Friday, May 08, 2015

Japan Speaks Out: Wife Be Like a Rose

A man maintaining two households ought to at least be gainfully employed. Unfortunately, that is not the case for Kimiko Yamamoto’s deadbeat father, Shunsaku. Yet, for the sake of social convention and her heartsick mother, she will try to reconcile her parents. Even though it is hard to say no to Yamamoto, things still do not go according to her plans in Mikio Naruse’s breakout hit Wife! Be Like a Rose! which screens as part of Japan Speaks Out, MoMA’s current survey of early Japanese talking pictures.

When Shunsaku absconded to set up house with the scandalous former geisha Oyuki in the provinces, his family was appalled, especially his judgmental brother. Nevertheless, the plucky Kimiko Yamamoto more or less supports herself and her tragic-poetry writing mother on her office salary. Everyone is convinced old man Yamamoto will eventually do the right thing and come home. However, when her father never calls on his real family while visiting Tokyo for business, Yamamoto resolves to take matters into her own hands.

On a practical level, Yamamoto needs her father to finalize her engagement with her junior salaryman fiancé. She is also tired of watching her mother mope around the house. Originally, she plans to frog-march her father home from his den of vice, but the reality of his second home is much different than what she envisioned. Instead of a gold-digging harlot, Oyuki is the long-suffering mother of her half-sister and half-brother, who all live under much more impoverished conditions than her and her mother.

Rose is a gentle film, but it is chocked full of shrewd social commentary. It is fascinating to compare Kimiko Yamamoto, a career woman who is consciously navigating familial, social, and gender roles in an increasingly modernized world, with typical parts assigned to Hollywood actresses in the 1930s. Okay, so she is also cute. In fact, lead actress Sachiko Chiba was Naruse’s fiancée and chief muse at this time.

Their relationship would not last, but her performance holds up undeniably well. She is forceful and flirty, but also extraordinarily subtle and sensitive. It is rather remarkable to see her Yamamoto come to terms with her parents’ faults and failings. The dignity and fragility of Yuriko Hanabusa’s Oyuki is also quite touching.

Rose is considered the first Japanese film to be distributed in America, but evidently it did not exactly set the box office on fire. Despite its beauty, the way in which it subverts dramatic expectations will probably always trouble some viewers. That will be their loss. For Naruse admirers, it would be interesting to watch Rose in dialogue with his late career masterpiece, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, about an aging Ginza hostess facing an uncertain future. Highly recommended, Wife! Be Like a Rose! screens tomorrow (5/9) and next Sunday (5/17) as part of MoMA’s Japan Speaks Out film series.