Reviews

Meshi

Mikio Naruse

Japan, 1951

Credits

Review by Leo Goldsmith

Posted on 30 November 2007

Source Masters of Cinema/Eureka! DVD

Categories Flowing: The Films of Mikio Naruse

Is this all that marriage is? … Nothing to look forward to.

Repast is a film about the quotidian, and appropriately enough, it begins and ends with routine. Appropriate to Naruse’s usual milieu, this is largely the routine of women and their work – here, mainly housework – and the morning routine we see in the opening and close of the film is that of women diligently tending to their families. What is perhaps surprising about this image of the everyday is the figure through which Naruse chooses to portray it: Setsuko Hara, looking a good deal more harried, run-down, and frazzled than we are used to seeing her.

In her films with Ozu, Hara evinces a form of restraint that is admirable, if occasionally bordering on the superhuman. This is not to say that she is cold—even in a film like Late Spring, in which her character must, in some sense, “grow up,” as also happens in Repast, there is a great deal going on beneath a placid, beatific surface. And indeed, the exteriors of many of Naruse’s heroines often calmly conceal deep reservoirs of pain and struggle. But in Repast, Ozu’s Setsuko Hara is nowhere to be found, and in her place is a woman whose responsibilities to her husband and her housework have mussed her hair, dirtied her apron, and tested her patience. As Michiyo, Hara plays the (more or less) common housewife whose frustrations are rarely evident, that are usually – or depending on how you read things, should be – subsumed by the urgency of her duties in the home.

Michiyo and Hatsunosuke are a childless couple living outside of Osaka, where Hatsu works a somewhat faceless office job, while his wife tends the house. Hatsu – played expertly, if almost broadly, by Ken Uehara – is the sort of prototypical husband who hides behind his newspaper at the breakfast table, while his wife does the washing up. As an early sign of the tone of their relationship, Michiyo seems to have more interest in tending to her cat than she does Hatsu, and Hatsu seemingly takes little notice, as long as he’s fed and generally placated.

This dreariness may well constitute a kind of status quo for the couple, indefinitely remaining unromantic but undisturbed, if not for the arrival of Hatsu’s precocious niece Satoko. Sauntering into Michiyo and Hatsu’s home with a seductive swagger, Satoko seems to represent all of the things that Michiyo craves or misses: youth, independence (she scoffs at the very idea of marriage), and freedom from responsibility. In Satoko’s carefree approach to the world, Michiyo sees multiple threats: first, the sort of alluring feminine vigor that might turn her husband’s head; and second, the kind of modern attitude that questions Michiyo’s lot in life. Suddenly, for Michiyo, there must be more to life than housework – “Must every woman’s life be wasted in the daily routines of the kitchen and the dining room?” – and the dreams of her youth that she had put on hold for her husband begin to percolate once again.

Perhaps most importantly of all, Satoko also recalls for Michiyo the idea of Tokyo. Michiyo and Hatsu have moved to Osaka for Hatsu’s job, but Tokyo, their home city, looms large throughout the film as a complex symbol for Michiyo’s many conflicting desires. For one thing, Osaka lacks the character and vibrancy the city they have left: “It says ‘city’ on the map but it’s actually more like the suburbs with a little local railway station.” This tells us that we are explicitly situated in the sphere of the petite bourgeoisie, but it also says a lot about Osaka and the place that women hold in it.

Early in the film, Hatsu takes his young niece out for a little Osaka sightseeing, but Michiyo stays home, hoping to save money on the trip. As Naruse intercuts between Hatsu and Satoko, giggling together on their sightseeing “date,” and Michiyo wiping down the tatami at home, the figure of the housewife approaches a kind of martyrdom. But this contrast also reinforces Osaka as a place that largely excludes Michiyo and other housewives like her. Throughout much of the first portion of the film, Osaka presents itself as a place for business (the Osaka stock market and brokerage district), and when we glimpse the places of leisure in the city, even these seem to fit into Osaka’s status as a place for businessmen. Thus, when Hatsu returns from the cabaret club that his business colleagues have taken him to, he drunkenly tries to describe this amazing place to his wife. “The world is full of wonders,” he marvels, but it’s not a world of wonders for her or for other housewives. The only wonders for women are those attractions for young lovers, like Satoko, and when Michiyo herself finally gets a chance to go out on the town, it is to meet her old school friends, an occasion to worry about her appearance and enviously compare her economic and marital situations to theirs. (Nonetheless, these friends remark how happy she looks, a comment which Michiyo regards incredulously.)

Curiously, once Tokyo appears, later in the film, it is not quite as a bustling metropolis, but as a strange mixture of sensations that somehow manage to include Michiyo. Fed up with Hatsu’s indifference, and determined to deliver the jailbait Satoko back to her family, Michiyo retreats into a kind of neverland Tokyo, which seems to suggest to her all of the things that Osaka isn’t. It is first the humble, low-level neighborhood of Michiyo’s past, still bearing the marks of wartime bombings, holding for her the redolence of her early life, her childhood, and a kind of freedom from adulthood. Soon, like Satoko had in Michiyo’s home, Michiyo is loafing the day away, failing to earn money to support the home or help with household chores. And soon, far from Hatsu, she even has a boyfriend, of sorts—Kazuo, her dashing banker cousin, with whom she seems to have had a long, unspoken flirtation.

Here, Naruse employs a subtle and not wholly explicit juxtaposition by way of a striking edit. Back in Osaka, Hatsu is trying desperately to keep his house clean and himself fed and failing miserably in the process. A seemingly endless line of women seem to come to his aid – neighbors, Michiyo’s friends – and when one of these brings him a small present, he inadvertently treads on it in his discomfort and the disorder of his living room. Naruse cuts from the feet of Hatsu and Michiyo’s friend and the crushed present to the feet of Kazuo and Michiyo on a walk through Tokyo. “It’s like being in a different world,” Michiyo remarks, and indeed it is. But this is a world of fantasy, almost of a second childhood, and not of the responsibilities of adulthood and marriage.

Of course, there are other options presented for Michiyo, different perspectives on her married life that soon throw her dissatisfaction at Hatsu’s aloofness into greater relief. In Tokyo she meets an old acquaintance who is now a war widow whose husbandless existence is depicted as beyond degrading and, worse yet, thoroughly detrimental to her young child. “A woman on her own can’t do much” is the lesson to be learned here, and this rhymes – if somewhat ironically – with Hatsu’s own uselessness in Michiyo’s absence. He’s hopeless without his wife just as she is hopeless without him, though admittedly the stakes for her are quite different.

On the other hand, at home, her brother Shinzo and sister-in-law Mitsuko provide what seems a viable model for marriage. Theirs seems a more equal pairing, sharing a business and looking out for one another in small ways. The brother is a more forceful persona than Hatsu, however — he speaks his mind, demanding that Michiyo not stay in the family home very long without earning her keep, and is fiercely protective of his wife. There is a certain mutual support in their relationship which is heartening to Michiyo — the scene of them doing accounting together is rather adorable — but one earnestly wonders, even by the end of the film, if this kind of relationship is attainable for the likes of Michiyo and Hatsu.

Even still, this dedication of man and wife makes Michiyo nostalgic, and the somewhat inappropriate relationship she’s been carrying on with her cousin begins to turn sour. Kazuo rather brazenly suggests a trip to Hakone, and Michiyo demurs—she is, of course, still married. Kazuo notes sympathetically that she is unhappily married, but Michiyo is put off, perhaps a little affronted, by his display of pity. “Don’t feel pity for me,” she says. “It’s miserable.” Her marriage may not be idyllic, but it is hers to suffer or mend, and in the next scene, we see her writing a letter to her husband in which she confesses that being away from him has made her miserable. Even so, she hesitates when it is time to mail it. As a relationship like Shinzo and Mitsuko’s demonstrates, there is still much effort to be made on Hatsu’s end, and it is only when he makes the trip to bring her back from Tokyo to Osaka that the beginnings of a reconciliation can be put into effect.

Ultimately, the constant, inevitable struggle of marriage is at issue, and none of the smaller distractions – Kazuo, for example, or the vampish Satoko – is really the root of the problems between Michiyo and Hatsu. Characteristically, even though she seems to set things off, Naruse resists the temptation to demonize Satoko. She is young, flirtatious, whimsical, and flighty, but she is also simply young and lacking in direction. There is never any serious heat between her and Hatsu (though Naruse seems to revel in Hatsu’s discomfort at the possibility), and ultimately Michiyo’s resentment of Satoko is revealed to be quite misguided. Her frustration with Satoko is obviously a simple displacement of the frustration she feels about her own marriage, and when she visits her own family in Tokyo, loafing about her family’s house as Satoko did in Michiyo’s, we see the behavior of the two women as similar (feminine) reactions to the gradual confinement of growing up.

In this respect, Naruse doesn’t make Hatsu the villain either, although (like he does in The Sound of the Mountain) Ken Uehara performs his role with a comically stubborn unflappability. This is a man who will, in some sense, never fully satisfy his wife, his life being always too bound up with concerns about money, presentability, business relations, and his perpetually growling stomach. But this does not suggest, as it does later in the later film, an unworkable situation. Rather it may even indicate that Michiyo’s life does not have to begin and end with her husband, or with feeding and cooking for him, and even if this is “all that marriage is,” it is not necessarily all that life is.

But this is a film about marriage, even the inevitable dullness of marriage, and it is clear from the film’s resolution that this dullness (and Hatsu’s selfishness) is merely a burden for Michiyo to bear and bear nobly. Thus the end of the film illuminates Naruse’s gender politics in what is perhaps their least progressive light. As always, the theme of struggle is there, and the only happiness in life lies in the pursuit of it. But here Michiyo’s voiceover suggests that a “woman’s happiness” is to be found next to such a man as Hatsu, to bravely stand by him even if the drudgery of his wage-earning makes him insensate to her desires. This implies a kind of willful sublimation of her desire – after all, she sells her shamisen for extra cash, and even at the end of the film, she tears up the letter she has written Hatsu and tosses it romantically out of the train window – and this is bound to come off as maddeningly conventional to modern sensibilities. But even this is merely a product of its time that one would allow if it were not for Naruse’s final image: a rather disappointingly sentimental tableau of the women of Michiyo’s neighborhood, busily attending to their women’s work. The image and the sentiment feel somewhat unearned, and even if we don’t dislike Hatsu, even if we sympathize with him and the difficulty of his interminable petit-bourgeois plight, it’s hard not to think that he gets off a bit too easily.

But perhaps this is itself Naruse’s point: that women adapt, bending and sublimating their desires, to meet the needs of their husbands, while the husbands merely persist. If it is, it’s a dreary notion, but not entirely out of step with most of Naruse’s ideas about the resilience of women and the fickleness, even callousness of men. Still, it is little consolation, and the final tableau seems quite literally to flatten all of this feminine experience into a single, simplistic image.

More Flowing: The Films of Mikio Naruse

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