Yearning (1964)

Author: Patrick Galvan
November 21, 2014
Note: review may contain spoilers

The opening and closing shots of Mikio Naruse's masterful 1964 motion picture Yearning are two of the most haunting pieces of film I have ever seen, even though the beginning one seems, upon first glance, completely innocuous. It's simply a wide-angle shot of an advertisement truck pulling into a postwar Japanese town, sounding some cheery music as it goes, informing the local residents of discounts offered at a new supermarket. What about this should cause any worry? However, as soon as we see the manager of a small grocery store give a wary glance at the passing truck, we realize that lovely tune might as well be a cry for death. In its own way, the sight of that truck is just as haunting as the final shot in the movie: a war widow staring with guilt at the body of someone very close to her. Both shots signal the end of an era, and a long, hard struggle for those left behind.

Yearning ranks with Naruse's very best films (a list which also includes Sound of the Mountain, Floating Clouds, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, Late Chrysanthemums, and my personal favorite of the group, Two in the Shadow—better known as Scattered Clouds). It is a powerful story about how life changed for a great many Japanese people after the war, and how change itself further impacts people already facing some grave challenges. The protagonists are the Moritas, who run a small grocery store close to Tokyo. Once a mom-and-pop shop, it is now owned solely by the mother Shizu (Aiko Mimasu) and completely operated by her daughter-in-law Reiko (the remarkable actress Hideko Takamine), whose husband died in the war eighteen years earlier. However, everyone in the family has hopes the younger brother Koji (Yuzo Kayama, that master of on-screen charisma) will one day run the store himself. By contrast, Koji seems to have little interest in accepting any line of responsibility. He once had a company job in Tokyo but gave it up in favor of returning home, not working, playing mahjong, and sleeping around. Repeated pleas by Reiko to shape up are consistently brushed off.

All of this happens while the discount-rich supermarket continues to run the Moritas, and the other storeowners, out of business.

Complications arise further when Shizo and her two natural daughters suggest it is time for Reiko to move on with her life: that eighteen years spent caring for the family of a husband she barely knew was beyond the call of duty. Still adamant in working at the store, Reiko pressures Koji, yet again, to settle down with someone respectable and take his life seriously. Finally, Koji admits the truth—why he left the job in Tokyo, why he chooses to disregard his college degree, why he refuses to do anything meaningful with his life—he is in love with his sister-in-law, and has been for some time. Having hardly even known his dead brother (Koji was only nine when the war ended and has had Reiko in his life for twice as long), this borderline-incestuous longing has compelled him to shuck away his ambitions. What he wants, more than anything, is to be with Reiko, and he knows, as well as she, society would never approve of it. Later, in an effort to redeem himself for both his awkward confession as well as for his lifestyle, Koji arranges to have the store converted into a supermarket (thus guaranteeing the survival of the family business) until it is learned Reiko will be eventually forced out. The story presses along, eventually leading to an emotional train ride in the country….

One of the dominant themes of Yearning seems to be how change prompts people to reveal who they really are. It is not until the future of the store is threatened—or, more specifically, the side effects of that threat come into play—that Koji makes his confession. Before that point, he and Reiko treat one another as if they really were blood relatives—with respect and concern for one another. The fate of the store also prompts the two blood sisters Hisako and Takako (Mitsuko Kusabue and Yumi Shirakawa, respectively) to further encourage Reiko to move on with her life. It's not out of genuine concern. Hisako in particular fears Reiko eventually getting remarried and disrupting the pecking order. Nevertheless, the two sisters, despite having married themselves and facing no personal financial danger, continually motion her out. The character of Hisako works particularly well; the 'bad sister' not as an overacted cliché but as a plausible character who guises her true motives through smooth talking. She doesn't despise her sister-in-law; she simply does not hold any emotional attachment to her, hence her habit of fiddling with other things while others praise Reiko for her accomplishments. And Reiko is not the only person she brings this level of disinterest to. The only time Hisako plainly admits her lack of emotional interest is when comparing the financial well-being of a prospective husband with Takako's. After hearing the five-figure salary, Takako playfully laments she should have waited a little longer to get married. Hisako scoffs in response, "You like handsome men." To her, it's about the practical means of security, nothing else. This brief few seconds is the only time director Naruse approaches ordinary melodrama, and he stops himself at the quintessential moment while still giving his point the resonance it needs. This isn't a family of clichés; these are three-dimensional people with different outlooks and different ways of responding to the constantly morphing world around them.

The sense of impending doom is perfectly conveyed. As I mentioned earlier, the first time we see that advertisement truck, it's not long before we realize there's something terribly wrong about it. Also bear in mind that we first see the truck entering the town—a town, and group of people, whose lives were affected by the war. And now this new invader, spawned by postwar change, arrives as if to finish off the survivors. (It's not a coincidence that Reiko is a war widow.) Each time that festive music is heard, it becomes all the more disturbing. At one point, a failing storeowner commits suicide, and the very next scene consists of that truck whirling around town, sounding out those lovely notes, unchallenged and unpunished. I only know of a handful of filmmakers who can make visuals—and music—so beautiful seem so terrifying and cruel. Onto the relationship between Koji and Reiko. Credit Naruse's calm filmmaking as well as the screenwriter, Zenso Matsuyama, for taking what could have easily been an unnerving, perverse fable and transforming it into something that is, instantly and without any subsequent faults, purely dramatic. Naruse and Matsuyama provide all of the necessary information for the dynamic between these two people to make plausible sense. They also find a suiting level of vagueness. For instance, the movie never explicitly clarifies whether or not Reiko shares Koji's feelings. It is clear that she cares for him, very deeply, more than just as an in-law. Yet, Reiko proclaims to still be in love with the husband she only knew for six months. Still, when packing his photograph into a suitcase (after Koji has made his confession a number of times), she continually places it face-down upon her clothes. What is the meaning of this? An acknowledgement to herself that she's fallen in love again? Is this her giving into eighteen years of complete loneliness? Or is she simply trying to prevent damaging the sole physical reminder of her husband? We never get a surefire answer, and Takamine's extraordinary performance gives us just enough hints to make our own interpretations. As for Koji, his behavior, which superficially might sound more closely aligned with a stalker than someone deeply in love, he is presented as a troubled individual who when prompted has a genuine sense of responsibility. When he finally takes charge to convert the store into a supermarket, it's partially out of concern for Reiko's future and partially in response to the changing society around him—as if in defiance of the supermarket and what it represents. Eventually, however, he's torn between a sense of duty and his deepest, most passionate desires. And Kayama's performance—not at all to my surprise, given this great actor's track record—is spot on.

The other performances are terrific. Kusabue and Shirakawa are solid as the sisters. Mimasu is warm and likable as the mother (she also has an interesting dynamic with Reiko). Naruse regular Yu Fujiki is excellent as an employee of the rival supermarket. Mie Hama brings sleazy gusto to her performance as one of Koji's one-night stands. Kazuo Kitamura, Hisao Toake, Kan Yanagiya, and Yutakada Sada are all credible (and, in their small moments, sympathetic) as the owners of the other ill-fated stores. The stories Mikio Naruse told tended to be very bleak and pessimistic, so it's only fitting that he chose to shoot many of his films, including this one, in black-and-white. (According to a memoir by Takamine, Naruse loathed color, feeling it was nothing more than a distraction.) I personally feel a few of Naruse's pictures benefitted from being shot in color (Two in the Shadow being the foremost example), but this is a case where black-and-white was the right way to go. For Yearning, cinematographer Jun Yasumoto perfectly captures a sense of impending, almost mystical, despair. Consider a scene in the final train ride, where Reiko pulls up the curtain and stares out upon a foggy evening landscape. Such imagery would be striking in color, but black-and-white, by its very essence, conveys pessimism to a much higher level.

And, of course, bleak imagery needs accompaniment by a bleak and somber score, on which Ichiro Saito delivers. The soundtrack is generally soft, saving its cues of gusto primarily for the third act.

The films of Mikio Naruse have generally gone without an audience in the United States—a problem no doubt amplified by the fact that so few are currently made available to western masses—and to realize this, as someone who passionately loves art, is truly sad. But there will always be an audience for great cinema and great filmmakers, and there will always be time and attention for great pictures like Yearning, a film which has haunted me since the first time I saw it and grows more powerful with each subsequent viewing.