The Munekata Sisters (宗方姉妹, Yasujiro Ozu, 1950)

Though they may eventually turn melancholy, the films of Yasujiro Ozu are often cheerful affairs in which kindhearted people bear life’s troubles with stoic dignity. There are few villains, only those trying to live even while living is hard. The Munekata Sisters (宗方姉妹, Munekata Shimai) adapted from a story by Jiro Osaragi and produced for Shintoho rather than home studio Shochiku, however, strikes a much less happy tone, ambivalently condemning its heroine to unhappiness through her own adherence to the codes it otherwise insists are noble. 

The two titular sisters, Setsuko (Kinuyo Tanaka) and Mariko (Hideko Takamine), live in Tokyo where Setsuko runs a small bar which supports the family while her moody husband Mimura (So Yamamura) has long been out of work. Their father, Mr. Munekata (Chishu Ryu), has returned to Kyoto where, a doctor informs Setsuko in the opening scenes, he is suffering from terminal cancer but surprisingly healthy all things considered. Like his oldest daughter, Kyoto suits Mr. Munekata because as he puts it it is full of the beauty of old Japan, though Mariko has soon had enough of temples and palaces and longs to return to the modernity of the contemporary capital. Whilst in the city, however, they run into an old friend from Manchuria, Hiroshi (Ken Uehara), with whom Mariko soon realises her sister had been in love but he left for France before they could declare their feelings while she was already engaged to her present husband. 

Mariko, a youthful woman dressing exclusively in modern Western fashions, is quite taken with the idea of her sister’s failed romance and determines to get the pair back together. She has only resentment for her moody brother-in-law and has long been aware that Setsuko’s marriage is a failure. Within her seeming modernity, Mariko is surprisingly conservative when it comes to traditional gender roles, resenting Mimura for failing to provide for the family as a man is expected to do. Overcome with despair, he spends his days in a drunken stupor playing with stray cats rather than seriously looking for a job, defined by wounded male pride in his obvious discomfort with the fact that his wife is supporting him through the business that she operates herself. Mariko tells him to man up, tired of the way he leaves each of the women anxious in their own home, but Setsuko, more conservative still, reminds her younger sister that marriage isn’t all sunshine and rainbows and that sometimes all you can do endure. 

Mariko regards her sister’s way of thinking as “old-fashioned”, while Setsuko disapproves of her vacuous “modernity” which she sees as little more than social brainwashing that leads her to blindly follow only what is “fashionable” without thinking for herself. Mr. Munekata had said those who refused to see the beauty in old things were simply “ignorant”, but when asked to arbitrate between the sisters adopts a more equivocal position. You are you and your sister is your sister, he insists, you have your own ways of thinking and neither of you is wrong, you have simply to choose the path which suits you best. He does however caution against Mariko’s “fashionable” mindset, reminding her that it isn’t good to be mindlessly swayed by the prevailing trends, what’s important is to think deeply and value your own life. Those who only do what’s fashionable are boring, he tells her.

Later Mariko describes “modernity” as “not growing old despite the years” perhaps to counter Setsuko’s earlier dismissal that new things never become old because they don’t last. In any case, she is still in many ways a child with an underdeveloped appreciation for complex emotions which might explain why she suddenly proposes to Hiroshi herself as if she means to marry him on her sister’s behalf. She also unfairly takes against a wily widow, apparently a “friend” of Hiroshi’s from Paris who may or may not be in love with him but has obviously not replaced Setsuko in his heart. Setsuko however is conflicted, accepting financial help from Hiroshi to keep the bar open but resentful of her husband’s suggestion there is anything improper between them. She is an “old-fashioned” woman after all. Like What Did the Lady Forget?, Munekata Sisters also posits domestic violence as a reset button on a marriage as Mimura angrily slaps his wife across the face several times, but thankfully here it signals the death knell rather than rebirth of their relationship. Mimura has reasserted his manhood, but it has only shown him just how desperate and empty he has become. His wife no longer has respect for him, let alone love. 

Yet Mimura continues to control her feelings, implying that the failure of the relationship is her fault alone because she never loved him. He has slowly destroyed himself out of resentment and romantic disappointment. It seems that, though he was too cowardly to confess his feelings, Hiroshi has never forgotten his love for Setsuko and the possibility remains that she may be able to claim a happier future through abandoning her “traditional” way of thinking (“fashionable” in its own way), separating from her husband to marry for love. But in the end her code will not allow it. Guilt casts a shadow over her heart, leaving her feeling that she is no longer allowed happiness and must sacrifice her true desires to atone for the failure of her marriage. A glimmer of hope remains in Hiroshi’s determination to wait, trapping himself within the repression of patriarchal social codes, but in the end even Mariko is forced to recognise her sister’s nobility as she too tours the beauty of old Japan without complaint in new contemplation of its ambivalent charms.


Wife! Be Like a Rose! (妻よ薔薇のやうに, Mikio Naruse, 1935)

Wife be like a rose posterIt’s tempting to view the cinema of the 1930s as a gloomy affair, facilitating the rise of militarism and increasingly at mercy of the censors, but the early sound era was nothing if not playful and generously open to international influences. It was also often surprisingly progressive, evidencing the fact that pre-war Japan was also changing or, at least, that there was an appetite for change especially among the young. Mikio Naruse’s delightfully charming (perhaps uncharacteristically so) comedy, Wife! Be Like a Rose! (妻よ薔薇のやうに, Tsuma yo bara no yo ni) dramatises just this change as its modern girl heroine tries to process the definitive end of her parents’ relationship as she prepares to marry.

Kimiko (Sachiko Chiba) has a job in an office which is more or less supporting herself and her mother seeing as her father, Shunsaku (Sadao Maruyama), left the family over 15 years previously and has been living with former geisha with whom he has two other children. Despite his long absence, Kimiko’s mother Etsuko (Toshiko Ito) has continued to pine for her absent husband and makes a little money on the side writing sad love poems for the newspapers. A request to stand as a go between at a wedding, traditionally a role only performed by married women, forces Etsuko to accept that she has been abandoned but the snag is that Kimiko and her boyfriend Seiji (Heihachiro Okawa) want to get married themselves and so his father wants to meet Kimiko’s dad which is obviously a problem.

Despite her “modern girl” appearance, Kimiko has some quite old fashioned ideas. She looks down on her maudlin mother, believing that she’s brought her apparent romantic heartbreak on herself through being a bad wife. Etsuko never seemed very interested in Shunsaku when he was around and never did any of the little wifely things Kimiko thinks a wife ought to do like vacuous chat and helping her husband change out of his work clothes. Kimiko thinks a good wife “acts childish and cajoling, or jealous sometimes, or motherly and protective”, believing that Etsuko knows this and has the ability to play the part of the ideal spouse but refuses to and therefore has only herself to blame. Kimiko’s uncle (Kamatari Fujiwara), however, corrects her. He piles the blame on the irresponsible Shunsaku who ran out on a wife and daughter to shack up with geisha.

Shunsaku, meanwhile, may be irresponsible in one sense, but perhaps it’s equally irresponsible to stay in an unhappy marriage. Now a gold prospector in the mountains, he is poor and unsuccessful but has built a happy family home with a kindly wife and two sweet children. Kimiko’s desire to drag him back to the city is partly practical in that she needs him to be her father so she can marry Seiji, but there’s also a part of her that thinks that her father’s transgression must be corrected by forcing him to resume his paternal role. Unlike Etsuko, however, Oyuki (Yuriko Hanabusa) is the classically “good” wife and Kimiko can’t deny she’s good for her father. Seeing him in the mountains and remembering him at home, Kimiko begins to realise that it would be wrong to take him away from his new family even if she thinks she has the better claim, especially when she finds out that it’s Oyuki who’s been sending her mother maintenance cheques every month for the past few years.

In fact, Oyuki feels so guilty about stealing Shunsaku away that she’s been putting money aside to pay for Kimiko’s wedding/education while keeping her own daughter home from school. Far from the gold digger Kimiko had assumed her to be, she’s been the one supporting the feckless Shunsaku as he pursues his get rich quick dream of gold prospecting. Realising that the pair of them “act in perfect harmony”, Kimiko comes to the conclusion that her father belongs in the mountains but finds her resolve wavering after returning to civilisation. She begins to wish he’d stay and hatches a plan to get her parents back together only to see how out of sync they are after 15 years apart. They swap pleasantries like strangers, and the mild-mannered Shunsaku visibly shrinks in the presence of the shrewish Etsuko who allows her pride to ruin any attempt at reconciliation.

What the modern girl Kimiko discovers is that sometimes things don’t work out like they’re supposed to, and that’s OK. Though it is in one sense a “happy” ending in that it obeys a justice born of human feeling, it’s also a melancholy moment of defeat both for the lovelorn Etsuko who has, as Kimiko says “lost”, and the now resigned Kimiko who harbours a degree of contempt towards her mother for not fighting harder for love. Standing at a crossroads of modernity, Kimiko looks both forward and back. She vows to be a “good wife” but her foundations have been shaken. Is this tragedy, or farce? She asks herself. It’s almost impossible to say.