One of the most exciting of all Naruse films: at a mere 54 minutes, it’s so dense and textured that repeat viewings only deepen its mystery. Seemingly operating with a free hand after the success of WIFE! BE LIKE A ROSE, Naruse wrote a marvellously indirect original script that is married to a dense, kaleidoscopic camera style, so that the two cannot be imagined independently. The fragmentation and claustrophobia of the visual plan, full of short camera moves, obstructing foreground objects, dissonant cuts and compressions of time, is not radical by the standards of 30s Japanese cinema; but Naruse combines that style with a disorienting play with narrative lines, so that short scenes from different threads are briefly sutured together by movement cuts or composition matches before story gaps break the connections.
Most of the film takes place within the Nadaya, an old family-run sake store that is teetering on the edge of extinction. There are three major story lines, each bearing a fair portion of the film’s emotional weight:
- the complicated negotiations to marry off the dutiful and traditional eldest daughter Kunie (Sachiko Chiba, in a performance that anticipates the persona of Setsuko Hara) to the eligible Sato (Heihachiro Okawa), who comes to prefer Kunie’s rebellious and aggressively modern younger sister Kimiko (Ryuko Umezono);
- Kumie’s desire to bring Oyu (Tomoko Ito, the mother in WIFE! BE LIKE A ROSE), Kimiko’s mother and the long-time mistress of her widowed father Kenkichi (Ko Mihashi), into the family home, despite Kimiko’s hostility;
- Kenkichi’s clandestine experiments with the Nadaya’s sake.
All the story lines advance, in fits and starts, through the painstaking efforts of the film’s more responsible characters; and two of the three story lines seem as if they might conclude to the advantage of the family. But, even in the more optimistic scenes, a terrible foreboding hangs over the proceedings: this universe seems invaded by a corrosion that eats away at the family’s flailing efforts to attain happiness. “The marriage proposal has turned into something really weird,” reports Kumie’s perplexed matchmaker uncle (Kamatari Fujiwara, who appeared in all five of Naruse’s 1935 films); likewise, the complaints of the sisters’ alcohol-dependent grandfather (Yo Shiomi, in a goofy yet memorable performance) about the taste of the store’s sake gradually take on an alarming cast. Before we are able to grasp the family’s fatal trajectory, the apprehensive expressions of the long-suffering Kunie and Oyu give us a reflected image of the dark forces working toward its defeat. Naruse shrewdly uses stereotyping to set up a series of unexpected character revelations at mid-film, as the seemingly irresponsible grandfather turns out to be an accurate and philosophical observer, and his sober son Kenkichi is revealed as an agent of destabilization.
The array of story elements moves erratically toward resolution, but all the characters keep something of themselves in reserve as the story progresses; and Kunie, the lynchpin of the family, harbors the deepest mysteries. The family’s often-stated assumption is that the dutiful Kunie does not wish to marry Sato, but is sacrificing herself for the sake of family finances; and indeed at one point Kunie shrugs off an obstacle to the union, saying “I don’t think I could have a happy marriage anyway.” But she monitors the progress of the marriage negotiations carefully, and always pushes the process forward in her indirect, well-mannered way. The humiliation of the casual theft of her suitor by Kimiko can account only partially for the despair that she evinces when the proposal collapses – and yet Naruse refuses to give us clear answers about Kunie’s motivations. Just as Naruse used movie shorthand to set up and then reverse our ideas about the characters of Kenkichi and the grandfather, so does he deploy commentary from seemingly astute characters to give us preconceptions about Kunie that the film eventually reveals as simplistic if not outright incorrect.
When the amazing climax manages to resolve all three stories at the same time, it is with a horrifying chain reaction that ensures the worst possible outcomes across the board. The movie began with the Renoir-like framing device of customers in the barbershop across the street from the Nadaya detachedly discussing the sake shop’s decline; after calamity strikes, the movie ends in the same setting, with the wickedly absurdist chatter of the barber and his customers transformed into the uncaring viewpoint of an annihilating universe. I’m cautious about calling any film Naruse’s darkest, given the number of candidates; but something very unsettling is expressed here.
This is Naruse’s last film with the appealing Umezono. Her subsequent movie career was not long, but she has an intriguing credit as Sumiko Kurishima’s sister in the 1938 CRYBABY APPRENTICE, adapted from a Fumiko Hayashi novel and directed by Shiro Toyoda.