Repast (めし, Mikio Naruse, 1951)

“Must every woman grow old and die feeling empty?” asks the unhappy heroine of Naruse’s 1951 melodrama Repast (めし, Meshi) only to conclude that yes, she must, but that this in fact constitutes “happiness” as a woman. The first of Naruse’s Fumiko Hayashi adaptations Repast arrived in the year of the author’s death and is inspired by a short story left unfinished at the time of her passing. Screenwriter Sumie Tanaka was apparently convinced that the film should end with a divorce, as Sound of the Mountain would two years later, and consequently left the project after the studio mandated a more “sympathetic” ending. Superficially happy as it might seem, however, the conclusion is as bleak as one might expect from Naruse in which the heroine simply accepts that she must recalibrate her idea of happiness to that which is available to her and learn to find fulfilment in shared endeavour with her husband. 

As she explains in her opening voiceover, Michiyo (Setsuko Hara) married her husband Hatsunosuke (Ken Uehara) five years ago in Tokyo against her family’s wishes and has been living on the outskirts of Osaka for the past three. Marital bliss has quite clearly worn off. As we see from the repeated morning scenes of the local community sending their sons off to school and husbands to the office, every day is the same and all Michiyo ever seems to do is cook and clean. The only words Hatsunosuke says to her are “I’m hungry”, and the only source of solace in her life is her cat, Yuri. Yet even this constant state of unhappy frustration is disrupted by the unexpected arrival of Hatsunosuke’s spoilt and immature niece Satoko (Yukiko Shimazaki) who has apparently run away from home in rebellion against an arranged marriage. 

There is obviously a blood relation between Hatsunosuke and Satoko, but Michiyo’s jealously is not exactly unreasonable given the young woman’s childish flirtation with her uncle, perhaps an adolescent extension of her propensity to pout and preen to get her own way. Aside from all that, finances weigh heavily on Michiyo’s mind. Other than her drudgery, the constant source of friction in the relationship is Hatsunosuke’s low salary and lack of career success. Satoko’s family are a little wealthier and having been brought up in relative comfort she has little idea of the real world and is often tactless, remarking on Hatsunosuke’s worn out tie much to Michiyo’s chagrin. Hatsunosuke is happy enough to have her, but Michiyo is wondering if there’s enough rice in the jar to see them through and Satoko never stops to consider that they’re feeding her for free even falling asleep when Michiyo enjoys her one and only day off reuniting with old friends rather than preparing dinner as she’d been asked. Perhaps aware of the disruptive effect of her presence, Satoko pours salt on the wound by constantly asking her uncle if Michiyo doesn’t like her or is angry, further placing a wedge between husband and wife. 

For all that, however, Hatsunosuke would not be accounted a “bad” husband for the time save perhaps for his lack of career success. He is not cruel or violent, merely insensitive and distant, taking his wife for granted and unable to see that she is deeply unhappy while otherwise internalising a sense of guilt and failure in his inability to adequately provide for her. She meanwhile sometimes takes her dissatisfaction out on him in barbed comments about his low salary, her barely hidden contempt never far from the surface. Yet as her mother later points out in encouraging her go back to him he is “reliable, discreet, and honest”, qualities borne out by his later refusal to go along with a dodgy scheme organised by the old elite along with his nervous rebuttal of the attentions of the “mistress” from across the way. 

At heart a conservative woman, Michiyo too looks down on Ms Kanazawa (Kumeko Otowa) for her taboo status as the illicit lover of a wealthy man which is only in a sense her way of seizing her future as an independent woman running her own bar. Satoko, a woman of the modern era, sees less of a problem with it and is far less judgemental, though her own attempts are destined to end in failure thanks to her inability to work out that her present lifestyle is far above her current reach. Retreating to her Tokyo home, Michiyo looks for other options, admiring the apparently happier relationship between her younger sister and brother-in-law who now run the family shop. She asks a sympathetic cousin, Kazuo (Hiroshi Nihonyanagi) who provides an alternate love interest, to help her find work but encounters the brutalising line outside the local employment office and then an old friend now a war widow desperate for employment because her benefits are about to run out and she has a young son to support. Later she spots the same woman handing out flyers, suddenly realising the fallacy of her fantasy of starting again as an independent woman. She pens a letter to her husband admitting that she’s realised how vulnerable she is without his protection, but remains undecided enough to avoid sending it. 

Hearing that Satoko, still childish but perhaps not quite as naive as she assumed her to be, has been laying her claws into Kazuo the final nail seems to have been struck. Michiyo knows she will return to Osaka, but does so not because she has rekindled her love for her husband but because she has accepted there are no better options. Hatsunosuke is dull, but he is in a sense reliable, and honest to the extent that he may be about to be rewarded for his moral unshakability. He cares enough about her to show up in Tokyo hoping, but not insisting, she will return with him which is perhaps as close to a declaration of love that one could hope for. On reflection she decides that a woman’s happiness is found in sharing the journey with her husband, accepting that she must subsume her own desires into his and cannot hope to expect emotional fulfilment other than that found in his satisfaction. Even for a Naruse film, and one as peppered with moments of slapstick humour as this one is, it’s an extraordinarily bleak conclusion subtly hinting at the iniquities of life in a patriarchal society in which the best a woman can hope for is a life of unrewarded drudgery. 


Tokyo Profile (都会の横顔, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1953)

Tokyo Profile posterJudging by the vision presented in the cinema of the time, the Japan of 1953 was one still fighting to emerge from post-war disillusionment and destruction. Set in the glittering Ginza, Hiroshi Shimizu’s Tokyo Profile (都会の横顔,Tokai no Yokogao) is, like much of the director’s work, a more cheerful affair. This world is a very different one from the dingy attics and rundown tenements of the average social drama in which the struggling urban poor battle economic impossibilities while earnestly investing in their future, a somewhat barbed aspirational comedy which lays bare the increasing gap between rich and poor but in a humorous, perhaps resigned fashion save for its strangely cutting finale.

Shooting once again almost entirely on location, Shimizu opens with a lengthy shot captured from the back of a tram traveling through contemporary Ginza – then and now an elegant and refined part of town home to numerous upscale department stores from all around the world. It’s an ordinary Saturday afternoon and the streets are only middling busy. A crowd has gathered around something mysterious, gradually attracting more people and becoming a spectacle in its own right. Thankfully there hasn’t been an accident. A shoeshine girl (Ineko Arima) is trying to comfort a crying child, Michiko (Sachiko Atami), who has become separated from her mother. Michiko is five years old and knows her parents’ names by rote, but all she can tell the concerned people trying to help about her home is the general vicinity it might be located in and that it’s next to Yoshiko’s house, which is not very helpful. Luckily a young man, nicknamed “Mr. Sandwich”  (Ryo Ikebe) because he’s one of Ginza’s many sign carriers, offers to take her to the police station while looking around and attracting attention with his sign (and patented silly walk) in case they spot her mum in the street.

Meanwhile, Michiko’s mother Asako (Michiyo Kogure) is wandering around frantically terrified she might never see her daughter again. Unfortunately she is accosted by a pushy neighbour who promises to help her look for Michiko but keeps pulling her into other business before finally landing her with the bill for two cream sodas which, needless to say, she cannot afford (and didn’t even want).

Michiko and her family are from Meguro which is quite a way out from the centre of the city and one gets the impression this is quite a rare day out for them. Michiko is very excited when she tells the shoeshine girl that they came to buy her a hat and a pair of red shoes, but as we later hear from Asako, Michiko’s presents are tiny splash of luxury in an otherwise economically anxious home. Shinji, Michiko’s father, was a Lieutenant-Commander during in the war but like many of his generation found himself unwanted after its end and struggled to find proper employment. Much to the family’s relief, he’s recently got a steady job as an accountant, but it still doesn’t pay enough to live on. Wanting to buy summer clothes for the children, Shinji worked overtime and walked to work rather than taking the train but little Yoshiko’s parents have bought her little red shoes and now Michiko wants a pair too. Doting parents, Asako and Shinji feel dreadful that they aren’t able to buy their daughter the things that other children have, but today she’s come to Ginza to see what she can do with what she has (which isn’t much either way).

Shimizu follows Michiko as she travels round the city with various adults looking for her mum but also having a grand adventure. Though she was originally quite distressed, Michiko is a clever little girl and quickly decides to start having fun instead of being sad. The sandwich man takes her all around Ginza, bumping into various people that he knows including a philandering boyfriend and the girl waiting for him, the girl he was with who has several boyfriends but has the most fun when standing them up, a shady gangster type not normally around during the day (he’s on his way to Osaka), and a geisha girl who’s taking classes in English for the “service” industry from an extremely camp instructor.

The irony is that Michiko and her family aside, the sandwich man, shoeshine girl, and everyone else they meet are people with no money who earn their living on the streets where rich people come to play. The gangster offers sandwich man a cigarette and he takes it, only to consider throwing it away when he sniffs it and realises it’s a cheap and nasty variety. Meanwhile, Asako’s horrible neighbour convinces her to ask a streetside psychic to help finding Michiko but he keeps interrupting their consultation to chase after discarded cigarette butts which he puts in a big pot and later smokes with the help of his pipe-like cigarette holder. The people who come to Ginza to play don’t care about smoking their cigarettes down to the last because they know they can buy more. Streetside psychics can’t even afford to buy any.

Nevertheless, no one seems to be unhappy with their life in Ginza. Sandwich man is nursing a crush on shoeshine girl which she might or might not return. So obviously good with children he longs for many, which is a problem because the one thing shoeshine girl dislikes about the city is that there are too many people – she only wants two. His desire for a big family means he doesn’t envisage spending the rest of his life as a sandwich man, but then it seems to be alright for the time being while he waits for something better to come along (which he seems to think it will). Shimizu takes us on a jaunty journey through the glitzy Ginza, taking in the musical halls and cafes while now famous tunes celebrating the area play unironically in the background, but as much as he celebrates the aspirational swankiness of the recovering city he’s always keen to remind us that not everyone who lives here lives in the same world and little girls like Michiko risk getting left behind for good if no one stops to think about that.