Wife! Be Like a Rose

A great success at the time,[1] WIFE! BE LIKE A ROSE is still one of the most frequently screened Naruse films, and has often served as a rather misleading introduction to the director’s work. The opening is airy to the point of brittleness, using comedy to distance us from all the characters, as modern woman Kimiko (Sachiko Chiba), in order to facilitate her marriage to Keiji (Heihachiro Okawa, often the escort in Naruse’s P.C.L. films), tries to end the fifteen-year separation of her poet mother Etsuko (Tomoko Ito) and her father Shunsaku (Sadao Maruyama). While the young couple swap insults with Nick-and-Nora-like mock antagonism, Naruse matches the playful performances with gliding lateral tracking shots and sound overlaps on scene changes (including a positively surreal transition set to an intermittent drum beat).

The flippant depiction of urban middle-class life falls away as Kimiko journeys to Nagano Prefecture to find Shunsaku ensconced in a new life with his mistress Oyuki (Yuriko Hanabusa) and two children. The city dwellers’ assumption had been that Oyuki was an unscrupulous woman who lured Shunsaku away from his family for financial gain; Kimiko discovers an entirely different situation upon her arrival. But Naruse does not play this development for surprise. Even before the film issues its rather sentimental bid to win our approval of the illegitimate second family, the elegiac imagery of traditional rural life and Naruse’s stately rhythms create emotions that Kimiko will eventually fall in line with but that operate on us directly. Each section of the film is infused with a more or less consistent mood, keyed to place and lifestyle; and these swathes of mood determine character behavior rather than the other way around. (Noburo Ito’s memorable score is a key factor in the film’s manipulation of tone.) Later, as Kimiko returns to the city with Shunsaku, she says in voiceover, “In the mountains I had promised I’d return him (to his second family). But now I swore not to.” The psychology behind this switch isn’t shown: instead, the film shifts to a lighter tone (albeit less artificial than the first section) for its city scenes, with Kimiko and the other characters presented as part of the mood tapestry rather than as motivators of the mood change. Naruse adapted a popular play by Minoru Nakano, and one imagines that this tonal variation was an attempt to accommodate Nakano’s badinage without completely surrendering to it.

The film seems to position itself ideologically between a sympathetic depiction of modern sexual relations – the happy relationship between Kimiko and Keiji incorporates a number of challenges to gender roles – and a compensatory reaffirmation of the traditional ideals of marriage. Kimiko describes Etsuko in terms that modern audiences might find appealing: “Men like a wife who acts childish and cajoling, or jealous sometimes, or motherly and protective. But my mother can’t do it. Not that she doesn’t know. She knows but she can’t.” Shunsaku frames the marital breakdown in similar terms: “She dwarfs me.” Etsuko’s rival Oyuki, on the other hand, wins the approval of the film’s inscribed audience by sacrificing her own children’s education so she can offer a modicum of support to Shunsaku’s legal family. In order to function as the film’s dialectical synthesis, Kimiko must neutralize any challenge her modernity poses to the system: “I know I´ll be a good wife,” she says after observing her mother’s lack of qualification for the role.

Naruse way of dealing with this ideological framework is characteristic: he exhibits no desire to undermine the positions staked out in the material, but his eye for telling psychological detail, an eye unburdened by fictional conventions, creates characters that don’t reduce to their story functions. Etsuko is both more and less sympathetic than her description above: her somewhat imperious self-absorption and harshness makes it difficult for anyone to share her space; yet she is heartbreakingly aware that her personality dooms her to an unwanted solitude. Shunsaku has a likable demeanor not unlike Chishu Ryu in Ozu’s films, but also a child’s irresponsibility and aversion to unpleasantness that render him a bit of a problem for society. The likable Oyuki exhibits the necessary grit to manage her driftless husband, and overrides his decisions with a hint of aggression beneath a pleasant demeanor. Without this acuity in the presentation of the characters, the film’s global shifts in tone might seem facile.

The powerful ending goes beyond the alternation of swathes of mood into something more intricate and contrapuntal. The father’s return to Oyuki is announced, absorbed, and accepted, and one might reasonably expect the movie to end in this bittersweet contemplative place. But then Naruse shows the actual departure in a series of clipped shots, many of them closeups, with connecting material elided, and sound effects and editing rhythm driving the action forward. Purely through form, Naruse creates a dreamlike inexorability that takes from us the protracted sentiment that we expect as a fictional compensation for loss. The final line of dialogue, heavily emphasized with a style barrage of dolly-ins and visual superpositions, puts a grim Darwinian spin on Etsuko’s manifest misery: “Mother, you lost.”

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[1] Bock, Japanese Film Directors, 125.