One would be hard pressed to find a director who had a more eventful year than Mikio Naruse did in 1956. Certainly, the filmmaker himself had busier years, but the three films released in ’56 (this, Flowing, and Sudden Rain) are fairly diverse considering the filmmaker’s reputation as being so consistent. Flowing is the most well-known to the west (being that it actually has a DVD release) but the other two might be the better representations of the director. Here, in particular, we have Naruse’s trademark themes of money and relationship problems woven into one of his most digestible narratives. Basically, this is his “in-laws from hell” story, but obviously done with the personal touch that prevents such a scenario from seeing simplistic.
Kiyoko (Hideko Takamine) and Shinji (Keiju Kobayashi) are trying to open a cafe, but they lack the money. The timing isn’t exactly perfect, either, with Shinji’s brother and mother breathing down his next for money, among other things. The pressure of Shinji’s family has obviously had an affect on him, as he is particularly quiet in nearly all conversations. The few times he does raise his voice, it’s to ask for another drink or when talking to Fuku, a geisha who is in the middle of complicated marriage herself. Kiyoko, meanwhile, meets with Kenkichi (Toshiro Mifune) regarding the money needed to open the cafe. Kenkichi is everything her husband isn’t, confident, strong, and perhaps most importantly, single.
The outline of the film seems quite scandalous, but it’s important to note that Naruse has never made a film seem nearly as steamy as the plot description. Kenkichi’s meetings with Kiyoko are almost entirely formal, consisting of only hellos, goodbyes, and thank yous. Most of their interactions take place with Kiyoko as a waitress with her presenting herself with the suitable facade. The film’s lone moment that labors on their potential affair is an absolutely stunning one. Caught in the rain, the two take shelter in a restaurant. The conversation is once again pleasantly superficial until the two spot kids playing in the rain. Kenkichi says he’s good with kids, which prompts Kiyoko to say “then you need to find a wife soon.” The music swells, and the air has been sucked out of the room.
This is as far as Kiyoko’s relationship with Kenkichi goes, just a prolonged moment of silence where the two recognize the situation. She, in a middling but fine enough marriage, and he, unable to truly express any fondness he might have for this woman. When Shinji’s flame, Fuku, kills herself it is remarked that she “threw away the life her parents gave her.” Be it a suicide or an affair, the families in Naruse’s world and tied together more tightly than usual. Family, like money, is another obstacle in true independence. Naruse’s popular quote about his characters, ““If they move even a little, they quickly hit the wall” resonates particularly strong here.
Of course, none of what Naruse meditates on here is particularly new. The ambitious woman angle seems to have been attempted again with When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, but the big difference with that film’s protagonist (also played by Hideko Takamine) is that of experience. She’s more cynical, less optimistic, which gives her character a certain appeal. Perhaps it’s interesting to note that both films also have suicides, but When a Woman Ascends the Stairs opens with one and it is approached with gallows humor. It’s more of a sudden gut-punch here, though the victim is a peripheral character. I would say the approach in both films represents the outlook of the two protagonists. Kiyoko might be naive, which makes her dissatisfaction with life burn deeper. It’s still a fresh wound.
As far as marital portraits go, this isn’t one of Naruse’s deepest but I don’t think that’s entirely his intention. Repast stands as his fullest examination of the institution because it seeks to redefine the subject. Here, the audience is presented with an immediate drama that resonates because of said immediacy. There’s only so many ways I can say that Naruse’s films simply work but watching a film like this that’s the sensation that comes to mind. He had three films in 1956 alone that feel “fuller” than anything in most director’s careers. Like the best of Naruse’s work, A Wife’s Heart is striking because its possibilities are overwhelming. Saying one most study Naruse’s work makes him sound too academic and dry, but it should be mentioned that one viewing is not for most of his best work. This feels like the case here.