A perplexing film, full of sharp behavioral detail but profoundly unfulfilling in terms of structure. Naruse wrote the script, from a novel by Yojiro Ishizaka, the à clef subject of the director’s 1950 CONDUCT REPORT ON PROFESSOR ISHINAKA, who also provided subject matter for Shiro Toyoda’s excellent 1937 YOUNG PEOPLE. The first movement constructs a detailed multi-perspective inquiry into the report cards of two school friends, Nobuko (the very good child actor Etchan, who had already starred in a string of movies with her name in the title) and Tomiko (Teruko Kato). Through the report cards, the film admits into evidence the friends’ quite different personalities, the conflict between Nobuko’s jock father Kei (Minoru Takada, of LEARN FROM EXPERIENCE) and tightly wound mother (Sachiko Murase), the absent father in Tomiko’s home, and sundry observations on the ethos of Japan’s educational system in 1939. I would have been content for Naruse to stick with the report cards for the entire film, but a plot kicks in when the girls learn that Kei was once in love with Tomiko’s mother Tsuta (Takako Irie). The film here takes a turn toward the subjective perspective of Tomiko, whose self-image wavers as she uncovers new facts about her family history; Naruse does a beautiful job of deploying Nobuko’s carefree/careless nature to provide airy counterpoint to Tomiko’s increasingly grave story line. As Tomiko’s confusion takes center stage, Naruse enters her state of mind in a long, dreamlike passage in which the adult ex-lovers meet under the eyes of the children, with Tomiko and Tsuta passing slowly and repeatedly through the idyllic landscape that separates their rural town from the beach where the mythologized reunion occurs.

But the final section of the film goes in strange directions. Kei’s gift of a French doll to Tomiko precipitates an interfamily crisis that might have pulled together all the film’s character threads. But Tomiko, the film’s central character, is almost entirely omitted from the film’s end game; and Kei’s motivations in making the explosive gift of the doll, motivations which are certainly ambiguous, are never examined or suggested. Instead, the focus of the climax is on rebuking Nobuko’s mother for her suspicions and her general demeanor, even though her actions have contributed little to the crisis, and on the possible restoration of her marriage via her acceptance of chastisement. Could all this misdirection have something to do with Kei being something of a symbol of Japanese military zeal (in that he is about to be called up to service – he is introduced lowering a sword into an empty frame) and therefore not a valid subject for criticism? It’s unclear, but Catherine Russell says that Naruse complained of the censors becoming obtrusive on this film.[1] The subtlety of the dialogue suggests that Naruse was engaged by the project, and the dramatic fulfillment of narrative strands is generally his strong point. I suspect foul play.

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[1] Russell, The Cinema of Naruse Mikio, 149