An obvious fit for Naruse in its subjects and its preoccupations, crammed with big stars all the way down to supporting roles, intermittently aspiring to the tone of Ross Hunter melodramas, DAUGHTERS, WIVES AND A MOTHER feels as if it might have been a little too much of a prestige project for Naruse’s good. (The price of admission even bought audiences a few restrained on-screen kisses between Setsuko Hara and Tatsuya Nakadai – not an everyday occurrence in Naruse’s work.) The script by Toshiro Ide and Zenzo Matsuyama, Naruse’s most frequent scenarists in the 60s, once again chronicles a family’s destructive reflex maneuvers for money, with the status of chief victim gradually settling upon the passive Sanae (Hara), returned to her family by her in-laws after the death of her husband. Three-fourths of the film depicts the irresponsibility and casual opportunism of Sanae’s four adult siblings, with their benevolent mother Aki (Aiko Mimasu) commenting on her children’s venality but exerting no influence. With few good prospects for her future, the 36-year-old Sanae attracts the much younger brewer Kuroki (Nakadai) and is fixed up with tea ceremony artist Gojo (Ken Uehara, in little more than a walk-on), but seems to wish more than anything to give marriage a wide berth. Near the end, however, the story shifts focus, as financial catastrophe creates a TOKYO STORY-like dilemma about which of the siblings is able and willing to provide a home for Aki’s old age. The film’s ultimate dramatic issue is Aki’s decision about which undesirable future to accept, with Sanae, heretofore the dramatic center of the film, and the other family members relegated to supporting status. It seems possible that the casting of Hara amplified the role of Sanae without sufficient consideration for the overall structure; in any case, the pieces of her puzzle do not fall into place.
The scenes relating the death of Sanae’s husband are a fine example of Naruse’s masterful use of simple editing language to produce a surreptitious dissonance. Two deceptive time cuts, one hidden by storytelling conventions and the other by cross-cutting conventions, compress the episode unnaturally; the family’s reactions are appropriately dramatic, but Naruse’s stately yet elliptical presentation gives the event the chilly aspect of a loss not deeply felt. Sanae’s low-key return to the film in a simple interior shot a few scenes later hermetically seals off the life and death of her never-seen husband.
The film’s high point is the series of late scenes in which Sanae allows herself to take pleasure in the company of her young suitor Kuroki, with Setsuko Hara’s familiar acting strategy of laughing about painful subjects combining with our awareness of Sanae’s never-quite-stated dislike of her dead husband to create a potent, if indirect, indictment of marriage in general. Haruko Sugimura, playing the malevolent mother-in-law of Sanae’s sister Kaoru (Mitsuko Kusabue – her first appearance in the Naruse stock company), has a striking moment when, after successfully manipulating her son Hidetaka (Hiroshi Koizumi, of LATE CHRYSANTHEMUMS) into remaining under her roof, she relaxes in conversation with Aki, dropping her dragon-lady demeanor and showing in victory a gentler, more tentative side of her personality. Still, the film as a whole offers less excitement than one hopes for. The romance between Sanae and Kuroki sometimes feels so automatic and uninspired that one wonders if Naruse is parodying it; and Hideko Takamine, as the wife of Sanae’s elder brother, waits in the wings for a LIGHTNING-like moment of truth that never arrives. Naruse goes to some trouble to set up a difficult-to-read final scene that doesn’t quite manage to reframe the drama but that nonetheless sits pleasantly in the mind over time, with Chishu Ryu in a bit part as an elderly neighbor who offers Aki either a last chance at romance, or, more likely, a small way of committing herself to an active, useful life for a while longer.