Naruse’s first movie from a novel by Fumiko Hayashi, and a success that restored his status in the film industry,[1] REPAST is a perplexing, dense, contemplative work. The opening voiceover speaks of the drudgery and tedium of married women’s lives, and the film strongly suggests that, for Michiyo (Setsuko Hara), this tedium is not a secondary consideration, that it makes happiness impossible for her. Hatsunosuke (Ken Uehara) is a reasonably sympathetic husband by Naruse’s low standards: a bit complacent, content with his low-income status, making occasional gestures of affection for Michiyo, hoping that the twists and turns of his wife’s inner life will smooth out without his intervention. Naruse and writers Toshiro Ide and Sumie Tanaka allow Michiyo an unsympathetic side (for instance, in an early scene where she denigrates Hatsunosuke for not having made as much money as some of his stockbroker peers), confident that their sustained focus on her plight will tip the scales in her favor.

Naruse sends a few signals in the film’s first half that Hatsunosuke’s destructively flirtatious niece Satoko (Yukiko Shimazaki, later the farmer’s wife in SEVEN SAMURAI) has undermined the marriage. Given that Michiyo’s jealousy – which Naruse repeatedly emphasizes with closeups and reaction shots – ultimately seems not relate to her fundamental aversion to her predestined life, the amount of screen time devoted to Satoko is puzzling. One possible function of the Satoko story is to show that the essentially conservative Michiyo is an enforcer of the same societal norms that are the cause of her anguish. But Satoko’s attempts to disrupt the marriage are so blatant that Satoko comes across as a special problem for society rather than an analogue to Michiyo. Neither does the film give Satoko the in-depth consideration that would make her a secondary story focus: the only glimpse Naruse gives us of the inner person, who one would presume is sociopathically angry, is in her interaction with her alienated father (So Yamamura) in her final scene.

The film intensifies when it moves from Osaka, where the married couple lives, to Tokyo, to which Michiyo flees when she reaches her snapping point. Rhythm and mood convey Michiyo’s sense of deliverance from marital life and her longing for the comfort of childhood surroundings, even as her well-meaning family and friends tighten the noose of marriage around her neck. The unresolved tone of this section finds expression in one of Naruse’s most pictorial shots, beginning with Michiyo standing below a railroad bed while a train rumbles by over her head, and then pivoting into a reverse tracking shot as Michiyo walks along a river bank with a Mizoguchian vista stretching out below and behind her. Satoko also pops up in Tokyo, where she seduces Michiyo’s louche but attentive cousin Kazuo (Hiroshi Nihon’yanagi) – but at this point in Michiyo’s emotional journey, Satoko’s aggression reduces Michiyo to helpless, mysterious laughter instead of evoking jealousy.

Michiyo’s ultimate decision to return to Hatsunosuke, as difficult as it is to reconcile with her conviction, is prepared throughout the film’s second half, and is not merely tacked on. Minor characters repeatedly inscribe a message in the film’s margins: this womanly misery is well-known, you think you can’t accept it but after you surrender the future years will become, if not joyous, at least bearable, which is as much as you have a right to hope for. The message is sometimes stated directly and always lurks behind the unceasing societal pressure placed upon Michiyo to return to the marriage, pressure that is often administered sympathetically. In a striking scene near the film’s end, Michiyo’s mother (Haruko Sugimura) stops her other daughter from running after Michiyo when Michiyo flees a reunion with her husband. The viewer is likely to interpret Michiyo’s bolting as a clear sign that she cannot resume the marriage, but the mother stands by with a knowing smile, as if watching the old, old process of adjustment go through its familiar phases: “She’ll be fine.”

Hayashi left her novel unfinished, without a resolution of the marital crisis.[2] To my mind, Michiyo’s serenity at the film’s conclusion, and her voiceover declaration that the routine of marriage might be a woman’s path to happiness, feel more like a reversal than a realization. All the film’s dissonances – not only this ending and the preparation for it, but also the prominence of Satoko’s role – would vanish if Michiyo’s aversion had been less existential and more the result of mundane psychological distress. And yet one senses that both Hayashi and Naruse are deeply invested in Michiyo’s existential rebellion. Perhaps Naruse was a year or two away from the freedom of expression needed to confront Michiyo’s despair.

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[1] Russell, The Cinema of Naruse Mikio, 220.

[2] Russell, The Cinema of Naruse Mikio, 215.