Miho’s behavior is increasingly manipulated by her social group, the carefully structured drama becomes purified and intense. Though the classical escalation of the story’s tension is effective on its own terms, the film’s tone comes to seem a bit narrow for Naruse: as the screws tighten, the characters are obligated to conform more closely to their predestined functions. By the time of the climax – a grand three-way confrontation set to Ross Hunter-style melodramatic piano music, in which each of the main characters is given a portentous speech to put a cap on his or her individual crisis – the drama has become hypertrophied, its emotive force demanding the sacrifice of economy and even plausibility. After the payload is delivered, Naruse seems to stretch out again for an effective coda in which the drama-induced stature of the characters is effectively deflated, restoring them to mundane life. The wonderful final scene, in which the teenage children shake off their roles as victims and open up a new and more optimistic movie – “Let’s go to the cinema!” – over the dead body of the defunct melodrama, leaves us with a distinctly Naruse-like mix of emotions.

The film’s lighting is quite distinctive for Naruse: heavily stylized throughout, with an emphasis on night scenes and shadowy, romantically lit interiors. Cinematographer Jun Yasumoto began working with Naruse after WHEN A WOMAN ASCENDS THE STAIRS and shot all his features through YEARNING, but this low-key lighting scheme is distinctive among their collaborations.

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[1] Russell, The Cinema of Naruse Mikio, 354