A WifeReview:
A Wife (1953)

Author: Patrick Galvan
September 24, 2016
Note: review may contain spoilers

A WifeThe highlight of Mikio Naruse’s 1953 melodrama A Wife occurs within the last ten minutes of the picture’s run time. A housewife confronts the mistress of her husband and insists on speaking to her. Obviously reluctant, the mistress agrees, and the two women begin an agonizingly long walk through the deserted street of a quiet neighborhood. In the next four and a half minutes, the housewife, clad in a kimono, speaks deliberately and firmly, dictating her terms in a very businesslike manner. The mistress walks beside her, the absolute lack of courage on her face contrasted with her elegant suit (she’s planning to open a clothing shop in Osaka). Naruse films the bulk of this sequence with a series of smooth tracking shots, cutting back and forth between close-ups, sometimes balancing with a two-shot, and inserting a static wide angle when he needs to introduce a new location. I have seen roughly twenty Naruse films, many of them extraordinary, and these few minutes rank with the highlights of his masterpieces. So I’m a little crestfallen to admit the film, as a whole, does not quite reach that same golden rank. In the four or five times I have screened A Wife, there hasn’t been one viewing where I was able to disregard the weaknesses in its script and storytelling. At the end of the day, it’s a more middle-tier Naruse film about what can happen when a marriage goes stale.

And yet I vigorously recommend this film to anyone even remotely interested in Japanese cinema. Despite its imperfections, A Wife is richer and more compelling than most movies made on the same subject. And as film professor Catherine Russell states in her book The Cinema of Naruse Mikio: Women and Japanese Modernity, this director seems to have been incapable of making a truly bad picture. But let’s not get carried away! I once thought the same of Akira Kurosawa until I saw his dismal Sanshiro Sugata: Part II (1945). Anyhow, I digress….

Onto the film under discussion.

Viewers familiar with other Naruse films such as Repast (1951) and Sudden Rain (1956) will find the first few shots of A Wife very familiar. The film begins with an establishing view of a postwar Tokyo suburb and then cuts to the protagonists—a childless couple who run a boarding house—going through their morning routines. The husband, Juichi (that wonderful actor Ken Uehara), brushes off his shoes and leaves for work, paying zero attention to his wife Mineko (Mieko Takamine—no relation, I believe, to Naruse’s regular leading lady Hideko Takamine, who refused to play the part in this film). Mineko breaks from her housekeeping to watch her husband step out the front door. Then comes the opening voice over as the wife describes her unhappiness—very much akin to Repast. But what begins to distinguish A Wife from other Naruse productions is the level of understanding provided for both characters: in that same opening, we toggle between voice over provided by the wife and voice over provided by the husband. Mineko is frustrated with their financial state. She is tasked with maintaining their business (in addition to the chores expected of a housewife) but tenants are few and some fall behind on rent; side jobs have become necessary on her part to make ends meet; and her husband’s salary just never seems to go up. Meanwhile, Juichi rues over the utterly stagnant deadlock his marriage has devolved into. This decade-long matrimony contains no romantic passion for him; it is merely an institution.

Then, Juichi starts bonding with the typist at his office: Fusako (Yatsuko Tanami), a cheery widow with a four-year-old son. After a few rendezvous, the two realize they’ve fallen in love. Fusako eventually moves back to her hometown, Osaka, but promises to write Juichi now and then. Mineko eventually discovers the truth; further drama stems from the other people in the boarding house, who are involved in their own ways.

A Wife

In terms of basic storytelling framework, A Wife exhibits the same interest in multiple characters (and the way they mix and relate to one another) that was instrumental in crafting several of Naruse’s masterpieces. Toshiro Ide’s screenplay collects various supporting characters and makes the effort of fleshing them out as human beings. Going even further, the script weaves many of these secondary players into the drama so that the story would not have been as good—artistically as well as entertainment-wise—without them. For instance, one of the boarders, a struggling painter, sights Juichi and Fusako at an art exhibit (where he was undoubtedly trying to sell some of his own work). But consider the thoughtful way Ide’s screenplay handles this subplot. Instead of creating contrivances such as blackmail (and making this character a heavy-handed antagonist), the painter merely suggests his knowing of the adultery through clever dialogue—double entendres, namely. And best of all: the moment where he eventually reveals what he saw to the wife occurs off-camera. There is a great moment where Mineko is accosting her husband (disclosing“someone” had seen him with Fusako) as the painter returns to the boarding house. He overhears the tail-end of the confrontation before quietly slinking away. There are so many ways this character could’ve been handled poorly, but Ide’s screenplay and Naruse’s direction emerge triumphant.

Also compelling is the use of side characters reflecting the primary drama. At the start: a tenant secretly working as a bar hostess abandons her prone-to-alcohol husband. (Following her departure, the husband staggers home drunk—not drastically different from Juichi at the end of the film when his relationship with Fusako has been terminated.) Toward the end: a depressed housewife, Mrs. Kito, arrives at the boarding house in search of her husband and his mistress. (Mineko similarly shows up unannounced at Fusako’s temporary residence to confront her; Mrs. Kito eventually commits suicide,and Mineko threatens suicide to end Juichi and Fusako’s affair.) All of this makes for fascinating character ironies.

A WifeHowever—and this is where the faults come into play—while the character moments described above are fascinating, a few others in the film do not matter that much in the long run. For instance, the opening act contains an interlude with Mineko and a neighbor, which cuts off just when it seems to be getting started, just when it seems to be justifying its existence. And the sudden edit jars the story’s rhythm. In slight defense of this sequence, it does touch on a sociological observation (the odds of a single mother remarrying in 1950s Japan were slim, due to her “baggage”). On the other hand, the same observation is explicated later in the film, in the form of better-paced scenes, and would have remained explicated even if the earlier segment with Mineko and the neighbor had been cut. Another scene, featuring Mineko’s meeting with a sharp-tongued friend, similarly ends too quickly for its own good.

In the end, it feels as though the filmmakers included these scenes for the sake of including them. And as a result, the opening thirty minutes of A Wife feel a little incongruous and sometimes even puzzling; this is what ultimately prevents the movie from reaching the same tier as Repast (1951), Sound of the Mountain (1954), Yearning (1964), etc. The immaculate scene-by-scene development of those films is lacking. Let it also be said that a gag involving water being poured on a man’s head didn’t evoke much of a reaction from this reviewer.

The remainder, though, is first-rate Naruse storytelling. To continue off an earlier point: what I admired most about the film was its level of understanding for both the husband and the wife. Part of this understanding stems, funny enough, from the film’s willingness to reveal idiosyncratic faults in each character. As any honest person over the age of eighteen knows, marriages—and human relationships in general—that turn south can generally be blamed, to varying degrees, on everyone involved. A smart film reflects this truth. In A Wife, Juichi’s general despondence and lack of initiative is no doubt a huge contributor to the widening emotional divide in his life. (He takes more interest in the plight of an unemployed tenant than he does in anything his wife says.) He makes no active effort to improve his financial situation: meandering about Tokyo, treating people to drinks, etc. Showing up at the office is about the only responsibility he follows through on. The scenes between him and Fusako are wonderful. (It’s nice that neither actively seeks out the affair in the beginning. It starts off casual before evolving into deep affection.) Fusako herself has relatively few scenes, but they all count: we don’t walk out having uncovered the searing depths of her personality, but we learn enough to like her and to understand why Juichi has fallen in love with her.

A WifeHaving been essentially designated to run the business and the household without assistance, Mineko has, somewhat understandably, been rendered into a reluctant business woman more than a devoted and caring wife. When she learns of the affair, following the tears, Mineko responds in a seemingly formal manner: asking questions at Juichi’s office and sending a lawyer to fetch him. And then there’s the threat of suicide which ultimately brings the affair to an end. It’s clearly a bluff: when news of Mrs. Kito’s suicide appears in the paper, she laments, “She didn’t have to take her life!” (Remember: these two women were facing similar dilemmas.) Thanks in part to Mieko Takamine’s excellent performance, the character doesn’t come across as a pride-hurt entrepreneur. She is clearly devastated upon discovering her husband has no love for her anymore, and she grows defensive when a friend derides the way she runs the house (a direct criticism of her ability to be a good wife, suggesting she triggered the affair).

And yet, with their faults laid out, Juichi and Mineko materialize as completely sympathetic characters. Is it really shocking, given the context, that Juichi would fall for the good-natured, perpetually smiling Fusako? And is it really shocking, given the context, that Mineko would grow tired of her rigors as both a housewife and a struggling business woman; or that her situation would lead to her taking matters into her own hands?

A WifeThe acting provides another layer of substance. Uehara and Takamine could not be better as the leads. Neither strikes a false note. Tanami, vibrant and alluring, makes the most of her screen time. Noriko Honma, most recognizable for playing the medium in Kurosawa’s 1950 Rashomon, runs away with her brief scene as the housewife doomed to suicide. The supporting cast—which includes Michiyo Aratama, Sanae Takasugi, Chieko Nakakita, Hajime Izu, Akira Tani—handle their respective parts commendably. However, my favorite performance definitely comes from Rentaro Mikuni as the painter. When he’s on-screen, his wit and deadpan expressions wrench the scene from everyone around him. (An anecdote: after seeing Brief Encounter (1945), Hollywood filmmaker Billy Wilder took such a liking to a supporting character played by Valentine Dyall that he made an entire movie—The Apartment (1960)—about a similar character. I picked up a similar vibe from Mikuni in A Wife. Give me a whole movie about this guy!)

As expected, the score by Ichiro Saito, who was Naruse’s primary composer through the 1950s and early 1960s, is seldom heard but very pleasant. The main credits theme, which repeats itself in the beginning section of the movie, is a simple but alluring piece of music. And when it comes to dramatic moments, Saito’s music simply carries along the drama rather than drawing attention to itself.

Of course, I’ve said a great deal already—here and in other reviews—about Naruse’s masterful use of the motion picture camera, but I would like to end with an observation I feel is very revealing. The boarding house in A Wife, which is the film’s primary setting, has its sliding doors open in a few key scenes. When open, the doors permit a view into the property’s yard—as well as a view into the house from the outside. And when the camera is placed outside the house, we witness, through the same aperture, Juichi and Mineko on their elevated floor—as if they are on a stage before an audience .And like stage actors, they are ‘performing.’ In this case, acting out the institution of marriage. And the concluding shot is of Mineko dusting the house—carrying out her part.