Anzukko (1958)

Author: Patrick Galvan
September 25, 2018
Note: review may contain spoilers

Contrary to what is foolishly and unhealthily advocated within some circles, to like a particular artist is not necessarily to like everything said artist makes without exception. It may prove too consternating for certain worship-happy minds to admit, but creative types are every bit as mortal and human as the masses who make up the audience and, as such, are just as prone to error, misguidedness, and bad ideas; and no favors are done in prejudging something as great or even good based solely on a name in the credits. As readers of this site may know, I am a major proponent of the director Mikio Naruse. I have written extensively about this man and his work over the last four years, often with great enthusiasm. Of the many pictures by him I’ve seen, the vast majority range between fair and excellent. His swan song, the hauntingly beautiful Two in the Shadow (1967), ranks with my absolute favorite Toho pictures. And I would be mighty tempted to declare him the Japanese director I admire the most next to Akira Kurosawa. All that said, Naruse made eighty-nine pictures; with a quantity that huge, obviously not every single swing resulted in a home run. Despite a very good batting average, he did strike out on occasion—as the picture under discussion vividly demonstrates.

Kyoko Kagawa and Isako Kimura in Naruse's Anzukko1958’s Anzukko, Naruse’s final picture to be shot in the traditional academy aspect ratio (1.375:1), showcases the director at his most impersonal. The title, which loosely translates to Apricot Child, is in reference to the main character, a young woman from a bourgeois family named Kiyoko Hirayama (Kyoko Kagawa). As a toddler, she was affectionately known as “Anzukko,” because 杏 (“Anzu”), the first kanji character in her personal name, can stand for “apricot.” At the start of the film, Kiyoko’s living with her family in their country home in postwar rural Japan. She’s of marriageable age, which means, as it does in most Japanese homes, lots and lots of men will be stopping by to see her. Every time a would-be suitor visits, Kiyoko takes them on a routine bike ride to a vista by a lake, where they engage in small talk—and where she quickly decides against marrying them, usually on grounds pertaining to their demeanor. (One suitor clearly wants a wife only to look after his sick mother.) Eventually, she meets someone, a young war veteran, who might be halfway decent. But before she can give an answer, a neighbor, Ryoichi Urushiyama (Isao Kimura), comes forward with some startling information: the man Kiyoko met committed something “dirty” during the war. Adding to the shock of the situation, Ryoichi announces a revelation of his own: he’s been in love with Kiyoko for some time now and would like to marry her. When pressed with this information, Kiyoko decides she “never disliked” Ryoichi and perhaps for no other reason than that accepts his proposal. The couple marries and moves to Tokyo.

Three years go by. In typical Naruse fashion, the marriage, never passionate from the onset, has gone stale. Though he boasted confidence in being able to earn a living in electronics, Ryoichi has proven incapable—or, more likely, unwilling—to hold down a job (he’s changed positions three times in twenty-four months). As a result, he and his wife are living in poverty, borrowing money whenever possible, pawning off possessions; Kiyoko’s taken up piecework just to make ends meet. What’s more, Ryoichi’s developed a frustrating habit of blowing what little money he has on booze every single night. And then, as though enacting a conscious plan to make their life together even more miserable, he stubbornly decides his future: he will become a published author just like Kiyoko’s father, Heishiro (So Yamamura). Consequentially, he spends the ensuing weeks either drinking or hunched over at his writing table, the rejected manuscripts arriving one after another in relentless succession. All of Kiyoko’s pleas for him to find new work or seek advice on how to improve his writing are either blown off or met with snide remarks about her (successful) father’s talent. The couple’s poverty sinks to the point where they end up moving in with their in-laws, which only exacerbates Ryoichi’s jealousy. They move out again, to an even smaller, more cramped place, Ryoichi going jobless anew, refusing prospects, downing alcohol by the bottle. By this point, it’s become painfully clear, especially to Kiyoko, that no good will come out of this marriage should it go on….

So Yamamura and Kyoko Kagawa

Anzukko employs numerous tropes Naruse had dealt with so much more efficiently in previous films: loveless marriages, penury, alcoholism, etc. In fact, with room for some reservations, it could be described as a mix of his earlier Sound of the Mountain (1954) and his still earlier Repast (1951). From the latter it borrows the miserable housewife who becomes so disenchanted with her marriage and her poverty-stricken life that she contemplates moving out and starting over. Reworked from the former is a special bond between the housewife and a father figure (in this case, her actual father) to whom she turns when the matrimonial strains prove unbearable. And the husband, as before, is something of an abusive figure. Except, whereas Ken Uehara’s behavior in the 1954 picture consisted predominately of neglectful apathy, the husband in Anzukko resorts to open defiance, verbal putdowns, even a brief physical assault. All fueled by class-oriented jealousy.

From this stems what is unquestionably the film’s most interesting aspect. On several occasions, Ryoichi makes it known he considers an ordinary salaried position beneath him, hence his refusal to stay employed—even as he consistently fails to sell a story or accomplish anything else. And being a failed writer, he’s distraught over his father-in-law’s success and rise to the bourgeois middle class. Ryoichi exhibits no outward passion for writing (he cites no favorite authors, influences, what he “enjoys” about it, etc.). It’s as though he only took up the practice hoping it would grant him the same benefits Heishiro’s enjoyed: a nice house, spacious property, housemaids, etc. Reminders of this leads to reflections of his hatred for Heishiro and what he represents—most notably when he staggers home in the dead of night and drunkenly demolishes his in-laws’ garden. It’s similarly for this reason that when Heishiro spoils his impoverished daughter with a shopping trip, Ryoichi savagely kicks the merchandise away. (His wife, being the daughter of his “nemesis,” takes the fall.) In this we have one of the picture’s few strong elements. It’s not developed nearly as well as it should’ve been, but there exists some food for thought here.

What Anzukko ultimately lacks that Naruse’s best pictures possessed are a fleshed out script and compelling characters. Beginning with the protagonist. Kyoko Kagawa delivers a perfectly serviceable performance, though one could fairly argue, as some have done, this is a part better fit for an actress like Setsuko Hara, who played comparable roles for Naruse in Repast and Sound of the Mountain and who could get at the core of a quietly suffering character better than most anyone else. Casting, however, is not the issue; it’s the writing. In fashioning the script, Naruse and co-screenwriter Sumie Tanaka conjure a protagonist who’s little more than a watered down rendition of the lead from Repast (which Hara played). Hara’s miserable housewife in that picture similarly had a home to return to, but it was not until near the end that she took advantage of it; before that, she was constantly weighing her options, plowing through the hardships thrown her way—brilliantly capturing the psychological stresses of a woman in a confining situation. By contrast, Kagawa’s lead in Anzukko runs home to her father so frequently that she ultimately possesses little of the independence, the drive, and the flaws (selfishness, for example) that made Repast’s heroine so three-dimensional.

Kyoko Kagawa as Anzukko

More infuriating is the decision on the filmmakers’ part to pace their story in so discombobulating and choppy a manner that ideas are seldom permitted time to organize themselves and resonate. Naruse’s usual penchant for determining ideal breathing space for a given scene is curiously absent this time around, with most sequences coming to a jarring halt just when they seem to be making their point. Example: a scene where Kiyoko decides to sell her piano (the one passion she even seems to have)—a scene which really should’ve been made into a big moment—is hurriedly rushed through and glossed over. The first couple of times those fades to black cut off something in the midst of development, it’s incongruous; but when placed in relentless succession, the result is a fairly stagnant picture of 109 minutes that feels much longer than it really is.

This problem extends to other elements of the script, with characters who just seem to come and go: most notably a poet friend of Heishiro’s played by that wonderful actor Daisuke Kato, who randomly turns up in the third act and who subsequently—and just as quickly—vanishes without a proper exit. “Where did he go? And when?” was my domineering question, followed by: “And why, exactly, was he in this story to begin with?”

Not to mention: outside of the mildly interesting dynamic that exists between the father-in-law and the husband, there’re no engaging people for Kiyoko to interact with. The neighbors in her community are all conveniently friendly—very much the opposite of the self-centered, gossip-happy townsfolk in Sudden Rain (1956)—but faceless. Kiyoko’s mother (Shizue Natsukawa) is a bore and shares no engaging or even particularly lengthy scenes with her daughter. The brother (Hiroshi Tachikawa) and the perpetually smiling girl he ends up marrying (Mina Mitsui) serve as little more than a bland metaphor for the other side of the marriage coin: what happens when matrimony goes well. This is not a family like, say, the Ogatas in Sound of the Mountain, where everyone was believably fleshed out, with undercurrents of sadness and negativity occasionally filtering to the surface. The only fascinating tidbit to emanate from Anzukko’s family appears early on. The brother’s visiting a lending library, talking to the cashier about his sibling’s still-unsuccessful suitor auditions. He remarks that the family’s not pressuring Kiyoko into accepting just any proposal; nor are they selecting a groom for her; she will only marry whomever she chooses. To which the cashier replies: “Really?” A nice glimpse indicating a progressive attitude: maintaining the Japanese tradition of encouraging daughters to marry before they get “too old” while at the same time permitting them the freedom to make their own choice.

the couple in AnzukkoAnd yet they are not so reformist as to offer their daughter anything in the way of help or suggestions in the picture’s head-scratcher of an ending. Kiyoko has just returned from a week-long stay at her parents’. A neighbor (Minoru Chiaki) informs her her husband hasn’t been around as of late, either. When Ryoichi at last returns, intoxicated and once more unemployed, he passes out on the floor, prompting Kiyoko to immediately flee back to her familial home. There’s no two ways about it: her spouse has no prospects, will not cease favoring pride over responsibility, and offers her nothing in the way of happiness.

And yet, one sunny day, Kiyoko abruptly announces, with an incredibly upbeat demeanor—and with no explanation whatsoever—that she’s going back to her do-nothing husband. The parents sit idly while she dolls herself up in front of the mirror, only the mother having anything of note to say (that Ryoichi didn’t reach out to his wife during her absence). Only when Kiyoko’s on the road home do the parents open up with what’s on their mind. When asked if the couple should separate, the father opines: “When she comes home exhausted, when she can’t go on anymore, then we’ll talk about them splitting up.” What does he make of the fact that his daughter’s spent more time with them the last few weeks, months, etc. than she has at her own home(s)? Does that not strike him as a sign that things are not ever going to work out, an indication that she should put an end to it all? At the end of Sound of the Mountain, So Yamamura encouraged the tormented housewife to abandon her sour marriage and pursue her own happiness. Why, in Anzukko, does the seemingly progressive, middle-class father not offer the same for his own flesh and blood? And why does nobody question (even privately) the cheery nature of the daughter’s about-face when she decides to return home? In the last three minutes of Anzukko, no one behaves in a way that is even remotely believable, resulting in zero dramatic impact and far more questions than answers, questions the audience should not be asking. The final shot is of Kiyoko walking down the street, her back to the camera, heading toward a most definite, solemn, unhappy, miserable future. A future she can get away from. This is not an ending like in other Naruse pictures where the characters ‘accept’ the status quo because they have no choice. Kiyoko’s not held back by socioeconomics a la the geishas in Flowing (1956) or the protagonist of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960). Like the heroine of A Woman’s Sorrows (1937), she has the option of leaving her husband and starting over. So why doesn’t she? I suppose Naruse’s decision not to show her face in that final shot is a metaphor for her pretending to still care about her husband, hiding the sadness within, something like that. But why would she pretend now, when she hasn’t tried to guise her feelings in the course of the entire movie? The film doesn’t even begin to address this. If evidence ever came forward that this ending was not the intent of the filmmakers but one tacked on by the studio at the last minute, I wouldn’t be surprised. As is, it’s a discombobulating resolution for a clunky, unfocused story.

In listing off a few positives: Naruse’s regular cinematographer, Masao Tamai, imbues the picture with his usual effective black-and-white images. In her book The Cinema of Naruse Mikio: Women and Japanese Modernity, Catherine Russell suggests Anzukko might’ve benefited from widescreen photography since the settings feature gorgeous exterior work and lush bourgeois interiors. She might be onto something, but this is not in and of itself a major shortcoming (after all, John Ford worked with the academy aspect ratio for many decades, and no one’s ever photographed Monument Valley as extraordinarily as him). While the cinematography doesn’t represent Tamai at his absolute best (see Repast or the original 1954 Godzilla), it’s serviceable and nice to look at. Performances are uniformly respectable; and for Godzilla fans, there’re some recognizable faces among them (Yoshio Tsuchiya, Kenji Sahara, Yu Fujiki, Keiju Kobayashi)—even if their presence is squandered on nothing-roles this time around.

So Yamamura in AnzukkoThe film’s greatest asset, however, is without question the gorgeous musical score by Ichiro Saito, here delivering some of his finest work for Naruse. His main title track, complete with sumptuous strings and little nuances from harps and pianos, is especially breathtaking; and he astutely uses full-on piano motifs for some of the film’s ebullient moments, likely in reference to Kiyoko’s musical hobby. And as much as I reject the picture’s denouement, I cannot help but admire the lovely notes on which Saito chooses to end his contributions.

At the end of the day, Mikio Naruse’s Anzukko is a manifest example of why I’ve never been a participant in the sort of somnambulistic artist worship that’s been part of modern pop culture for much too long. Here is a film by a director who, elsewhere in his career, turned out one beautiful movie after another, but who, like the greatest of musicians (to use an extremely basic metaphor), inevitably hit a false note every now and then. Of course, my negative feelings for this picture cannot even begin to sour how I feel about Naruse’s greater accomplishments—films such as Repast, Sound of the Mountain, Floating Clouds (1955), Lonely Lane (1962), Yearning (1964), etc.—nor does, or should, the latter encourage senseless veneration for something humdrum and mediocre. As far as this picture’s concerned in relation to Naruse’s other works, there is some small pleasure in realizing that two years after this misfire, the director would make When a Woman Ascends the Stairs; there one can see this great filmmaker once again working comfortably within the realms of good storytelling.