A quiet and assured film, but to my mind something short of the masterpiece that it is generally reckoned to be. Naruse and writers Toshiro Ide and Sumie Tanaka (their second collaboration after REPAST) interweave three Fumiko Hayashi short stories, each about the life of a different aging ex-geisha, each revolving around a small dramatic event that barely inflects the overarching tone of melancholy stasis. Kin (Haruko Sugimura), a ruthless businesswoman and money lender, holds out hope for a rekindled romance when her wartime lover Tabe (Ken Uehara) pays her a visit; elegant Tamae (Chikako Hosokawa, in her first performance for Naruse since 1936’s TOCHUKEN KUMOEMON) has a troubled relationship with her delinquent son Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Koizumi), who is about to leave home for a job in Hokkaido; and Tomi (Yuko Mochizuki, a favorite actress of Kinoshita) exacerbates her money problems with her taste for pachinko, and tries in vain to keep her daughter Sachiko (Ineko Arima, of TOKYO TWILIGHT and EQUINOX FLOWER) from repeating her mistakes with men. The writers add a fourth ex-geisha Nobu (Naruse regular Sadako Sawamura), whose restaurant serves as a place of assembly. In the adaptation, all the women trace their youthful acquaintance back to the same geisha house: Tamae and Tomi have become roommates and companions in poverty, and Kin links the stories as a lender or landlord to all the ex-geisha, criss-crossing the town on foot to collect debts. This last scriptwriting idea has a considerable effect on the film’s emotional temperature. Avarice and contempt are more or less Kin’s only character traits, and her function as principal connection between the other characters writes her unpleasant qualities large upon the film: she continuously humiliates and insults her old friends in her role as debt collector, doesn’t mind if people hate her, and continues to gloat and demean others in her private time. (“Have the house vacated. Men are apt to be soft on a widow,” Kin says to her broker Itai [Daisuke Kato] in the first scene, typing herself as a movie villain.) The other characters spend a fair amount of screen time talking about Kin, which pushes her further toward the film’s center. Naruse avoids a sentimental climax and stays true to Kin’s character with his depiction of her ill-fated infatuation with Tabe: one senses that she is even relieved to relegate him to the same lowly status as most of the people in her life. But this refusal of the conventional path to empathy leaves Kin a collection of unattractive behaviors and mannerisms.
My favorite story strand deals with the relationship between Tamae and her son Kiyoshi, who has learned to accept and embrace his role as a delinquent. Tamae is continuously critical of and unforgiving toward Kiyoshi, and yet he gives his mother money (not a common occurrence in this film, where even radio broadcasters and street vendors have only money on their minds), takes a difficult job to support her, and stares at her as if he’s still seven years old and fascinated with her sexuality. Naruse never underlines this shadow narrative of the mother-son relationship. Among the many strong performers, I especially enjoyed Mochizuki, the most boisterous and comic of the ex-geisha. One of the loveliest scenes shows Tamae and Tomi sharing a bed, blaming each other reflexively for their insomnia, then relaxing into a gentle middle-of-the-night conversation of reminiscence and mutual support.
The film ends with a splash of emotion, cued by Ichiro Saito’s poignant score. Tamae and Tomi, having just seen Kiyoshi off, possibly forever, see a passing woman swinging her hips like Marilyn Monroe and fall into laughter and tomfoolery, their youth briefly restored to them. Naruse then cuts to a mysteriously affecting shot of Kin, on a business mission with Itai, anxiously searching for a train ticket. This closing moment is the only point where Naruse crystallizes our pity for this difficult character.