Monday, April 25, 2011

Wife! Be Like a Rose!

This wonderfully titled 1935 near-masterpiece of tragic longings, directed by the oft-overlooked "third" master of classic Japanese cinema Mikio Naruse, has the grand distinction of being the first ever Japanese sound film to be commercially released in the US.  This initial release (in 1937 and under the retitled name of its protagonist Kimiko) was met with an overwhelming critical disdain.  The film was called plodding and disorganized (though Mark van Doren in The Nation would hail the film as a powerful work of cinematic humanism and call it "one of the most moving films I know."), but I am here to tell you they (except for the precognitive Mr. van Doren) were wrong - dead wrong.

This is the story of Mikio, a young Japanese woman who lives in that strange world between generations, between cultures.  As was true at the time of many Japanese women Mikio's age (she is about twenty in the story) at this time of a burgeoning new society that was just then opening its proverbial doors to the west, old tradition clashed with this newer, freer society.  Dressed, as was the norm, in traditional clothes in the evening - kimono and such - but in more modern western clothing (somewhat reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich's then contemporary attire) during her days as a professional working women - something that was not the norm (and in fact was quite shocking at the time and would actually a few years later become completely forbidden as traditionalist ways were to become resurrected during Japan's imperialistic uprisings that would eventually lead to war).  

This juxtaposition of ideas - old vs. new, country vs. city, good vs. evil - would become a recurring factor in Naruse's oeuvre throughout the years.  Another recurring factor of Naruse's cinema would be that of the unfortunate woman whom tragedy would regularly make a fool of - but a woman who would make whatever she could out of these tragic circumstances.  Mikio is just this kind of strong woman character that Naruse would become famous (well, sort of famous) for championing.

Mikio, played both traditionally and modernly by the stunning actress Sachiko Chiba (the director's fiancee at the time, this would be the second of six films she would do for Naruse within a two year period), is burdened at home by a drunken, depressed mother (drinking sake and writing poetry all day) and burdened from afar by her estranged, missing father (her mother's poetry, published in the local newspaper, is nothing more than a series of lovelorn pleas to her absent husband).  Mikio wishes to marry but in order to do that (as Japanese culture insisted on at the time) she must find her father and bring him back home to act as go-between with her fiancee's family.  When Mikio tracks down her awol father, she finds he has a whole other life and a whole other family.

Naruse's use of intricate (and often subtly manipulative) camerawork combined with Sachiko's natural beauty and poise (as well as Naruse's use of western movie references - Mikio and her father play a scene out of Capra's It Happened One Night while trying to hail a cab) make Wife! Be Like a Rose! a most powerful melodrama indeed.  The final scene, in which Mikio realizes she will not (nor should she) get her so desired fairy tale resolution, is a work of art in and of itself.  Naruse's use of sudden shift changes and close-ups and the way he can make a scene pop off the screen in a way (this style already evident in the director's silent work) merely add to the already intense emotions running through the air between all the actors concerned.

In Noël Burch's 1979 book "To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema" he does what pretty much only Mark van Doren had done back in 1937, and praises the film as an early masterpiece of Japanese cinema.  Perhaps this has helped the film's reputation somewhat but lo and behold, there is still no DVD release of the film anywhere on the whole goddamned planet.  I suppose, especially considering the director's third class status beneath Ozu and Mizoguchi, we should just be glad at Criterion's release of Naruse five remaining silents (as part of their great Eclipse series) and leave it at that.  Personally I don't want to leave it at that and I am still hoping for a DVD (preferably through the aforementioned Criterion series) release sometime during my lifetime.

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