The Art Theater Guild’s courting of a global “new wave” cinematic aesthetic often bred, for better or worse (in my opinion, the latter), films that were male-centric. Perhaps this came from the influences of global cinema, or maybe it came from the movement’s rebels rallying against the more feminine drive found in Japanese cinema of the 1950s. Whatever the case may be, the Japanese New Wave and by extension, the Art Theater Guild, will be remembered as fostering a home for men who wanted to make serious artistic and political statements about their existence as men. This is not an overall truth (and I find it particularly important to note that one of ATG’s most celebrated works, Funeral Parade of Roses, is about women, though history has challenged their status as such) but the ethos of a filmmaker like Nagisa Oshima and even Kaneto Shindo (see yesterday’s post on The Strangling) shifts the focus entirely away from women. No More Easy Life, a late seventies ATG production, goes against this current.
Mariko is at a transitional phrase in life. She’s nearing the end of her college education, but her focus in not on books. Instead, she’s concerned with money and she worries far more about employment. She drifts from one occupation to another, just as she seems to jump inbetween two potential romantic suitors. She already has a history with Tsuneo, one which we don’t know all the details about. We are able to deduce that although he likes, and may even love Mariko, he is unable to articulate this in a direct way. He’s too busy, too aloof, and always seems to be ignoring Mariko on purpose. Hashimoto, on the other hand, is his foil. He is not at all timid in expressing his love for Mariko, but he does so a bit too earnestly. He’s weirdly possessive, especially since he knows Mariko isn’t quite ready to settle down. Posed as a love triangle with one potential right answer, Mariko shifts the question to a yes or no. It’s not should stay with Tsuneo or Hashimoto but rather, should she bother with any man or just move on as a single woman.
While celebrating No More Easy Life for being a film centering a woman’s experience, I do realize that one could be on shaky ground in the case of the two potential boyfriends. If it’s about the targets of her heterosexual desire, isn’t it just the same old thing framed from a different angle? A lot of her anxiety involves men and thus, much of the discourse (both Mariko’s own words and the subtext of the film) is around these two men. Isn’t this the reality for a hetero women like Mariko, though? Even if she doesn’t want to date (which seems to be the case), she does want affection, some physical intimacy. She’s more than entitled to it, especially if someone like Tsuneo is only going to come up when it is convenient for him. Should Mariko herself not play by the same rules? At one point, she tells him directly: “I’m not the kind of a woman to wait.” There’s evidence to suggest otherwise, but director Yoichi Higashi (of later Village of Dreams fame) visualizes this as an internal conflict. Mariko doesn’t want to wait for Tsuneo, but sometimes she does.
Mariko’s hesitation or lack of certainty is not that she’s a weak character, but she does have the tremendous burden of the rest of her life hanging over her. That sounds dramatic, but she’s reaching the end of college, and the “real” part of her adult life is set to begin. Towards the beginning, there are multiple sequences of Mariko interacting with strangers, most of them male. In almost all of these instances, her safety, though never directly threatened, is still questioned. Her simple nice gestures get extrapolated as an invitation to catcall. The camera never suggests these interactions are unusual and that something terrible is happening to Mariko. Instead, Higashi’s eye captures something that seems painful and ordinary, troubling yet typical. After these sequences, we can’t help but notice Mariko being more careful with words. Because of her status as a woman, even the most simple interactions (just saying hello and goodbye) deserve intense deliberation. The effect is not unlike Jonathan Glazer’s recent Under the Skin, but whereas those sequences (understandably) echo the lurking terror found in a horror film, everything is played far more innocently here. That’s because to most (male) observers, these interactions seem innocent.
Higashi lacks stylistic touches of a Glazer or a Hou Hsiao-Hsien (Millennium Mambo is another reference point here) and maybe that’s what prevents this film from being a bonafide masterpiece. I’m not sure such abstract or poetic flourishes would work here though, as the experience itself is so deeply ingrained in the film’s straightforward aesthetic. It’s a stupid hypothetical to even present, but I do think it’s worthwhile to briefly mention the directors who followed Higashi’s route, even if they do so subconsciously. The novelty of an ATG film that actually cared about women wasn’t enough for the public. The company would fold two years later and Higashi wouldn’t get international attention for another 17 years. It’s a shame too, because he’s crafted the sort of portrait that is so dense and detailed, that it would be difficult to shake from anybody’s mind.