Wife! Be Like a Rose! (1935)

Author: Miles Imhoff
June 23, 2014
Note: review may contain spoilers

... and further back we go, right to one of the very first entries in the Toho catalogue. These were the days when a character could say they made 45 yen a month without bursting into laughter. In fact, you won't find much laughter in this film... Wife! Be Like a Rose! is a very sombre affair that almost borders on too difficult to watch at times due to the heightened level of inescapable sadness that these characters are forced to endure. It highlights one of the more uncomfortable narratives in a non-violent domestic drama, the existence of a second family and the lengths that people go to hold onto relationships, even hollow ones...

A young Tokyo woman named Kimiko and her mother Etsuko were abandoned some years ago by a would-be prospector named Shunsaku Yamamoto, although Etsuko has not revealed this scandal publicly. Though meager money orders arrive in their mail with his return address, he never seems to write from his new country home.

As the possibility of marriage becomes all the more likely for Kimiko and her belovèd beau Seiji, her uncle reveals that the boy's father desires to meet with the patriarch of the Yamamoto clan... and when it rains, it pours, for Kimiko's parents have also been invited to act as the nakodo couple at the Yoshidas' wedding. Filled to the brim with her uncle's sensational stories of a morally-loose mistress who ultimately corrupted her hapless father, Kimiko is bound and determined to track down Shunsaku in the countryside and force him to honour his commitments.

When she arrives, she finds herself absolutely gobsmacked by the humility of the second family's matriarch, Oyuki. It turns out that Shunsaku has been diligently panning for gold in the Hirao Village to no avail (spurred on by the untenable rumours of speculators). His second wife and daughter have been working as a hairdresser and seamstress respectively as a means to support their struggling family. In spite of their meager earnings, Oyuki manages to send money orders to Kimiko's mother, although Shunsaku has been unaware of such doings. He was hoping to send a much more substantial amount of capital back to Tokyo when he had finally scored big.

Eventually, Kimiko realises that this second family functions as a far warmer unit than hers ever did and abandons her original plan. Oyuki does manage to convince Shunsaku to return to Tokyo to meet Seiji's father and to join his former wife as the nakodo couple in the Yoshidas' wedding ceremony, but urges him to return shortly thereafter. Though she felt no real affection for her father up until now, his purchase of tangerines and chocolates for Kumiko on the way back to Tokyo sparks a change of heart, and she's now more determined than ever to reunite the Yamamoto family. But will she succeed?

Though viscerally uncomfortable and decidedly morose, what makes this film so fascinating is the sheer level of characterization that goes into so many of the onscreen personalities. Well, OK... Seiji's fairly a one-trick pony (apparently, he's always hungry), but many of the others display a compelling amount of depth. Oyuki is the one who sticks out the most, because we simply didn't expect her to be so sweet. She has perhaps the most humanity of all of the cast; you can really tell that she's feels an extreme amount of guilt for what she's done to Kimiko and Etsuko. She understands the gravity of the situation, but her guilt is still superseded by her desire to preserve the new paradigm. There's a dichotomy of emotion at play, guilt and desperation. Even though she is the one who ultimately "wins", you can still tell that she managed no true victory.

Etsuko is another interesting case. It is revealed that her relationship with Shunsaku was cold even when they were at their best, yet in his absence, she clearly shows her longing for him through her artistic outlet, poetry. However, when they finally have a chance to rekindle their embers, the palpable coldness remains unthawed. Their interests are miles apart, their wills are at odds, and all the poetry and all the longing do nothing to avail a warm reuniting of hearts. Then again, not knowing one wants is such a very human trait that nearly all (if not all) humans possess, and it's painfully captured in all of its self-destructiveness here.

Then there's Shunsaku. We never hear a decent explanation as to why he did what he did, but the character himself is not portrayed as particularly lascivious. He's genuinely a warm and simple country-type. This is the individual who has caused the pain of so many members of the central cast, yet he isn't a bombastic monster. He's a humble prospector doing his best to make a better life for both families. He has caused an enormous mess, but attempts to mitigate the damages through prospecting.

If there's one prevailing theme, it's that the film urges you not to take hearsay and accusations at face value. Humans are generally flawed, but we're rarely the monsters we make each other out to be. Oyuki is not the gold digging geisha girl that Kimiko's uncle claims she is, and Shunsaku isn't the unrepentantly selfish letch the audience assumes he's going to be. Instead, we learn that these characters have depth like real people. What helps to hit this home are the performances, which are exceptional across the board. Of special note are the older characters, Yuriko Hanabusa as Oyuki, Sadao Maruyama as Shunsaku, Tomoko Ito as Etsuko, and Kamatari Fujiwara as Kimiko's uncle. The depth and variety they bring really draw in the viewer, and help to offset some of the slightly cloying performances of the younger actresses and actors, who have not yet mastered the subtlety of their craft (although Kaoru Ito's precocious handling of Kimiko's half brother does prove an interesting exception to this general rule).

Despite this being such a sombre film, there is a mild amount of humour, albeit brief and sporadic. Kimiko's half brother thrice being denied the truth about his half sister in a remarkably similar manner by three of the female characters does lighten the mood ever so slightly. Oh, and did I mention earlier that Seiji's always hungry? Shunsaku nodding off at the Kagami Jishi Dance ironically straddles the line between levity and a feeling of overwhelming hopelessness. Though it seems lighthearted, it highlights the compatibility rift in the Yamamoto clan.

So, is this rare gem worth tracking down? Only if you're in the mood for a bit of a downer. There's no degree of happy I think anyone takes away from this film when makes its way onscreen. Nevertheless, the movie does resonate and it is technically sound. It also has a bit of historic significance as one of the first (if not the first) Japanese fictional movie to reach American shores (in 1937). Sadly, reviews were poor at the time, and it faded into relative obscurity [1]. Even still, if you're looking to crawl your way back ever further along Toho's long and illustrious timeline of films, it's certainly worth seeing. Just have something nice to eat afterwards to make you feel a bit better (even if you aren't particularly hungry 24-7 like Seiji).


[1] "Kimiko in New York" by Kiyoaki Okubo