It's my first Mikio Naruse film. His films are supposedly bleak and pessimistic, most of them being working-class dramas with female protagonists, but this one struck me as quite light and entertaining. It made me laugh. I can see that its characters are living a hard life, but they're good people and there's something gentle and warm about it.
It's the story of an ordinary family with very little money. They are:
(a) Mother (Kinuyo Tanaka), about whom the first thing we're told is that she's small and hates long brooms. In real life, Tanaka was only the second Japanese woman ever to become a movie director and she fell out with long-time collaborator Kenji Mizoguchi when he tried to stop Nikkatsu giving her a directing job. In addition she acted in hundreds of films and won the Best Actress Award at the 25th Berlin International Film Festival in 1975.
(b) Father (Masao Mishima), nicknamed Popeye by his family. He's small too and he's not well educated, but he's strong.
(c) The oldest son (Akihiko Katayama) who's living at home because he got a respiratory disease from his work at an upholstery shop. You might think he's probably a layabout, especially when he plays hookey from hospital to come home and see his mum. You'd be wrong. This is a world where being sick is expensive and life expectancies aren't necessarily what you'd think.
(d) The older daughter (Kyoko Kagawa), who's also the narrator. She's the most complicated character, in some ways less mature than her younger sister and capable of being a bit of a brat. Everyone else is good, noble and/or sympathetic. Kagawa occasionally isn't. However she's as kind as anyone underneath and she has a simply adorable male friend (Eiji Okada) who's not yet a boyfriend but is in serious danger of becoming one. Meanwhile Kagawa (the actress) is considerably better than you'd expect of her years (born 1931). She was discovered by a film studio after winning a beauty contest, but she'd become a household name a couple of years after this for Tokyo Story and she went on to a long career in which, among other things, she was a regular in Akira Kurosawa's films.
(e) A younger daughter, who looks about ten or twelve.
(f) A little boy, who's actually a nephew rather than a son and staying with the family because his mother (Tanaka's younger sister) can't look after him. He picks his nose and wets the bed.
If someone gave you an outline of the film, you'd assume it was heavy-going. Most of the characters' sons, husbands or fathers are either dead or going to die before the closing credits. It's only seven years after World War Two, after all. Some died in combat. Some died in air raids. Some still haven't got back on their feet after being repatriated from Manchuria, or else were prisoners of war in Russia (yikes) and so get called Uncle Prisoner by the children. (That's Daisuke Kato, whom you'll recognise from a ton of Kurosawa films and whose book about his wartime experiences has been adapted into two movies and an NHK TV drama.)
Nonetheless at one point, someone says, "It's the survivors who have it tough." There's quiet agreement.
Tanaka and Mishima have put themselves in a financial hole trying to pay for Katayama's hospital bills. There will be discussion of having one of her children adopted by a relative. You'd imagine all this must surely be depressing... but it's not. They keep themselves busy, earning money and being nice to their neighbours. The children are very funny, as is the courting couple of Okada and Kagawa. You want to sweep Okada up and hug him. He's so innocent and enthusiastic, like a dog with intellectual proclivities and an ever-wagging tail. His misunderstanding when Kagawa's acting as a model for her aunt had me in stitches and is a delightful comic set-piece... but that's just the most obvious example of Okada's comedy. The children on the date is very funny too, as is the following exchange early in the film. "Do you have an ideal man?" "Yes: dad." Priceless.
Everyone's lovely, even (with the odd hiccup) Kagawa. Look at that country boy apprentice who shows up at the end. It's a tiny role with almost no dialogue, but he lights up the film anyway with a smile you could see from space. Similarly there will be cock-ups with customer's garments at the family laundry business, but that just leads to comedy with that elderly gay customer. (He can't be heterosexual, surely? The idea's unthinkable. Mollifying the owner of the scarf is more expensive, though.)
It's an elegant, amusing film that's honest, but not heavy. You wouldn't wish Tanaka's tribulations on a dog, but the film doesn't wallow in the grief and skips lightly over the emotional porn you'd expect if anyone made this film today. Everyone does their best. They love each other. Life's tough, but then again you can always dangle a coin over your son's photo and tell your husband that he's alive after all because the coin moved.
The acting's excellent, even from the children. The little girl isn't great at crying, but that's my only criticism.
I've seen reviews that call this one of Naruse's lesser works. It was based on an entry to a school essay-writing competition, but one underrated quality it has is entertainment value. Those highly esteemed 1950s Japanese films have a tendency to crawl. They do it beautifully, but they do it. This film neither pummels you nor carves you up with what should have been a harrowing story, but instead makes you laugh even as it delicately shows you what Tanaka's going through. It's witty. It's showing us the warmth that people will still have even when things are bad, which is lovely to see. Naruse even plays a practical joke on the audience two-thirds of the way through.
It's pessimistic and bleak, yes. But in a warm way.