Naruse apparently directed six other films in-between Flunky, Work Hard and No Blood Relation (生さぬ仲, Nasanunaka) but we’ll likely never see any of them again. Adapting a “Shinpa” play (a new kind of Western style melodrama focusing on the real lives of everyday people), Naruse addresses a theme which later becomes central to his cinematic output – the trials and tribulations of women in contemporary society. This time we have two fully grown women tussling over the affections of a little girl who herself seems to have little input into the situation.
After a brief introductory sequence in which we witness the accidentally humorous escapades of a pair of petty crooks, we meet the sister of one of them who happens to be returning ex-pat and successful Hollywood actress, Tamae. It turns out that Tamae has come back to Japan after making her fortune in the movies hoping to reunite with the daughter she left behind six years ago.
However, her ex-husband, Atsumi, has remarried and the daughter, Shigeko, believes the second wife, Masako, is her real mother. Although the family are very happy together there is tension in the air as Atsumi’s company is running into trouble in this period of economic instability and he’s about to reveal he’s gone bankrupt. Atsumi’s mother does not take this well as she’s used to the upper middle class lifestyle and throws something of a hissy fit at being shamed in this way. Masako, by contrast, remains stoic and says she can bear the worst of what comes only she doesn’t want Atsumi to do anything illegal to try and solve their money problems and she doesn’t want to see Shigeko suffer. Her maternal feelings are further borne out when she is injured diving in front of an oncoming car which threatens to hit her daughter as she stops to pick up her doll in the middle of the road.
The problems continue pile up and Tamae uses her money as a lever to try and prise Shigeko away from her step-mother via the greedy grandma but the little girl was an infant when her birth mother left so she simply doesn’t remember Tamae and repeatedly asks to be allowed to go home to her “mother”. It’s understandable how much this would hurt Tamae who claims she’s only returned to Japan because she’s been unable to forget her daughter, yet her daughter never even knew her. If she was expecting some kind of cosmic connection it does not occur and if she truly wanted to rebuild a relationship with her child, what amounts to a virtual kidnapping was probably not the best way to go about it.
At heart it’s a tug of love between two women – the one who gave birth to a child and then abandoned it (perhaps harsh words, but no concrete reason other than a man and America are ever revealed), and the one who later raised it and came to love it as her own though shares no blood connection. Masako is the faithful Japanese wife, devoted to her family and just a very good, decent person which contrasts nicely with the ferocity of her rival – a modern woman, adulteress and movie star who thinks her money can enable her to take back what she previously gave up. For all that, it’s difficult to not to feel sorry for Tamae as her daughter continues to reject her. Even if the way she’s going about things is not sensible, her maternal emotions and the passion, desperation and even in part grief and regret are all too real.
Of course, what gets forgotten here is the plight of little Shigeko who never had any reason to believe Masako, who obviously loves her dearly, was not her real mother. Extremely confused and probably frightened, she just doesn’t understand why she’s being separated from her mum and being forced to hang out with this strange woman. Masako can’t get to see Shigeko after grandma has removed her from the house, but no one else stops to think about what sort of effect this is all having on a confused little girl who just wants to go home.
The depression is more of a backdrop here and even if Atsumi ultimately ends up feeling the brunt of it, money troubles are only a small part of the question at hand. Naruse doesn’t experiment as much as in Flunky, Work Hard but throws in a few impressive tracking sequences across open rooms and adds some rapid zooms as the two women have silent arguments over their relationships to Shigeko. Without giving too much away, the ending undercuts the degree of nuance Naruse had been trying add in ensuring that both women were drawn in a suitably complex manner, provoking sympathy and understanding for everyone caught up in this complicated situation (well, except perhaps for the bumbling crooks who are a little surplus to requirements).
The finale itself almost feels tacked on from an entirely different film with its sudden cheerfulness and abrupt closure as the original family is repaired thanks to a sudden monetary atonement and subsequent self-exile from the originally corrupting influence of the first wife. In many ways a standard melodrama of the time, No Blood Relation perhaps doesn’t have much more to recommend it than as an early example of Naruse’s development but does offer strong performances from its leading ladies and an interesting take on an age old question.
No Blood Relation is the second of five films included in Criterion’s Eclipse Series 26: Silent Naruse box set.