Tsuma wa kokuhaku suru / A Wife Confesses (1961)

20 01 2016

In his 1958 film, Giants and Toys, Yasuzô Masumura emerged with a quickly-paced and sardonic indictment of modern Japanese culture. It was and remains the type of fiery and energetic film that, coupled with the youth of its director, suggests a career of highly critical work. While the film was championed by New Wave figurehead Nagisa Oshima, Masumura did not follow that path. Instead, he stayed with his studio, Daiei, and produced melodramas throughout the 1960s. A Wife Confesses, centered around a love triangle and a murder trial, is one of these films. The elements of his earlier film spill onto the frame from time to time, but otherwise, he has made a handsome and prestigious middlebrow art film. If this reads as reductive, it is, to a certain extent.

1

Ayako Takigawa enters the court room to much fanfare. Cameras shutter as she ducks through a crowd outside to get to the trial awaiting her. She’s suspected of murdering her husband, Ryokichi, who fell to his death while mountain climbing. Ayako cut Ryokichi’s rope, but the question remains whether or not this was an act of self-preservation on her part. Through flashbacks, we learn that their marriage was never particularly healthy, and that Ryokichi frequently acted abusive. Kouda is also in the picture and while he maintains a naive innocence, Ayako openly seeks his attention. However, he is already engaged to be married and his wife is a bit more wise to Ayako’s tricks.

2

Masumura opens his film with a stampede of journalists and photographers straining to get Ayako’s attention. The spectacle of modern culture so cynically addressed in Giants and Toys appears to be present yet again. In that film, the camera was the apparatus that constructed Kyoko as an idol. As explained in the dialogue itself, Kyoko’s “everyday” appearance (evident in striking gap between her two front teeth) was the very thing that made her an icon. Ayako becomes an icon in a similar way, her juicy story is made all the more exciting by her typical standing in the world. She jokingly remarks at one point, “My picture is everywhere, I’m a star.” It’s hard to argue otherwise when the media greets her trial with such fervor.  One journalist adds, “Adultery is all the rage these days.” For twenty minutes, Masumura’s winking cynicism seems to be in place. Unfortunately, once the trial gets going, it seems to disappear.

3

A Wife Confesses isn’t a comedy so perhaps it is unfair to expect more humor poking the spectacle machine of media. However, Masumura seems to lose some sort of edge when the action becomes achingly serious. His “elliptical” editing is rather conventional, well-guided flashbacks triggered by testimonies made in court. In earlier films, he managed to successfully hide the stuffiness of studio sets with his crafty editing and camera work. He seems to soak it in here, which is likely the point for a court room drama. Once again, we’re hinted at something promising early on as the film jumps in-between the cumbersome court room to the vast mountains. Like Masumura’s humor, this interesting conversation on spaces also seems to fade away. It is not that Masumura or his cinematographer, Setsuo Kobayashi, fail to do interesting things with the camera. Rather, it is that they fail to convey anything meaningful about the spaces around them. The arty visual grammar of say, Antonioni and Yoshida, can be seen here but it feels like a pale imitation. Both filmmakers saw the space they filmed as crucial to the story, and not something separate from the actors. Masumura gestures towards the “nicest” compositions and, perhaps, captures them, but everybody and everything is lost. The space is an ornament to the actors, and the actors are ornaments to the space.

4

This might be expecting too much from a filmmaker, but it was Masumura himself, who equated Akira Kurosawa’s work to “modern architecture.” He seems to “get” it to a certain extent, yet this doesn’t translate in A Wife Confesses. He wrote that piece before Kurosawa filmed High & Low, which this film resembles somewhat. In Kurosawa’s film, the design of a room is constantly in conversation with the actors, the smallest movement of the camera provides an entirely new idea. Meanwhile, Masumura’s performers, even the wonderful Ayako Wakao, overshadow the spaces they inhabit. Nothing feels distinct, a bedroom becomes a court room with different lighting. Maybe this is the point, and maybe I’m being too hard on the film, but it focuses on a simplistic “moral quandary” seems to reflect a similar limitation in the visual style. The film is a noble failure on a design level, even as it is very fascinating.

5





Tsuki wa noborinu / The Moon Has Risen (1955)

28 12 2015

Penned by the legend himself, it’s tempting to think of Kinuyo Tanaka’s The Moon Has Risen as an honorary Yasujiro Ozu film. While it show signs of his very specific poetic flourishes (via pillow shots) and one of its chief concerns is generational conflict, I think it would be a bit reductive of Tanaka herself to say she’s simply made an Ozu film. Instead, she’s taken the best elements from Ozu’s script and paired it with her unique understanding of the world. Ozu’s fingerprints are all over the narratives and indeed, some of the stylistic choices, but Tanaka brings an energy to the film that is unmatched by any filmmaker in the 1950s. She has undone some of the threads woven by Ozu in a film like Late Spring, the father here is in the background, and our focus becomes squarely on the daughters. As Chishu Ryu fades into the background, Mie Kitahara and Yoko Sugi emerge to the front. Their sibling conflict seems flimsy and light, but Tanaka grants it a value and respect unequaled in cinema. Ozu made the quotidian dramas between generations both palpable and poignant, Tanaka has done the same for a drama within one generation.

1

Setsuko Asai is the youngest of three sisters. The women, along with their father, Mokiahi (Chishu Ryu, of course), live in the quiet and unassuming town of Nara. The tranquil location is best known for its deer, which is not the ideal attraction for someone in their twenties. Setsuko longs to return to Tokyo, the family’s home prior to the death of her mother. Mr. Amamiya, an engineer for Dai-Nihon Electricity arrives in Nara to investigate the town’s radio tower. Setsuko sees his presence as a chance to act as a matchmaker for her sister, Ayako. However, Ayako is resistant, and Setsuko continued focus on this coupling serves as a wedge between her and her boyfriend, Shoji.

2

Outside of Kinuyo Tanaka’s directorial chops, the nicest surprise in The Moon Has Risen is the presence of Mie Kitahara, who is otherwise known for her role in Kō Nakahira’s Crazed Fruit. She would go on to appear in a handful of noir films for Nikkatsu, as a dangerous siren. She’s given much more to operate with here, not reduced to the potential hazards of misguided male desire. If anything, male desire has little value to Tanaka. It is not difficult to imagine the same material in Ozu’s hands as spending more time with the family’s father. Instead, his sadness, which is respected, is concisely conveyed in two or three sequences. Kitahara drives the drama, especially in the film’s first half, where her desperate attempts at playing cupid fall comically flat.

3

Kitahara’s hijinx gives the film a lighter, fluffier tone, but there is something bubbling under her screwball-esque matchmaking. In one of the film’s most beautiful sequences, Setsuko and Shoji hide behind the pillars of a temple as they spy on Mr. Amamiya, who has been tricked into meeting Ayako. The problem, of course, is that Ayako is not actually ever going to show up. The “plans” were made by Setsuko herself, to see if Mr. Amamiya would be willing to meet up with Ayako in the first place. Dwarfed by the architecture of the place, Setsuko wonders out loud, “how long will he wait for her?” before hatching another scheme to inform him that Ayako isn’t coming. The moment is heavily reminiscent of a set piece by Michelangelo Antonioni and the question of “how long will her wait for her?” seems to be a different phrasing of the question posed at the end of L’Eclisse: “will the lovers ever find each other?”

4

Tanaka’s camera frequently finds the surrounding architecture as either harmonious to the bodies inhabiting it, or acting in complete interference with them. Sometimes this is brought up in the dialogue itself. Setsuko, wistfully clamoring for a return to Tokyo’s urban space tells her father that she’d love to see what the family’s old house looks like today. He, comfortable in the rural quiet of Nara, responds pragmatically “all covered in weeds.” Mokiahi brings up a similar thought towards the end of the film, when he wonders why “dusty and dirty” Tokyo is so appealing to the younger generation. This disconnect is mirrored by his absence in the film, although his loneliness and the melancholy brought on by time’s passing register to the audience, he isn’t given the slightest bit of authority over the lives of his daughters.

5

While it appears for no more than two or three scenes, the second half of the film does indeed feature a particularly fascinating dialogue on communication. Mr. Amamiya has returned to Tokyo, but he’s kept in touch with Ayako. Embarrassed by the potential for her family’s wandering eyes to lock on to their correspondences, Ayako communicates to Mr. Amamiya through Man’yōshū, the oldest collection of Japanese poetry that still remains. The family studies their love letters, but they fail to reach a conclusive reading. It sounds supremely corny, but their deeply visualized way of communication feels like a precursor to texting. One characters even asks, “Is it really old fashioned (referring to the Man’yōshū referenced in the letter) or really modern?” Ayako doesn’t say much throughout the film, yet she manages to convey something crucial in these letters? And yet, we don’t know what it exactly is.

6

This is the second film directed by Kinuyo Tanaka, and the second that I’ve managed to see. I hesitate to compare her to the male directors that made careers out of putting her in front of the camera because I find reductive. However, these were her filmmaking peers in the 1950s. Her understanding of design, both interior and exterior in relation to bodies is something that shows the influence of Naruse, but her own way of rendering this relationship is entirely unique and something that anticipate dominant trends in 1960s European arthouse films. The Moon Has Risen feels like the work of Ozu at times, but there are key moments that feel like something he couldn’t have done and I say that as someone who regards Ozu as the best ever. When Ayako and Mr. Amamiya walk along the garden, admiring the titular full moon, the camera follows them. They don’t do anything, but Tanaka’s observing of their bodies feel free and unforced. The performers, Ko Mishima and Yoko Sugi, have unlimited possibilities. Their slight hesitation is so simple, but it is so exciting.

7





Onna no mizûmi / Woman of the Lake (1966)

12 10 2015

As the most celebrated Japanese novelist of the 20th century, it isn’t surprising that Yasunari Kawabata’s work served as fodder for cinematic adaptations. Even less surprising, is that critics and academics alike are protective of his work. Woman of the Lake, Yoshishige Yoshida’s 1966 adaptation of Kawabata’s The Lake is a good case study. An adaptation of a particularly impressionistic text by a writer who was already known for being loose and impenetrable does not sound promising. Yoshida’s film unravels like a sensualist melodrama, finely photographed but criticized by many, such as David Desser, for being too deeply plotted. The narrative, translated into something less daring than Kawabata’s text, seems (somewhat ironically) verbose in its cinematic form. Yet, Yoshida’s film offers something a faithful adaptation wouldn’t: a gorgeously meta exploration of photography’s rise as the dominant language. If Confessions Among Actresses, a film about acting questions the boundaries of performance in the real and fictional, Woman of the Lake takes that same inquisitive nature and confronts every image within it.

1

Miyako, comfortably married to Yuzo, is reaching the end of a passionate affair with Kitano. Kitano, fearing the dissolution of their passion asks to photograph Miyako as a sort of souvenir for their time together. The photographs are stolen by Ginpei, a school teacher who, it is revealed, has been watching the affair unfold for several months. Facing what she assumes is blackmail, Miyako meets Ginpei in a distant seaside town. Kitano joins her, uninvited, with the hopes of confronting Ginpei. Kitano’s fiancée, who is very much conscious of her beau’s affair, follows the two yet remains confident about their impending marriage. When confronted, Ginpei doesn’t react strongly to the promise of money or any other compensation in exchange for the pictures. Miyako’s fascination for him grows, just as Kitano’s ugly impulses bubble over into jealous outbursts.

2

Woman of the Lake, like much of Yoshida’s work, is a profoundly sensual film. The racy nature of the narrative is one thing, but the camera here elevates it into an erotic ether. Bodies here are always shadowed, be it literally in the intimacy of a darkened room or more figuratively in their placement against the landscape. The sandy beaches take on the enormity of icons: a hill leading to the titular lake looks like as daunting as the islands in L’Avventura. This is nothing new for Yoshida, his photographing of his wife Mariko Okada, while graceful, is one of the pleasures flowing throughout his work. On a technical level, Woman of a Lake is another marvel in a career with plenty. What separates it from a film like The Affair, is that the nature of this eroticism is acknowledged and brought into question. While not his most confident and visually striking film, Woman of the Lake finds Yoshida wrestling with the function of his own art. He seems as suspicious and flustered as the narrative’s subjects.

3

In his landmark study, Towards a Philosophy of Photography, Vilem Flusser maps out the three kinds of information that the photograph can carry: indicative, imperative, optative. These three kinds of information lead into three channels (or genres) where their meaning and purpose is further verified. The photograph of a frog (indicative information) has its meaning affirmed by the fact that it was shot for a science journal. Of course, sometimes photographs can travel in-between these channels, arriving at a new meaning and “a new significance” at each channel. The photographs of Miyako that Ginpei steals seem to be more his blackmail. When he arrives at a photography studio, he is greeted by a sleazy and crass developer who is interested in the erotic potential of the images. In the hands of this photo developer, they become something else. Tellingly, Ginpei is cold and distant when he enters the studio, while the developer is cheerful and teasing. He invites Ginpei to the back room for a more deliberately erotic photographing session, Ginpei obliges but his face registers as disinterested.

5

Later in the film, Ginpei and Miyako finally begin to have a more relaxed conversation. They stumble on to a film production site at the beach. All the sequences being shot are sexual, some are also violent and would not be out of place in a film by Yoshida or one of his peers just five years earlier. It’s not a direct parody, as I think that would actually distant Yoshida from the longer reach he’s going for: returning to Flusser, the new significance images take on in the way they’re assembled and how we engage with them. Distanced from the pseudo-new wave film being shot within the film, we are able to observe the cracks in the simulation, the ugly misogynistic residue that would surface in the frame but be spilling over that frame’s historical conditions. Such images may have informed Ginpei and Kitano (or any other man) exposing both their estrangement from their sexuality or their insatiability, respectively.

6

Late in the film, Ginpei confesses to Miyako that rather than being in love with her, he might be in love with the woman in the image. A woman, he suggests, who doesn’t actually exist. Ginpei’s notions of eroticism seems to have been transmitted entirely through the image which, considering the processes present in the camera, is not a reflection of reality. I realize this sounds suspiciously like a conservative pontification against pornography, a trite suggestion that mainstream erotics present a false image. I’m less interested in that than in what the camera itself and all of its processes, reframe as the experience. Lost in his fetishizing of images, Ginpei lost his own body and when he finally has a physical experience with Miyako, it is ironically lost in the shadows of the camera and the sands of the beach. Returning to Flusser, it is important to note that he is not a conservative wary of all technological process. Instead, he is worried about the inattentive eye, the one that photographs just for the sake of reproducing the same image. By investigating his role in the erotic image, Yoshida is not a victim of this. His images are ones he studies and labors over, in a struggle to wrestle control away from the processed mechanics inside the camera. He, like Flusser, is worried about those who aren’t concerned, they might become like Ginpei: estranged from reality because they’ve interpreted the image as being the reality. In other words, being in love with a woman who doesn’t exist.

7





Shukuzu / Miniature (1953)

21 08 2015

Kaneto Shindo would go on to have a stronger association with the Japanese New Wave, but like Keisuke Kinoshita (who he wrote a screenplay for years before this film) and Masahiro Shinoda, he seemed to get his break before such a movement became clearly defined. Miniature is not his first film, but it is one of his earliest and it places him in a precarious time and position. The influence of his mentor, Kenji Mizoguchi, cannot be missed and yet, within a film told mostly through interiors, Shindo tries to find a way to tell a story in a new way. I’d be lying if I said I am enamored with Miniature, but I still find it unique and its place in history is often ignored in crafting a more convenient narrative of Japan’s cinematic history. I’ve always found the idea of a “classic cinema” and “a New Wave” to be frustrating and simple, Miniature elaborates on the fallacy of such a construction.

1

Ginko leaves behind her hometown and her family of shoemakers to become a geisha in Chiba. She is overwhelmed at first, but quickly adapts to the pressures of the job. She falls in love with a young med student, Kurisu, but warns him that their relationship will never work because of her profession. Later, the madam of her house dies and grants Ginko to be her replacement. Frightened by the demands of her madam’s husband, she runs away to Takada. There, she falls for another young man, but their interactions are interrupted by his mother. Heartbroken, she returns to Tokyo, bitter and hardened by her experiences. She worries she’ll never escape from her profession and makes a concentrated effort to make sure her younger sisters won’t have to follow in her footsteps.

2

Like his mentor, Kenji Mizoguchi, Shindo’s tale of labor goes the route of tragedy. It is indeed hard to escape the comparison between Miniature and Mizoguchi’s Life of Oharu. Here, Ginko does not descend down a cycle of abuse, but her life is similarly transient. In both films, the constant movement is self-defense, ironically the physical movement clashes with the lack of social mobility for its heroines. Ginko, late in the film, expresses her deep anxiety that she’ll die a geisha. Oharu, on the other hand, knows she’ll die a sexworker, her dread is wondering when she will be killed. Additionally, Ginko has options, which might be Shindo’s crucial modification of the tragedy. She can escape, but the other options are equally uninviting.

3

Early in the film, after she leaves Chiba, Ginko returns to her family. She has chosen that life as a shoemaker will be better than life as a geisha (she states this directly at one point) but once she’s returned, she discovers that shoemaking is similarly unrewarding. Ginko’s options are just all upsetting (it is a tragedy after all) but at least she is given the agency to choose her route. Eventually, she chooses to try life as a geisha again. Her earlier lament is not a lie, labor will always be dispiriting, and we have to weigh other factors. For Ginko, a life of her own, away from her family, is the incentive to resume an occupation she loathes.

4

While there some splendid outdoor scenes, a majority of Miniature takes place inside. As someone who would go on to make The Naked Island, you can see how this may have been a limitation to Shindo. Early on, he tries something interesting, though. The interior sequences in Chiba are filmed like a bad dream: every shot seems to be crowded with bodies in motion, inducing nausea. The few still moments are framed in slanted shots, zooming in on the subjects. Meanwhile, Ginko returns to her family and is photographed in loving tracking shots. In the film’s most moving moment, she returns to her childhood room and falls asleep viewing artifacts of her past. The camera glides to the window, as if to embody the mobility of her daydream. Only in this particular fragile space is she able to dream of a better life. Alas, dreams are the only breaks given from a brutal reality.

5





Ani imoto / Older Brother, Younger Sister (1953)

20 08 2015

A year after the success of Lightning, Mikio Naruse was loaned out to Daiei from Toho again. The Daiei connection tempts us to compare the two films, and I find no reason to resist this impulse. Lightning and Older Brother, Younger Sister are both films about the city (and the “other” landscapes that supposedly clash with it) and the family. Both films, to speak broadly on them, depict characters who find solace and some sense of peace by escaping their family life. The familial discord of Lightning unwraps itself in a typical Narusian way, but Older Brother, Younger Sister is bursting with such great tension that it explodes in physical violence. This is a rarity for Naruse, and while it could be easy to write this film off as lesser just because the melodrama is exaggerated, I think doing so would discount much of it. It is a unique entry in Naruse’s filmography, and we should be thrilled by the opportunity to digest this is in a slightly off kilter fashion.

1

San commutes to Tokyo from her family’s isolated village for nursing school. Her father, Akaza, was once the proud overseer of a damning operation. Now, he only works part time as a clerk for his wife, Riki. It is Riki’s ice cream business that manages to keep the family afloat financially. San’s brother, Ino, performs physical labor. He enjoys a somewhat cheerful relationship with his boss, which enables him to disappear from work for large periods of time. San’s younger sister is Mon, who, like her sister, also splits her time between Tokyo and her parent’s small village. Mon’s labor is never disclosed, but one can deduce, through her flamboyantly flirtatious dress and speech, that she is a bar hostess. Her presence embarrasses the rest of the town, who frame her as ungrateful and loose. This sentiment is shared by Ino, who is prone to fits of violence.

2

Labor has always played a part in Naruse’s film, particularly the labor of women. Men, especially towards the end of his career, seem to exclusively work non-descript office jobs that sucks the life out of them, usually leading to them to follow their suppressed sexual desires. Ino and Akaza’s labor is, by comparison, elaborated on to greater detail but he shows us that they are unreliable individuals. Indeed, the family hasn’t completely fallen apart because of Riki’s ice cream stand. Additionally, the “dirty money” earned by Mon in the city goes to help finance San’s tuition. The women of the family are the only ones with any drive, yet it is this drive (at least for Mon and San) that earns them the derision of their peers.

3

Early in the film, San is infatuated with a neighborhood noodle maker. Her feelings are reciprocated, but the parents of the noodle maker forbid the relationship on the grounds of Mon’s personality. The noodle maker is married off, and later confronts San with the promise to runaway to Tokyo with her, just as she had wished for earlier in the film. The whim is tempting for her, but she’s changed her tune and in the passion of their would-be romantic getaway, she buys one train ticket to Tokyo. For herself, to return to school. This romantic gesture has to remind her of something, perhaps the violent swings displayed by her brother, Ino. It seems less charming and more indicative of abusive behavior in the future.

4

While Naruse has always poked holes in the construction of masculinity and revealed it to be both silly and toxic, he seems to go another step here, perhaps encroaching on the ground of his rival, Kenji Mizoguchi. Late in the film, San and Mon have returned to Tokyo. A peaceful lunch with their mother is interrupted by Ido, who goes on a violent spree that is entirely unlike anything else in Naruse’s oeuvre. It is difficult to watch, and feels clunky (it is being handled by someone who was otherwise uninterested in capturing physical violence) but it does unravel Ido’s hypocrisy and the violence implicit in the condescending stares of the townspeople. Their scorn contributed to the situation where Ido feels justified in slapping his own sister. This does not absolve him of any guilt, but does suggest that his violence would not be condemned by those who similarly degraded Mon’s human worth because of her personal life.

5

Ido’s violence is underscored by his incestuous feelings towards Mon. When he confronts the father of Mon’s would-be child, he reveals quite explicitly that he and Mon “were closer than brother and sister.” Then, he suggests that the man is entirely responsible for the decline of their relationship. Sexual tension tends to guide most of Naruse’s work, but it seldom manifests in a way such as this. White Beast from 1950 might be the only other time when desire became so physically violent in Naruse. It feels awkward, of course, but it does give us a satisfying conclusion. To jump ahead, the film ends with Mon and San walking away from the village towards the train that will take them back to Tokyo. The story is punctuated by the fact that the sisters have grown closer in this unfortunate environment. It’s not some mushy life-affirming humanist triumph of emotions, but instead a confirmation, a validation of their worth as humans. Mon spends a great deal of the film laying down indoors. Here, she is walking and her mobility registers as liberating, as it is for San. There’s no way to be a “good girl” and considering who impose those rules, who wants to be one anyway? Mon and San get to be human together, at least for a moment. Of course, Naruse warns us that we can’t take too much joy from this moment. Mon says she’ll probably return to visit her family again, despite the abuse she’ll likely have to endure again.

6





Tsuma / Wife (1953)

12 08 2015

In the early 1950s, Mikio Naruse made a handful of films in which Ken Uehara plays a variation of a bad husband. He’s not a villainous husband, but he is aloof and indifferent in RepastSound of the Mountain, and this film. Despite its title, Wife actually provides the most sympathy for Uehara’s husband, which led some critics at the time to say it defends his infidelity. Only Naruse could be so gentle and understanding with such character and yet, refuse to condone his actions. Wife might bother us because Uehara’s affair feels justified, but the balance is a ruse, the men in this film are not left off the hook. Instead, the responsibility of choice weighs heavier because “escaping” – something that both Uehara and Mineko (the film’s titular wife, portrayed by Mineko Takamine) aspire towards, is impossible.

1

Mineko and Juichi wake up to a morning routine. As Juichi goes off to work, Mineko tells us (via voiceover) about her dilemma: she expects something more not just from her marriage, but from life. The camera eventually catches up to Juichi as he approaches a train station, he is similarly dissatisfied with the relationship. He doesn’t express any ill will towards his wife, but he believes his marriage to be nothing more than a performance. At work, he enjoys a friendly relationship with a typist, Sawara, who later invites him to out on a date to the art exhibit. Juichi and Sawara continue to see each other, but Sawara has to move back to Osaka. Meanwhile, frustrated with her husband’s inability to get a raise, Mineko tries to keep the family’s head above water by acting as landlord for the boarding-house they inhabit.

2

Space is at a premium throughout all of Naruse’s work, but Wife makes this battle literal. Mineko rents part of the couple’s suburban home out to another couple, whose relationship quickly crumbles and serves as one of many parallels for Mineko and Juichi’s own dissolving. Another room belongs to a struggling art student, who unintentionally spies of Juichi during his date with Sawara at the art museum. Later on, another room becomes occupied by a bar hostess, who is frequently visited by one of her patrons. Eventually, the spurned wife of this patron visits Mineko, providing yet another failed marriage for us to view alongside Mineko’s.

3

On the surface, space plays a minimal role for Mineko. As the housewife, she’s relegated to her decidedly non-urban (its not quite suburban and its not quite country) house. However, Naruse’s attention to space is not simply public v private (though that conversation is indeed happening throughout Wife, as well as throughout his entire career) but instead in how we relate to private space around us. Naruse’s precise compositions, along with the design of a typical 1950s Japanese home, enable the camera to cut and divide space in a way that turns it into something new. Towards the end of the film, Mineko has returned to her parent’s home. She sits empty in a room, staring in the mirror. This moment is deeply personal, a woman losing faith in her ability to “be a wife” (which is, of course, something Naruse pokes hole in) is studying her face for signs that could perhaps explain Juichi’s indifference. Naruse cuts, and the room opens up. Her sister was always in the room, but the framing created a new meaning for us and possibly, her.

4

The boarding house that is run by Mineko is not unique for Naruse. These quarters are cramped, often occupied by more people then they were designed for, signaling that private space in never really private. In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard stresses the importance of a truly private space and the impact it has on our ability to daydream. Separate conversations figuratively and literally smash together at a visual intersection that lies straight beyond the house’s entrance. Mineko herself tries to daydream, yet she never really succeeds. Towards the film’s conclusion, she isolates her choices to forcing her husband to keep up the charade that is their marriage or for her to commit suicide. Later on, she reads a newspaper whose headline tells of a woman’s suicide. “She didn’t have to do that” she responds, forgetting the threat/promise she had made earlier. This inability to daydream is frustrating, both for Mineko and for us. It grounds the film, and it does so harshly.

5

Mineko’s daydreaming is stifled, never given a chance to breathe but Juichi, through his relationship with Sawara is given the opportunity to dabble in the act. Interestingly, he never does this in his own home. The daydreaming occurs at a French bar he meets Sawara at in the Ginza. Or, it occurs in Sawara’s quaint home in Osaka. Of course, the lascivious elements of their relationship are subdued by Naruse, and the most “daydream” moment for Juichi is when he plays with Sawara’s son. Juichi’s affair could be described as more “wholesome” than the one Uehara character has in Sound of the Mountain. Juichi really does love Sawara, and maybe this is noble, but it is also remarkably selfish to pursue such a relationship when your wife is dissatisfied as it is. Here, one could say that Juichi and Sawara’s would-be romance is the critique of the patriarchal society and the way marriage fits inside that structure. That would be too convenient considering that Juichi benefits from the former. Instead, the most vital critique comes at the end when everything returns to normal. Mineko has won her husband back, but she is back to square one, if not worse off. When she finally confronts Sawara, she insists that Juichi needs to come back because of society. Society has restored the family structure, but Mineko is still miserable and unloved. Maybe it is just a more comfortable type of miserably.

6





Yama no oto / Sound of the Mountain (1954)

28 07 2015

Sound of the Mountain opens with an image of white collar workers leaving their urban space of labor. It would seem ominous if its placement wasn’t so forgetful. The context of the sequence is explained. We discover we’re at the office of Shingo and his son, Shuichi. Shingo is headed back to their home in Kamakura, while Shuichi has stayed behind and discreetly asked his secretary if she wants to join him for a night out. Shingo provides the perspective in Yasunari Kawabata’s source novel of the same name, but of course, in Naruse’s world, we discover the ripples of his behavior and the people it hurts. Sound of the Mountain is a film about a man, but the concern is not in his troubles, but instead in the women he, rather obliviously, harms. The pain and suffering is quiet, almost muffled, but Naruse in his unique brilliance, reveals not only this pain but the processes that allow it to occur.

1

Shingo and his son, Shuichi are joined at home by their respective wives. Kikuko, presumably still in her 20s, is dutiful to her father-in-law but reciprocates the cold indifference she faces from her husband, Shuichi. Quickly, we learn that Shuichi’s sexual concerns are elsewhere, first we see him keep up a casually flirtatious relationship with his secretary and later, we learn that he’s having an affair with a dancer named Kinu. He grows increasingly frigid to Kikuko, who greatly enjoys (and prefers) the company of her father-in-law. Meanwhile, her sister-in-law, Fusako moves in with her children as her husband has once again abused her trust.

2

Late in the film, Shingo’s own wife, Yasuko remarks, “The sadness of a woman is very different from the sadness of a man.” In context, the quote reads as a critique of Shingo’s attempts to “understand” the women around him. Shingo is the main protagonist in both Kawabata’s novel and this adaptation. Yet, he serves a very different purpose here. His thoughts are privileged in the Kawabata novel, programmed as the filter with which we experience the events of the story. Naruse’s film, which many describe as literary, cannot be described as literary benefiting their source. In a way, Naruse has compiled a critique of Kawabata’s novel, one that gracefully creates holes in Shingo’s perspective. Shingo is a noble character, sure, but it is here (not the novel) that he’s not the peacemaker he makes himself out to be. He’s displeased with his son, but their shared apathy has been to the benefit of their guarded, perhaps subconscious sexist ideas.

3

 

Shuichi hurts many women throughout the film, though our attention to initially directed towards his actions (or lack thereof) regarding Kikuko. Our sympathies are established with her at the start. Because of this, a sick feeling in our stomachs develops when we see Shuichi flirting with his secretary, Hideko. A less observant film would point our outrage to Hideko for participating in this act, we would be just as angry with her as we are with Shuichi. Naruse sets Hideko and later, Shuichi’s mistress, Kinu as obstacles to a happy marriage. This is convenient and it happens a lot in narratives such as this, but Naruse peels back from this limited  framing and gives us the lives of these women. In Lightning, Mitsuko and Kiyoko visit the home belonging to the mistress of the former’s deceased husband. Here, Naruse doesn’t shift our sympathies as much as he expands them. We can feel Mitsuko’s pain as she mourns the loss of her husband and struggles financially as we feel for her husband’s mistress who might be even worse off. This expansion of sympathy happens throughout Sound of the Mountain, as we uncover the pain Shuichi is responsible for in Kikuko, Hideko, and Kinu.

4

Notably, these three women never appear on screen together and there is evidence to suggest that they’ve felt Shuichi’s wrath on different levels. Kikuko is ignored, Hideko is yelled at, but Kinu is physically beaten. All three are violence, but only one act is visible to us on screen. That’s Shuichi’s lack of action to Kikuko. His tantrums and outbursts aren’t shown to us, which might question some to ask if Shuichi, so quietly portrayed by a stone faced Ken Uehara can really be responsible for these acts? The answer, of course, is yes and these forms of violence often are never visible in public. Acting aloof, which is how he conducts himself around Kikuko, doesn’t suggest to many violence, but sometimes not doing anything creates the situation where suffering persists.

5

As Shuichi obliviously perpetuates and excuses the violence he inflicts on the women around him, his father struggles to fix the situation. Many have written about Shingo’s quasi-incestuous relationship with Kikuko, but there’s a balance in sexual curiosity (which manifests most brilliantly in the scene with the noh mask) and mutual respect.  Shingo’s quest to save his son’s marriage has more to do with this sensation he feels for Kikuko, but a passive misogyny (one that has carried over to his son) stunts his ability. Quite early on, a lecture to his son about family is given a sufficient retort: “how many mistresses did you have, dad?”

6

 

Shingo’s presence is crucial to Sound of the Mountain but his existence, his struggles, his anguish is not Naruse’s concern. Shingo, almost like a detective, uncovers the suffering his son has inflicted on Kikuko, Hideko, and Kinu. The film is not a moral moment, and its poignant finale is not a moment where he is redeemed for his son’s behavior. Instead, Naruse, in one of his most moving sequences, allows Shingo and Kikuko, a goodbye. Kikuko makes an observation about the vista in the park, and it is the first moment in the film where she asserts herself socially. Nothing has been overcome, though, Naruse has just given us a small victory. Kikuko has left Shuichi, leaving the family (or at least the father-in-law) that she cared about so much. It’s trite to say that who knows what the future holds, but in Naruse’s case, that isn’t exactly an exciting prospect. The abusive living conditions has been escaped, but resiliency doesn’t guarantee that Kikuko only has happiness awaiting her. Still, there is something rewarding in knowing she doesn’t have to deal with Shuichi.

7








Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,450 other followers