Continuing the Naruse theme, I’m now starting in on his 1950s masterpieces. All of these major films from the 1950s are easily available on DVD through the Masters of Cinema label in the UK, while many of his minor works can be viewed on YouTube (many with English subtitles).
This is, as one might expect from Naruse, a beautifully modulated film about Michiyo, a woman unhappy in her marriage. Setsuko Hara (surely familiar to even the most idle viewers of Japanese cinema from Ozu films like Tokyo Story and Early Summer) plays Michiyo, and Hara remains so very brilliant at conveying her dissatisfaction even as she’s smiling and reassuring people. Such indeed is the weight of societal expectation that there’s no meaningful way for her to confront the misery of her household chores and the disinterest of her husband (Ken Uehara), who only becomes animated when his young female cousin comes to visit spontaneously. My favourite moment is when Michiyo is asked “so what do you talk about with her husband?”, and she pauses, looks away and replies “I have a cat.” (It’s a very cute cat.)
Japanese films confronting domestic politics aren’t a million miles away from those of other traditional cultures (old British films like Brief Encounter seem to operate on a similar subterranean level, as everyone observes the correct etiquette and minuscule breaches are punished), so here too elaborate codes of conduct loom just beneath the surface of everyone’s actions, and it’s a great testament to the filmmaking skill that it’s all so very evident without being showy and didactic. Within this context (and I am treading carefully in how I phrase this), I was initially disappointed with the ending, but in retrospect it feels like a bitterly sardonic riposte to everything that has gone before, like the way Hollywood tacked on demonstrably phony ‘happy endings’ to films that really weren’t heading that direction. This is a brilliant and watchable — and, at times, even light-hearted — film about profound unhappiness.
Director Mikio Naruse 成瀬巳喜男; Writers Yasunari Kawabata 川端康成, Toshiro Ide 井手俊郎 and Sumie Tanaka 田中澄江 (based on the novel by Fumiko Hayashi 林芙美子); Cinematographer Masao Tamai 玉井正夫; Starring Setsuko Hara 原節子, Ken Uehara 上原謙, Yukiko Shimazaki 島崎雪子; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 26 April 2018.