Two in the Shadow (1967)

Author: Patrick Galvan
August 29, 2014
Note: review may contain spoilers

It would seem that 2014 is the year Toho Kingdom set its sights upon giving the great Japanese director Mikio Naruse some long-overdue attention: a retrospective that is, unfortunately, not frequented enough in the western world. Despite a 1980s effort to garner him widespread recognition, Naruse has still yet to obtain the grand exposure of his contemporaries. He was admired by Akira Kurosawa, but his movies tended to be closer in spirit to those of directors such as Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi. Whereas Kurosawa famously made movies about lower-class men, Naruse tended to favor stories involving middle-class people, particularly women, and getting audiences to empathize with them as they endured ordinary life tragedies.

In introducing themselves to Mikio Naruse, cinema enthusiasts are best off looking to the director's later, post-30s career, when he had clearly defined—probably for himself as well as for his audience—just what he was about. My colleague Miles Imhoff has already devoted a fair amount of time to uncovering and detailing Naruse's early-career works. So I'd like to now turn some attention toward the opposite side of the spectrum. Let's discuss the man's swan song, 1967's heart-wrenching love story Two in the Shadow (although I personally prefer its original title, "Scattered Clouds"). By this point in time, Naruse had told stories about unrequited passion (Floating Clouds), loveless marriages (Repast), and romances that could not be (Sound of the Mountain). Two in the Shadow is more aligned with the latter, concerning a man and a woman who, by the third act, are deeply and passionately in love and yet cannot be together because of a horrible past event which binds them forever with regret and anguish.

As the film opens, Yumiko Eda (played by Yoko Tsukasa) meets her husband Hiroshi (played with signature vigor by Yoshio Tsuchiya) shortly after the latter has learned they will soon move to America. Hours later, Hiroshi is killed in a traffic accident in Tokyo. The driver of the car, Shiro Mishima (Yuzo Kayama), is cleared of negligence but racked with guilt over having caused the death of another human being. Despite being shunned at Hiroshi's funeral and told by the courts he is not legally obliged to pay damages, Shiro insists on sending small doses of money to the now-widowed Yumiko, all the while hoping for some small level of forgiveness from her. Time passes; Shiro is transferred by his trading company to the rural city of Aomori, where, unbeknown to him, Yumiko originally grew up. Finally, about a year after the death of her husband, Yumiko moves back home to work in her sister's inn. And it is here in Aomori that the Yumiko and Shiro will inevitably meet again...

Two in the Shadow is one of the most patient and intelligent films about doomed romance I have ever seen in my time as a moviegoer. There is so much to say about the smart and subtle brilliances of this story. But what is particularly admirable is the way in which Naruse and screenwriter Nabuo Yamada allow the relationship between their protagonists to build and evolve—in a completely believable manner. The film presents Yumiko as having been deeply in love with her husband (even though they only share one scene together, we later see her remembering a shared vacation, carrying her husband's photograph, sobbing over being removed from the family register of her in-laws) and unable to forget him, even as she begins to fall in love with the man responsible for Hiroshi's death. And Shiro is presented as initially seeking to console her with a hope that she will one day forgive him, as he cannot forgive himself. Yumiko and Shiro encounter one another numerous times, not experiencing one mutually amiable exchange until more than an hour of the film has transpired; the third act is already underway before their affection for one another really begins to show. Their romance comes naturally and progressively and inevitably, not because either of them want it—both want to forget the past and move on, but cannot, and falling in love with each other is a permanent reminder. The movie refuses to allow them to forget the past. Aesthetically, it's a wise move. So often in movies, characters tend to forget plot-changing events so much easier than the audience—did it ever strike you that Meg Ryan forgave and surrendered her heart to Tom Hanks a tad too quickly in You've Got Mail? It is so refreshing to a see a film, like Two in the Shadow, that has a memory as sharp as that of the moviegoer.

In the latter chunk of the third act, Shiro and Yumiko kiss three times (the final kiss, we sense, being the only one with any sense of peace and happiness to it), but this cannot undo what ultimately brought the two characters together. And by the end, we are in absolute sympathy. We know a happy ending would have, aesthetically, wrecked the story; and yet, we have no sensible solution for the two lovers. Which is worse? Separation from a loved one and a life lived in complete loneliness? Or an unhappy, sorrow-filled life shared with the same person, whose very presence will constantly remind you of what happened before? The movie doesn't pick sides; all it presents is the choice the two characters eventually make. In the finale, we have come to know and understand them so completely that when we viscerally realize their relationship will not last much longer, it's heart-breaking.

The movie is also smart enough to not show them disconnected from the outside world, from everyday life. In addition to interacting with family members and business associates, the two protagonists are, momentarily, pined for by others. There is a subplot of Yumiko being romantically pursued by a widower, and a similar subplot of a friendly office worker who tries, on numerous occasions, to get Shiro's attention (not to mention a previous engagement, similarly undone by the first-act tragedy). Unlike what you would see in a modern-day romantic drama, neither of these subplots advance to the point of consuming the story (the clichéd scene I feared—the woman's sudden engagement that must be interrupted by her true love at the last possible minute—thankfully never occurs).

The acting could not be better, particularly in regards to the two leads. Let's begin with Kayama. The first movie of his' I saw was the 1962 version of Chushingura. He dazzled me in that film, and his performance here is no less impressive and demonstrates the values of composure and concentration. Tsukasa is on-screen a little more often (not a surprise, remembering this is a Mikio Naruse film) and she is equal to everything the role demands: expressing initial happiness, grief, inches of recovery, bliss, grief again, and constantly gaining the sympathy of the audience. Apart from them: I already commented on Tsuchiya's excellence in his small role. Mitsuko Kusabue and Mitsuko Mori are superb as Yumiko's sisters—the second, in particular, who channels a lot of wit and stamina into her performance. The always entertaining Daisuke Kato delivers another enjoyably sleazy performance as a philandering husband (another repeated element in this Naruse's works.) Yu Fujiki is solid in the small part of Yumiko's brother-in-law. And finally, there is some great fun in seeing Bokuzen Hidari (Yohei from Seven Samurai, for those who haven't got their Toho actor names down yet) make a cameo as a crabby, grumbling old man.

However, in spite of all these great elements, special attention must, of course, be given to the maestro seated behind the camera. For his last movie, Mikio Naruse produced some of the most fluid, visually perfect filmmaking in his career, and therefore in cinema history. In my many times seeing the picture, not once do I recall wishing he'd done something differently with his visuals. I wouldn't cut or adjust a frame. For it is his same unpretentious style: the camera does not move much, and when it does, it pans or tracks with no more verve than necessary. Consider the film's last blissful scene. Shiro and Yumiko have decided to risk lasting unhappiness to be together, if only for a day. They take a drive to a countryside inn and rent a room. Naruse cuts to an unmoving wide shot from inside the room as the two protagonists and a maid enter. The maid leaves them. Naruse cuts to a medium wide shot from over Yumiko's shoulder as Shiro turns to face her. Cut to a haunting close-up of Yumiko staring longingly at her loved one. Return to the previous angle, in which the camera finally budges more than an inch as the two kiss each other passionately. No music; not much for sound at all; just a first-rate example of pure cinema. Kurosawa once described Naruse's filmmaking style as a seemingly calm river with a powerful current underneath. And this scene defines that comparison as perfectly as any in Naruse's career.

The director and his cinematographer, Yuzura Aizawa, have also produced some incredibly splendid imagery. Even without all of the alluring trees, lakes, and Japanese architecture, Aomori is made up to look like the loveliest city in the world. Everything is vibrant with the right balance of colors; the camera gives us plenty of wide-angle shots of the landscape; even an exterior scene set in a developing thunderstorm has a feeling of tranquility to it. (Should I ever visit Japan, I might just make a point of seeing this city to see how it compares to its representation in this film.)

We also have some subtle bits of recurring symbolism. The image of a roaring train has been used for signaling despair and demise. One of the first shots in the movie is a train, moving past the camera, taking Yumiko to meet her husband for the last time. Much later, Shiro and Yumiko watch a train rumble past them on the road; once they are able to cross, they witness the results of an automobile accident. And finally, we see another train, this one heading away from the camera as it takes Shiro away from Yumiko forever. And I do believe that in this scene, Naruse informs us that both of them are not only destined for misery, but a lonesome death as well. Shiro is on his way to a cholera-riddled city in Pakistan (where he must remain for at least three years, we are told), and the final shot in the movie is Yumiko staring over a lake, where, earlier in the day, she saw the results of a suicide pact.

Bearing that image in mind, is it a coincidence that, upon arriving in Aomori, she gazes over the very same lake while remembering her late husband? Or that the ill-fated Hiroshi accidentally steps into a stream of water in the same flashback? Is there a connection between water and death? This is part of the fun: asking questions, delving into interpretations.

There are also some nice, subtle jabs at alcoholism. Hiroshi and Yumiko drinking shortly before the plot-altering accident; a boy glowering at his father to stop him from downing another glass of beer; the two protagonists saying cruel things to one another in separate moments of intoxication.

One more honorable mention: Toru Takemitsu's musical score, which is not only brooding and emotional, but also knows when to sound off and when to keep quiet.

Two in the Shadow is a film of such great power that saying anything even remotely negative about it almost hurts. But there is a story element in this picture that does stand out in a bad way and must be mentioned: Yumiko's first-act pregnancy and the picture's way of ultimately not dealing with it. She's carrying her husband's child; we see her in the hospital, doctors clustered around her; she faints while imagining her husband's last moments in life; return to Yumiko, now alone, in a hospital bed; and the baby's never mentioned or seen again. I suppose the nightmare the character experiences might signify another death—miscarriage, abortion?—but regardless, the subplot is dropped rather clumsily.

Let it be said, though: that if it were not for this one awkward plot element, Mikio Naruse's Two in the Shadow would have received the oh-so-rare perfect score of five stars from me. And by the standards of Toho Kingdom (and coming from a reviewer who gave 3.5/5 to a personal favorite), that is not a trivial compliment. Mikio Naruse's last film is one of his very best. It is a haunting near-masterpiece, one that I sincerely hope will one day garner, along with many of his other great films, a widespread international release. Film enthusiasts once tried to make him as well-known as Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and Ozu; they were only successful to a point. I cannot claim to have the authoritative clout of someone like Donald Richie or Vincent Canby, but consider this review part of my personal strive to get this master filmmaker the attention he truly deserves.