A fascinating instance of a literary work taking Naruse into new territory, with pleasing results. The source material (adapted by Yoko Mizuki, in her final collaboration with Naruse) is a celebrated 1915 novel by Shusei Tokuda that follows the scrappy Shima (Hideko Takamine, in one of her most varied and creative performances) from her impoverished beginnings through a series of hard knocks that culminate in her social ascendancy through capitalism. The general format of the story isn’t unfamiliar, especially in American cinema; but I can’t recall other Japanese films of the time with such active and contentious heroines. Naruse seems engaged by the opportunity, and the film is one of his most inventive and complex in terms of character detail and genre cues.
Though Shima’s social status trends upward, the forces arrayed against her seem insurmountable at first. Accounts of her past remain mysterious: raised by an adoptive family of farmers, she was either briefly married or ran away from an arranged wedding before we encounter her as the second wife of the supercilious Tsuru (Ken Uehara), who treats her with withering cruelty when their superficial bond begins to unravel. Working at a mountain inn after the end of the marriage, she has an affair with the inn’s gentle but married owner Hamaya (Masayuki Mori), the blowback from which leads to a more remote exile at a hot spring hotel. Each setback finds Shima overmatched and without recourse, yet she is never a figure of pathos: petulant rather than pitiable, never losing her peasant pragmatism, her endurance is a fact of nature, neither dramatized nor attributed to moral qualities. Earthy and blunt about sex, she repeatedly refuses to become a concubine, though she is taken as a prostitute even by her own family. In one of the film’s most arresting ellipses, Shima awakens from a night of drinking with Hamaya, who is sending her back to Tokyo against her will, with no memory of having put both her arms through a folding screen in anger: “I’ve never seen a woman so drunk,” says Hamaya.
Shima’s mid-film transition to entrepreneurship shifts the tone of the film, but the sustained focus on her eccentricity and mystery provides a throughline. To a small extent, Shima’s success is presented conventionally by the film as a hardening and an embrace of amorality, with other characters noting undesired changes in her. But this moralist note never mitigates the film’s fascination with her forward motion: the exhilarating image of an indomitable Shima sailing forward on a bicycle in comical Western dress to advertise a business venture speaks louder than any quibbles about her conduct that the script may raise. In any case, the chronicle of Shima’s progress is buoyed by the film’s increasingly rowdy current of low comedy, as Shima’s penchant for resolving disputes with fisticuffs escalates from an early brawl with Tsuru into a series of Punch-and-Judy routines with her second husband and business partner Onoda (Daisuke Kato), and culminates in a trouncing of her longtime rival Oyu (Mitsuko Miura). Naruse plays up the slapstick with zest, unashamedly resorting to pot-throwing, water hoses, and other paraphernalia of the physical comedy tradition.
If UNTAMED perhaps falls short of gathering its serialized observations of a life into a satisfying summary, the offbeat subject matter inspires some of Naruse’s sharpest observations about relationships. The volatile marriage between Shima and Onoda is surprisingly multivalent, savage fighting alternating with weary companionship and genuine tenderness; after one physical quarrel, Onoda even expresses his ambivalence with sexual arousal. Shima’s ill-starred journey to Hamaya’s grave site, the film’s emotive high point, is fascinatingly suspended between genres: Shima is sad, a bit sentimental, feels the need for a final symbolic gesture, but can’t quite mount the peaks of women’s film melodrama, and finally says “Sayonara” with as much resignation as grief, then returns to the more engaging world of commerce.
One wonderful moment recalls the fake “The End” title from MOTHER. Back in Tokyo after her failed romance with Hamaya, Shima is vague when someone asks her about her plans for the evening. Naruse cuts to a long shot of a man and woman walking on the beach in semi- darkness. We assume that we are seeing Shima, until it is revealed that we are watching a movie within a movie, and that Shima is sitting in the theater with Hamaya, whom we had assumed had departed the narrative! The double jolt of the elaborate hoax (the movie comes complete with a benshi and a PERSONA-like celluloid calamity) and Hamaya’s unexpected return is delicious.