The post-war economy was difficult for most, though by the mid-1950s the situation was perhaps improving. The four former geishas at the centre of Naruse’s Late Chrysanthemums (晩菊, Bangiku) , adapted once again from a series of stories by Fumiko Hayashi, are all in their way attempting to find a way through to the modern society but are nevertheless stuck in the past, unable to move forward as women more or less left behind by a changing idea of “modernity” which no longer has a place for them.
The most successful of the women, Kin (Haruko Sugimura), has become a ruthless moneylender engaging in real estate speculation. As the film opens she’s waiting for the arrival of a business associate for a meeting about a house she’s trying to flip, clear that they’ll need to kick out the desperate widow who is currently living there. Kin has lent money to her old “friends” with whom she spent her youth as a geisha before the war. Otamae (Chikako Hosokawa) and Otomi (Yuko Mochizuki) are widows with unfilial children, Otamae now working as a maid in a love hotel while her son Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Koizumi) struggles to find a job, and Otomi a washerwoman selling blackmarket cigarettes as a sideline while her daughter Sachiko (Ineko Arima) is a forthright modern woman who refuses to enable her mother’s irresponsible vices. Nobu (Sadako Sawamura), meanwhile, married late to a man from outside of Japan and has opened a small bar where she hopes to start a family, brushing off Kin’s insensitive insistence that she is already too old to bear a child.
Kin has prospered and become wealthy, but she’s done so largely at the sacrifice of maternity. She disparages the other women, telling them she’s grateful not to have had children because not even they can be depended upon, but is also embittered that she’s missed out on life and love, substituting material wealth for emotional fulfilment. Otomi and Otamae have problems with their children and regrets about their lives, but they both resent Kin for her heartless rationality. Kin is in a sense supporting them with her money, even if she wants it back with interest, and continues to see herself as doing a favour for women she considers friends, hurt that they often run or hide when they see her coming but insisting that she is only trying to survive while implying that the other women have failed to achieve the self-sufficiency she has achieved because they’ve lived irresponsibly by placing their trust in men and frittering their money away on the temporary pleasures of drink and gambling.
Otomi’s thoroughly modern daughter Sachiko thinks something much the same. When Otomi approaches her for a loan, she says no, fearing that her mother has another lover she will end up subsidising or that she will spend it all on drink and pachinko. Sachiko does, however, offer to buy her mother dinner which at least ensures she will get a good meal. Sachiko’s shock news is that she plans to marry an older man, though he seems not to be particularly wealthy seeing as she later sarcastically asks Kin to buy her a house because they’ll be living with other tenants in a small flat. Otomi objects, not only because Sachiko hasn’t mentioned any of this to her before, but because she thinks Sachiko is being overly practical and gives her some surprisingly transgressive advice to the effect that she should have her fun with various men while she’s young so she’ll be able to figure out which is the best to spend a life with. Sachiko quite reasonably asks how that worked out for her, to which Otomi obviously has no answer and leaves the restaurant feeling dejected enough to ask Kin for the money she was after instead.
Otamae’s problem is of the opposite order. Her son Kiyoshi cheerfully rolls home in the morning after staying out all night and tells her he’s become a kind of gigalo, dating a slightly older woman who is technically the kept mistress of another man. The situation is ironic in the extreme, but despite her own past as a geisha, Otamae doesn’t like it that her son is engaging in a compensated relationship, while he suggests that perhaps she messed him up by making him refer to her as his sister in public. Eventually Kiyoshi is offered a job in a mine in Hokkaido, salmoning the post-war migratory movement and leaving his mother (as well as the mistress) behind to fuel the economic recovery from the provinces.
Otomi and Otamae have only each other to rely on, men and children have all proved undependable. Kin, the most fiercely independent, is literally haunted by the spectre of failed romance. Nobu, snaps that Kin made her money by swindling her clients, which might be why she takes the side of Seki (Bontaro Miake), a man who tried to commit double suicide with Kin but survived and was ruined. Kin sees it differently. Seki tried to kill her when she refused to die with him, so understandably she is not keen to reconnect. Nobu advises him to visit her and ask for money as “compensation”, which whichever way you look at it is crass and troubling, that Kin is expected to compensate a man for his ruined prospects caused by his obsessive romantic violence towards her which she claims has put her off men for life. Nevertheless, she continues to meditate on the memory of Tabe (Ken Uehara) whom she loved when he was a student, even visiting him in his Hiroshima barracks after he was drafted. She is thrilled to receive a letter from her first love, but declares herself disappointed minutes after he arrives for a visit. Tabe is just another failed salaryman who thinks women like her have it easy and harps on about how looking at his “old” wife makes him nostalgic for the women he loved in his youth. Like everyone else, he’s after her money. Kin burns the photo of him in uniform and gives up any lingering dream she might have had of romantic fulfilment.
The women find themselves trapped by conflicting visions of “modernity” which are wildly different from those of their youth. They miss their “carefree” lives as geishas, now perhaps somewhat romanticised, along with the misplaced idealism of their time of Manchuria, while lamenting that as single older women they cannot be anything other than dependent. Only Kin is able to achieve self-sufficiency, but does so effectively as the film suggests at the cost of her “femininity”, becoming hard and cold, ruthlessly practical but not perhaps uncaring even as she continues to subsidise the only “friends” she has perhaps in the knowledge that they fiercely resent her. Yet their lives continue. Nobu runs her bar, Otomi and Otamae send their children off with grudging respect while vowing to follow their examples, and Kin, after a moment of crisis, ventures off towards new prospects. For good or ill they shift towards the modern world, more understanding of its rhythms and their place within it than before, but perhaps no more secure.