“Money is everything”: Naruse’s “Bangiku”

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The “Late Chrysanthemums” of the title of Naruse Mikio’s 1954 movie (“Bangiku” in Japanese, based on three 1948 stories by Hayashi Fumiko [whose fiction was also the source of Naruse’s 1955 “Floating Clouds”]) are four middle-aged former geishas, who had made it through the (Pacific) war. The one with the most screen time, the miserly Kin (Kinoshita and Ozu regular Sugimura Haruko), is a property speculator and money-lender. She goes around collecting rent. She retained some nostalgia for a married patron, Tabe (Uehara Ken, typecast as a seductive cad), who was also in the army in Manchuria and primps for his visit, only to find that he is there hoping to borrow money. As is her one-time lover, Seki (Miaka Bontaro), who tried to kill her in a failed “double suicide” (he cut his throat and stabbed her, for which he was rightly convicted of “attempted murder,” since Kin had not wanted to die then). Kin does not drink or gamble or go out except to collect rent (she has a deaf-mute serving girl (Sawamura Sonosuke) to buy groceries).

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Two of her former peers are widows, each with one feckless child. Tomi’s impudent daughter, Sachiko is marrying without consulting letting alone gaining approval of the match to an older, affluent man from her mother. Tamae’s son Kiyoshi (Koizumi Hiroshi) has never held down a long-run job (I think he has been a gigolo), is sponging on a woman old enough to be his mother, and is going off to Hokkaido for a new job. Both the alcoholic Tomi (Arima Ineko) and the sickly Tamae Hoskoawa Chikako) are in debt to Kin, and the fourth, Nobu (Sawaura Sonosuke), is running a small bar in property owned by Kin. Nobu (a character not the focus of any of the three Hayashi stories) lives with a husband and seems more content with her lot than the other three

Children, thus, are as unreliable as geisha patrons. None of the four women is happy, though the one making some money betting on bicycle races and playing Pachinko (I don’t know how anyone can turn a profit from the latter and the movie provides no enlightenment or any portrayal of playing it.) Tame works as a chambermaid, but is frequently incapacitated with migraines.

Though not holding any shot for very long, the camera never moves within a shot, interior or exterios (in contrast to the fluid camerawork of Mizoguchi and early Kurosawa). Saitô Ichirô’s music is innocuous, minimalist Japanese.

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Though the movie has its admirers (Dennis Schwartz considers it “emotionally gripping” and Keith Uhlich lauded it as “a film of unbridled riches.” I find it drab and boring and not showing much of interest about Japanese attempts to deal with either the war crimes or the devastation of firebombing (and nuclear weapon bombing) visited on Japan. Nor is there much in the way of female solidarity to celebrate. The movie was made after the end of US Occupation and censorship of the Japanese movie industry.

©2016, Stephen O. Muray

 

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