Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Wife


Thanks to the downloading magic of Karagarga (the most essential movie site on the net), I've been blessed over the past few years to see more than half of the surviving 60-plus works of Japanese director Mikio Naruse. Meshi (1951) is generally considered to be the director's "return-to-form" movie, after two periods of drift and underachievement: caused by Pacific War restrictions; and by post-war US Occupation restrictions. The problems of wartime production are obvious regarding material and message (although these problems did not keep anti-war masterpieces such as Kinoshita's Army [1944] and Mizoguchi's 47 Ronin [1941-42] from being made, accomplishments absolutely impossible within wartime Hollywood). Yet during the war Naruse was able to create the lovely comedy Hideko the Bus Conductress (1941) featuring the teenage Hideko Takamine, the dark and moving The Whole Family Works (1939), and the ceremonial masterpiece Way of Drama (1944), with the heroically beautiful Isuzu Yamada. Naruse's Occupation output has an especially mediocre reputation, lumped by many (including Naruse's best English-language critic Catherine Russell) under the limiting category of kitsch.

The movies from 1946 - 1951 are certainly more open to the swirls of outside influence (ostensibly of a democratic nature) than anything he made before or after, and have thus taken on the baggage of being impersonal assignments taken until Douglas MacArthur and Christian band found some other backward non-white non-Western civilization to improve. Yet Naruse's movies under Occupation are among the most human and interesting ever made: Urashima Taro (1946) and Both You and I (1946) are insanely earnest in their worship of "the people and democracy" and in their loathing of zaibatsu culture; the neo-realist noir romance The Angry Street (1950); the beautiful White Beast (1950), embracing the lost women of Occupation; and my favorite Spring Awakens (1947).

If one sees the works in order, the changes within Meshi, hinted at in Naruse's previous movie Dancing Girl (1951), are startling, and I was at first resistant to them. The look is slicker and more processed, almost at a Hollywood level, getting between us and the characters (at first) in a way not to be felt in the Occupation movies. The characters are more typed, less detailed and grounded than we are used to -- they are more like emotional motifs in an anti-connubial music piece. The stars are bigger. (Setsuko Hara was the biggest female star in 1951 Japan.) The script is based on a best-selling prestige novel by the great Fumiko Hayashi. (Naruse's first of many uses of her.)

If the 1950s Douglas Sirk "triumphed" over the slickness of the woman's picture genre and the popular soapy novels usually at its base, then Meshi pre-Sirks Sirk. As with most movies from the Hollywood (born German) director, Meshi has a single consciousness: Hara's. Her loathing of the state of marriage is here (at first) an act of triumph and freedom. She may be trapped within a legal institution, but she is in no way stranded within the torture chambers of her own imagination as are the wives of Dreyer, Mizoguchi, Ophuls, Cassavetes and Hitchcock. Hara creates and re-creates the meaning around her. She throws out the fetching young niece who has come to visit, and who has enchanted Hara's husband. Hara packs up and leaves for Tokyo. She opens the door to an affair with her old flame Kazuo (Hiroshi Nihonyanagi, the same actor she marries in Early Summer). She writes a farewell letter to her husband, decides not to mail it, and tears it to pieces at the end. In control all the way, she is moved purely by her own cares. By leaving the marriage and returning -- her hold over it and her husband becomes near total: a death grip; although the last we see of her, she doesn't seem too thrilled with what she now controls. And neither are we, nor Naruse, thrilled with our heroine. Meshi rejects more than it embraces what has been ignited in the wife by Japan's now ego-based, consumer culture.

Hara's emotional music has changed sharply from earlier in 1951, where she was not the central consciousness of Ozu's Early Summer.



In Meshi, despite the distaste for her husband and their marriage, her pity for him comes through. The husband is lost without her and always would be. Naruse captures the heart of the problem: one is never in so much marital danger as when one feels closest to the loved one. That is when the devils seem to have their hour. And hawks steal something living from the gambol on the field.

She knows this and her return to him is an act of love and triumph over her own "happiness." (Has the awkwardness between two people who live together, two married people, been captured better than Meshi's scenes of "reuniting"?) Making another human being happy is not the worst basis for a life, even if her eyes at the end suggest otherwise.