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This is the story of Mama, a.k.a. Keiko, a middle-aged bar hostess who must choose to either get married or buy a bar of her own. Her family hounds her for money, her customers for her attention, and she is continually in debt. The life of a bar hostess is examined as well as the way in which the system traps and sometimes kills those in it. Written by
Emotionally Brutal Look at a Bar Hostess' Desultory Life from Another Japanese Film Master
Just as Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu seemed destined to be recognized as the troika of classic Japanese cinematic masters, here comes the work of a filmmaker who has been under the radar to Westerners all these years, Mikio Naruse. The Criterion Collection is giving Naruse his due with the release of his provocatively titled 1960 melodrama, a fine piece of work that strikes me as a cross between Ozu's elliptical narrative style and deliberate pacing and Douglas Sirk's sense of Baroque-level dramatic sensibilities.
Sharply written by Ryuzo Kikushima, the net result is a clear-eyed yet humanistic glimpse into the after-hours bar scene in post-WWII Tokyo's Ginza district with the primary focus on Keiko, a hostess to whom colleagues refer affectionately as "Mama". Her existence is a daily struggle as she depends on her companion-seeking businessman clients to finance the bar in which she works, and concurrently, confronts the fear of aging in a highly competitive field, all the while standing on her high moral ground to avoid the unsavory pitfalls of others in her profession. Although she is barely in her thirties, she feels pressured to make an imminent choice between opening her own bar and getting married for security. Even more than Ozu, arguably the most sensitive of Japan's film-making elite, Naruse shows with uncompromising clarity how women are consigned to their subservient roles in a male-dominated society.
As she keeps up appearances as part of not only her job but also as her emotional suit of armor, Keiko faces the temptations of four men in particular, all far from ideal, but each promises some aspect of hope for her to get out of her desultory existence. Meanwhile, she faces the machinations of younger hostesses out to get their share of the money and fulfill their dreams of security. Naruse takes his time in setting up the various character situations in the first half, which makes the film feel a little more plodding than it should be, but the pace and dramatic tension pick up in the second half when Keiko's desperation becomes more palpable. It's fortunate that Naruse cast his longtime leading lady Hideko Takamine in the highly complex role of Keiko, as her multi-layered performance is a model of emotional precision. A beautiful actress with a look of often haunting passivity, she subtly provides the emotional tether among all the vividly rendered characters in her orbit.
The four men are skillfully portrayed by actors familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of classic Japanese cinema - Ganjiro Nakamura ("Floating Weeds") as the aged executive in need of a mistress; Daisuke Katô ("Yojimbo") as the cherubic bachelor who is not what he appears; Tatsuya Nakadai ("Harakiri", "Ran") as the younger bartender/manager who worships Keiko from a distance; and Masayuki Mori ("Rashomon", "Ugetsu") as the married lover unable to leave his family. As intriguing counterpoints to Keiko, Reiko Dan plays the flirtatious Junko with Western-style abandon, and Keiko Awaji makes the ambitious Yuri a tragic, pitiable figure. The film is complemented by a cool, jazz-piano score by Toshirô Mayuzumi, absolutely the right touch for the slightly tawdry urban setting. As with several Criterion releases of classic Japanese cinema (like Ozu's "Tokyo Story" and Nakahira's "Crazed Fruit"), film scholar Donald Richie provides rich commentary on an alternate track in the 2007 DVD. There is also an illuminating 2005 interview with Nakadai on Naruse and the film-making process, as well as the original theatrical trailer. Four insightful essays, including a glowing tribute to Naruse by Takamine, are included in a 38-page booklet accompanying the DVD package.
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