This first Leeds Film Festival Retrospective screening was a real pleasure. A fine performance from the lead actress Tanaka Kinuyo: a rare masterwork from director Ozu Yasujiro: and viewed in the fine old auditorium of the Hyde Park cinema. The slight drawback was an old 16mm print, somewhat worn with the image quality rather dark, leading to loss of the film’s definition and its play with the nuances of light and shadow. But it is a remarkable and distinctive melodrama showing Ozu’s mature style in its early days.
The film centres on the wife and mother Tokiko (Tanaka Kinuyo) with her son Hiroshi. Tokiko’s husband has been away at war and is among the last of the Japanese soldiers to be repatriated. Tokiko and her son are boarders in the household of the Sakai family. She is hard up and post-war prices are high. Then her son is taken ill with a catarrh of the colon. The distraught Tokiko has to find a doctor and then pay for the subsequent hospital care. This leads her into unseemly action in order to raise the money. When her husband returns and he learns of her actions a marital crisis ensues.
Tanaka’s performance is the centre of the film. And she plays the changing responses and emotions of the wife with an emotional flair, whilst avoiding melodramatic excess. In the latter part of the film the focus shifts to the returned husband Shuichi (Sano Shuji) whose conflicting emotions are played out as he grapples with and then comes to terms with his wife’s tragic ‘mistake’. The strong supporting cast include Tokiko’s friend and confidante Chieko, the Sakai family father (Sakamoto Takeshi) and his wife Tsune (Takamatsu Eiko), a colleague of Shuichi, Satake (the familiar Ryu Chishu) and the most negative character Orie (Mizukami Rieko ).
Tanaka presents Tokiko as much through her movement and position as through her delivery and facial expressions. One particular trope in her performance sees her leaning, usually against a set of drawers in her room, displaying at various points the sense of weariness, worry and concern and at potent moments – despair. Shuji, as the husband Shuichi, is at times is tellingly still and passive, as he works through his anger. At other times he is active and even violent. The contrast in styles is very effective.
Ozu’s direction offers many familiar tropes found in his later classic films. The low-angle camera: the sequences between scenes of building and objects: the cutting between shot and reverse right down the 180% line. However, the film makes less use of the long takes and long shots that increased in his later years. In fact at times there are relatively short camera shots and relatively rapid cutting. Several times he focuses on a character, mainly Tokiko, in a series of reverse shots. The most powerful is a scene where the now shamed Tokiko regards herself in the mirror, a set of images that vividly convey her feelings. A later scene has a similar set of shots and cuts as she regards a portrait of her absent husband.
The film has more dramatic moments that are found in later Ozu. In the climatic moments of the film Shuichi throws his wife down and she falls headlong down the stairs. She lies passive, and then obviously in severe pain rises and climbs painfully back up the stairs. She finds her husband once more in a position of angry passivity. As so often in the film he is shot and framed from behind, emphasising the emotional gulf in the scene.
The stairs are one of the settings that Ozu returns to with great frequency. Earlier at a moment of anger Shuichi kicks a can and it rolls down the stairs, a premonition of what will follow later. Equally Ozu’s frequent exteriors positioned between scenes both place the action but also comment upon the changing story. It may be I missed some relevance in the later films, but these seem to me to carry greater meaning than in those later works. The Sakai house is set near some tanks or gas tanks, which loom large over the streets. At times characters traverse places beyond their small neighbourhood. Tokiko and Chieko share a picnic with Hiroshi on the banks of the river and reminisce about their youth and their dreams for the future. Later Shuichi sits on the bank of the same river and converses with a girl from the brothel – a point at which he can be seen to be coming to terms with his situation and that of his wife. Shuichi had visited the brothel earlier in his driven attempt to discover his wife’s actions. On the way he passes along a dilapidated street and crosses a wasteland covered with industrial piping. And close-up draws attention to a shattered pipe on the ground: a potent symbol of his situation.
Music is used frequently in the film, but with care and deliberate attention. In one scene Shuichi and Tokiko watch their son play with pleasure, and there is light cheerful music on the soundtrack. In a later scene as Shoichi relentless questions his wife the music is darker with a clearer bass sound. This precedes a scene of marital rape. When Shuichi visits the brothel, which is situated behind a school, we hear the children singing, reminding the girl with whom he converses that she once studied there. At work, where he has returned, he discusses his situation indirectly with his colleague Satake. Next door is a dance studio, or even a brothel. Shuichi finds the ‘jazz’ ‘sad’ whilst his colleagues correctly identifies it as ‘merry’.
Ozu also shows his customary attention to objects. A bottle of saké given Tokiko by Tsune is shown several times, once in close-up and then in different positions in the frame. It again speaks volumes regarding the husband. And shortly before the rape (which occurs off-screen) a large ball falls to the floor. In the shot following the rape Shuichi sits in a hunched position and the ball is clear in the lower right of the frame.
In the final moments of the film husband and wife embrace and Tokiko tightens her arms around her husband and her hands lock in an attitude of prayer. David Bordwell comments on this moment, “as in the 1930s films [of Ozu], the male falters, scraping by on good intentions and the strength of his woman . . . ”. This seems a fair assessment of the film’s resolution. It also points up what I find to be a major difference between Ozu and his contemporary Naruse Mikio. In Ozu’s films despite their strength, women continue in their predominately subservient role. In many of Naruse’s films women are unable to continue in such roles, and what is striking is their resilience and determination to soldier on, providing them with a flawed independence. Whilst both directors’ films are frequently referred to as belonging to the genre of shomin geki [stories of the little people] Ozu tends to focus on the strata between the working classes and the bourgeoisie, including the petit bourgeoisie: Naruse’s films are more determinably concerned with the working classes and often the lumpen proletariat. However, A Hen in the Wind shows Ozu working much more closely to the territory occupied by Naruse. This might account for the fact that this is a film which is somewhat, neglected on the Ozu oeuvre. I thought it the equal of his famous films from the 1950s.
One last point that struck me was there seemed to be little sense of the US occupation, under which this film was produced. There are a few visual references to US popular culture in the flat of Orie, whose manipulation of Tokiko leads to her situation. She comments at one point that there is ‘an easier life’. There are also western references in some of the music, both diegetic and non-diegetic, though the use of western music in common in films of this period. And the workplace of Shuichi and Satake has a large Time Life sign emblazoned on it. But there is little else. However, Bordwell refers to a Japanese critic who sees the film as part of a cycle which comments both on the war and the post-war world. With the plight of Tokiko providing metaphors for the pre-war and post-war codes in Japanese society. This seems an apt reading, the best melodramas comment not just on the personal but on the social as well.