It seems as though I’ve spent weeks talking about Naruse’s productivity in 1935, mostly because I decided to see all of those films in a small window of time, but his productivity two years later was almost as impressive. He made this, Avalanche (which a certain Kurosawa worked as an assistant on), and Learn from Experience which was split into two releases. On the other hand, there doesn’t really seem to be as much “interesting” stuff going on, at least judging from this effort. It’s typical Naruse fare, and it might be his strongest condemnations of marriage, though the specific focus is obviously on the role of women in prewar Japan. It’s an impressive statement, though it feels a bit too on the nose, especially for a filmmaker who is known for fleshing out these situations.
The film follows Hiroko as she struggles to transition to married and/or city life. This is no fault of her own, however. Despite the initial positive response she gets from her husband, the arranged marriage turns into something of a disaster. She seldom receives any affection and her husband depends on her most to serve and entertain any guests he might invite over. She quickly realizes how poorly she’s being treated but no one is open to listening with the exception of her cousin Ryosuke, who seems like the ideal partner now that she is trapped in a loveless marriage.
I mentioned before that this is a bit too on nose, mostly because Hiroko’s husband is so bland that we can see him as nothing but the enemy. Credit to Naruse, though. The husband never actively tries to mistreat Hiroko and there’s no physical violence. I often contrast Naruse with Mizoguchi in the treatment of women and this is a perfect reflection of their differences. To Mizoguchi, a woman being neglected or ignored would not be enough to motivate her to be independent. At times even, it feels like Hiroko is a bit quick to give up on her marriage (the film is, after all, only 75 minutes long) considering that she is still a stranger to her husband. She has a reasonable home with some financial protection in one of the biggest cities in the world, which is why her protesting is all the more remarkable.
Several critics have found Hiroko an unsympathetic character, largely because she’s too self-aware of her own struggle. This is a pretty telling statement that their might be some enjoyment from watching individuals who don’t realize they’re marginalized. It’s a pretty gross statement, even as Hiroko’s intelligence might contradict with the story itself. She seems too smart to have fallen into such a miserable situation, which is filled with some rather simplistic peripheral characters which help contribute to her reaching a breaking point. These are all fair enough criticisms, as I’d say the film is far from being a masterpiece, but I think it’s an interesting exercise for Naruse exactly because he would revisit similar territory with a better touch of reality.
The film’s downfall would be that I’ve seen this material done by many other directors, including Naruse himself, and done better. This is kind of vague, but the Hiroko’s struggle seems like a very straightforward story, based more on the events, rather than a full living and breathing world with complete characters. One of hallmarks of Naruse’s films is great performances all around, where here the most notable one is Takako Irie as Hiroko. She is excellent here and in Mizoguchi’s The Water Magician but is probably best known for an appearance in Kurosawa’s Sanjuro. At this time, she was something of a celebrity. Her popularity unfortunately took a nose dive following the war and she kept busy by appearing in (mostly forgotten) kaidan movies. She’s fascinating to watch here, though as a woman who slowly realizes her independence. Not a great movie by any means, but an interesting step in Naruse’s career and arguably, a necessary one.