Thursday, March 08, 2012

Lives Woven in Green

Financial disaster is such a consistent subject for Mikio Naruse that I almost wanted to laugh when Masayuki Mori, in 1960's Daughters, Wives, and a Mother (娘妻母), loses a fortune. Mori's just one of a number of stars in this ensemble film, financial disaster in this case used to illustrate how practical concerns can initiate fundamental changes in how people regard each other almost against their will. It's a beautiful movie about the relationship between practical and emotional survival and how suddenly, subtly, and brutally the landscape of affection can change for a group of people.

There are two leading ladies in this film, Hideko Takamine and Setsuko Hara. Ten years after she'd made a name for herself in Japanese cinema has the eternal virgin, Hara's fresh and open demeanour has been tempered by an extreme tension. Looking at her, one supposes she must grind her teeth when she sleeps.

Now it doesn't seem strange that she retired from acting shortly after this and claimed never to have enjoyed acting. I think what I'm seeing is Hara's own personality coming through, but what I'm seeing is certainly appropriate for the character she plays, Sanae, a recently widowed woman who returns to her large family of windowed mother, two sisters, two brothers, two brothers in law and two sisters in law. As the title suggests, and as Naruse's career would lead one to expect, the movie's centred on the women. The ball of tension gets rolling when everyone finds out that Sanae's been left a million yen by her deceased husband. Soon, everyone wants to borrow money.

This in itself weirds the patterns of affection among the family. Then when Hara lends a substantial sum to Mori's character who loses not only that money but also the family home because he'd mortgaged it to pay for an investment that turned out to be a scam, an intensely strained scene of the family ensues where everyone simultaneously talks about how much of the home each person is entitled to while quietly everyone begins packing and shifting parcels of affection they have for one another. Mori's wife, played by Takamine, has lived in the house with her child and has been accepted as part of the family, but suddenly finds her voice isn't welcome in the discussion. The mother, a respected matriarch paid tribute to recently at her birthday party, is now discussed, to Sanae's horror, as a responsibility someone needs to shoulder.

Sanae's horrified by this unvarnished discussion, but finds her mother's fate weighs on her mind when she has to choose between marrying a very young Tatsuya Nakadai and an old, rich, tea ceremony expert.

Daughters, Wives, and a Mother came out the same year as Naruse's When a Woman Ascends the Stairs and isn't quite as effective as that film, which benefited by contrast from the anchor of a single, central character. But Daughters, Wives, and a Mother is certainly good, a melancholy meditation on just how fragile human connexions are.

It's also the first colour Naruse movie I've seen, though its palette actually gives it a more muted quality than his black and white films. When Kurosawa, reluctant to switch to colour, remarked how colour films looked like gaudy post cards, he couldn't have been thinking of this film, which is so consistent in its use of greyish greens and yellows, with only the occasional pale pink shirt or bright red prop, it looks almost like it's projected on an olive.

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