Naruse’s Midareru/Yearning

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I know that Naruse Mikio was trying to show the devaluation and exploitation of women in Japanese culture, but sometimes, watching Takamine Hideko absorb negligence or outright nastiness over and over and over in his films, I begin to wonder if he had a sadistic streak rather than sympathy or empathy for the plight of women in postwar Japan. In the 1964 instance of “Midareru” (“Yearning” is the English translation; “Turmoil” would be a better translation of the word), only her eyes wince at the unkindness of her “sisters” (sisters-in-law) Takako (Shirakawa Yumi) and Hisako (Kusabue Mitsuko), as they talk about marrying Reiko (Takamine) off or demoting her to being a servant.

Reiko was married to their brother for only six months before dying in combat in the Pacific War (WWII) and has been selflessly running the family store (her father-in-law is long dead, though I don’t think when, how, or where was specified in the movie), first rebuilding the business after the store was destroyed by US bombs. She has been running it for eighteen years as Koji (Kayama Yûzô {Red Beard], handsome son of Uehara Ken, who was often cast as a cad), who is now 25, refused to take on responsibility to run the family store. It is beleaguered by the opening nearby of a supermarket that is undercutting its prices to drive it (and other mom and pop stores) out of business.

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Koji stays out late pretty much every night, drinking and gambling (at mahjong). Though none of the characters suspects it, to me it was obvious from early on that he is in love with his brother’s widow, who is twelve years his senior and has been around the house most of his life. I want to offer him the advise to stop calling her “sister” if he wants to stimulate her thinking of him as a sexual possibility. She still loves her long dead husband and marrying a brother’s widow is not a Japanese custom, though constantly calling her “sister” tends to build an incest taboo.

The pressures of the wicked sisters-in law (more than a little reminiscent of Cinderella’s step-sisters or the very insensitive children of widows in Douglas Sirk movies of the 1950s), the supermarket competition, and some inkling that her presence is keeping Koji from getting married and running the store with a new wife make Reiko feel she must leave. “Mother”(-in-law) Mimasu Aiko frets about what is fair to her devoted daughter-in-law, but Reiko pre-empts her family by opting out on her own. All this is painfully (for her and at least for this viewer) and slowly built up through the first hour of the running time.

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The part of the movie I like best is the next half hour or so as she flees by night on a long-haul passenger train. (It is only then that Koji and the audience find out that Reiko and her mother-in-law met doing volunteer work in the war effort, so that Reiko met her husband through his mother.)

Love does not conquer all in Japanese movies… except in death, often (as here) a death that seem senseless to this alien observer. I guess I have a lower tolerance for noble suffering than many fans of “women’s pictures”; I think she should do something and grab a chance at happiness (as I do in Sirk movies).

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

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