Okuni and Gohei

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Dan Sallitt

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Jun 2, 2010, 12:25:14 AM6/2/10
to NaruseRetro, meke...@kerpan.com
An atypical Naruse film, alleged to be an unwelcome assignment, though
it was made at a time (1952) when the director seemed to be
consolidating control over his career. Based on a 1922 play by the
famous writer Junichirô Tanizaki (THE MAKIOKA SISTERS, MANJI, THE
KEY), the film is set in the Tokugawa era, and the period setting robs
Naruse of much of the behavioral specificity that we associate with
his work. (A fussy, unpleasant doctor who shows up for one scene in
mid-film is a more typical Naruse creation than the more generic
central performances.)

In addition to this handicap, there's a layer of strangeness that
seems to be a result of Naruse trying to find an angle on the
material. The rapid onset of the story (and something about the sets
as well) makes the film feel like an Allan Dwan/Benedict Bogeaus 50s
Western: the widow Okuni (Michiyo Kogure), accompanied by her
husband's servant Gohei (Tomoemon Otani), is charged with finding and
slaying her husband's killer Tomonojo (Sô Yamamura, of SOUND OF THE
MOUNTAIN), who had courted her before her marriage. The plot chugs
through a few peaks and valleys of the standard quest narrative before
we realize that Naruse and writer Toshio Yasumi have left blank all
the key facts about the characters' motivations: how zealous the two
searchers are about their mission, how the widow feels about her
husband or her former suitor. The effect is disorienting and, in the
absence of interesting behavioral detail, somewhat offputting.
Eventually, one realizes that it was the filmmakers' conscious
strategy to leave the characters mysterious until late in the story,
and that the psychology of Okuni, at least, comes together in
retrospect. The other two characters I'm not so sure about: the
crucial role of the devoted, strait-laced Gohei may be muddled by
unorthodox casting; and Tomonojo serves so many disparate story
functions that it's hard to think of him as an internally coherent
character.

I'm still inclined to think that Naruse made a mistake by engaging the
plot so far in advance of defining the characters; but his sapping of
all the usual pleasures of the revenge movie is at the very least
daring, and might seem more successful upon a second viewing.
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