Older Brother, Younger Sister

As visually and dramatically intense as anything Naruse has done, OLDER BROTHER, YOUNGER SISTER is almost too much of a good thing. Set in a rural area just outside Tokyo, the film traces the tension lines in a broken family, and especially between its violent son Ino (Masayuki Mori, too old for his character) and his sister Mon (Machiko Kyo, in her only Naruse performance), whose descent into apparent prostitution seems at least partly caused by Ino’s punitive quasi-incestuous jealousy. The rest of the family – alcoholic father Akaza (Reizaburo Yamamoto), his wife (Kumeko Urabe), and little sister San (Yoshiko Kuga, the lead in SPRING’S AWAKENING) – are either helpless to intervene in Ino and Mon’s primal struggle or too defeated by life to participate.

Adapted by Yoko Mizuki from a short story by well-known writer Saisei Muro[1] (ANZUKKO), the film gives off a Tennessee Williams vibe, not least because of the iconography of Kyo in a Western-style slip in the summer heat, supine and disruptive. (Muro’s story was written in 1934 and filmed in 1936 by Sotoji Kimura and again in 1976 by the talented Tadashi Imai.) The little village is typed as a zone of economic and spiritual decline; Akaza has never recovered from the loss of his business when the region began shoring up the river banks with concrete instead of stones. The story is neatly divided into three movements of approximately equal length, each seeded with drama by a rural bus dropping off one of the characters, each culminating in heated conflict and ending in departure.

Naruse’s exciting approach to visualizing the material is to accentuate his usual taste for long shots and depth compositions. Few locations in Naruse’s films register with such abstract force as this countryside: the vast river vistas where workers toil and children play, the unearthly rock fields that surround the river, the waterside dirt roads and paths through greenery. Just as striking are the film’s spacious interiors, parsed into geometry by long shots across rooms and into corners, the sides of the Akaza house open to the elements in the summer heat to create an atmosphere of shadowy shelter instead of enclosure. When violence strikes, Naruse often stages it as the invasion of the foreground by the background, with pillows or cups thrown or kicked toward the camera, and combatants abandoning their place in long-shot compositions and charging into medium shots.

The film is not particularly subtle in his presentation of its archetypal characters and situations. The early scenes showing the small community’s fierce judgment of Mon’s sexual indiscretions set the tone of overstatement; Ino’s juvenile-delinquent act and Mon’s floozie impersonation leave little to the imagination. Beyond this tone of exaggeration, not unprecedented in Naruse’s films, the script has an undesirable tendency to state its undercurrents directly. Sometimes this tendency merely serves the cause of exposition; as in Ino’s first diatribe against Mon; sometimes it is at the expense of characterization, as when San suddenly turns against and lectures her weak boyfriend Taiichi (Yuji Hori); sometimes it dilutes dramatic high points by providing subtext on the spot, as when Ino picks a fight with Mon’s ex-lover Obata (Eiji Funakoshi, of FIRES ON THE PLAIN). Perhaps a certain thematic simplification is built into the material: because Ino’s delinquency and Mon’s profligacy are expressed so purely through the drama, we have little option but to regard these states as the result of the siblings’ unfulfilled emotional connection.

If the impact of the film’s dramatic outbursts is somewhat diminished by its tendencies toward explicitness, Naruse still manages to keep a little something in reserve. The big third-act set-piece, Ino and Mon’s brutal physical fight, exceeds all our expectations for unnerving domestic violence: Naruse’s superb editing and framing emphasizes the frightening momentum of the conflict, the rest of the family first trying desperately to pull the combatants apart, then subsiding into fearful spectatorship. Two parallel narratives – the dissolution of the family, and the strange bond between the siblings – are resolved in opposite directions by this single event. The film’s unmistakable implication is that the battered Mon emerges victorious through her anguished protest against her lot in life, and that the physically dominant Ino is defeated by his inability to express his true feelings. Mon ends the film with an offhand mention of her continuing affection for Ino – a sympathetic gesture that is chilled by our awareness of the precarious life ahead of her.

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[1] A description of Muro’s story is in McDonald, From Book to Screen, 220-236.