A film full of exciting texture and character observation, yet strangely unsatisfying in its narrative organization, usually Naruse’s strong point. The script by Toshiro Ide and Yoko Mizuki deals with subject matter congenial to Naruse: six years into their marriage, office worker Isaku (Ken Uehara) and his wife Kikuko (Yoko Sugi, very good in her only lead role for Naruse) return to Tokyo and are forced to share a house with handsome widower Takemura (Rentaro Mikuni, working in broad comic strokes), whose puppy-dog crush on Kikuko rouses Isaku’s jealousy. Not that the financially straitened marriage was especially happy before this: the naturally incommunicative Isaku has taken shelter behind the socially acceptable facade of the stern and withholding Japanese husband, and dutiful but unhappy Kikuko lets her distaste for her husband flash through her surface conviviality at regular intervals. Naruse’s brilliance at locating relationships within an obstacle course of mundane events is in full force here. The instability of the couple’s living situation is an opportunity for Naruse to stage the domestic procedural scenes that amount to a signature: the awkward arrival of a cart full of Isaku’s moving boxes in the middle of Kikuko’s brother’s engagement party, with movers filling out the background of family compositions; or the cleaning of Takemura’s house, with Kikuko’s incipient role as caretaker for both men coalescing naturally amid the welter of household chores. Takemura’s reminiscences of his dead wife give the film a streak of black humor unusual for Naruse, as the widower’s growing attraction to Kikuko goes hand in hand with his increasingly brutal appraisal of the shortcomings of the departed.
One problem with the film’s concept is that this unorthodox, sexually charged living situation would be capable of putting any marriage to the test, and therefore overdetermines the breakdown of a Naruse marriage that is already hanging by a thread. In any case, the film’s plot starts to seem a bit slapped together in its final 15 or 20 minutes. Kikuko’s return to the marriage after a brief hiatus is depicted rather perfunctorily, with none of the weight or ambivalence of similar developments in REPAST. Then, after an ellipsis, Takemura vanishes from the story with barely a trace, and the final section of the film veers off in a new direction, with the now-pregnant Kikuko in conflict with Isaku over whether to have an abortion. Nothing about this endgame melodrama (which is appealing in its own right, with an evocative final scene set in a park outside an obstetric clinic) is strongly tied to the rest of the film: it’s as if the final bit of story were happening to an otherwise devoted couple who hadn’t had the problems we saw earlier.
HUSBAND AND WIFE is strongly keyed to season: the chill of the Tokyo winter permeates the film, with the impecunious characters huddling near the hibachi in unheated living rooms, covered in blankets. The peak moments of Kikuko and Takemura’s romantic temptation occur at Christmas and are scored to Western Christmas music, Capra-Riskin style; the reunification of the marriage is similarly synchronized with the New Year celebration and linked to the sound of an ancient temple bell, heard over the radio.