In his 2005 piece on Naruse Mikio, film critic and author Chris Fujiwara made the obvious but essential point that "[Naruse's] female figures are always doubled. For every Naruse heroine there is another woman, her rival or mirror image, whom she finds waiting when she turns a new corner, who legitimately possesses the man to whom the heroine has at best a moral or sentimental claim, or who stands as a living reproach to the heroine." One could say that the Japanese master's 1935 film, Wife! Be Like a Rose! ( Tsuma yo bara no yo ni), contains two sets of the aforementioned women, all devoted to the same man -- not a particularly intelligent, successful or handsome man, but, in a patriarchal society, a man nonetheless.
The film's opening montage however forecasts something different than a domestic drama. Set to the kind of enterprising score usually heard in newsreels, we are initially greeted with early morning shots of a lively city (Tokyo) brimming with people in business attire. But as soon as you half expect a Walter Cronkite-type voice to start narrating the events, Naruse cuts to a table inside a spacious yet empty restaurant. A professional woman is seen writing on a piece of paper. It appears that she's a regular, as a waiter casually inquires about her love life. She leaves the domain in an almost Chaplin-esque fashion, and then meets her white-collar boyfriend (Okawa Heihachiro) who's waiting for her at a street corner. They quarrel like young lovers; she teases him about their impending marriage. A tracking-shot follows the duo on a sidewalk. Traces of golden-era Hollywood? You bet.
The next time we come across the very modern and sexy Kimiko (Chiba Sachiko), she's at home and is barely recognizable in a traditional kimono. Her melancholic mother, Etsuko (Ito Tomoko), who exudes bourgeois sensibilities, is a teacher and a haiku poetess. We discover that she still yearns for her long-estranged husband, Shunsaku (Maruyama Sadao), now living in a mountain village in Nagano with a former geisha. The casually topical conversation Kimiko shares with her well-settled uncle (Fujiwara Kamatari) serves as an exposition of sorts. Even without knowing much about her father's new life, Kimiko mentions how he was treated by her mother while they were together, though she still wants to see him return. The uncle, however, simply abhors Shunsaku's sinful existence and would like him to fulfill his duties as a husband and a father. And it isn't long that Kimiko is seen packing for her trip to the village in order to persuade her father to come back home.
Naruse was born to a poor family in 1905. The death of his parents forced him to grow up fast; at the age of 15 he joined Shochiko as a prop assistant ("I had to immediately become an adult," Naruse has said, "it was the darkest period of my life"). After a brief directorial stint for Japan's oldest movie studio, to which Ozu dedicated his career, Naruse moved to P.C.L. in 1935, which soon merged into Toho, the studio most of his great films belong to. Like early-Ozu, Naruse's specialty was a genre known as shomin-geki, "home movies" about the lower middle or salaried classes. It's been said that Naruse spent most of his life living alone, visiting the same old shabby pubs and eateries, where he developed a certain kinship with the society's marginalized, especially women, who kept on struggling for their survival. Thus Naruse's proud, willful heroines, often geishas or widows confined in one way or another, "retain the dignity of evaluating their acts to the end, and the persistence of their search for happiness, despite accumulating evidence of its nonexistence, becomes the terrifying statement of all of Naruse's work" (Audie Bock). And this is where Naruse's differ from self-sacrificing Mizoguchi heroines, though the differing approaches by the duo also plays a hand.
Once Kimiko reaches her destination, she doesn't find the retired geisha, Oyuki (Hanabusa Yuriko), to be the money-grubbing @%*@! she expected, but rather a gentle, down-to-earth human being who simply wants her family to live in peace, which requires Shunsaku's presence. Kimiko also discovers that the 20 or 30 yen she and her mother intermittently received from her father were in fact sent by Oyuki, who, instead of sending her own daughter (Horikoshi Setsuko) to school, chose to help the family she felt she'd wronged. It turns out that Shunsaku himself is being supported by the income Oyuki and her daughter generate. ("[Naruse's] cinema echoes with sums and salaries, tots and computations; all is commodity, and landlords, merchants, beggars and usurers are forever arriving to collect. Even in the comparatively well-off world of some of his late domestic dramas, money concerns frequently impinge" [James Quandt].)
Some might be surprised to learn that Wife! Be Like a Rose! was the first Japanese talkie to be released in the U.S. (in 1937, about two years after its premiere; in Japan the film won Kinema Jumpo magazines top annual prize). Those who've now seen the film are probably aware of the fact that it received dismissive reviews stateside. I prefer not to emphasize this issue too much, as this wasn't the first masterpiece to be treated in such a manner, and certainly won't be the last. Having said that, it's hard to come to grips with Variety's remark that "Jap femmes are okay for looks." Well, they must be because "Yaruse Nakio" (Naruse's nickname at Toho, which roughly translates as "Mr. Sadness" or "The Inconsolable") married the star, Chiba Sachiko, though that didn't last very long. Whether it had something to do with his disposition, I'm not sure, but the great Takamine Hideko, who did about 17 films with Naruse, once asked the modernist master how she should approach a role: "It'll be over before you know it," out came the reply.
Wife! Be Like a Rose! is "lighter" (look for the homage to Capra's It Happened One Night ) and less emotionally reserved than the other "pessimistic" Naruse efforts I've seen so far, most of them belong to his second great phase, the fifties (e.g. Repast , Lightning , Floating Clouds , Flowing ). Considering the fluent rhythm and the temperament, it appears that the master must've been in full-control of his process from very early on. The editing is sharp but it doesn't draw attention to itself (when Kurosawa, a onetime Naruse assistant, compared his cinema to "a deep river with a quiet surface disguising a fast-raging current underneath," he was specifically referring to his editing style). Naruse's use of space is also noteworthy, an aspect which truly makes its mark in his latter scope films (especially When a Woman Ascends the Stairs , which is perhaps one of his most widely seen efforts by now). Also, midscene, Naruse often cuts to the exteriors, as if acknowledging the presence of the outside world. "From the youngest age, I have thought that the world we live in betrays us," Naruse once said. "This thought remains with me."