Onna no za (1962)

22 10 2012

The general consensus is that Naruse’s quality dropped off in the 1960s and while there are a few isolated masterpieces (Hourou-ki and Midareru come to mind) his batting average definitely took a dip following the 1950s, his most consistent and best decade. A film like this one, while perfectly fine and entertaining, does remind one that even in his most sublime moments, Naruse was still a company man. He considered himself one, never quite acknowledging his own work as art. A film like this one wouldn’t be the best example to convince him otherwise. It’s best selling point is most likely it’s fabulous cast, including Hideko Takamine (of course), Haruko Sugimura, and even Chishu Ryu appearing in his third and final collaboration with Naruse.

If the film never manages to hit home the way Naruse’s best work does, it can probably be credited to the episodic narrative, which never manages to establish a central protagonist. It seems like it might be Hideko Takamine if only because that’s what one would expect, but time is divided rather evenly. Takamine is a widowed mother living with her parents-in-law (Sugimura and Ryu) and runs a grocery out of their house. The family is extensive, consisting of daughters (and their major narrative contribution comes from the pressure to get married), another daughter-in-law, and a son struggling to raise his own family and run a noodle shop at the same time. All of these interconnected stories and they run together rather smoothly, just as one would expect considering Naruse’s “invisible” editing.

This is all enjoyable enough, and considering some of the content (the widowed daughter-in-law) and Ryu’s presence, it does feel like it’s revisiting some of Ozu’s territory. The most notable difference would be that this is one of Naruse’s Toho Scope films and his looser compositions (at least compared to Ozu’s famously tight ones) become more apparent when they’re given a wider canvas. It’s hard to marvel at the aesthetic of such a film, but an appreciation can be found in the fact that the composition are never intrusive. To some, this might seem like it is simply dull or devoid of style, but that’s arguably what Naruse is, albeit a unfair framing of his technique. In a way, this is a perfectly composed film, as Naruse manages to juggle the trials of the family and never once does it feel difficult to follow.

The film’s drama does take a sharp turn towards the very end, unfortunately. Sugimura’s estranged first son is introduced, and he impresses all the single women connected with the family before it is revealed that he is something of a con artist. The entire subplot seems a little too much, but it’s forgivable, which might not be said about the tragedy Hideko Takamine must endure in the film’s final quarter. It’s an unnecessary twist, and the kind of thing that Naruse managed to stay away from for most of his career. It shows in his and (Takamine’s) handling of the event, but the story wasn’t exactly one in which such melodramatic material is betraying what came before it. It’s a good movie, surely, but a misstep doesn’t really spoil it because it wasn’t exactly a masterpiece up to that point.

This is definitely worth watching, but it helps to have some context. It’s not going to be a particularly rewarding experience if you aren’t familiar with at least Naruse. Additionally, it helps to have some fondness for the performers, especially since Naruse is particularly difficult with applying a formalist auteur study. This isn’t a good place to start with him, and it’s not really the meatiest (so to speak) of even his 60s output, but it is another fascinating contribution in the overall narrative that was Naruse’s career. It’s company work, which means it doesn’t feel particularly important, but it’s really solid company work.

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