« Coffee Break | Main | Sound of the Mountain »

April 06, 2010


meshi 2.jpg

Mikio Naruse - 1951
Eureka! The Masters of Cinema Series Region 2 DVD

The upcoming series of Japanese films playing this weekend at the Starz Theater in Denver has provided the perfect impetus to see Mikio Naruse's available films on DVD. I've had both sets from Eureka! and the BFI but hadn't gotten around to seeing anything yet. The festival itself is notable for featuring four Naruse films, with Yearning and Lightning not available on English subtitled DVD, and Flowing available from Eureka! for those of use who disdain region coding. I will have to miss seeing When a Woman Ascends the Stairs theatrically due to a change of scheduling, but am more disappointed that I can't meet with David Desser, author of Eros Plus Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema. In addition to seeing three of the four films by Naruse, I will also be seeing House, a film heartily recommended by fellow bloggers Dennis Cozzalio and Bob Turnbull. I will also see, but might not write about, Millennium Actress, seen previously on DVD. I'm not big fan of anime, but after seeing Paprika theatrically three years ago, it seemed to me that I should revisit this film on a movie screen.

I have slowly been reading Catherine Russell's book on Naruse. An important point is that Naruse's films were made and marketed for a general audience in Japan. With the distances created by time, geography and culture, Russell's book has been quite helpful in knowing what to look for in those aspects of his films that might be misunderstood or passed over.

Given the meaning of the English language title, food is a significant part of the film. The opening scene is of a breakfast meal, Michiyo preparing breakfast for husband Hatsu, as well as a bowl of milk for her pet cat, Yuri. An older woman comes by, selling rice door to door in this older, run down area outside of Osaka. Michiyo comments that the rice she has prepared smells funny. For Hatsu, Michiyo's most important function is to provide him with his breakfast and dinners, with the frequent declaration that he is starving. Michiyo's high points outside of the house include a cup of coffee at a cafe, and rice cooked by her mother in Tokyo.

meshi 1.jpg

Taken from a novel by Fumiko Hayashi, the film chronicles Michiyo's discontent with married life. The "man of her dreams" barely converses with her, more involved with his newspaper in the morning. Married life consists of a routine of cooking, cleaning and other household chores. Michiyo and Hatsu show more feeling for each other when there is distance, when unseen by each other, but seen by the audience, the two laugh and smile during a telephone conversation. Whatever vestiges of affection the couple have are almost lost to boredom and routine.

Clothes are important markers of class or authority. Hatsu wears a relatively nice suit for his job at a brokerage, marked by his possession of some expensive looking two-tone shoes. Michiyo is usually dressed in a plain white blouse and solid skirt, contemporary but anonymous. A collision of styles is evident in one scene with four women - Michiyo, a neighbor in a traditional kimono, a woman who runs a small bar supported by a "patron", dressed in a more colorful kimono, and Hatsu's young neice, Satoko, in an outfit that might be described as futuristic in style. A neighborhood boy is first seen wearing a zoot suit. Michiyo frets about what she will wear for a reunion with some former classmates. Taking place in 1951, after the defeat of World War II, but a few years before the boom years, someone in the neighborhood has stolen shoes.

Hatsu's flirting with the young and pretty Satoko is mirrored by Michiyo's infatuation with her cousin, Kazuo. The film is about a balancing act between the traditional and the modern ways of being, with happiness seemingly understood by many of the main characters as being something always beyond reach due to money, societal expectations, or some other inner or outer force. The ending provides just enough ambiguity to suggest that while the grass might be greener on the other side, there might be something to appreciate with what one has, no matter how modest, or possibly that one is setting themselves up for disappointment by looking for more, be it love, money or simply some form of validation.

The final shot, which includes one woman stooping over a basin, doing laundry by hand, probably dissuaded a few young women from marriage, or least tossed out the romantic notions of a blissful future. The scenes shot on the streets of Osaka and Tokyo help give a portrait of a part of Japan during the years following World War II. One woman still hopes that her missing husband, perhaps a P.O.W., will return home. At a time when more Japanese women were by choice or circumstances having to support themselves, Satuko looks into being an office girl, while Machiyo toys with the idea of finding a job in Tokyo. Setsuko Hara's Michiyo doesn't suffer the way she does in a film by Ozu, or even Kurosawa's No Regrets for Our Youth. There is a certain amount of self-perspective when she tells Hatsu, played by Ken Uehara, that she has frittered away 2500 yen. Even when the characters revert to the familiarity of a life dictated by tradition, they find some small comfort in acknowledging the existence of other possibilities.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at April 6, 2010 12:35 AM