Of all Naruse’s wartime films, THE WHOLE FAMILY WORKS is the closest in content and approach to the director’s best-known efforts. Its story, adapted by Naruse from a 1938 novella by left-wing writer Sunao Tokunaga, is built upon an irresolvable conflict: the children of the grindingly poor Ishimura family can escape lives of drudgery only by leaving the rest of the family in the direst of straits. Their amiable but ineffective father (Musei Tokugawa, formerly a well-known benshi) and casually venal mother (Noriko Honma, later the medium in RASHOMON, and a regular in Naruse’s 50s work) have become dependent on the incomes of their oldest children; though the script focuses on the family unit, it contains hints that the rest of the neighborhood is also impoverished due to falling wages. The unhappiness of the family’s eldest boy Kiichi (Akira Ubukata), who wants to quit his dead-end job and go to electrician school, precipitates a crisis that requires the moderation of the children’s teacher Mr. Washio (Den Obinata), the film’s designated representative of national authority.
Kicking the film off with the most eerie and foggy of his establishing montages of city streets, Naruse immediately focuses on the mistrust within the family unit due to competition for resources. The opening dinner scene serves a function quite different from its usual role as a benchmark of family unity: the children refuse to let others scoop rice for them, as if wanting to avoid obligations; conversation is filled with attempts to suss out who in the family currently has money, with all charges of wealth quickly denied. The oldest boys gather covertly in coffee houses to ruminate over their grievances, and are uneasy when another family member spots them in public. An especially funny and pointed subplot documents the cold war between the mother and the diligent fourth son Eisaku (Takeshi Hirata), who blows his savings on treats for his younger brothers rather than let his parents “borrow” from him again.
The simplicity of the conflict, suitable to what is essentially a message film, prevents Naruse from opening up productive gaps in the narrative. Forced to travel a fairly straightforward path to the final showdown, Naruse falls back on his considerable craft, grading the simple drama carefully. Kiichi first politely requests freedom from his reluctant parents, then cloaks his discontent in mysterious absences from home and uncharacteristic bouts of drinking before finally claiming his independence Naruse-style via an angry, tearful, decorum-rending breakdown. The sense of anticipation created by Kiichi’s enigmatic behavior is heightened by the lengthy montage that introduces the climactic family meeting, intercutting shots of rainy weather with tableaux of the assembled family. Mr. Washio’s moderating presence at the meeting, a slightly obtrusive device that serves to put the film’s thorny issue under social oversight, also has the effect of neutralizing the malevolent dominance of the mother, who otherwise would likely have intervened to produce an outcome less favorable to the children.
Though Mr. Washio’s final advice to Kiichi – “You shouldn’t be in a hurry” – is clearly meant to suspend the outcome, the ending nonetheless celebrates the children’s liberation from factory work, with the youngest boys gleefully somersaulting on the upper floor of the apartment as they contemplate future successes. But Naruse asserts his pessimistic hold on the film by sneaking in a final, brief, desolating shot of the parents, presumably now looking starvation in the face, listening to the racket from the ground floor.