Tsuma no kokoro / A Wife’s Heart (1956)

28 07 2013

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Harakara / The Village (1976)

7 07 2013

I’m not one to make note of IMDB comments, but there’s not much written in English about Yoji Yamada. Additionally, I tend to be dismissive of director comparisons, but for whatever reason I was struck by a review of this film that compared Yamada to Altman. To me, they couldn’t be operating on more opposite positions. Altman, perhaps the ultimate cynic seems downright mean-spirited next to Yamada, who often borders on being “too gentle.” The comparison ends up making sense here as this does play out like a rural Japanese Nashville but more importantly, it made me think of the potential aesthetic overlap. From a visual perspective, both manage to work extremely well with multiple characters, a point emphasized in this film, which has such an extensive cast.

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Hideko Kono, a representative of a theater trope based in Tokyo, visits the snowy and small village of Matsuo. She does so with the intention of putting on a production in the small community. During her visit, she meets the leader of the village’s youth association, Takashi. Although he’s in a position of authority, he lacks the confidence that such a position would normal imply. Hideko’s idea of a show is thus the subject of long debates within the youth group. Eventually, they decide upon going forward with the production, but this only begins the long struggle of a small town securing the finances to put on such a production.

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This might sound a little dry on paper, but Yamada paints around the setup, giving us short glimpses into the lives of the people connected to the story. Takashi has long harbored a crush on Kayoko, who dreams of moving to Tokyo. Their romances never seems particularly forced, mostly because it doesn’t actually end up happening. The naturalism might just be because of the wonderful performance (Chieko Baisho, in particular, of course) but one might argue it also is because of the fact that the character’s side stories lack an arc. Their background is developed almost entirely by non-events.

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To continue building the case for the film’s naturalism, I feel like there’s something to be said about Yamada on a formal level. I’ve never be able to discuss his style in a flattering light, as he doesn’t seem as interested in form as the ATG/Japanese New Wave crowd that emerged on the scene around the same time as his own career was beginning. Seeing a film like this, where Yamada has to balance so many people, his technical craft is easier to notice and appreciate. His frames  in the first half almost always seem crowded, perhaps an intentional move considering a majority of the film takes place in an isolated meeting room. Later, when the actual production is being put on, there’s an undeniable sense of space, which is crucial to the theatrical performers.

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I’m never one to discuss aesthetics in details, but I did want to mention something about how Yamada frames conversations. There’s a freedom within his actors that seems quite refreshing. The compositions seem so delicate, but the actors are constantly walking right in front of the camera with no regard for its presence. It still works on a visual level because it’s balanced out by other actors in a “layer” (so to speak) behind the person standing right in front of the camera. There are multiple stories unfolding within each frame, which seems is a wonderful visual match with the film being about the multiple stories within a small, mostly ignored group of people. Yamada touches upon the idea that a shared story, be it a positive or negative one, can unite the downtrodden. It sounds hokey, but his touch makes it feel organic.

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