Japan (1964) Dir. Mikio Naruse
In 1960’s Japanese cinema Godzilla was regularly levelling Tokyo, Kurosawa was redefining the Samurai movie and Seijun Suzuki was unleashing esoteric gangster films onto the world, yet old masters such as Yasujiro Ozu and Mikio Naruse were still delighting audiences with their gentle social dramas.
The prolific Naruse’s exploration of a changing society and the clash between old and new revolves around the small Morita family store in Tokyo, run tirelessly by Reiko (Hideko Takamine), the widow of soldier killed during the war, just a few months into their marriage.
Reiko has stayed with the Morita family for 18 years living with her mother-in-law Shizu (Aiko Mimasu) and younger brother-in-law Koji (Yûzô Kayama). Their livelihood is threatened by a new supermarket opening nearby selling the same products much cheaper, prompting the family to rebuild their shop as a supermarket to compete, but this would mean pushing Reiko out of the picture.
Koji however is reluctant to take the top position believing Reiko deserves it more but his sisters, Hisako (Mitsuko Kusabue) and Takako (Yumi Shirakawa), are keen for Reiko to remarry and move on. Koji resents this talk for one simple reason – he is in love with Reiko.
This is my first time watching a Naruse film and while this comes in the twilight of his illustrious 30 plus year career, even I can tell my viewing pleasure is in the hands of a master. A soppy romantic drama this is not but that doesn’t mean Naruse isn’t capable of squeezing some raw emotion out of this superficially simpering premise.
Where Ozu is rather sedate, Naruse, at least in this film, has more of an edge and builds to a powerful and stirring climax, ending with a haunting closing shot of Reiko’s face. The script, by Takamine’s husband Zenzo Matsuyama, continually puts Reiko at conflict with herself, ostensibly “damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t” through no fault of her own.
Similar to Alice Cooper’s I’m Eighteen (“I’m a boy and I’m a man”) Reiko is at a paradoxical crossroads in her life – she considers herself too old at 38 for Koji yet declares herself young enough to restart her life elsewhere. Reiko, much like Ozu’s heroines, is a modern woman being true to the Japanese tradition, staying with the store to honour her late husband but won’t remarry for the same reason.
It is with some irony that the rise of the supermarket and its laying waste to small stores is a symbolic forewarning for Reiko of the changes that await her when the reality is this is still a common scenario over 50 years later. The Morita store is not alone in losing trade, with one storeowner committing suicide when his business grinds to a halt. Reiko has her old regulars but younger customers gravitate towards the cheaper alternative.
True to Japanese nature Reiko puts on a brave face but the pressure is on when the family supermarket plan is concocted and suddenly she doesn’t feel appreciated for her years of selfless service to the store by the Morita women. Koji’s confession adds to Reiko’s discomfort, petrified by the potential scandal their union would create, causing her to leave Tokyo and return to her home town.
From this point on the tone should be tense and fraught but Naruse instead lightens the mood with some gentle frivolity, beginning with the awkward moments in the store between Reiko and Koji and ending with their train journey to the country. Through simple glances, well timed near misses and deliberate but polite attempts to ignore each other, we almost enter into Capra-esque comedy territory but with more decorum.
As alluded to earlier a happy ending doesn’t await our heroine but we suspect Reiko wasn’t travelling on a path of happiness anyway. It may seem tragic but there is an air of inevitability about the conclusion through Naruse’s masterful toying with the audience, dangling a carrot of contentment before us only to snatch it away with each passing development.
One thing Yearning is not is bleak, as odd as that sounds. The aforementioned closing shot is a shattering and poignant tableau but there is too much energy and natural verve in the characters for this to be a morbid experience. Naruse wants to manipulate our emotions but he doesn’t want to depress us – he just wants us to feel, which he accomplishes with gusto.
Moods are also created visually, through strategically placed static cameras or the subtle use of shadow. When Reiko stands in her quiet shop it seems to echo her singular status within the family, with the goods on display being all she has for company, the only light coming from the outside in. The train journey later in the film is full of beautifully framed shots, each one telling a different story.
Arguably the jewel in the film’s crown is Naruse’s favourite leading lady Hideko Takamine. A former child star who enjoyed a fifty year career, Takamine is a captivating screen presence and a supreme talent. She is a delicate flower with iron petals that radiates warmth and grace, yet can send shivers down your spine with an expression of heartbreak and sadness, traits she employs to the fullest as Reiko.
Even at aged 40, Takamine barely looks older than her younger co-star Yûzô Kayama as Koji, yet they create some fun moments together when their characters are trying to avoid each other. Also in a small supporting role as Koji’s sleeping partner Ruriko is Mie Hama, James Bond’s Japanese wife in You Only Live Twice.
Where Yearning ranks as one of Naruse’s finest films I have yet to discover but as a starting point I fear I have picked a tough act to follow. Having been absorbed by this wonderfully understated yet devastating tale of old meets new bolstered by a superb lead performance, I am keen to see what else Naruse has to offer.