Naruse made two films in 1939, both of them are home dramas. The first, The Whole Family Works managed to slip through the grasp of the censors at the time and the result is one of Naruse’s favorite of his own films. The other film is this, which seems to have been very much affected by the censors. It starts out as a interesting discourse on class, then becomes a soapy melodrama (with some impressive poetic touches), and then becomes a gross and literal flag-waving celebration of the Japanese military. Most of the content seems to fit Naruse but the final direction is so dubious, it threatens to complete dismantle the potential shown at the film’s beginning.
Nobuko and Tomiko are pals at school, but with very different backgrounds. Nobuko has a safe, middle class home life, but she drops from first in her class to tenth. Meanwhile, Tomiko, who lives with her impoverished single mother and grandmother, has risen to number one in her class. The two girls don’t seem particularly interested in competing academically but Nobuko’s mother is unsatisfied with her daughter’s marks. She goes to her daughter’s teacher for some explanation, but mostly to blame him with her daughter’s report card. During their conversation, she learns that Tomiko is number one in class and this leads her to an argument with her husband, Kei. Kei was once romantically involved with Tomiko’s mother, Tsutako. This conversation brings up a past that was never addressed and confuses the two young girls.
The film’s best moment come from the two young school pals, Nobuko and Tomiko. There’s something interesting going on with class politics here, as the more stable home seems to be the less wealthy one, though Naruse smartly doesn’t make it seem like being poor is better. It’s even brought up later in the film that Tsutako is the better mother, another point of jealousy for the other mother. The discourse of class doesn’t last particularly long, however, as the film’s real plot becomes clear: Kei and Tsutako have a romantic history and they might still be acting upon it. There’s signs of this throughout the film and Naruse wisely keeps them subtle.
The biggest problem with this “scandalous” sort of story is that comes by dismissing a much more interesting story. Watching Nobuko and Tomiko be kids is both more interesting and better looking. There’s a tightness to the compositions during the “adult” material, but it never really saves a rather dull story. Naruse’s unfair treatment of Nobuko’s mother seems very odd, she’s very clearly marked as the bad character, where in reality it is her husband who might be the one committing infidelity. More importantly, there’s a un-Naruse poetry to the scenes involving the children. It looks like lost footage from a Hiroshi Shimizu film rather than anything else from Naruse. There’s some wonderful individual moments, which almost seems intentionally placed to pace the more dreary soap opera-ish content.
The melodramatic story isn’t nearly as problematic as the film’s final turn. Kei gets his draft notice and everyone seems to put aside their differences to send him off in a celebratory fashion. For a film with almost no mention or even hint of the military, it suddenly shapes itself into an overwhelming showcase for militarism. At this point, the film kind of loses its potential to be a truly great Naruse. Takako Irie, who would later appear in Sanjuro is very good here as Tsutako, making some of the more blandly photographed scenes. The real strengths here are the poetic outdoor sequences and the wonderful interactions between the two young girls, played by mostly unknowns. There’s a lot of elements that could have made up a great movie here, but they seem to have been squandered.