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When a retrospective of films directed by Mikio Naruse played in my area a short while ago, I saw quite a few of them in a short span of time, including many of the ones considered classics -- "Repast," "Floating Clouds," "When a Woman Ascends the Stairs," and so on. While I enjoyed them all, some of the plots and characters of the films became muddled in my mind because of the compressed time frame in which I saw them.
Yet parts of this family drama, "Inazuma" ("Lightning"), keep coming back to me months afterward. I think it's because the story resonates so closely with my experience -- that of a young adult trying to make his or her way in the world while struggling with the simultaneous tug and repulsion of one's blood relations. The movie realistically portrays the frustration and misery that can occur within a family under adverse circumstances. But it contains a tinge of hopefulness as well.
Most of us, at one time or another, have become disgusted with members of our family and have felt like running away from them rather than dealing with them and their attendant obligations. "Familiarity breeds contempt," the saying goes. At such times we might even feel more comfortable associating with strangers than with our own kin. That pretty well describes the feelings of Hideko Takamine's character, Kiyoko, during this film. She is the youngest of four adult siblings, each fathered by a different man by their now graying, hapless mother. As the story progresses, Kiyoko becomes increasingly frustrated at her flawed siblings and their constant bickering, begging, and self-pity until she decides she just can't stand them anymore and moves across town in search of a more tranquil domestic life. And for a while she seems to find it.
This probably doesn't sound like a pleasant film to watch, and indeed much of the movie is one agonizing episode after another for Kiyoko. But these episodes often play out in humorous fashion. And the sublime conclusion makes this film especially memorable. Without being too specific, I will say that the ending sequence, in which Kiyoko and her mother have it out with each other, is a masterfully filmed composition of acting, dialogue, and music. It's stirring on many levels. One part of that scene, in which Takamine gazes out her window to the house next door, keeps returning to my mind week after week.
"Lightning" is an emotionally true and ultimately quite satisfying portrayal of an young woman's search for personal happiness in the midst of familial conflict. Much of the credit should go to Takamine's expressive acting, Naruse's skillful intercutting, and Fumiko Hayashi's deftly written story. This is the second of Naruse's films based on stories by Hayashi ("Meshi," a.k.a. "Repast," was the first), and fortunately there would be four more: "Tsuma" ("Wife"), "Bangiku" ("Late Chrysanthemums"), "Ukigumo" ("Floating Clouds"), and "Hourou-ki" ("A Wanderer's Notebook"). I haven't seen "Wife," but the others are all worth seeing, in my opinion. For now, though, "Lightning" is the one I regard with the most affection.
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