Tsuma / Wife (1953)

12 08 2015

In the early 1950s, Mikio Naruse made a handful of films in which Ken Uehara plays a variation of a bad husband. He’s not a villainous husband, but he is aloof and indifferent in RepastSound of the Mountain, and this film. Despite its title, Wife actually provides the most sympathy for Uehara’s husband, which led some critics at the time to say it defends his infidelity. Only Naruse could be so gentle and understanding with such character and yet, refuse to condone his actions. Wife might bother us because Uehara’s affair feels justified, but the balance is a ruse, the men in this film are not left off the hook. Instead, the responsibility of choice weighs heavier because “escaping” – something that both Uehara and Mineko (the film’s titular wife, portrayed by Mineko Takamine) aspire towards, is impossible.

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Mineko and Juichi wake up to a morning routine. As Juichi goes off to work, Mineko tells us (via voiceover) about her dilemma: she expects something more not just from her marriage, but from life. The camera eventually catches up to Juichi as he approaches a train station, he is similarly dissatisfied with the relationship. He doesn’t express any ill will towards his wife, but he believes his marriage to be nothing more than a performance. At work, he enjoys a friendly relationship with a typist, Sawara, who later invites him to out on a date to the art exhibit. Juichi and Sawara continue to see each other, but Sawara has to move back to Osaka. Meanwhile, frustrated with her husband’s inability to get a raise, Mineko tries to keep the family’s head above water by acting as landlord for the boarding-house they inhabit.

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Space is at a premium throughout all of Naruse’s work, but Wife makes this battle literal. Mineko rents part of the couple’s suburban home out to another couple, whose relationship quickly crumbles and serves as one of many parallels for Mineko and Juichi’s own dissolving. Another room belongs to a struggling art student, who unintentionally spies of Juichi during his date with Sawara at the art museum. Later on, another room becomes occupied by a bar hostess, who is frequently visited by one of her patrons. Eventually, the spurned wife of this patron visits Mineko, providing yet another failed marriage for us to view alongside Mineko’s.

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On the surface, space plays a minimal role for Mineko. As the housewife, she’s relegated to her decidedly non-urban (its not quite suburban and its not quite country) house. However, Naruse’s attention to space is not simply public v private (though that conversation is indeed happening throughout Wife, as well as throughout his entire career) but instead in how we relate to private space around us. Naruse’s precise compositions, along with the design of a typical 1950s Japanese home, enable the camera to cut and divide space in a way that turns it into something new. Towards the end of the film, Mineko has returned to her parent’s home. She sits empty in a room, staring in the mirror. This moment is deeply personal, a woman losing faith in her ability to “be a wife” (which is, of course, something Naruse pokes hole in) is studying her face for signs that could perhaps explain Juichi’s indifference. Naruse cuts, and the room opens up. Her sister was always in the room, but the framing created a new meaning for us and possibly, her.

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The boarding house that is run by Mineko is not unique for Naruse. These quarters are cramped, often occupied by more people then they were designed for, signaling that private space in never really private. In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard stresses the importance of a truly private space and the impact it has on our ability to daydream. Separate conversations figuratively and literally smash together at a visual intersection that lies straight beyond the house’s entrance. Mineko herself tries to daydream, yet she never really succeeds. Towards the film’s conclusion, she isolates her choices to forcing her husband to keep up the charade that is their marriage or for her to commit suicide. Later on, she reads a newspaper whose headline tells of a woman’s suicide. “She didn’t have to do that” she responds, forgetting the threat/promise she had made earlier. This inability to daydream is frustrating, both for Mineko and for us. It grounds the film, and it does so harshly.

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Mineko’s daydreaming is stifled, never given a chance to breathe but Juichi, through his relationship with Sawara is given the opportunity to dabble in the act. Interestingly, he never does this in his own home. The daydreaming occurs at a French bar he meets Sawara at in the Ginza. Or, it occurs in Sawara’s quaint home in Osaka. Of course, the lascivious elements of their relationship are subdued by Naruse, and the most “daydream” moment for Juichi is when he plays with Sawara’s son. Juichi’s affair could be described as more “wholesome” than the one Uehara character has in Sound of the Mountain. Juichi really does love Sawara, and maybe this is noble, but it is also remarkably selfish to pursue such a relationship when your wife is dissatisfied as it is. Here, one could say that Juichi and Sawara’s would-be romance is the critique of the patriarchal society and the way marriage fits inside that structure. That would be too convenient considering that Juichi benefits from the former. Instead, the most vital critique comes at the end when everything returns to normal. Mineko has won her husband back, but she is back to square one, if not worse off. When she finally confronts Sawara, she insists that Juichi needs to come back because of society. Society has restored the family structure, but Mineko is still miserable and unloved. Maybe it is just a more comfortable type of miserably.

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Yama no oto / Sound of the Mountain (1954)

28 07 2015

Sound of the Mountain opens with an image of white collar workers leaving their urban space of labor. It would seem ominous if its placement wasn’t so forgetful. The context of the sequence is explained. We discover we’re at the office of Shingo and his son, Shuichi. Shingo is headed back to their home in Kamakura, while Shuichi has stayed behind and discreetly asked his secretary if she wants to join him for a night out. Shingo provides the perspective in Yasunari Kawabata’s source novel of the same name, but of course, in Naruse’s world, we discover the ripples of his behavior and the people it hurts. Sound of the Mountain is a film about a man, but the concern is not in his troubles, but instead in the women he, rather obliviously, harms. The pain and suffering is quiet, almost muffled, but Naruse in his unique brilliance, reveals not only this pain but the processes that allow it to occur.

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Shingo and his son, Shuichi are joined at home by their respective wives. Kikuko, presumably still in her 20s, is dutiful to her father-in-law but reciprocates the cold indifference she faces from her husband, Shuichi. Quickly, we learn that Shuichi’s sexual concerns are elsewhere, first we see him keep up a casually flirtatious relationship with his secretary and later, we learn that he’s having an affair with a dancer named Kinu. He grows increasingly frigid to Kikuko, who greatly enjoys (and prefers) the company of her father-in-law. Meanwhile, her sister-in-law, Fusako moves in with her children as her husband has once again abused her trust.

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Late in the film, Shingo’s own wife, Yasuko remarks, “The sadness of a woman is very different from the sadness of a man.” In context, the quote reads as a critique of Shingo’s attempts to “understand” the women around him. Shingo is the main protagonist in both Kawabata’s novel and this adaptation. Yet, he serves a very different purpose here. His thoughts are privileged in the Kawabata novel, programmed as the filter with which we experience the events of the story. Naruse’s film, which many describe as literary, cannot be described as literary benefiting their source. In a way, Naruse has compiled a critique of Kawabata’s novel, one that gracefully creates holes in Shingo’s perspective. Shingo is a noble character, sure, but it is here (not the novel) that he’s not the peacemaker he makes himself out to be. He’s displeased with his son, but their shared apathy has been to the benefit of their guarded, perhaps subconscious sexist ideas.

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Shuichi hurts many women throughout the film, though our attention to initially directed towards his actions (or lack thereof) regarding Kikuko. Our sympathies are established with her at the start. Because of this, a sick feeling in our stomachs develops when we see Shuichi flirting with his secretary, Hideko. A less observant film would point our outrage to Hideko for participating in this act, we would be just as angry with her as we are with Shuichi. Naruse sets Hideko and later, Shuichi’s mistress, Kinu as obstacles to a happy marriage. This is convenient and it happens a lot in narratives such as this, but Naruse peels back from this limited  framing and gives us the lives of these women. In Lightning, Mitsuko and Kiyoko visit the home belonging to the mistress of the former’s deceased husband. Here, Naruse doesn’t shift our sympathies as much as he expands them. We can feel Mitsuko’s pain as she mourns the loss of her husband and struggles financially as we feel for her husband’s mistress who might be even worse off. This expansion of sympathy happens throughout Sound of the Mountain, as we uncover the pain Shuichi is responsible for in Kikuko, Hideko, and Kinu.

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Notably, these three women never appear on screen together and there is evidence to suggest that they’ve felt Shuichi’s wrath on different levels. Kikuko is ignored, Hideko is yelled at, but Kinu is physically beaten. All three are violence, but only one act is visible to us on screen. That’s Shuichi’s lack of action to Kikuko. His tantrums and outbursts aren’t shown to us, which might question some to ask if Shuichi, so quietly portrayed by a stone faced Ken Uehara can really be responsible for these acts? The answer, of course, is yes and these forms of violence often are never visible in public. Acting aloof, which is how he conducts himself around Kikuko, doesn’t suggest to many violence, but sometimes not doing anything creates the situation where suffering persists.

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As Shuichi obliviously perpetuates and excuses the violence he inflicts on the women around him, his father struggles to fix the situation. Many have written about Shingo’s quasi-incestuous relationship with Kikuko, but there’s a balance in sexual curiosity (which manifests most brilliantly in the scene with the noh mask) and mutual respect.  Shingo’s quest to save his son’s marriage has more to do with this sensation he feels for Kikuko, but a passive misogyny (one that has carried over to his son) stunts his ability. Quite early on, a lecture to his son about family is given a sufficient retort: “how many mistresses did you have, dad?”

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Shingo’s presence is crucial to Sound of the Mountain but his existence, his struggles, his anguish is not Naruse’s concern. Shingo, almost like a detective, uncovers the suffering his son has inflicted on Kikuko, Hideko, and Kinu. The film is not a moral moment, and its poignant finale is not a moment where he is redeemed for his son’s behavior. Instead, Naruse, in one of his most moving sequences, allows Shingo and Kikuko, a goodbye. Kikuko makes an observation about the vista in the park, and it is the first moment in the film where she asserts herself socially. Nothing has been overcome, though, Naruse has just given us a small victory. Kikuko has left Shuichi, leaving the family (or at least the father-in-law) that she cared about so much. It’s trite to say that who knows what the future holds, but in Naruse’s case, that isn’t exactly an exciting prospect. The abusive living conditions has been escaped, but resiliency doesn’t guarantee that Kikuko only has happiness awaiting her. Still, there is something rewarding in knowing she doesn’t have to deal with Shuichi.

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Okayo no kakugo / Oyako’s Preparedness (1939)

29 03 2015

There’s a simultaneous sense of difficulty and joy in writing about a filmmaker like Yasujiro Shimazu. It comes from the lack of literature about the filmmaker in general. It’s difficult because there’s no consensus discourse formed around his work, but there in lies the joy. The responsibility is great, but engaging with his films provides us the opportunity for us to establish a narrative. Frustration comes from the many holes we have in his career. As is the case, I hesitantly call this film an important departure from his 1938 effort So Goes Love. Like that film, a “light” comedy turns dark, but the political factors are more muted here. It’s an important change for Shimazu, and the role of his leading lady, the great Kinuyo Tanaka, positions an even greater career shift.

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Oyako is a live-in assistant at a dance academy.  She occupies the space of both a pupil and a professor, providing lessons, but also acting as something of a maid to the academy’s “master” (as she refers to her) Osumi. Shunsaku, a photographer, enters the studio one day to photograph the two. Oyako is visibly flustered by the appearance of such a handsome man. She can’t hide her blushing face, which is explained away by Shunsaku’s assertion that “cameras make young people blush.” While waiting for the development of the pictures, Shunsaku takes Oyako out to dinner. She’s completely smitten, but later overhears a conversation between Shunsaku’s mother and Osumi. He’s interested in marrying a complete different student at the academy.

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The economic hardships depicted in a film like So Goes Love are not completely eliminated here. For example, Oyako’s grocery shopping trip ends prematurely because of money. Income doesn’t drive the narrative here, love does. Oyako’s unrequited crush for Shunsaku is to be understood by us as a tough case of puppy love. Osumi herself explains the pain as being part of her youth. Age and experience makes us wiser about relationships, time allows us to reflect on past heartbreaks as something not so serious. Even if we cried uncontrollably, as Oyako does here, the privilege of hindsight allows us to even laugh about these earlier disappointments.

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Still, Oyako’s pain is registered as valid by Shimazu’s camera. For most of the film, his eye remains neutral. The tight spaces of dance academy almost seem to expand with his camera’s distance. However, he focuses in after Oyako gets her heart broken. He himself might take the position of Osumi, he suggests we all experience these unrequited crushes in our youth, but even then he understands that Oyako’s pain, in that moment, feels like the biggest tragedy ever. With this pain, she imagines herself delivering a powerful dance performance on a stage. It’s all captured in one take, then the film dissolves back to her in the dance academy. She collapses, the camera slowly pans in unison with a swelling soundtrack. The pans anticipates the presence of another body. Perhaps Shunsaku has returned to pronounce his love! The pan stops, but no body enters the space. The film ends.

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It is interesting that Oyako’s youth is stressed so frequently as the woman who plays her, Kinuyo Tanaka, was transitioning out of the “youthful” part of her career. Prior to the 1940s, Kinuyo Tanaka was a sex symbol. At the very least, her sexuality played a factor in her public persona. As the 40s rolled along, Tanaka’s image shifted. In A Hen in the Wind, she was the victim of spousal abuse in Ozu’s most violent film. Her collaborations with Mizoguchi, furthered this image of the enduring victim. Even in Life of Oharu, where she plays a sex worker, her own sexuality of no interest. The tragedy of the film is the sexuality of men violently imposed on her own body. Because of so many traumas, love itself triggers pain and anxiety. At a certain point, her face became indicative of endurance but unlovable. It’s an unfair arch that dominates the career of many women actors, but Oyako’s Preparedness should be commended for mapping this trajectory.

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