“A woman’s life is so dreary” laments a disappointed woman as she sits awkwardly at a funeral in Mikio Naruse’s A Woman’s Place (女の座, Onna no Za, AKA The Wiser Age). What exactly is “a woman’s place” in the changing post-war society? The continuing uncertainties of the age begin to burrow into the Ishikawa household as it becomes plain that the house is already divided, in several senses, as daughters and sons find themselves pulled in different directions, each of them perhaps banking on an inheritance to claim a different future.
As the film opens, the sons and daughters of the Ishikawa family have been sent telegrams to come home at once because dad is at death’s door. Thankfully, that turns out to be premature. All he’s done is put his back out overdoing it in the garden by trying to lift a big rock in defiance of his age. Oldest daughter Matsuyo (Aiko Mimasu), who runs a boarding house, is quite put out to have rushed over for nothing, but everyone is obviously relieved that there turned out to be nothing to worry about after all. Widowed daughter-in-law Yoshiko (Hideko Takamine) realises that she needs to wire Michiko (Keiko Awaji) who moved to Kyushu when she got married that there’s no need to come, but she later turns up anyway along with her goofy husband Masaaki (Tatsuya Mihashi), claiming they’ve decided to make the trip a kind of honeymoon though it seems obvious to everyone that there must be reasons they seem intent on overstaying their welcome.
“They depend on us, everyone does when they return home” mother/step-mother Aki (Haruko Sugimura) chuckles as Matsuyo and only remaining son Jiro (Keiju Kobayashi) pocket some paper towels from the family shop on their way out. Everyone is indeed depending on the family, not least for a clue as to where they stand as much as for a permanent place to return to. Three daughters of marriageable age still live at home. The oldest, Umeko (Mitsuko Kusabue), the daughter of patriarch Kinjiro’s (Chishu Ryu) first wife, has renounced the possibility of marriage and has made a career for herself as an ikebana teacher, a traditionally respectable occupation for “independent” women. In her 30s, she has become cruel and embittered, sniping at her sisters and always smirking away in a corner somewhere being aggressively miserable (nobody in the family seems to like Umeko very much, but still they accept her). Later she offers a sad, surprisingly romantic explanation for her decision in her unrequited love for a middle school classmate who died in the war, but is in someway revived by an unexpected attraction to a young man Matsuyo brings to the house who claims to be the infant boy Aki was forced to give up when she left her former husband’s family and married Kinjiro.
The unexpected reappearance of Musumiya (Akira Takarada) destabilises the family across several levels, firstly in highlighting Aki’s awkward status as a second wife and step-mother to the two oldest children, and then by inciting a false romantic rivalry between the widowed Yoshiko and the unmarried Umeko. Umeko at one point cruelly describes Yoshiko as the only “outsider” in the household, viewing her connection to them now that her husband has died solely through the lens of being the mother of the only male grandchild, Ken (Kenzaburo Osawa). Yoshiko, only 36 years old, is repeatedly urged to remarry, but she like Aki would be forced to leave Ken behind if she did, though he is now a teenager and perhaps old enough not to feel abandoned. Ken in fact joins in encouraging his mother to find a second husband, but partly because she is always nagging him to study harder (something which will have have tragic, unexpected consequences). Yoshiko’s “place” in the household is therefore somewhat liminal, part of the family and yet not, because her status depends on solely on her relationships to others rather than blood.
Nevertheless, Yoshiko is clearly in charge as we witness all of the other women disturbing her while she’s cooking to enquire after missing items, whether the bath is ready, or to attend to something in the store. Umeko has built her own smaller annex on another part of the property and mostly keeps to herself, while the two younger daughters busy themselves with a series of romantic subplots. Despite her sister Matsuyo’s eye-rolling that she should “forget about working and get married”, Natsuko (Yoko Tsukasa) is trying to find another job after being laid off when the company she worked for went bankrupt. Her brother, meanwhile, is experiencing the opposite problem in that it’s impossible to find and keep delivery staff at his ramen shop and he desperately needs help because his wife is pregnant again. Natsuko is convinced to “help out” though it’s clear that working in a ramen shop wasn’t what she had in mind, but it does bring her into contact with an eccentric friend of her sister Yukiko’s (Yuriko Hoshi) while she works on the box office of a nearby cinema.
A crisis occurs when Natsuko is presented with the prospect of an accelerated arranged marriage to a man who took a liking to her while working at the company which went bust and has since got a job which requires him to relocate to Brazil. The ramen shop guy, Aoyama (Yosuke Natsuki), meanwhile is also getting a transfer but only to the top of Mount Fuji. Natsuko is torn, but also wonders if Yukiko actually wants Aoyama herself and only tried to set them up as a sort of test. In any case, both of these younger women also feel that their “place” is defined by marriage and their status conferred by their husbands even if they are exercising a personal preference in their choice, Yukiko’s in romance while Natsuko’s is perhaps a little more calculation in that she knew and liked her suitor but would not go so far as to call it “love”.
In her own strange way, Umeko may be the most radical of the women in that she has attempted to define her own place through rejecting marriage and making enough money to buy her own home (albeit still on the family property) in a kind of independence, later deciding that perhaps she does want marriage after all but only on her own terms. Unfortunately, she is drawn to Musumiya whose presence poses a threat to the family on several levels, the most serious being that he is quickly exposed as a conman guilting Aki into assisting him financially while also trying some kind of car sale scam on the smitten Umeko who wants to add to her independence through learning to drive. Musumiya, it seems, prefers Yoshiko and his affection may well be genuine, but she is trapped once again. While she and Aki privately express their doubts about Musumiya, they have no desire to hurt Umeko’s feelings and cannot exactly come out and say that he is no good seeing as he is Aki’s son. Yoshiko stoically keeps the secret, perhaps also attracted to Musumiya but loyal to the Ishikawas and wanting no trouble from such a duplicitous man. Still, Umeko regards Yoshiko’s attempts to discourage her as “jealousy” and wastes no time embarrassing them both in a nasty public altercation.
While all of this going on, there has been some talk that the shop may be compulsory purchased to make way for an Olympic road, and each of the Ishikawa children is eagerly awaiting their share of the compensation money, not least Michiko and her feckless husband who turns out to have fled Kyushu after getting fired from his job for assaulting a client. The “heir”, technically is Ken as the only male grandchild and Yoshiko’s tenuous status in the household is entirely conferred on her as his mother. When that disappears, her “place” is uncertain. Most of the others are for kicking her out, she’s not a “real” member of the family and so deserves none of the money with only Natsuko stopping to defend her. But, as so often, the widowed daughter-in-law turns out to be the only filial child. Mum and dad feel themselves displaced in their own home, somehow feeling they must stand aside, but it turns out they have plans of their own and Yoshiko is very much included. They want to take her with them, and if one day she decides to marry again then that’s perfectly OK and they will even provide a dowry for her as if she were one of their own daughters.
“We have many children but they only think of themselves” Kinjiro laments, “let’s not worry about them and live peacefully by ourselves”. It’s easy to see their decision as a strategic retreat, as if they’re being left behind by a future they cannot be a part of, but it’s also in some ways an escape from the increasingly selfish post-war society. Yoshiko may not have actively chosen her “place” but she does at least have one and reserves the right to choose somewhere else in the future. The older Ishikawas choose to be happy on their own, freeing their children and giving them their blessing so long as they’re “doing their best”. It’s a strangely upbeat conclusion for a Naruse film, if perhaps undercut with a mild sense of resignation, but nevertheless filled with a hope for a happier future and an acknowledgement that “family” can work but only when it is defined by genuine feeling and not merely by blood.