I think I'm a fan of Mikio Naruse. Admittedly I've only seen two of his films so far (this and Mother, both from 1952). However I was surprised by how much I enjoyed them both, with none of that beautifully serene dullness I'm in danger of getting from Mizoguchi, late Ozu and even Kurosawa when he's doing samurai.
Lightning is the story of four grown-up siblings with the same mother and different fathers. They also live together, or at any rate close by. Our main character is Hideko Takamine, who's unmarried and works as a tour guide. She has to put up with her family's attempts at matchmaking, which are liable to get a bit much even in today's Japan. Back in 1952, the male-female ratio was one to 1.23, so that's another conversational weapon for her mother to wield. Their latest beau for her is a baker whom Takamine calls "frivolous", which sounded like a mild-mannered criticism until I saw how reluctant she was even to say hello to him or to be in the same room. With hindsight, one's tempted to wonder if something might have happened that we're never told about.
It's based on a Fumiko Hayashi novel, by the way. Naruse adapted several of hers.
We never learn what happened to the four husbands of their mother, Kumeko Urabe. Did they die? Did they run off? They're all gone now, anyway. Urabe doesn't seem to mind, though, cheerfully putting forth opinions that might have looked old-fashioned even in 1952. When Takamine asks whether Urabe was miserable, the reply is "it's not about happiness".
The other sisters include an untrustworthy and slightly overbearing one (Chieko Murata) and a weak one (Mitsuko Miura) who might be being cheated on by her husband. The fourth sibling is a man, but he came back from the war useless. It's a fairly dysfunctional family, to be honest, with the husbands being no better. Given all these anti-role models, it's unsurprising that Takamine goes around saying that men are beasts and that marriage is a fast-track road to misery. You'd expect this to be grindingly hard going... but it's not. As with Mother, it's light and even funny. People are unexpectedly happy, such as Urabe. Even when tragedy strikes, everyone except the widow takes it in their stride and gets on with life's practicalities, e.g. bullying her to lend them the proceeds of her just-deceased husband's life insurance.
It feels fun and fresh, but at the same time it's capable of shocking you. In his mild-mannered way, Naruse is showing you some of the worst sides of human nature. The vultures squabbling over that life insurance are horrifying, yet that's not the film's strongest scene.
There are lots of things that impressed me, though. Its feminism is striking. It's all about its female characters, who the film paints with strength and subtlety while their mostly worthless menfolk are dismissed into the background. Some of the opinions here, e.g. Takamine on marriage, are caustic. Just as importantly, though, no one's simply painted as bad. There are so many places where you'd expect a character to be a caricature, yet Naruse refuses to let anyone be one-dimensional. Even when Urabe's saying things that could make you think her a monster, she remains a nice, cheerful old lady and a worried mother. Note the subtle childishness of Takamine in the scene where she's telling her mother she's grown up and moving out. (You're still entirely on Takamine's side, though.) Naruse even made me feel sorry for that appalling drunk in the street.
Oh, and that smiley girl and her brother are adorable. You'll want to time-travel to 1952 just to live next door to them. The piano teasing made me laugh, for instance.
My copy of this film had bad subtitles, by the way. It's the worst kind, in that they look okay but will occasionally be leaving out plot points and watering down dialogue. Let's all pester Criterion to release this next.
In short, bloody good. I really liked this. It's simple, subtle and entertaining, yet it's also got some gut-punches in how this family (dys)functions. The final scene is classic, in that it has Takamine saying what might be the most hurtful thing imaginable to her mother... and then Naruse turns on a sixpence to end on a happy note and make something optimistic and positive out of what's essentially been a savage indictment of Japanese marriage and family. I think the word I'm looking for is "supple". I really like Naruse. He knows how to tackle tough material without trivialising it, but also without being depressing, humourless and/or a dull-but-worthy slog. Incidentally, this film won Best Director, Best Film, Best Supporting Actress (twice) and Best Score at various Japanese film awards (Blue Ribbon, Mainichi Film Concours). Sounds like a good decision to me.
"Mum, can I help?"
"If you want to help, hurry up and get married."