A movie with primal emotional power, as well as problems that one wishes to overlook. The first half establishes Reiko (Hideko Takamine), a war widow running yet another of Naruse’s family grocery stores, as the face of heroic, long-suffering Japanese womanhood, and her younger brother-in-law Koji (Yuzo Kayama, Ken Uehara’s son) as a noble soul driven to dissipation by his unspoken love for Reiko. Zenzo Matsuyama’s script, from Naruse’s story, underlines these formulations, and others, a few times too often, and the early sections of the film are filled with awkward expository dialogue. But Naruse also gets an early start on planting the budding melodrama in the soil of plausible mundane detail. Reiko’s formal demeanor with her weak mother-in-law (Aiko Mimasu) and her unpleasant daughters (Mitsuko Kusabue and Yumi Shirakawa) contrasts with her comfortable, slightly bossy intimacy with Koji, whose masculine self-possession and sense of humor establish him on equal footing with his twelve-years-older beloved. The impossible love intertwines with an equally compelling motif of loyalty and regard: the aggressions of Reiko’s in-laws, who wish to take from her the store that she rebuilt after the war, are repeatedly stymied by Koji’s authoritative defenses of Reiko’s position.
After Koji declares his love for his sister-in-law halfway through the film, Naruse increasingly recasts the film’s romantic agenda in psychological terms. Reiko’s previously perfect composure cracks almost instantly upon hearing of Koji’s desire, and the “great woman,” as Koji had called her, becomes unable to hide the signs of preoccupation and instability – even going so far as to tell Koji “I’ll kill myself – that’s a promise” if he interferes with her plan to leave her adoptive family. In one funny scene that could appear only in a Naruse film, Reiko commits the ultimate offense of losing her table manners, nervily defending her rights to a bit of food against a surprised Koji. Her formal announcement of her departure brings out the pathos in the plight of her mother-in-law, who loves and depends on Reiko but nonetheless joined forces with her more willful daughters in driving Reiko out. “I don’t know exactly what’s happening,” she says plaintively, sounding the keynote of confusion that runs through the film’s second half.
Reiko’s conflict with her in-laws, as well as the running theme of the death of small grocery stores at the hands of supermarkets, serve not only as a realist social context which Naruse uses to anchor his fictional archetypes, but also as a slingshot to throw the would-be lovers together and out into the world. One-upping the beautiful train ride in APART FROM YOU, Naruse creates one of his most memorable sequences in Reiko and Koji’s journey to Reiko’s rural hometown, dominated by the rhythm of alternation between exterior shots of the changing landscape and the gradual dawning of romantic hope within the train, as Reiko struggles coyly to modify her faithful-widow persona to accommodate the possibility of yielding to the persistent Koji. The trip across Japan, taking up more than ten minutes of screen time, ends with a bus ride in which Reiko and Koji huddle before a mountain vista in a superb widescreen composition.
The film’s grim ending, set in the picturesque village of Ginzan Onsen where the couple stops over, threatens to pull the layers of melodrama and psychology apart instead of fusing them. Reiko’s heartbreaking final lines of dialogue, an attempt to atone for her unintentional freak-out at a near-kiss with Koji, are inarticulate in the face of her own lack of self-knowledge: “Forgive me…I didn’t know it would be like that…I didn’t know.” Her confusion and subsequent regret ring true in psychological terms, but it’s odd that the steadfast Koji takes this glitch as the cue to renounce his desire for Reiko, even with Reiko trying to pull him back. Psychology and drama could come together if the film suggested that Koji’s withdrawal from Reiko and his return to dissipation were character-based rather than a response to romantic deprivation. But the filmmakers don’t use the same X-ray vision on Koji’s hidden character traits that they do on Reiko’s: he exists more persuasively in the realm of romantic archetype than in the world of psychological revelation that the film has opened up.
All such quibbles are forgiven with the celebrated final closeup of the stricken Reiko. With Ichiro Saito’s remarkable score shifting mysteriously from full-on emotion to an oddly placid, melancholy distance, we see the anguish drain from Reiko’s face a bit at a time, replaced by a joyless calm – and then a shock cut to “The End” as Saito’s score goes ominously minor. The effect recalls the desolation of the ending of VERTIGO: Naruse gets to have his melodrama and undercut it too.