Okuni and Gohei

An oddly inert film, alleged to be an unwelcome assignment,[1] though it was made at a time when Naruse seemed to be consolidating control over his career. Based on a 1922 play by the famous writer Junichiro Tanizaki (THE MAKIOKA SISTERS, MANJI, THE KEY), the film is set in the Tokugawa era, and the period ambience is stylized in a way that works against Naruse’s flair for behavioral specificity. (A fussy, unpleasant doctor played by Kamatari Fujiwara who shows up for one scene in mid-film is a more typical Naruse creation than the more formal central performances.)

We gradually learn that the widow Okuni (Michiyo Kogure of EVEN PARTING IS ENJOYABLE, very good here) and her husband’s servant Gohei (Tomoemon Otani), are charged with finding and slaying Okuni’s husband’s killer Tomonojo (So Yamamura), who had courted her before her marriage. The movie begins with evocative shots of the odd couple journeying on foot, conspicuous to passers-by. The plot chugs through a few peaks and valleys of the standard quest narrative before Naruse and writer Toshio Yasumi (who had worked with Naruse several times in the 40s) provide much information about the characters’ emotional lives. Gradually we understand that Okuni has been obligated by her family and community to avenge a husband she never loved, and that her desire to abandon the vengeful quest is growing; whereas Gohei’s self-image is bound up with the execution of the lethal mission. The location of Okuni’s love interest is even harder to grasp, but it finally becomes clear that her past connection to Tomonojo is a bit of a red herring, and that the bond between servant and mistress is strengthening despite their differences about the assignment. Naruse and Yasumi’s leisurely elucidation of these questions might have been more satisfying with more behavioral detail, but the period conventions that confine the performances are so opaque that we find ourselves simply waiting for information. And the conception of some of the characters adds to the confusion: the sensitive Otani seems badly miscast as Gohei, who is written as a handsome, imposing warrior; and Tomonojo is a highly fictional character who exists almost exclusively as an embodiment of Okuni and Gohei’s anxiety and ambivalence, and who resolutely refuses to make sense on a psychological level.

The rapid onset of the story, and the recurring images of the protagonists holed up in studio-set small towns, watching townspeople from second-floor windows, makes the film feel a bit like an Allan Dwan/Benedict Bogeaus 50s Western. Strengthening the resemblance to classical Hollywood style, Naruse relies more heavily than usual on cross-cutting between closeups or medium shots of Okuni and Gohei as they labor to communicate their feelings across barriers of formality and class. As the relationship between the protagonists intensifies, Naruse enhances the cross-cutting with the occasional dolly in and out, but never completely abandons the conservative visual scheme.

Not surprisingly, Naruse fills gaps in the peripatetic story with local color and ambience, and the atmosphere is often more vivid than the characters: the days-long downpour that strands Okuni and Gohei and obscures their point-of-view shots of town life; a lovely scene at a ferry stop at a forest clearing, with dancing street entertainers and the call of the ferryman echoing in the distance; an torchlit bon odori dance with musicians perched on a scaffold.

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[1] Bock, Japanese Film Directors, 131.