In the extreme turbulence of the immediate post-war period, it’s not surprising that Japan looked back to the last time it was confronted with such confusion and upheaval for clues as to how to move forward from its current state of shocked inertia. The heroine of Shiro Toyoda’s adaptation of the Ogai Mori novel, Wild Geese (雁, Gan, AKA The Mistress), finds herself at a similar crossroads to the women of the 1950s, caught between tradition and modernity as they embrace the new freedoms but remain constrained by a conservative society. Toyoda, well known for his adaptations of great literature, makes a few key changes to Mori’s novel in effect placing a Showa era heroine in a recognisably “Meiji” world.
The Japan of the 1880s is one of extreme contrast and rapidly unfolding modernity. Having finally opened its doors to the outside world, the nation is in a big hurry to “catch up” to those it sees as its equals on the world stage. Consequently, Western thoughts and values are flooding into the country, bringing both good and ill. Arranged marriages are still common and Otama (Hideko Takamine) has been married once but the marriage has failed – she was deceived, the man she married already had a wife and child. Still, having lived with a man as his wife, Otama is considered “damaged” goods and will find it difficult to make a good match in the future (especially given the whiff of scandal from being involved in an illegitimate marriage with a bigamist).
When a matchmaker (Choko Iida) arrives with a potential husband it proves hard to turn down but the matchmaker is not quite on the level. Suezo (Eijiro Tono), she says, is a recently widowed man with a young child who is in need of a new wife but cannot marry again immediately for propriety’s sake. Otama will be his mistress and then in due course his wife. However, the matchmaker is an unscrupulous woman who has spun Otama a yarn in the hope of getting her debt written off by getting the shady loanshark she owes money to a pretty young woman to have some fun with.
The position Otama finds herself in is one of impossibility. A woman cannot survive alone in the Meiji era and its lingering concessions to feudalism. For a woman as poor and lowly as Otama whose marriage prospects are slim there are few options available. Otama’s neighbour (Kuniko Miyake) has managed to carve out a life for herself as a single woman through teaching sewing classes but such opportunities are few and far between, as Otama is warned when she considers following her example. The “arrangement” with Suezo may not seem too bad on the surface – he looks after her and her father, has set her up in a house, and treats her well even if his behaviour leans toward the possessive. Despite confessing to her father that she feels trapped and miserable, humiliated on learning she has been ostracised as the mistress of a married loanshark, Otama finds little sympathy as her father declares himself “very happy” and councils her against leaving because he has no desire to return to a life of poverty, remaining selfishly indifferent to his daughter’s suffering.
Resigned to her fate, Otama does her best to adapt to her new life but remains as trapped within Suezo’s house as the caged bird he presents her with “for company”. Jealous and fearing that his wife will find out about the affair, Suezo’s preference is for Otama to stay indoors waiting for him to call. His visits are routine and perfunctory. Handing the maid a few coins to go to the public bath, Suezo signals his intentions in the least romantic of ways, pausing only to lock the garden gate.
Catching sight of an earnest student who passes by everyday at 4, Otama begins to dream of something better. The student, Okada (Hiroshi Akutagawa), is a source of fascination for all the young women in the neighbourhood but he too is instantly captivated when he glimpses the beautiful Otama trapped behind the bar-like slats of Suzeo’s love nest. Adding a touch of biblical intrigue, it is a snake which eventually leads to their meeting but no matter how deep the connection this is a love destined to fail – Otama is the kept woman of a loanshark, and Okada is a medical student with international ambitions. They inhabit different worlds and, as his friend (Jukichi Uno) puts it, this is still the Meiji era, the times will not allow it.
Nevertheless, even if her brief infatuation seems doomed, the mere act of wanting something else provokes a shift in Otama’s way of thinking. This act of fierce individualism which prompts her to defy the dominant male forces in her life whose selfish choices have caused her nothing but misery would normally be severely punished in the name of preserving social harmony but Otama’s epiphany is different. The opening title card reminded us that this was a time wild geese still flew in the skies above Tokyo. It seems to imply that birds no longer fly here, that there is no true freedom or possibility for flight in the modern age of Showa, but Otama is a woman trapped in the cage of Meiji suddenly realising that the doors have been open all along. Her choices amount to a humiliating yet materially comfortable life of subjugation, or the path of individualistic freedom in embracing her true desires. Her dream of true love rescue may have been shattered, but Otama’s heart, at least, is finally free from the twin cages of social and patriarchal oppression.