I’m glad there isn’t anything else like this bizarre movie in Naruse’s filmography, but it’s a whole lot more appealing and graceful than it has any right to be. THIS HAPPY LIFE is pure wartime propaganda, but of an unusual sort. There’s little militarist feeling expressed, apart from a kenbu sword dance performed by a young boy; rather, the film’s mission is to instruct the home front, in great detail, on how to make do with the odd scraps of food and supplies available, and to demonstrate in various ways that people can be happy no matter how straitened their circumstances. The setting is a small town, arranged along a main street like a back-lot set for a Western, and populated with a collection of comical, not always likable characters, sketched by Naruse (who co-wrote the script with Toshio Yasumi, in the first of their four collaborations) with an ample supply of backwater obduracy and marital tension. The arrival of a new family, headed by a gregarious, polymathic eccentric named Soma (rakugo comedian Kingoro Yanagiya), stirs up resentment; but the townspeople are won over slowly by Soma and his family’s positive attitude and make-do-with-less expertise. Weirdly, there are even suggestions that the homely, shambling Soma is a divine presence: he enters the town on the heels of a mysterious windstorm, and clocks stop and start as he arrives and departs.
The emotional keynote of the movie is the cheerful bludgeoning of the audience with the demand that they eat carrot ends and like it, and one can imagine the look on Naruse’s face as he read the memos from the Toho executives. (“#43. Apple peelings. They taste quite good in rice congee. This should be mentioned, perhaps by Soma’s older daughter.”) But it’s remarkable how much freedom Naruse enjoyed around the edges of this strange enterprise: he even manages to suggest, via a few cantankerous citizens, that the triumph of propaganda over human nature is incomplete. The overall tone is almost childlike, with impromptu songs, fanciful dance interludes, and a screen-hogging turn from child actress Meiko Nakamura as a relentlessly cheerful problem solver. (Nakamura would work again for Naruse as an ingénue, turning in an appealing comic performance in 1955’s “Women’s Ways.”) Naruse expertly sustains a rapid musical-comedy pace that helps the eccentric project cohere, despite his relative inexperience with lighter genres. And the oddity of the film sometimes coaxes out the surrealist in him – as in an early interlude of rapid, inscrutable cross-cutting among fragments of life in the various households of the village; or, more bafflingly, in his termination of several scenes with montages of objects falling or being thrown around rooms, with no obvious cause. Manzai comedian Entatsu Yokoyama plays the prickliest (and most easily converted) town-dweller.