Formally deceptive, dense, and ultimately powerful. Adapted by Toshiro Ide from a Fumiko Hayashi novel, WIFE begins as a collection of general observations about the institution of marriage, with conspicuous comic touches to sugar-coat the pill of reality with the pleasures of fiction. The opening dueling voiceovers of husband Nakagawa (Ken Uehara) and wife Mineko (Mieko Takamine) seem to express equivalent and familiar marital dissatisfactions; and the boarding house that the couple runs is used to mirror the protagonists’ unhappiness in the complaints of other couples, to such an extent that the film’s first half seems more about the ensemble than the couple. The focus on mundane concerns (Nakagawa is unhappy with the lunches Mineko packs; Mineko chews crackers loudly at dinner, with Sturges-like sound amplification) and the broadness of some supporting players (especially Rentaro Mikuni as an art-student boarder) reinforce the mood of comic abstraction, giving hope that the unhappy marriage might be mended according to fictional conventions.
But Naruse begins to dial up the intractable aspects of the relationships, which are subtly present from the beginning. Some of the boarding-house marital strife is too uncomfortable to stay in its fictional container, especially the complex, sometimes moving, ultimately grim story of the unreliable husband Matsuyama (Hajime Izu), undone by his war experience, and his alienated wife Eiko (Chieko Nakakita, at her most glamorous), whose merciless prognosis for the marriage is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Mineko’s uncouth habits are played up – she picks her teeth and gargles her drink at the table, cleans her ears during conversations – and are combined with unattractive glimpses of self-serving heartlessness. An accumulation of unsettling moments gradually pull back the curtain of comedy: Matsuyama’s collapse onto the floor upon discovering his wife’s departure, followed by his unexpected (and, we later see, temporary) surge of optimism as he synopsizes the marriage to his landlords over dinner; Nakagawa’s throwaway revelation that he’s not even aware his household needs more money, which is Mineko’s key grievance with the marriage; a fascinating and beautifully shot train conversation between Nakagawa and his boss as they reveal, each in a different way, their openness to erotic distraction; the superb Osaka reunion between Nakagawa and his good-natured typist Sagara (Yatsuko Tanami, in another memorable performance, somewhat in the vein of Setsuko Hara’s outwardly passive heroines), its gravity counterpointed with lightly comic ellipses via cuts to Sagara’s grumpy four-year-old; the mysterious morning after in Osaka, with Nakagawa ignoring Sagara’s distress as he savors the moment; a post-climax glimpse of a newspaper article announcing the suicide of a minor character.
Finally the archetypal wife comes to seem something of an expressionist monster, grimacing like an animal as her situation becomes more desperate. (Takamine’s extreme performance is actually quite remarkable, flipping back and forth between gestural abstraction and the nuts-and-bolts psychology of amoral survivalism.) Nakagawa is depicted as a basically decent chap whose way of dealing with a difficult wife is to ignore her very existence – with the inevitable result that his absolute detachment combined with her fierce anguish and need makes it difficult for us to remain comfortably in his corner. The husband’s growing attachment to Sagara is basically a sentimental concept that fits within our fictional expectations; but as the love triangle spirals to its conclusion, both Mineko’s feral defense of the marriage she hates and Sagara’s traumatized reaction to her encounter with Mineko are unexpectedly destructive of our hopes for storytelling closure.
Naruse ends with the symmetry of another alternating husband-wife voiceover, but with the unhappiness of the opening now matured into fully identified despair. The daring imposture of introducing this bleak story as a comedy seems to have been merely a playful formal manipulation.