Tsuruhachi and Tsurujiro (1938)

Author: Patrick Galvan
July 13, 2014
Note: review may contain spoilers

In terms of a raw plot description, Tsuruhachi and Tsurujiro, an early-career film by the great director Mikio Naruse, sounds like a merciless satire on celebrity romance. I went into this picture expecting to see Naruse, who I've always known as an intelligent and straight-forward filmmaker, to uncharacteristically break form and strive for laughs amidst his usual streams of social commentary. And as I look back on the narrative structure of Tsuruhachi and Tsurujiro, I find myself constantly wondering if the film was, in fact, a comedy—that Naruse was subtly mocking his characters. After all, effective humor does not necessarily mean big, guttural laughs come from the audience. But the more I think about it, the more convinced I become the director did not intend an amused response from me. And that's reassuring, because as it played out, I took his story quite seriously.

The superficially funny sense of the story is this: two immensely popular stage performers, Jiro Tsuruhachi (played by Kazuo Hasegawa) and Toya Tsurujiro (played by Isuzu Yamada), who have known—and secretly loved—each other since the age of seventeen, find themselves constantly bickering backstage. Tsuruhachi, who sings, nitpicks the way his partner plays her samisen, compares her unfavorably to her mother (who trained both of them). They argue, threaten to sever their ties with one another, and it's only thanks to a bunch of fiscally worried theater managers and friends that they manage to come around again. Finally, Tsurujiro, fed up with her partner's constant criticism, hastily agrees to marry another man. Tsuruhachi is distraught when he hears the news; they confess their love for one another; they agree to marry; they start planning to open a theater of their own; Tsuruhachi learns Tsurujiro secretly borrowed money from her former fiancée; they break up again, and this time, go their separate ways, seemingly forever. Of course, those still-worried theater managers want them to come back together again—and hustle in the crowds—and, two years later, manage to arrange a reunion. Although Tsurujiro is now married, they still have feelings for one another...

It sounds like a satire or a romantic comedy. So credit is owed to Naruse's talent and easygoing style for the picture not prompting a single unwanted laugh. (A side note: I wonder how closely the screenplay, written by Naruse himself, adheres to the original novel by Matsutaro Kawaguchi.) The camera makes very few sudden, energetic movements (it occasionally makes a quick pan), thereby reminding us this is not an intentionally quirky story begging for chuckles and snickers. Even the one scene where it could be argued Naruse might have been calling for a laugh isn't directed as such. It occurs shortly after the two eponymous characters have vowed, for the first time in the film, to cease performing together. Tsuruhachi's friend Sahei (portrayed by that wonderful character actor Kamatari Fujiwara) tells him of a potential protégé and future wife wanting to play the samisen. Tsuruhachi agrees to an audition, which goes, as we movie-goers would expect, horribly bad. But Naruse does not dissolve from the moment of agreement to a close-up of Tsuruhachi's displeased expression. Instead, the two shots are separated by a shot pointing through an empty window. (Not peering inside, at the characters, but outside, into the backyard.) And when we do see Tsuruhachi's reaction, it's in a medium shot. Using this combination of visual and editing techniques, Naruse clues us that we're not supposed be laughing, instead simply observing.

Fans of Naruse are bound to express surprise at the denouement. Naruse is well known by enthusiasts of Japanese cinema for expressing empathy for his female characters and criticizing what Japanese society more or less expected of them: to marry and show consummate obedience to their new families. Without giving too much away, this is the only Naruse film, that I'm aware of, where he suggested the best alternative for his female protagonist would be to trade in a career in exchange for matrimony. (Then again, the husband, in this case, is not the unsympathetic person seen in films such as A Woman's Sorrows and Sound of the Mountain.)

But with all due respect to the director, even his efforts, clever as they are, would have been in vain had his two stars not been up to the task. Hasegawa and Yamada demonstrate the values of restraint and concentration. As a result, their romantic chemistry is all the more touching. As is the case with so many early Japanese films, the two characters do not have any physical contact. No hand-holding, no embraces, no first kiss. The movie's emotional highlight, thirty-six minutes in, where the two characters confess their affection for one another, is channeled by dialogue and, again, the sincerity of the performances. Hasegawa and Yamada are so instantly likable in these roles that it's somewhat bewildering to remember they would go on to portray iconic villains and anti-heroes. (Hasegawa would play a deranged samurai in the superb Daiei production Gate of Hell, and Yamada would tempt Toshiro Mifune into committing murder in Akira Kurosawa's 1957 Throne of Blood.)

Tsuruhachi and Tsurujiro is a nice, unpretentious little film from one of Japan's finest filmmakers. It might not contain the immense power of his later works, but there are more than enough cinematic—and emotional—joys to be found here.