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Tuesday, October 2, 2018
Mikio Naruse | 妻 (Tsuma) (Wife)
an act of disappearance
by Douglas Messerli
Toshiro Ide (screenplay, based on the novel by Fumiko Hayashi), Mikio Naruse (director) 妻 (Tsuma) (Wife) / 1953
The masterful Japanese filmmaker Mikio Naruse often deals with women at the edges of society— geishas, women trapped in abusive relationships—and with men married to their jobs and feeling frustrated with their lives.
His 1953 film, Wife contains all of these elements and more in its exploration of an unhappy couple, an everyday worker Nakagaa Toichi (Uehara Ken) and Toichi’s wife Mineko (Takamine Mieko). Their marriage is gradually deteriorating, Mineko being forced to do home sewing and renting out rooms to make ends meet. Toichi is clearly unhappy with both his low-paying job and his unhappy marriage, while Mineko has sacrificed nearly everything to being, as the film’s title emphasizes, a “wife,” which in this case means, given Naruse’s direction, a near endless prostration while serving and removing food, sewing, and, most importantly, accepting her husband’s silence and, later, his brief affair with a former secretary Fusako Sawara (Tanami Yatsuko)—the most banal of extra-marital relationships.
What’s made clear, although very subtly expressed, is that Mineko is the better business-person of the two (she does double-work as a household servant and a piecemeal sewer as well as renting out three rooms), and if only Toichi could allow her more possibilities—even an occasional movie which he attends with his secretary, or a dinner in a café where one of her renters works as a kind of geisha—their relationship might be restored. But theirs is a totally traditional Japanese marriage, wherein the wife has no role but to serve her husband, that permits no opening up of the very boundaries which also have caused Toichi to lose interest in his wife.
The other alternative, represented by two of her tenants, a husband and wife (the wife working at night as the geisha mentioned above), would be to simply separate, allowing both to live fuller lives. But, the second, obviously, given the mindsets of both Toichi and Mineko are totally inconceivable.
Mineko also rents to an artist, a single man frustrated by the lack of women in his life, but nonetheless a creative being who offers some small consolation to Mineko’s loneliness. And an independent woman friend, Sakurai Setsuko (Takasugi Sanae), who visits Mineko’s husband at his office. She also later rents out to a woman being kept by a wealthy industrialist, a kept-woman.
As film critic Brad Stevens has written, Naruse curtails nearly all of Mineko’s movements to the outer edges of the frame, even snipping out her few travels in space outside of the house:
Naruse’s meticulously organised patterns of imagery make it clear that the husband enjoys freedoms which, however compromised, are inaccessible to his spouse, even enabling him to have an affair with co-worker Fusako Sawara (Tanami Yatsuko). For most of the running time, camera movements (aside from a handful of minor reframings) are motivated by the husband, the most significant exception being a shot in which Mineko’s independent female friend…visits Toichi in his office, her passage from one end of this small room to another being followed by Naruse’s camera.
For the most part, such stylistic assertion of agency is unavailable to Mineko; as she walks around the house, her activities are observed by a stationary camera, and when she exits a shot, she is rarely granted enough liberty to pass through the edges of the frame, instead disappearing behind partitions located at the edges of the screen. When Mineko visits friends or relatives, Naruse usually cuts from one location to another, eliminating her journey in its entirety. It is only ten minutes from the film’s end, when Mineko decides to take decisive action by confronting her husband’s lover, that camera movements are determined by her.
Even if Toichi is also trapped in his loveless marriage, he, at least, has methods of transportation, by train, automobile, and bus, to take him away and apart from his claustrophobic relationship.
With his boss Toichi travels out of Tokyo and meets up, later, with his former secretary in Osaka. Mineko is more like a prisoner, allowed out only to get groceries and other necessary items. Whereas in most of Naruse’s films the women, even if unhappy and maltreated, move in the geisha and other worlds freely and openly, the wife, in this case, is chained to her dinner table which he transforms on evenings to a sweatshop workplace. Her only contact with the outside world is through her boarders, who, together, do not represent a totally healthy picture of the larger society.
If, finally, Mineko is determined to and successful in stopping her husband’s affair with Sawara, the couple simply return to their unhappy conventionality. There is no escape for this determinedly heterosexual couple, who cannot even live out their traditional sexual values. By film’s end, we realize the “wife” will never become anything else, just as the “husband” will never be able to fulfill his desires sexually or as a worker, a theme explored that same year in another film by Naruse.
Naruse might almost have described his excellent film No Exit, the play by Jean-Paul Sartre which premiered just 9 years earlier. In short, if the geisha and kept-women of Naruse’s world were abysmally treated, the role “wife” was even more demeaning in post-war Japan. At least the geisha, even at an age beyond her beauty, might still climb the stairs to some sense of possibility; the wife of Japanese culture basically was an act of disappearance.
Los Angeles, October 2, 2018