Yasujiro Ozu (director)
18 May 2020 (released)
17 May 2020
This insightful 1952 drama begins in a decidedly playful and humorous manner before underlying domestic tensions and the questioning of traditional Japanese customs gradually take over.
The main plot concerns a wealthy and childless couple, the Satakes. Master of the house Mokichi (Shin Saburi) works as an executive for an engineering company whilst his wife Taeko (Michiyo Kogure), who enjoys the finer things in life, considers her husband to be dull and unadventurous. One day, Taeko’s best friend Aya (Chikage Awashima) suggests that she, Taeko and their friend Chizu (Kuniko Miyake) visit a spa in a nearby town for a few days. Taeko sees this as a welcome opportunity to get away from her boring existence of domesticity and spins a lie – telling her husband that his young niece Setsuko (Keiko Tsushima) has suddenly fallen ill with stomach pains and thus Taeko wishes to take the next available train to visit her. Just as Mokichi is about to fall for her porkies Setsuko unexpectedly turns up in the couples’ house. Angry and embarrassed, Taeko pretends to her husband that she must have misheard the information and that it is in fact her friend Chizu who has fallen ill. A short while later Taeko takes Setsuko to her boudoir where she tells her the reason for having lied to her husband although Setsuko, a modern and forward thinking young woman, reckons that if Taeko told Mokichi right from the outset that she wants to visit a spa for a few days he wouldn’t have objected anyway. The next day the four female friends embark on their journey to the spa and get tipsy on sake while Taeko never misses an opportunity to stress how dull she finds her husband, calling him names such as ‘Mr. Bonehead’ and comparing him to a slow moving Koi fish in a pond.
The following afternoon the four women visit a baseball game when by chance Aya discovers her husband, who is supposed to be working, in the stadium and in the company of a young female. While they quibble over what should be done and each of the women has her own idea of how to deal with the discovery a public announcement via a loudspeaker orders Taeko back home to attend a more pressing issue. Her niece Setsuko is up in arms because her parents are planning on an arranged marriage with an influential suitor for her. Naturally, the feministic inclined Setsuko reacts with disgust while her aunt Taeko points out that an arranged marriage (obviously still a Japanese tradition back then) only proves that it is a bad idea – pointing out to Taeko that her own arranged marriage to Mokichi has been a failure as clearly hers is a loveless marriage. When Setsuko is supposed to meet her suitor in a Kabuki theatre, with Taeko and others present, she does a runner and by doing so not only incensing her parents but also Taeko who feels that Setsuko’s actions have caused her to ‘lose face’. Meanwhile, Mokichi and his young co-worker Noboru (Koji Tsuruta) enjoy an evening out in a Pachinko gambling arcade when Setsuko joins them. Despite the men’s advice that an arranged marriage might not be so bad after all the strong-willed young woman will have none of it. Later that night, Setsuko – after having enjoyed ramen noodles with Noboru –turns up at the Satakes’ residency because she is to scared to go back to her parents. While Taeko orders her husband to scold Setsuko for having done a runner at the Kabuki theatre and refusing to meet her prospective match in marriage, Mokichi takes an altogether more sympathetic approach after initially also pointing out to his niece that she should follow tradition. At the same time, the constantly bickering and obviously unhappy Taeko picks an argument with her husband, accusing him of displaying annoying habits such as pouring tea over rice during dinner, smoking cheap cigarettes and preferring to travel third-class on a train. Embittered she sets off the following day on a train journey in the direction of Nagasaki to clear her head. Mokichi is told by his superior to pack his suitcase and prepare for a business trip to Uruguay, then gives him the day off so he has enough time to pack and sort out things back home. Upon arrival Taeko is nowhere to be found. Their housemaid Fumo informs him that her Mistress went away but doesn’t know where to and for how long. Mokichi has an idea and sends a telegram, ordering his wife back without giving a reason. When Taeko receives it she decides to ignore the message. Consequently she is absent when Mokichi’s colleagues and friends wave goodbye to him at the airport. When Taeko returns to the house two hours later she is scolded by Aya and Setsuko for being selfish and uncaring. In a huff, she storms off to her boudoir. Several hours later her husband unexpectedly returns due to the airplane having experienced mechanical trouble. Not wishing to wake up their servant, Taeko and Mokichi make their way to the kitchen and attempt to prepare a simple meal in what are rather unfamiliar surroundings to them – seeing how they usually have their minions preparing the meals for them. During dinner an apologetic Taeko is willing to try her husband’s favoured ochazuke rice dish with green tea poured over it. To her surprise not only does she like it but reckons it tastes delicious. The couple make up and in the final scene we see Setsuko and Noboru walking along the street – having an argument in a playful manner – suggesting they have become an item.
While the film’s strength lies in its nuanced textures and subtle storytelling, there’s enough on offer to let us into a world in which tradition and modernism occasionally clash (such as Setsuko refusing an arranged marriage) while at the same time existing side by side. For example baseball games and other items, even clothing, are distinctly influenced by American culture while back in the private household suits and Western skirts make way for kimonos. Particularly intriguing is Taeko’s private boudoir, which is almost entirely decorated in 18th century European Regency fashion, while the rest of the house is decorated in traditional Japanese style. It makes for a fascinating portrait of post-war Tokyo.
Director Ozu’s minimalist study of a strained marriage and secrets and deceptions along the way is re-mastered in 4K and presented in HD and Blu-ray format for the first time in the UK. Among the Special Features are a feature-length audio commentary plus an illustrated booklet with an extended archival essay by Tom Milne. Additional treats are two public information films from 1932 and 1949 respectively. The former (The Mystery of Marriage) by pioneering female director Mary Field juxtaposes human mating rituals with those of animals and the latter (The Good Housewife in her kitchen) is a quaint and nostalgic trip down memory lane informing kitchen users about correct food hygiene and food storage whether they have a modern fridge or not.