Sometimes melancholy as he might have been, the cinema of Yasujiro Ozu leans toward the wholesome. His families may experience crises, but they are good people who have generally learned how to be cheerful in the face of adversity. 1948’s A Hen in the Wind (風の中の牝鶏, Kaze no naka no Mendori), however, is unusually dark though perhaps not inappropriately so as it tries to make sense of a painful moment in time by re-envisaging it in terms of a marriage.
Set very much in the immediacy of the contemporary era, the film opens ominously with an intimidating policeman taking a local census which introduces us to Tokiko (Kinuyo Tanaka) who lodges in the upstairs of a small, run-down building along with her young son Hiroshi while her husband Shuichi (Shuji Sano) has not yet returned from the war. Times are tough for everyone, and Tokiko is finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet with her seamstressing job as prices rise everywhere. She’s down to her last kimonos which she asks an old friend, Akiko (Chieko Murata), to help her sell. Akiko turns to broker/madam Orie (Reiko Mizukami) who feigns exasperation to advise that a pretty woman like Tokiko, still comparatively young at 28, could make more money in her line of work. Akiko is offended on her friend’s behalf and the two laugh it off together, but when Hiroshi suddenly develops colitis and needs to be admitted to hospital Tokiko is left with no choice but throw herself on the mercy of Orie.
Akiko scolds her friend, hurt that she didn’t come to her first and disappointed that she has chosen to degrade herself. Tokiko is sorry too, worried that if she had asked Akiko for the money she’d have found a way to get it even if she had none to spare and Tokiko would rather carry the burden herself. She wonders if she made the right choice. There was still furniture she might have been able to sell, but she wanted to keep it so that her husband would have a home to come home to. What else could a mother with a sick child do? This way at least she got the money quickly and Hiroshi recovered. It was a one time thing already in the past and no one needs to know. The friends agree to put it behind them as just another minor humiliation of life in the immediate post-war period.
And then less than a month later Shuichi returns. The joyful reunion is disrupted when he idly asks about Hiroshi’s health and then becomes fixated on how Tokiko managed to pay the hospital bills. She doesn’t want to lie and would rather there be no secrets between them so she tells him the truth. Shuichi does not take it well. He tries to readjust to their married life but finds himself consumed with rage and unable to sleep. Intellectually, he knows his wife had no choice given the situation she was in and in one sense does not blame her but in the other he cannot accept it.
Tokiko’s transgression undermines his fragile sense of masculinity in every possible way. He feels partly responisble. He wasn’t there to protect her because he was away at the war. If he’d returned a month earlier, she wouldn’t have needed to make such a sacrifice. Unlike many late returning soldiers, Shuichi walks straight back into his old job, easing the family’s financial hardship even as its harmony is strained by his ongoing resentment. Shuichi cannot help making this all about him. His wounded pride, his broken future, his romantic disappointment. He becomes obsessed with the idea of his wife defiled, insisting on tracking down the brothel where Orie brought her to ask if it really was just the one time while exploring the business for himself.
While schoolchildren sing cheerful folksongs in the playground behind, Shuichi talks to a 21-year-old who has only contempt for customers like him who ask too many hypocritical questions. She explains the she didn’t choose this sort of work, it’s the only way she can support her family, once again, ironically, because of a male failure in this case her father being unable to provide for them while her mother has passed away. Shuichi didn’t come for the full service, and so he eventually leaves, discarding money as he goes partly out of pity and partly in atonement. He runs into the girl again later and even shares her lunch during which he talks to her in a more fatherly fashion, encouraging her that she is not ruined and still has the right to strive for a brighter future. To further prove his point, he commits to finding her an “honest” job, asking with his friend at the company who is sympathetic and also wants to help. Only, his friend can’t understand. If Shuichi can sympathise so much with this young girl why can’t he forgive his wife who, to his mind, has done nothing wrong?
Tokiko is perhaps a symbol of the pure Japan debased by the male violence that is militarism. Shuichi has come home from the war but carrying trauma of his own which he projects onto the loyal self-sacrificing wife who waited patiently for his return. Yet Tokiko blames herself, she begs him to beat her, hate her, only not to leave and not to be unhappy. Shuichi only comes round after accidentally pushing her down the stairs in a rare moment of shocking domestic violence totally unexpected in an Ozu movie (even if not quite unique). Suddenly overcome with post-war humanism, Shuichi forgives his wife essentially giving her the same speech he’d given to the girl only with greater emphasis. Life is long and their path is hard. They need to “be more accepting and love one another”, “conquer hardship through laughter and trust”, so that they might have a “true marriage”. Tokiko’s redemption, and perhaps that of her nation, is dependent on the former soldier Shuichi’s forgiveness, and of her acceptance of it, rather than a recognition of her blamelessness. In any case, a line has been drawn. The future starts now and it’s going to be a better one built on compassion and mutual forgiveness rather than selfishness and resentment.