Foremost among the post-war humanists, Keisuke Kinoshita had a somewhat complex relationship with the past, by turns decrying the restrictions of latent feudalism and pining for the lost innocence of an idyllic pastoral Japan untouched by mid-century trauma. She Was Like a Wild Chrysanthemum (野菊の如き君なりき, Nogiku no Gotoki Kimi Nariki) manages to do both at once, lamenting the passing of time and a clear division between then and now while railing against the unfairness of the society which keeps young lovers apart in insisting that broken hearts are merely something that must be endured.
In the contemporary era, 73-year-old Masao (Chishu Ryu) is taking a boat back to his hometown though he no longer has any family there, his brother’s adopted son having inherited the family estate but seemingly rejected it. The local kids treat his abandoned family home as a haunted house. He tells us that he’s going back the way he came, it may be old fashioned to travel by river like this but there was no train back in his day. Masao feels his age. His grandson has just entered college and his mind is no longer what it was. He finds himself lost in sentimental memories, which is what has brought him back here, to the place which stole from him the only thing he ever loved.
Flashing back almost 60 years to the late Meiji-era when Masao (Shinji Tanaka) was but a boy of 15 preparing to leave home to study at high school, the older Masao recalls the happiest time of his life when he lived with his sickly mother (Haruko Sugimura) and 17-year-old cousin Tamiko (Noriko Arita) with whom he had quietly fallen in love. Though it is not exactly unusual for cousins to marry, especially among the gentry, the closeness of the two youngsters has begun to cause gossip in the village especially as they are no longer children if not quite grown up. Still stuck somewhere between awkward adolescent attachment and the dawning realisation of a greater love, Masao and Tamiko resent the attempts made to keep them apart, but are largely powerless to resist the world in which they live.
That would be, in a largely feudal context, that Tamiko is more or less a “poor relation”, somewhere between servant and beloved daughter, not quite a member of the family, but resented by the maids. As such, she is no match for Masao who will be expected to marry someone of his mother’s choosing. The issue is not so much that the pair are cousins, or the slight squeamishness that they have been raised more or less as siblings, but an anxiety that something dreadful may be about to befall them which should be stopped before it becomes an unsolvable problem.
Masao’s mother tells Tamiko that women must learn “housework” like cleaning and dressmaking which might be a thinly veiled way to excuse the fact that she is using her as an unpaid maid, but it does at least remind us that she must marry someone, someday. At 17, Tamiko is at the age where her marriage becomes a matter for consideration, whereas at 15 Masao will leave home to pursue his education. They know their time together is limited, but still they dare to hope, the proximity of an ending giving them the courage to give tentative voice to their feelings.
Meanwhile, the danger they face is entirely homegrown and as much political and avaricious as it is conservative. The problem is that Masao’s older brother and his wife have no children. The sister-in-law intensely resents Tamiko’s presence, fearing she will somehow end up marrying Masao and getting her hands on the estate. To prevent that happening, she flags up the villagers’ gossip with Masao’s mother, who had been content to let them be because they were “only children” but is beginning to be swayed by the possibility of scandal or social censure. She decides to send Masao away to school ahead of schedule, hoping the whole thing will blow over, but Tamiko is so distraught that the sister-in-law eventually has her sent back to her parents where she receives an offer of marriage from the son of a wealthy family.
Too heartbroken to do much else, Tamiko spends most of her time in bed and flatly rejects the idea of marriage while the rest of her family desperately try to persuade her. Even Masao’s mother who professes to love her as a daughter tells her in no uncertain terms that she could never consent to her marrying her son. Only Tamiko’s melancholy grandmother who regards her own marriage to a man she truly loved as the thing which has given her life meaning, stops for pause, not objecting to the proposal but disappointed with her children’s insensitivity and aware of the dangers in the sacrifice Tamiko would be making if she agreed to marry more or less against her will.
The cruelty of the times is brought home by two near identical sequences, one a funeral procession in bright sunlight and the other a solemn moonlight wedding. The youngsters pledge themselves to each other, but are torn apart by forces beyond their control. In this, Kinoshita perhaps presages a greater tragedy still to come at the hands of implacable authoritarianism, suggesting that this rigid adherence to tradition at the expense of human feeling leads only to an eternal heartbreak and chaos born of resentment. If the relatives had simply let them be, let nature take its course and love find its way, then all of this sadness and regret could have been avoided. Masao apparently lived an ordinary life, suffered in the war, but married and had children, all while living with unutterable regret. His love has lasted 60 years, along with the memory of innocent wild flowers and the tranquility of his rural childhood in a Japan now long gone, inhabited solely by the ghosts of memory. “Only crickets sing by her grave”.
Original trailer (no subtitles)