Unusually, it's a Mikio Naruse period piece. He normally made working-class dramas with female protagonists, but this is based on a samurai-era kabuki play from 1922. I've just done some reading about the original and the differences are fascinating. I love the changes. I'm crazy about the changes.
Firstly, the kabuki play. Okuni is a woman whose samurai husband, Iori, was murdered by Tomonojo. Gohei is a servant of hers and together they're looking for Tomonojo in order to kill him. (It's the Tokugawa era. Blood vengeance is normal.) However they've been on the road for three years, so Okuni is starting to wilt and even fall ill. She feels homesick and would like to see her child again (!), since he must by now be six years old, but she's determined to do her duty by her husband. Meanwhile Gohei brushes aside her concerns re. burdening a mere employee with such a private matter, instead vowing to serve the Iori family no matter how long it takes.
In other words, the characters' internal struggles are all about doing their duty. Both main characters are tempted to go back to their ordinary lives and have been given socially acceptable reasons for doing so, but no! They know their duty!
Eventually they meet Tomonojo, of course. (I won't spoil how.) It turns out that he's "been clinging to his miserable life without a shred of concern for honour" and so on. Disgraceful! He's also a bad swordsman, ergo a worthless human being. He's still in love with Okuni and used to be engaged to her before she married Iori, but apparently the family broke it off because everyone agreed that Tomonojo was an unworthy samurai. Unable to stand the shame, he thus attacked Iori in a cowardly fashion (unable to beat him in a fair fight) and killed him. (Note: he must first have waited at least three years because of that child.)
Tomonojo makes a few interesting observations about the relationship between Okuni and Gohei, but of course it ends with him pleading for his life like a coward and then being decapitated. Gohei says, "There was no other way than this for the sake of duty and for the sake of love."
As far as I'm concerned, that sounds like a worthless piece of shit that couldn't be played today, except to lampoon it.
Naruse and his scriptwriters gut this like a fish and turn it inside-out.
Firstly, the film's genuinely questioning those medieval assumptions. Okuni (Michiyo Kogure) doesn't have a child and we'd only seen her married to Iori (Jun Tazaki) for about thirty seconds, during which he called his new wife boring and went out for an evening of fun, leaving her behind. Before that we'd also seen her dumping Tomonojo (So Yamamura) on her father's orders. No reason was given and there's not the slightest imputation against Tomonojo as a person, but it is suggested that it might have been because Iori had more money and social status. In short, we like Tomonojo and dislike Iori. We don't actually approve of the murder, but we're a bit uneasy about the idea of Okuni hunting down her ex-fiance and killing him. (We've also noted that the evidence against Tomonojo is circumstantial, although it does seem likely that it was him.)
Kogure plays Okuni's psychological subtleties to perfection. She's doing her duty, but eventually she's almost pleading with Gohei (Tomoemon Otani) to drop it and just keep wandering... to which Gohei's responses are all selfish ones. If they kill Tomonojo, they'll be able to go home at last and Gohei will have earned the right to become a samurai. Admittedly these apparently callous reasons are offset by the fact that Otani's Gohei is the noblest and purest of men, seeing himself as worthless and Okuni as everything. By this point, they love each other. However both we and Okuni are far from convinced that they're doing the right thing.
It's at the finale that Kogure's performance is bravest. Okuni believes she's doing the wrong thing, but she's lost the will to fight against Gohei. Kogure finds the character's shame in taking the road that society would have seen as honourable and shows us both her moral fall and her self-disgust. She pulls no punches, but she doesn't make her a villain (at which Kogure was always scarily good, when she wanted to be) and she doesn't lose our sympathy.
Gohei is a simpler character and Tomoemon Otani has less room to maneuver, but he still does excellent work. He creates a man who never admits to doubts, worships his mistress and would follow her off a cliff, even when he secretly believes her to have behaved shamefully. "You think I'm a loose woman, don't you?" "Yes." That was an extraordinary scene. Otani could have played Gohei as a two-faced, selfish bastard, but he turns him into a saint and you love him unreservedly even when you disagree with his worldview. The relationship between Okuni and Gohei is of course by far the most important thing in the movie and the actors do great work and create something special.
There's a problematic element, though. It's Tomonojo, ironically because he's mostly great. He's not a villain. You're cheering for him. The scene where he reintroduces himself to Okuni turbo-charges the drama in a film that until then had been pottering along sedately. He's saying all the things you'd have most wanted him to say, if you'd thought of them. He's questioning everything that Okuni and Gohei believe in. I was fascinated... and then unfortunately the finale pushes him off any possible moral high ground by bringing in a bit of Cowardly Tomonojo. Regardless of what you or I might think, for his character to be saying "I don't want to die" would have been understood by all to be shameful. It doesn't even make plot sense, since the character we see here should have no reason to hang around near Okuni and Gohei and instead should by rights have been high-tailing it over the horizon at top speed.
Oh, and while I'm nitpicking, Naruse doesn't help one tell the difference between current events and flashback during the first act. He'll jump between them with no visual indication.
I love Mikio Naruse, who strikes me as just as important as Ozu and Mizoguchi, but more entertaining. I've never yet been bored by Naruse. This story should probably have been dull, dreary or depressing, but he gives his actors all the room in the world and remembers to change the pace from time to time. Look at that extraordinary miming jester over dinner, or else the bizarre puppets. You also get amusingly down-to-earth reactions from that doctor and those washerwomen, as a moment of punctuation to improve our perspective on the super-polite Okuni and Gohei.
To be honest, I like this film more now I've seen the difference between it and the 1922 kabuki play, which is a bit of a cheat. A film should stand up for itself, without homework. However I still think it's interesting to look at what post-war Naruse did to a by-the-numbers pre-war samurai piece. Also, more importantly, I'd been impressed by the film even before I looked up all this background.