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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Musume tsuma haha a/k/a (literally) Daughter(s), Wife, Mother (Mikio
An idiosyncratic mixture of acerbic comedy, family chronicle and romance. Totally unheralded -- but if not a masterpiece, awfully close.
This film features a large extended family (and associates) even more extensive than the one portrayed by Ozu in "End of Summer". The central character is Setsuko Hara -- a poised middle-aged woman, whose wealthy (and prestigious) husband dies at the outset of the action, leaving her widowed but holding the proceeds of a million yen insurance policy. Being childless, her former in-laws have no objection to her return to her own family.
Although Hara's widowed mother is still alive (living in a wonderfully large house on the outskirts of Tokyo), the household is dominated by the eldest son of the family (Masayuki Mori). His wife (played by an unusually subdued Hideko Takamine) is generally well-meaning but too self-effacing (her only strong admonitions are to urge her husband to loan money to her uncle's troubled business). Also in the house are a couple of children and one of Hara's little sisters (played by the irrepressible Reiko Dan). There are two other married siblings not in residence -- a sister (living with hen-pecked husband Tatsuya Nakadai and his dragon-lady mother Haruko Sugimura) and a little brother (an advertising photographer).
Hara insists on moving into the smallest room in the house (the former maid's room) and paying disproportionate rent -- and she lets her siblings persuade her to lend them most of her insurance money. Meanwhile, a matchmaking family friend is trying to arrange a re-marriage with a well-off, well-born older man (harmlessly dotty and with no sex appeal -- played by an unusually funny Ken Uehara). Hara is not, however, disturbed by any of this. At first, numb and oblivious, her life takes a radical turn when she goes on an excursion with her little brother (and his wife) to the vinery of a client. The heir of this thriving family business (Akira Takarada -- best known as the romantic gloomy young scientist in "Godzilla") is immediately smitten by Hara -- and she with him (despite being more than 10 years older than he is).
As Hara's would-be swain takes to making more frequent visits to Tokyo (and actually _kissing_ Hara -- on the lips), the business belonging to "Uncle" (played by an increasingly seedy Daisuke Kato) is going down the tubes fast, Haruko Sugimura is demanding that she be put in an old people's home (after her son and daughter in law suggest they want to move into their own apartment), and her little brother's wife takes off (putting him in his place after some misbehavior by taking a long trip on her own -- and letting his stew). Then the house of cards falls down -- Kato's business goes bust -- and it turns out Mori has mortgaged (without permission) the jointly-owned family home and invested the money in the failed business (along with half of Hara's insurance proceeds).
Hara decides to marry the noble ninny (Uehara) after all -- as he has promised to let her mother stay with them (he's an orphan, after all). But now, she needs to break up with Takarada. She tells him, after a farewell dance at a swank nightclub, "thank you forever for bringing this half-dead person back to life -- but your parents want you to marry a young wife, who can bring you children -- and you must do this" (paraphrase). As it turns out, Hara's mother can't bear the thought of moving into the kind of ritzy milieu that Hara will be living in -- and plans to move into an old people's home (since her son and daughter will be moving into a tiny house -- after the looming sale of the family home). Takamine finally comes into her own -- intercepting the letter, and convincing both Hara and her mother-in-law that the mother should come live with her family, to help make amends for their past bad behavior.
There is an awful lot of plot to be gotten through in this long (for Naruse) film that clocks in at over two hours. Yet, as eventful and melodramatic as this plot sounds on paper, the film flows effortlessly, with an amazing illusion of naturalness. (This film reminded me a good deal of the old BBC "Pallisers" series). The highlight of the film is Setsuko Hara -- in what may be her sweetest and most radiant performance. It looks like someone involved with this film had discovered Audrey Hepburn -- and the denouement of her story here is rather like "Roman Holiday" -- with the roles reversed.
Despite the fact that I was able to watch this only in the form of a nth generation copy of an ancient Hong Kong TV broadcast (with decent but very hard to read subtitles -- and horrible sound), this was one of my biggest "cinematic" treats of recent months. I have seen other Naruse films that might be even greater on a purely theoretical basis -- but none that I enjoyed more. After having seen my 17th Naruse film, I am convinced that he was Japan's second best golden age director (after Ozu) and a far more skilled and varied artist than the stereotype -- pessimistic purveyor of cinematic soap operas.
I previously wrote:
The heir of this thriving family business (Akira Takarada -- best known as the romantic gloomy young scientist in "Godzilla") is immediately smitten by Hara -- and she with him (despite being more than 10 years older than he is).
On further consideration, I have determined that the actor playing the part of Setsuko's heart throb is Tatsuya Nakadai (who was NOT in Godzilla). The rest of the sentence remains true, as corrected.
As to who Akira Takarada plays, I would guess (based on a shot from Godzilla) that he plays Hara's younger brother (the photographer).
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