The runaway success of Kurosawa’s High and Low in 1964 must have been enough to convince Toho that neo-noir was a viable route for their filmmakers. Two of Naruse’s last three films could be organized by the genre, even if they do manage to downplay the more thrilling elements that made Kurosawa’s film such a smash. The first of these two is A Stranger Within a Woman. Noir seems especially uncharacteristic for Naruse, but this wasn’t his first attempt at such a film, 1950 saw the release of both The Angry Street and White Beast, two films which are definitely noir-tinged. Those two films came before Naruse cultivated his mature 1950s style, the one that informed his legacy. They contain a pulpy energy, where as A Stranger Within a Woman is an airtight thriller, it seems to approach plot points with melancholy, as opposed to excitement.
Sugimoto runs into his long time friend, Toshiro, as the two are walking home from work. They decide to have a drink together, and then split. Arriving home, Toshiro is greeted by his wife, Masako. He tells her that he’s expecting a call from Sugimoto. The call never comes. The following day’s newspaper explains why: following a drink with Toshiro, Sugimoto returned to his home to find his wife, Sayuri, dead by way of strangulation. Soon after, Toshiro confesses to Masako that he was having an affair with Sayuri before her death. Later, he confesses that he was the one responsible for her death and that he intends to turn himself in.
Although Naruse provides us a great deal of information through flashback, his concern here is not for the mystery to unravel slowly. In fact, we have no reason to think that Toshiro isn’t the culprit immediately and when he confesses to infidelity thirty minutes in, most would be confident in his guilt. The flashbacks show that Naruse, although working with the mold of a thriller, was not concerned with “who did it?” or “why” either. These sequences are narrated to us with observations, ones that go attack Sayuri’s character. The first flashback, initiated by the musings of Toshiro’s mother, is a passive critique of Sayuri’s flirty nature. The flashback’s most crucial detail does not uncover itself as a clue, but rather suggests the inevitability of her death.
It would be a mistake to credit Sayuri as the film’s main character here, but she is the most interesting. She’s on screen for less than a minute, but the film is built on conversations around her. When Toshiro’s younger coworkers at a printing press discuss her death the first question asked is “was she good looking?” Even Sayuri’s husband, Sugimoto seems rather unmoved by her death, and he immediately rationalizes her demise as inevitable because of her “many male friends.” Here, I could suggest that Sayuri was functionally dead before she was even killed. Certainly, her death is not given any value beyond her relationship to men. Conversations frame her only as a bourgeois “slut” whose sexually transgressive nature ruined an otherwise humble man like Sugimoto. This is often how the femme fatale operates, but Naruse never gives her time to properly seduce us, suggesting that any attempt to defend Toshiro is ridiculous. Then again, Toshiro doesn’t feel like he’s been wronged like an American film noir protagonist would, he basically embraces the punishment he feels he deserves. In Naruse’s world, the hormone-driven chaos that makes noir exciting is flattened, reduced to something banal.
Although the film opens in Akasuka, an ideal urban setting for a noir, most of it takes place in the suburban comfort of Kamakura. Kozaburo Yoshimura’s Temptation also shows us Kamakura, but it seems that much has changed in a short eighteen years. Yoshimura’s Kamakura is represented by a beach house, one where the interiors seem to exist in a liminal space between what we conceive as indoors and outdoors. Naruse’s Kamakura should be more familiar to American audiences, we seldom go outside (it is almost always raining in the film) and so we’re left to consider a Westernized suburban home. Suburbs existed in Japan before Levittown and America’s process of suburbanization. The hybrid nature of the house represents a post-occupation structure, it is the sort of thing that Isoya Yoshida would have fought violently against in the 30s. Whether he liked it or not, gender played a huge role in Yoshida’s vision of architecture, and he spoke of “purity” both in structures and in women. The film concludes with Masako poisoning Toshiro before he can turn himself in. As she explains via voiceover, “As he tries to go out the front door with his head held high, I’ll have to sneak him out the back.” The front lawn of the American suburban house is the masculine space. The back, the garden, is feminine. Masako, just like her house, has forsaken Yoshida’s idea of “purity” in Japan. Her and the house have transitioned in American suburbia, American patriarchy, both of which maintain a similar control over her body. The revolutionary moment is not that she kills her husband and gets away with it. After all, she does so to main the respectability of the family. Instead, it comes from the realization that all the “modernity” and “progress” that American imperialism (or in this specific case, occupation) advertises to women has changed very little. Basically, the patriarchy upgraded the master’s house, but Masako must still live in it.