A year after the success of Lightning, Mikio Naruse was loaned out to Daiei from Toho again. The Daiei connection tempts us to compare the two films, and I find no reason to resist this impulse. Lightning and Older Brother, Younger Sister are both films about the city (and the “other” landscapes that supposedly clash with it) and the family. Both films, to speak broadly on them, depict characters who find solace and some sense of peace by escaping their family life. The familial discord of Lightning unwraps itself in a typical Narusian way, but Older Brother, Younger Sister is bursting with such great tension that it explodes in physical violence. This is a rarity for Naruse, and while it could be easy to write this film off as lesser just because the melodrama is exaggerated, I think doing so would discount much of it. It is a unique entry in Naruse’s filmography, and we should be thrilled by the opportunity to digest this is in a slightly off kilter fashion.
San commutes to Tokyo from her family’s isolated village for nursing school. Her father, Akaza, was once the proud overseer of a damning operation. Now, he only works part time as a clerk for his wife, Riki. It is Riki’s ice cream business that manages to keep the family afloat financially. San’s brother, Ino, performs physical labor. He enjoys a somewhat cheerful relationship with his boss, which enables him to disappear from work for large periods of time. San’s younger sister is Mon, who, like her sister, also splits her time between Tokyo and her parent’s small village. Mon’s labor is never disclosed, but one can deduce, through her flamboyantly flirtatious dress and speech, that she is a bar hostess. Her presence embarrasses the rest of the town, who frame her as ungrateful and loose. This sentiment is shared by Ino, who is prone to fits of violence.
Labor has always played a part in Naruse’s film, particularly the labor of women. Men, especially towards the end of his career, seem to exclusively work non-descript office jobs that sucks the life out of them, usually leading to them to follow their suppressed sexual desires. Ino and Akaza’s labor is, by comparison, elaborated on to greater detail but he shows us that they are unreliable individuals. Indeed, the family hasn’t completely fallen apart because of Riki’s ice cream stand. Additionally, the “dirty money” earned by Mon in the city goes to help finance San’s tuition. The women of the family are the only ones with any drive, yet it is this drive (at least for Mon and San) that earns them the derision of their peers.
Early in the film, San is infatuated with a neighborhood noodle maker. Her feelings are reciprocated, but the parents of the noodle maker forbid the relationship on the grounds of Mon’s personality. The noodle maker is married off, and later confronts San with the promise to runaway to Tokyo with her, just as she had wished for earlier in the film. The whim is tempting for her, but she’s changed her tune and in the passion of their would-be romantic getaway, she buys one train ticket to Tokyo. For herself, to return to school. This romantic gesture has to remind her of something, perhaps the violent swings displayed by her brother, Ino. It seems less charming and more indicative of abusive behavior in the future.
While Naruse has always poked holes in the construction of masculinity and revealed it to be both silly and toxic, he seems to go another step here, perhaps encroaching on the ground of his rival, Kenji Mizoguchi. Late in the film, San and Mon have returned to Tokyo. A peaceful lunch with their mother is interrupted by Ido, who goes on a violent spree that is entirely unlike anything else in Naruse’s oeuvre. It is difficult to watch, and feels clunky (it is being handled by someone who was otherwise uninterested in capturing physical violence) but it does unravel Ido’s hypocrisy and the violence implicit in the condescending stares of the townspeople. Their scorn contributed to the situation where Ido feels justified in slapping his own sister. This does not absolve him of any guilt, but does suggest that his violence would not be condemned by those who similarly degraded Mon’s human worth because of her personal life.
Ido’s violence is underscored by his incestuous feelings towards Mon. When he confronts the father of Mon’s would-be child, he reveals quite explicitly that he and Mon “were closer than brother and sister.” Then, he suggests that the man is entirely responsible for the decline of their relationship. Sexual tension tends to guide most of Naruse’s work, but it seldom manifests in a way such as this. White Beast from 1950 might be the only other time when desire became so physically violent in Naruse. It feels awkward, of course, but it does give us a satisfying conclusion. To jump ahead, the film ends with Mon and San walking away from the village towards the train that will take them back to Tokyo. The story is punctuated by the fact that the sisters have grown closer in this unfortunate environment. It’s not some mushy life-affirming humanist triumph of emotions, but instead a confirmation, a validation of their worth as humans. Mon spends a great deal of the film laying down indoors. Here, she is walking and her mobility registers as liberating, as it is for San. There’s no way to be a “good girl” and considering who impose those rules, who wants to be one anyway? Mon and San get to be human together, at least for a moment. Of course, Naruse warns us that we can’t take too much joy from this moment. Mon says she’ll probably return to visit her family again, despite the abuse she’ll likely have to endure again.