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April 10, 2010


yearning 1.jpg

Mikio Naruse - 1964
Toho Company 35mm film

In her study on the films of Mikio Naruse, Catherine Russell mentions Douglas Sirk a few times, primarily in discussion of the use of melodrama as social commentary, but also to provide academic validation for the discussion of the genre. Some of what Russell cites or discusses herself brings to mind a discussion on Sirk's version of Imitation of Life a couple of months ago. Yearning can probably be described as Naruse's most Sirkian film, one in which the forces of financial self interest and social conformity thwart true love. I could almost imagine the film recast with Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson in place of Hideko Takamine and Yuzo Kayama.

Takamine plays Reiko, a youngish war widow who runs a small grocery store. The grocery store is losing business to the new supermarket in town that not only sells food at a much lower price, but also is making its mark as the one stop shopping center. The grocery store has provided the financial support for Reiko's late husband's family. The younger brother, Koji, has little interest in running the grocery store founded by his late brother, or in getting any kind of traditional job for that matter. He does have great interest in the woman he has been in love with since childhood, in spite of the twelve year age difference. Meanwhile, Koji's mother and two sisters are anxious to have Reiko out of the house so they can sell out to another large supermarket that is offering Koji the position of manager. Koji begs off stating that Reiko would be much more qualified, with the reply that Reiko would certainly be offered a position, as an employee.

As Russell points out, the Jaoanese title for translates as "confusion". The film is also about the tenuous family relationships in Japan where the in-law of a dead husband has less say than the in-law of a live wife. Reiko, who has spent the years following World War II literal rebuilding the little grocery store herself, and keeping herself unavailable to potential suitors because of her love of her husband, feels conflicted about her feelings towards Koji. Koji is torn between the family obligations expected of him, and his affection for Reiko. Even Koji's mother realizes that the family owes a debt to Reiko, as it is implied that it was Reiko who financially supported the family while they were out in the country during the war. Only Koji's well coifed sisters feel no sense of obligation to Reiko, with their own financial well being as the only concern.

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Reiko and Koji attempt to navigate their way through a new Japan, where the deprivations of the war years are barely remembered. Koji is introduced, angry at what he sees as the waste of food displayed at an egg eating contest held in a bar. Shifts in the sense of propriety is personified by future Bond girl, Mie Hama, as a young woman with a relationship with Koji could bear the description of friends with benefits. Both Reiko and Koji are too idealistic to fit into a Japan that is a meld of the worst of the worst traditions and new freedoms.

While the writing I've come across regarding Naruse emphasizes the melodramatic aspects, the seriousness and the pessimism, it is as if the filmmaker, who began his career with slapstick comedy, was devoid of humor. Tain't so. There is a gentle humor to be enjoyed by those who keep their eyes open. In the second half of Yearning, Koji surprises Reiko by appearing on the train she has taken to rejoin her family. Naruse organized a series of shots with a regular pattern consisting of an exterior shot of the train, followed by a shot of Reiko in her seat attempting to keep her feelings to herself, followed by a shot of Koji sitting progressively closer to Reiko as the sequence continues. Koji exchanges magazines, shares a bag of oranges, smiles, and eventually sits across from Reiko until they spontaneously deboard at one of the many train stops.

From the couple of DVDs I've seen, as well as seeing Yearning theatrically has made me wonder how some other writers seem oblivious to Naruse's visual style. A constant in the three films seen recently has been the use of tracking shots of a couple or an individual. The shots are almost always composed with the background consisting of slanted lines. The slants are downward towards the viewer. The shots of the train in Yearning are composed with an upward slant, away from the camera. Naruse also makes use of square and rectangular patterns, framing the characters. Significantly, the pattern on the wall of Reiko's room, adjacent to where a portrait of her husband sits on a shelf, has a pattern suggesting ocean waves. While discussion of Naruse's consistency of themes has been repeated, there is also a consistent visual sensibility at work, most dramatically in a final series of traveling shots of Hideko Takamine running through the small mountain town.

Takamine and Kayama were slightly older than the characters they play in Yearning and almost the same age difference. It is worth noting that Kayama is the son of frequent Naruse star Ken Uehara, giving the film a certain extra continuity with Naruse's use actors who have appeared in several of his films. There were, to be certain, commercial considerations in casting Kayama. Toho probably was the most most conservative Japanese studio at the time Yearning was made. Naruse may have appeared to some to be old fashioned at a time when Nagisa Oshima and Susumi Hani were making waves, and in some cases working outside of the studio system. There is enough in Yearning to make me hope that Naruse's last films find their way to English subtitles release on DVD. There are parts of Yearning, as well as what Catherine Russell has written, that indicate that Naruse, like Hollywood peers such as Billy Wilder, George Cukor and Alfred Hitchcock, was ready to embrace at least some of the new freedom of cinematic expression.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at April 10, 2010 07:21 AM