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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Ai yori ai e / So Goes My Love (1938)

19 10 2014

A brisk comedy that runs under an hour doesn’t seem like a film ripe for social discourse, but this effort from Yasujiro Shimazu (the “newest” of which I’ve seen from him) is loaded with conversations about the ever overused idea of “modernity.” Shimazu doesn’t restrict the iconography of the modern city into simplistic signs, but instead has them collapse under their own supposedly concrete implications. So Goes My Love is a rich text for anyone interested in Japan in the 1930s, which might be a limited crowd in the film world, but it is vital to any film scholars that even bother with just one Japanese film. This sounds like hyperbole, but so much of western film academics misread into Japanese history is alluded to and playfully mocked here.

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Shigeo is an unemployed writer living with his girlfriend, Minako. Minako makes the money to support the both of them, as Shigeo’s aspirations for a writing careers seem less possible with each day. The couple is no serious financial peril, though. While Minako is not exactly making a comfortable amount of money as a barmaid, Shigeo’s parents are still very much in the picture. In fact, Shigeo only ran away to live with Minako after his father refused to approve of the couple’s marriage. While Shigeo struggles on the surface, his woes and frustrations all happen over the financial safety net of his parents, who are willing to welcome him back once he breaks things off with Minako. Toshiko, his sister, comes to visit and in doing so begins to build something of a bridge between Minako and the family that wants nothing to do with her.

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Shuji Sano, who is perhaps most famous for his roles in Early Summer and Carmen Comes Home, plays the brooding Shigeo here and if one thinks he might come off as a little bratty, that’s the point. This isn’t a tendency film, and if it were, Shigeo would not be the downtrodden subject. He’s struggling and finding himself in the world, to borrow but one cliche to help us construct the idea of the serious male writer. Shimazu is teasing his performance of this role, not the actor’s but the character himself. He’s not the breadwinner in the relationship, hell he doesn’t make anything, but one should look at the scene where Toshiko (played by the great yet forgotten Mieko Takamine) shows up. In this scene, he is intentionally standoffish. While Minako invites Toshiko to sit down and have tea, he quickly and rudely tries to dismiss her. What right does Shigeo have to do this in the first place? This isn’t his apartment, yet his voice, because he is a man, ultimately wins out. At the same time, Shimazu himself frames this sequence with limited camera movement and from a distance. In the surveillance quality of the shot, we are able to understand that he is silly. It’s not that his masculine posturing is unsuccessful, it actually is successful, but that’s why it is so ridiculous.

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While much of the narrative is centered around Shigeo, Toshiko and Minako both occupy an important part of the film’s conversation. For whatever reason, there is an increased emphasis on questions of modernity from western film scholars viewing Asian cinema. I personally believe this comes from a rather simplistic idea about how gender functions in non-western cultures. Women are oppressed there but not here. It’s an idea that has long been used to justify colonial occupation, “White men saving brown women from brown men” as Gayatri Spivak puts it. Out of this line of thought, many western academics shift their attention to how women dress. The question of modernity is a valid one for Japan, a country whose infrastructure was rapidly reshaped only 40 years before this film. The conception and development of the “modern space” is worth researching, but this conversation can’t be limited to women’s way of dress.

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Minako dresses in a “modern” way at her job, but often returns to a more traditional way of dress when at home. One could suggest that this is to appease Shigeo, but he does the exact same thing when looking for a job. Nothing is made about a man’s way of dress, because the potential meanings for clothes is often gendered feminine. Thus, it is ignored when a man jumps between two equally masculine modes of presentation, even though it mirrors the heavily politicized way a woman jumps between two equally feminine modes of presentation. This flexibility does say something, but Shimazu refuses to let it fall into the simple binary of the modern woman vs the traditional woman. The film’s narrative functions in a remarkably similar way. This romantic comedy gets it happy ending when the “traditional” parents finally meet Minako, and find out that she’s wonderful. It seems like a cheap dramatic turn because much of the frustration in the film seems to have been easily written away, but it suggests something powerful: that all of the ideas are tied to something, sure, but not something stable and finite. In this case, it would be wise to question how we imagine the “traditional” vs the “modern.” Neither is concrete, especially when they are in conversation with each other.

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Banka / Elegy of the North (1957)

13 05 2014

While David Lean’s Brief Encounter is almost universally beloved, evoking the film in certain comparisons almost seems to inherently imply a negative connotation. The beloved melodrama is seen as the epitome of its type, and the film that try to retread the magic it left behind basically are saturated with some problems that they almost serve as an explanation of everything that makes that film feel so right. Heinosuke Gosho’s Elegy of the North, made in 1957, has yet to even reach the purview of many English-speaking film scholars, but the few who have taken notice to it would find a hard time deflecting comparison to Lean’s classic. While both films occupy a cinematic space that is populated with swooning, romantic gestures, and big, monumental feelings. It’s not a typical route for Gosho, but nestled underneath all the reverie is something a bit more grounded.

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Reiko gets her arthritic hand bitten by a dog. The dog’s owner, Katsuragi is extremely apologetic. “The dog never bites” he tells her. “Dogs never bite me” she replies. Reiko becomes fascinated by Katsuragi. Once his deferential facade wears off from their original encounter, he is revealed to be a deeply unhappy man. Sure, a wealthy, attractive, and married doctor should have very little to complain about but the stillness of his life is beginning to hit him. He’s not out of love with his wife, Akiko, but the passion seems to have faded. She herself has begun seeing a med student on the side. Reiko and Katsuragi become more than friends, but his extended business trip leaves both Reiko and Akiko without anyone to talk to. Naturally, they become best friends, but Akiko remains unaware of her husband’s infidelity.

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Pardon the baseball analogy, but Gosho is really swinging for the fences here. Going for a film that tries to cover such a big, important part of the human experience is always commendable, but his film never quite achieves the transcendent moment for which he shoots. I guess this sounds like a simple criticism of “too melodramatic” but I find that phrase both misused and overused, as while as ignoring the problems that come up here. The reality is that the film is adequately melodramatic, but its issues lie in a betrayal to what it wants to tell us. At its best moments, Gosho has given us a story about two women who should be in opposition to each other, but become wonderfully close friends. This would be enough for a typical Gosho film, at least by the standards of Arthur Nolletti. Like Naruse did with Floating Clouds in 1955, Elegy of the North attempts something more pointedly and poetically “profound” than the usual work of the film’s director. Naruse was successful and his film, though atypical for him, is one of the most masterful moments in a career stocked with them. Gosho’s film is a success too, mostly on the strength of his performers, but overall, it feels a little over baked.

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One needs to give credit where credit is due, though and Elegy of the North does feature one of the best casts ever assembled. Yoshiko Kuga and Masayuki Mori would have received top billing, but the presence of Tatsuo Saito and Mieko Takamine is just as exciting. Both of them may have been considered washed up by 1957, Saito achieving most of his success during the late 20s/early 30s, Takamine during the late 30s/early 40s. More important than familiar faces is the fact that both Takamie and Kuga nail, what I would argue, is the meat of the film. That being the relationship between Reiko and Akiko. Their actual interactions seem a bit maudlin, Reiko quickly takes to calling Akiko “mom” but the film leads up to their friendship in a way that is both real, and easily the most interesting thing in the film.

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Upon meeting Akiko, Reiko mentions that she’s aggressive. “I’m a hunter, a swan hunter. If I have my eye on something I won’t miss it” she tells her. The film awkwardly gives a cutaway of actual swans, before quickly cutting back. It’s almost there that Gosho himself realizes that the illustration isn’t necessary, we’ve already seen Reiko as a “hunter” before. To call her a hunter would be missing the point. She’s aggressive around Katsuragi, but not in a way that suggests male heterosexual wish-fulfillment or even a one-dimensional femme fatale. In a scene at a bar, she has control, but not in a way that suggests she’s a manipulative woman just teasing and seducing him to torment him. Such a person seldom exists in real life, but is constantly created in the pen of frustrated men. Give Gosho credit here: his film, perhaps brought down by some silly narrative shifts, still manages to populate its world with women that feel real and complete. When the film is focused on the struggles of Reiko and Akiko, it touches on something that is far more substantial than a doomed affair. Sure, a nearly-mythical and tragic love story can work, but it seems like Gosho should have spent more time with the far more interesting relationship unfolding in the periphery.

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