A Woman's Story

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Dan Sallitt

Jan 6, 2009, 2:32:22 PM1/6/09
to NaruseRetro, meke...@kerpan.com
I started with a good impression of Naruse's A WOMAN'S STORY (1963),
but after a while I felt as if it was a bit of an artistic
straitjacket. It's a family drama spanning two generations, heavy on
flashback, set against the backdrop of Japan's wars of the 30s and
40s. The script, by Ryozo Kasahara, who also wrote Naruse's more
modest (and ultimately more effective) THE APPROACH OF AUTUMN (1960),
is dramatically focused, paced to suggest a grand scale, and much more
event-filled than usual for Naruse, with important characters keeling
over left and right in the opening reels. Naruse certainly brings a
lot to this unfamiliar form. The widescreen compositions, heavy on
long shots, look great, and from beginning to end Naruse seems engaged
by the changing background, throwing a lot of emphasis on the visual
and aural texture of cityscapes and countrysides. (Maybe he had a
little money for this project? It's no chamber piece.) The fatal
subject matter combines well with the director's characteristic
emphasis on unglamorous character defects: it's interesting to see
Naruse's parade of sullen, self-absorbed characters turning up dead at
random times, without much dramatic preparation. At no point did I
have the feeling that Naruse was coasting here.

Before long the film feels rather flat, though. I think that the
eventful story line doesn't leave Naruse enough room to find
undercurrents. He manages to subvert the film's tearjerking appeal by
keeping his usual focus on the mundane, but the noisy plot doesn't
give him much subtext to work with. And then, though the script has
dramatic urgency, it's a little unthoughtful in terms of expressing
character issues. Its central character-based goal – to justify
Takamine's fierce opposition to her son's bar-girl wife – is achieved
by a rote repetition of slut attacks in the flashbacks. The more
complex angle of Takamine and Akira Takarada's oddly loveless marriage
actually works against this main goal, and therefore gets lost, though
it clearly attracts Naruse's interest. And the subplot of the
unconsummated love of Takamine and Nakadai does little except amp up
the sentiment. (It's weird that Nakadai, a great and nuanced actor,
is so often the least interesting character in Naruse films - the
director seemed to regard him as little more than a pretty boy.)

The most beautiful scene comes early (which is unusual for Naruse): at
first embarrassed when instructed to bid her father a formal goodbye
before her wedding, Takamine does so with a sudden surge of emotion,
only to have her uncomfortable father dismiss the gesture. Though the
material seems to me inappropriate for Naruse, his sensibility is
evident almost continuously, right up to the lovely and characteristic
final scene. I suspect he had high artistic hopes for the film.
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