5 December 2010 | BrianDanaCamp
YEARNING – Incisive drama of postwar Japan from Mikio Naruse
I saw YEARNING (MIDARERU, 1964) at a screening at New York's Asia Society on Dec. 3, 2010. It's only the second film by Mikio Naruse that I've seen, but I'm eager to see more. (The first was WHEN A WOMAN ASCENDS THE STAIRS, 1960, seen on Criterion DVD earlier this year.) YEARNING is a quiet but emotionally honest drama about Reiko, a war widow who has given her best years to her late husband's family, managing their grocery shop while Koji, her younger, handsome brother-in-law, gambles, drinks and loafs. The family plots to tear down the shop and build a supermarket in its place, pushing Reiko out of the top position. Koji protests. When he decides to take a stand, on more than one front, it changes his relationship to Reiko and forces her to make a life-changing decision.
Naruse shoots in a spare, classical style with sync-sound recording, both on location and in the studio, and gets strong performances out of the entire cast. Yuzo Kayama, whom I know primarily from period movies like SANJURO, CHUSHINGURA and SWORD OF DOOM, plays Koji as a spoiled son and brother who begins to mature before our eyes. Hideko Takamine plays the still-beautiful 30-something widow whose self-effacing front hides her own submerged desires. She never acts on her own behalf, but just dutifully runs the shop and waits for Koji to grow up. No matter what is happening in her heart, she simply won't ask for anything or accept it when it's offered. Even when she makes her big move midway through the film, it's only because she thinks it will help Koji. Reiko resembles an Ozu heroine, while Keiko, the lead character in WHEN A WOMAN, also played by Takamine, was more like a Mizoguchi heroine. The film was shot in widescreen black-and-white and the action is set mostly in a small rural town far from Tokyo where a new supermarket loudly promotes itself and its cheaper prices, causing hardship for the small shopkeepers like Reiko. (This is why Koji's family wants to expand the store—to compete.) Later, the film stays with Reiko on a train ride for a long stretch, wrapping up in a small, picturesque resort town.
YEARNING is not as complex or as layered as WHEN A WOMAN, and Takamine's character was more outspoken and less self-effacing in that film. But it's still a beautiful, moving Japanese drama, with an insistent subtext about the lingering effects of the war on Japanese families some 20 years later.
Mie Hama, the petite beauty who played Kissy Suzuki, the Japanese agent who marries James Bond in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967), appears in two memorable scenes as Koji's cute and fickle young bedmate who chews gum (and spits it out on the floor of the shop) and boasts a beauty shop hairdo like American teenage girls were wearing at the time. She's quite keyed into her own desires in a way that Reiko can only envy. When she was on screen, I kind of wished the movie would stay with her for a while.
The abrupt ending may leave some viewers unsatisfied. I would have preferred some kind of epilogue, like the final scene of WHEN A WOMAN. However, I've learned to accept that with certain filmmakers like Naruse, one should take the ending on faith, even if you don't get the reason for it right away.