Naruse’s first talkie is fascinating, visually dense and languorous, close to pure melodrama. Adapted by Naruse from a story by Yasunari Kawabata (DANCING GIRL, SOUND OF THE MOUNTAIN), the film is rooted in a documentary exploration of the Asakusa neighborhood of Tokyo, gradually bringing to the foreground the put-upon and disreputable female shamisen players who wander the bars and clubs of Asakusa, playing songs for tips from male customers. The story that emerges is horrifying: a hardened middle-aged woman (Chitose Hayashi) runs an OLIVER TWIST-like stable of girl entertainers that includes her own daughters, and takes the money they earn while keeping them in line with beatings. (“You don’t know how much easier it would it be for me to go out and earn money myself,” says the oppressor to her charges.) Her three daughters have different life circumstances but a common inheritance of misery: middle daughter Some (Masako Tsutsumi) endures the humiliation of the family trade and tries to ease the burden on the other workers; the youngest, Chieko (the appealingly open Ryuko Umezono, a real-life exotic dancer), has been spared the street life, works as a nightclub dancer, and has hopes of marrying her wealthy and kind suitor Aoyama (Heihachiro Okawa); and the eldest, Ren (Chikako Hosokawa, who played Tamae in LATE CHRYSANTHEMUMS nearly twenty years later), has run away with her tubercular boyfriend, whose medical needs drive her back to the criminal life she had been living.
The darkness of the story combines with multilayered nighttime images of street and bar life to place the film on the brink of expressionism, though Naruse’s actors, as always, are anything but expressionist in their quietly despairing adaptability. The demeaning work life of the entertainers, who are shooed away by bar owners and mocked and molested by their clientele, is shown with unsettling honesty, with the courageous Some unable to maintain her dignity in a world rigged against her. In one subtly effective scene, the littlest shamisen girl (Masako Sanjo) boldly asks a saleswoman for one of the free medical samples she’s been hawking: the woman complies quickly and expressionlessly, dropping the exaggerated cordiality that she dished out to the other passengers. The fuzzy boundary between the entertainers’ job and prostitution is unstated but obvious: talking of Ren’s decline, Some says “She stopped carrying her shamisen.”
Naruse augments the film’s dreamlike, drifting tone with small stylistic disruptions, starting with the introduction of Chieko, who seems to be the film’s narrator until she walks into frame in mid-speech and addresses herself to the offscreen Aoyama. The half-talkie soundtrack lends itself to formal play with music: most conspicuously when Some stops to watch a pair of street musicians, whose song becomes the music track for a montage of Asakusa by night; and most movingly in the movie’s final moments, when the sonorous stationmaster’s announcement of a departing train is subtly orchestrated by the film’s score to create a magical melancholy effect. The most surprising style flare is close to a horror effect: as two of the sisters talk about their mother, Naruse cuts to an empty frame, quickly filled by the mother’s threatening face as a rapid pan to the right slides her into closeup.
Announcing itself as a major film with its stylistic confidence and emotional intensity, THREE SISTERS WITH MAIDEN HEARTS loses just a little steam for me in its second half, as Ren and her subplot of domestic woe is introduced via a series of flashbacks – and one flashback within a flashback – that perhaps place undue dramatic weight on her low-key crisis. (Daringly, Ren is a rather conventional sacrificing Japanese woman in her domestic scenes, but a complete gangster moll, smoking and sneering, with her criminal friends. Naruse neither tries to harmonize her two states of being nor uses her criminality to reduce our sympathy for her.) The sudden onset of high melodrama at the climax, which depends on a series of coincidences and cliches that do not grow from the atmospheric stasis that came before, also gives me pause. Still, without the melodrama we would be denied the chilling beauty of the final scene, with the sacrificial sister intoning her final, masochistic commentary on the story – “That worked out well” – and the ominous chugging of a departing train the only sound as Naruse fades out.