Following his viscerally draining masterpiece Floating Clouds (1955), the pessimistic director Mikio Naruse turned to a story by Kunio Kishida (screenplay adaptation by Yoko Mizuki) and created a film that is both a comedy of manners and a cynical portrait of a marriage fated for disintegration. The film also marked his third collaboration with the renowned actress Setsuko Hara, who previously acted for him in Repast (1951) and Sound of the Mountain (1954). And while Sudden Rain, the picture under discussion, is not on the same tier as any of the films mentioned above—then again, that’s an incredibly high standard to match—it is still an immensely engrossing screen story and a must-see for anyone interested in this director’s canon.
As is common with Naruse, the story concerns a passionless marriage. The husband, Ryotaro Namiki (Shuji Sano), works in the sales department of a cosmetics company and suffers from a bad stomach. His relationship with his wife Fumiko (Hara) has largely devolved to turning to her for his medicine, which she dutifully but unenthusiastically prepares. They are bored: with life, and with each other. One Sunday afternoon, some new neighbors move in next door: salaryman Nenkichi Imasato (Keiju Kobayashi) and his young, attractive wife Hinako (Akemi Negishi). As it turns out, the new arrivals are not exactly living the dream with their matrimony, either. The narrative presses along, with each participant in this four-person story coming to admire/befriend the spouse from the other side of the fence. Then, one day, Ryotaro finds out his company will be eliminating four positions in the sales department, prompting him to seriously consider moving back to the country, and his relationship with Fumiko moves dangerously close to separation.
I feel the best way to articulate the tone and content of this picture would be to scrutinize the opening scene. It begins with an establishing shot of the community, the camera staring down the middle of a street, a couple slowly walking away, their backs to us, a child between them. Even though their faces remain hidden, we sense a certain vibe of happiness emanating from these never-seen-again characters as they lope forth, regularly glancing down at their youngster. The presence of the little one indicates bliss and normalcy—and a sense of purpose in their union. And this image contrasts not against the surroundings but the immediate afterward, in which the audience is introduced to Ryotaro and Fumiko, around whom the story revolves. They, too, are a married couple; they inhabit the same neighborhood as the three individuals at the start; but there is one stark difference: the lack of a child. Please note Naruse’s subsequent choices in composition and editing. In the picture’s second shot—also an exterior—we see Ryotaro stepping to the edge of his porch, stretching and yawning. This is followed by a jump-cut to inside the house, the camera now focusing on Fumiko as she knits; she, too, yawns. By introducing his protagonists via their own separate shots, Naruse acknowledges the distance—both physical and emotional—between them. Result: even with the absence of dialogue, it becomes very clear, very early on, that these two hold no love for each other, and since they have nothing to bind them together—no children—all sense of purpose in their matrimony has unreservedly vanished. (I have supplied still images demonstrating this sequence below.)
The scene continues. As Fumiko knits, she turns the page of a magazine and stumbles upon a list of recipes whose ingredients she cannot afford. No sooner has she read it when her husband asks what’s for dinner: she hasn’t decided. In an attempt to alleviate the ennui hanging over them, Fumiko suggests either a walk or a visit to one of her spouse’s co-workers; both are shot down, as Ryotaro would rather spend his Sunday lounging around the house. A little later, contradicting his own assertion, Ryotaro stands up and decides he’s going out; Fumiko hands him a letter to post; he abandons it at the doorstep. (Interwoven into this is our intro to Nenkichi and Hinako, who are in the middle of unloading their belongings.) Fumiko pays a trip to the marketplace and comes home to find an unexpected guest: her niece Ayako (Kyoko Kagawa), back from an anti-romantic honeymoon. Nenkichi stops by and offers, as a gift, some coupons—which are quickly spent on dinner for both Ayako and, when he returns, Ryotaro. (In a nice dab of comedy, both times the delivery boy shows up on his bicycle, cheery music underscoring the images, Nenkichi happens to step into view and looks on with a perplexed stare.) Meantime, a sharp-tongued neighbor shows up to complain about a stray dog Fumiko has befriended. Once the neighbor leaves, advice and insight are offered to Ayako on how to respond to her husband’s uncouth behavior on their honeymoon. Ryotaro defends the unseen groom, arguing he must’ve wanted to uphold his self-image as a male, before taking time to gawk at new neighbor Hinako practicing calisthenics in the yard. From this emerges a battle of words as the man and woman of the house debate sacrifices made for marriage—Fumiko gave up her musical hobby—and bring up the possibility of separation. Though the latter is suggested as a possible outcome for Ayako and her spouse, the context and the immediate facial reactions of everyone involved clearly spell it out as a more certain fate for Ryotaro and Fumiko. (Ayako promptly confesses her regretting stopping by.) As the argument courses into enmity, the sky grows increasingly dimmer, and then, at the tail end of the tension, storm clouds unleash a downpour—sudden rain—upon the suburb. Nenkichi kindly helps Fumiko pull down her laundry, only to be chastised by Hinako for leaving their luggage outside in the rain. The scene ends with a fade to black.
This beginning consumes more than thirty minutes of screen time and, minus the single cutaway to Fumiko shopping, feels like a filmed one-act play. Within this stretch of time, Naruse quintessentially establishes the necessary narrative components: foreboding seriousness spiced with comic touches; poverty; the woes of a housewife; the emotional divide between the two protagonists; two additional couples to compare their situation to—the new neighbors as well as the niece and her husband; Nenkichi’s kindness toward Fumiko; Ryotaro’s superficial attraction to Hinako; the presence of other, less considerate neighbors. A few more dramatic ingredients turn up in the course of the story, but the groundwork has been laid.
It is a tad ironic that Naruse made Sudden Rain after Floating Clouds. Both pictures feature characters who find bursts of pleasure with people other than their life partners. But in terms of how the characters react to their feelings, the two films are astronomically different. The adulterers in Floating Clouds were prone to their impulses, quick to rush into a lust-driven affair, unable to completely remove themselves from each other’s lives until the nonnegotiable terms of death intervened. Sudden Rain, by contrast, is not the least bit steamy. Even though the four principal characters find themselves beguiled by or attracted to a spouse other than their own, not one acts on their urges. (The closest we come to an actual affair is when Ryotaro and Hinako arrange for a double date and wind up going with each other when their respective partners find excuses not to attend. If anything scandalous took place, the camera did not witness it.) What’s more, the movie gradually clarifies that Nenkichi and Hinako are more miffed with their wedlock than anything else. They complain, they sometimes regret marrying, but in the end, they are able to stomach each other’s company. Definitely not love and roses ever after, but hardly a dire situation either. The union of Ryotaro and Fumiko, on the other hand, is clinging by a few threads on the verge of snapping.
There is a great moment where the two leads remark how one does not come to truly understand their partner until after the knot has been tied. I don’t know who deserves credit for this line (it may originate from Kishida’s original story for all I know), but the filmmakers astutely use it as a means of foreshadow. After Ryotaro learns he faces unemployment, it is suggested to him, on two occasions, by two separate people, that Fumiko take up work to help make ends meet; a would-be entrepreneur played by Daisuke Kato even remarks to her, "It’s a woman’s world." The husband’s reaction, both times, is pride-generated refusal. (He cannot bear the idea of his wife financially supporting or even assisting him. Fumiko, however, would love to find a job.) But only now, several years into marriage, does the husband’s objection to the mere idea of an employed wife come up—in a manner unworthy of the label "discussion." Ryotaro does not necessarily move through the story in a completely sympathetic light, but the audience is nonetheless given insight in regards to what makes him tick. And in the scene where he makes his morning venture into Tokyo—a montage of tautly packed crowds and hectic movement amplified with incessant noise, including from the film score—one cannot help but feel a burst of understanding for why the man would want to leave this environment behind and return to the undoubtedly quieter, less claustrophobic realm of the countryside.
Not unexpected of a Naruse picture, much attention is also devoted to the anguishes of a housewife. Though she never outright states it, Fumiko is a character who could understandably view life as the world turned against her. She gave up music to be with a husband who does not appreciate her; her life partner pins blame for his stomach on her cooking; her hobby of cutting recipes out of the newspaper results in reprimands for leaving big, L-shaped holes in the newsprint on the other side; her neighbors ridicule her companionship with the stray dog (though they are not completely unjustified in their concerns, as the dog proves to be a source of trouble for just about everyone besides Fumiko); on a lonely night, she treats herself to a roast yam, only to be ridiculed further. (She doubles her "sin"—her search for consolation—by sharing the meal with her canine friend.)
And in one of the film’s most powerful scenes—one overwhelming with commiseration—Fumiko arrives on a Tokyo rooftop to meet her husband. Another couple, much better off financially as evident by their prestige clothing, starts heading toward her. Noticing the other woman and her elegant kimono, Fumiko lowers her head, continues to clutch the lapels of her comparatively plain coat, and consciously steps far out of the oncoming couple’s path in an effort to avoid being noticed. She’s unsuccessful: the well-to-do woman makes eye contact and continues to press her with a somewhat contemptuous gaze as they pass. Now, notice the way Naruse joins this image with the next two. Instead of a linking shot in which the audience sees Fumiko complete the journey to her husband, he promptly cuts to a close-up of our leading lady—as a flood of apologies pours from her lips. And in the very next shot, her eye line has changed. What might come across as clumsy editing at first glance is actually an example of how a great director can manipulate the rules of filmmaking for artistic effect. The audience is aware Fumiko is requesting forgiveness from her husband; but cinematically, her apology has been issued to the camera (hence the close-up), as though it has judged her, as though she failed to match the ‘respectable’ social norm epitomized by the person she just passed, as though she’s expressing regret for her bad image. As noted in Catherine Russell’s book The Cinema of Naruse Mikio: Women and Japanese Modernity (a must-read for Japanese film buffs), this is a technique widely associated with Yasujiro Ozu, who didn’t particularly care for traditional continuity tricks, preferring to create a cinematic environment in which characters behaved as though they were subliminally aware of the camera—and the audience—watching them. Though he might not have pioneered or popularized the technique, Naruse’s use of it in this scene from Sudden Rain is almost gut-wrenching: even in the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, far removed from the neighborhood where everyone knows everyone, Fumiko cannot escape discernment.
Speaking of which, the unnamed suburb in which much of the film transpires is practically a character in and of itself. The marketplace, for instance, is a well of avarice and buried contempt which, on multiple occasions, seems to exist simply to remind Fumiko of her own poverty. While shopping, she stops by a vendor’s display shelf, attracted by the sight of new-model toasters and blenders which she cannot afford. In another instance, she recalls, for Hinako’s information, a butcher shop whose proprietors turned snide on customers who "didn’t buy a lot." In yet another instance, she wanders into a crowd gathered before a boisterous sandals salesman, only to become the victim of a pickpocket. And while she’s showing Hinako around town, they run into a group of women who subtly, but snidely, brag about their social status and professions. ("I myself teach flower arrangement," one states with pride.) In fact, most of the people in this community are presented as self-centered, gossip-happy individuals. The unfriendliness comes to an acme in a "community meeting" held at the local kindergarten. Note the irony of staging this scene in a classroom, with all of the adults squatting on undersized chairs. In a manner befitting the made-for-children setting, everyone proceeds to complain about everyone else, pausing only to laugh at the expense of others not in the room. (A joke is made of the complaint that Hinako—absent—dresses as though she is "wearing a hat on a finger.")
The film ends with a scene somewhat mirroring the opening—but much has changed deep down. (The couple has now openly contemplated separation.) Ryotaro still asks Fumiko to prepare his medicine, but now she pours a cup of tea for herself—ignoring the Japanese custom of pouring for the other person first—before setting the teapot on the table in front of him. She once more cuts out a recipe in the newspaper and this time makes no excuses for doing so. And even though Ayako does not physically re-enter the scene, she does "reappear" in the form of a postcard announcing she has made up with her husband. (Fumiko reads it in disappointment; even Ryotaro, who suggested the strongest that Ayako learn to tolerate her husband’s behavior, doesn’t look particularly content.) What is particularly remarkable about this sequence is that it remains almost entirely wordless until a key moment. A youthful voice hollers out to the homeowners. Two children, previously seen tossing a paper balloon back and forth, have accidentally knocked their toy over the fence and into the couple’s yard. Ryotaro steps outside and retrieves the balloon, only to start playing around with it himself. He hits the inflatable out of reach but does not chase it, for Fumiko has suddenly appeared in the yard. What ensues is an infantile display of pent-up emotions as the two adults swat the paper balloon back and forth, hollering phrases such as: "Harder!" "Damn it!" Nenkichi and Hinako look on in bewilderment: a further sign that this secondary couple might just be able to live with their differences, after all. An older woman joins the onlookers as the closing title appears.
Many have speculated what Naruse intended with this ending. I myself see it as an unhappy pair of people letting out their frustrations with each other as well as with society (society likely played a hand in their becoming husband and wife, after all), thinly guising their sentiments via a display of juvenile antics. They’ve come to realize they cannot co-exist as adults; so, at what could be the tail end of their matrimony, they resort to behavior perplexing even to the little girls who, inadvertently, by just playing around with a common toy, triggered this whole spectacle. Keeping in mind the film’s earliest image (a happy couple with their progeny), I most certainly do not regard the presence of children in the denouement as coincidence. To me, the significance is clear: the only thing which can save the marriage would be "the natural course of events," though the film wisely does not reveal their decision. Of course, debates can spawn as to whether it would even be right for this couple to have kids; we have seen more than enough evidence that they are not compatible as human beings; so the ambiguous ending of the film, as I see it, is just right.
A good deal has also been written about the title and its relevance to the story. It rains a total of two times in the course of the narrative; I’ve already detailed the first; the second shower occurs after Ryotaro receives the bad news at work, following his none-too-pleasant venture into Tokyo; in both instances, the sudden rain erupts into life after a character or group of characters experience an enervating day, to the point where they seemingly need relief. Naruse doesn’t film a transition for the second rainstorm. He, instead, sharply cuts to several hours later, in which the rain is already in the middle of a roaring downpour. And it is with another sharp cut that he returns us to Fumiko, after the storm has passed, standing in a soaked train station, umbrella in hand, waiting for the husband who, as it happens, will not return home that night.
So why, one might ask, is there no third rainstorm after the protagonists consider separation? I do not profess to be an expert in how Naruse thought, but here’s how I read it. Both characters have been granted a burst of relief—a metaphorical "cry"—that, in the moment, allowed them to keep going. But by the end of the picture, they have used up their "tears," their means to prolong the situation, with the lack of a cloudburst reflecting their exhaustion.
Of course, this is merely my interpretation; it varies starkly from others I have read; and reading up on how others viewed the matter certainly pushed me to think even harder when re-watching the movie. And that leads to another reason why I hold Sudden Rain with such high regard: this is a film which engages the audience on an intellectual level. Everyone who sees and thinks about the picture is bound to walk out with their own ideas. From there stems elucidations and discourse. People fortunate enough to have seen the film can convene, discuss, and walk away having learned something, even if conclusions differ.
Ichiro Saito’s musical score is something of an oddity. In a move undoubtedly paying homage to Fumiko’s abandoned passion, Saito realized a complete score using nothing but piano notes, and seldom does it prominently reference what is occurring on-screen. At times, it becomes a tad too intrusive: rapid and noisy to the point where I almost expected to see a character rise to their feet in annoyance, stick their head into the next room, and holler, "Hey, please play a little quieter!" The fast tempo does function well, however, in the Tokyo montage, as it emphasizes the scene’s frantic imagery. But for the most part, the music remains subtle and seemingly distant, almost as if it is emanating from the world of the film: from a radio or a neighbor practicing their favorite tune.
And even if you removed these last few discussion-starting qualities, you would still be left with a compelling drama populated by memorable characters and character moments and assembled with Naruse’s usual impeccable filmmaking. Sudden Rain runs, perhaps, a tad too long for its own good (marvelous as that opening section is, it probably could have been trimmed a little) but the film nonetheless triumphs as a wonderful piece of postwar storytelling. And one more thing. There is not a single bad performance in this motion picture, but let it be said that of the many talented people who appear on the screen, Setsuko Hara runs away with the show. I was recently asked why I consider Hara one of the best actresses in world cinema and my personal favorite actress of all time. My answer was: even in lesser movies—save, perhaps, the nothing-role she was handed in The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya (1942)—Hara channeled so much humanity into her acting that she made me feel as though I had been in the presence of someone I knew intimately. And when supported with rewarding material, she towered over everyone else in her ability to create empathy-stirring, lovingly detailed characters. It is certainly true of this film: at the end of Sudden Rain, I felt as though I had witnessed the tribulations of a neighbor to whom I was very close. And that takes a special kind of talent.
Oh, something else. These two images, in the six or seven times I’ve seen Sudden Rain, have always stood out to me. Notice the movie marquees.
ゴリラ - Gorilla
As many tokustasu fans are aware, King Kong (1933) was re-released around the globe in the 1950s—to tremendous, imitator-inspiring success. Part of me felt these marquees in the Naruse film referenced one such mimic-picture: perhaps an American-made B-movie while it was out in Japan. A correspondent of mine, though, has informed me these marquees do not match, to her knowledge, the Japanese marquees for any such film. (There was a Japanese movie, also from 1956, called Comedian School Gorilla Rampage—a film I long to see simply for the title—though this is most certainly not it.)
But whether these marquees represent an actual film playing in Japan at the time or if it was simply the art department’s way of referencing a contemporary media phenomenon, the images do warrant pause and consideration.