Run time: 74 min | Drama
Director: Mikio Naruse
Writers: Minoru Nakano, Mikio Naruse
Stars: Sachiko Chiba, Yuriko Hanabusa, Toshiko Itô
The first Japanese talkie to be shown in New York, it was greeted with a mixture of incomprehension and scorn by almost all the critics. Now it is regarded as a major film by one of the four major Japanese directors (the others being Ozu, Kurosawa, and Mizoguchi). A young woman visits her father, who had deserted his family for a geisha some years previously, with surprising results.
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This is a tender love story taking place about the time when the Japanese war machine was raping Nanking (Nanjing), enslaving Korean women, attacking the Philippines, and preparing to bomb Australia and America. These contrasts are startling as is the contrast that is in the lesson of the film. Naruse-san teaches us once again that the truth about a person resides not in the words and inferences spoken, rather in direct observation and understanding. Here we have a young women approaching the age of independence being raised by her mother who continually painted the absent father as an unfaithful woman chaser living with a woman of ill repute. The daughter wants to actually meet her father and she wonders why he left her and her mother. She trains to the remote village where the father lives with the infamous lady.
The actual meeting, first when the father and daughter view each other from a distance is the perfect technique Naruse-san used in other films, to the actual polite, respectful way the Japanese greet each other, is quite emotional and the viewer senses the love each has for the other, bridging the years of separation.
The daughter is quite surprised to learn that the so-called infamous woman is simply a very plain and loving farm lady with no special beauty nor male allure. She quite simply loves the man she lives with; she is a marvelous rose, something the man's wife was not.
As far as I know, the film is not available on DVD. I wish it were.
I have no use for melodrama dished out straight. This is because my stance is that even the most ordinary life on the planet is experienced as a deep personal drama, so dramatizing on top of that produces a ludicrous, myopic effect. As though a particular dramatic chain of events is somehow more revealing, more insightful about what it means to live, so needs to be magnified for us to notice.
What I'm looking for instead in a film like this is how deeply it is prepared to acknowledge the fabrication of its drama and contrivance. How far it can imagine the controls to go in any given situation and does it offer a glimpse of bare soul beyond them.
Unlike previous films by Naruse, this one is a welcome sight. The main idea is that we are set up to imagine the story to be a certain way, a father has abandoned wife and daughters to shack up with a geisha, so we assume he's a scoundrel, the mistress a scheming succubus, but when we finally travel to meet him, the situation turns out to be completely different. The story as we heard it from the mother, and is generally believed to be true in that circle, was a myopic (melodramatic) fabrication. The father turns out to be a very decent and caring family man.
So far this would make for powerful irony exposing unpredictable life beneath the organized tapestry of fictions, deceitful in their haste to imagine drama. The woman is not a geisha, which would have been the assigned melodramatic role, but a hard-working hair dresser striving to raise a family.
Since both these people are not who we believed were going to be, and since the sole reason the father was sought after in the first place was to fulfill his part in social circumstances, this begs the question. How much of anyone else we meet and believe to know in context of those circumstances, is really that person?
But there is another point that really elevates this in my eyes. There is no clue that the mother has calculated to deceive, which would have been another ordinary trope of melodrama. She's just a lonely, hopelessly romantic creature. She spends her time writing poetry, funneling life she does not live into idle ruminations about living it. The intention I believe is to counterpoint this against the father's main activity: prospecting for gold in the hills, perhaps equally futile time spent but hard work spending it.
Melodrama about the dissolution of the same is what we have, marvelously so. What Naruse doesn't seem to notice, is that he replaces this with another melodrama in this second family that is the reverse of the first. Cessation is only half-accomplished but for the time this is enough.
A very dear film by the young Naruse Mikio, and the theme is what it so often is in the great Japanese cinema of the 1930s, 40s and 50s: the heart wants what it wants. The lovely daughter is played by Chiba Sachiko, and she would later marry Naruse. The wonderful Japanese actor Maruyama Sadao plays the father. Maruyama would later be exterminated in the U.S. terror bombing of Hiroshima.