No Words
Imogen Sara Smith on Yearning

Yearning is a perfect movie title. As I planned this essay, I thought about ways I could weave in the word, to characterize the emotional pull of Mikio Naruse’s 1964 film, as well as my relationship to Japanese cinema and culture. Then I asked a native speaker, Tomomi Saeki, how she would translate Midareru, the original title of Yearning. To my surprise, she said that it means something like “to fall into disorder,” or “to be disheveled” (like, messy hair). Suddenly, the title of Naruse’s last film, Midaregumo/Scattered Clouds (1967), made sense. Digging further, I found other uses of the word were “to be disturbed,” and “be confused.” This moment was itself a perfect illustration of the pitfalls of writing about movies whose language you don’t speak. The more you learn, the more your confident ideas fall into disarray.

In the beginning, my appetite for Naruse’s films was piqued by scarcity. After falling in love with When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960), I was frustrated by the difficulty (in those pre-streaming days) of finding more. But perhaps this was fitting for a director whose films are so much about people making do without enough—money, love, happiness. Disappointment is the air his characters breathe. Even now, I have seen fewer than 20 of Naruse’s 90-plus films, but their patient, lucid focus on everyday life, their scalpel-fine probing of relationships, and his ability to be at all times both a pessimist and a humanist, have come to represent what I love and admire most about Japanese cinema. These films also make me wonder which is worse: for a Western viewer to over-stress their Japanese-ness, or to assume that because I feel such a connection to them, I’m not missing nuances that are lost on a gaijin (foreigner).

Is any national cinema more prone to being viewed by outsiders as a monolithic expression of national character? Japanese culture has a special power to lure Western writers into holding forth authoritatively on cultural concepts they just learned about and now brandish like kids with a codebook. I have certainly been guilty of this, though I hope I’ve stopped short of the film criticism equivalent of getting tattooed with a kanji that doesn’t mean what you think it does. It is easy to spot “essentially Japanese” qualities in Naruse’s films, starting with titles like Late Chrysanthemums and Floating Clouds. But Naruse’s work resists simplification; its gift is to leave you feeling less certain, faced with the cloudiness and disorder of human feelings.

The first time I saw Yearning, at Film Forum, I approached it with reverent anticipation. I had heard that it contained The Greatest Close-up of All Time, but though primed for it I was still floored by the long reaction shot of Hideko Takamine that fills the last frames, and subsequently dominated my memory of the whole movie. Watching it again recently, I found the close-up as powerful as I remembered, but more ambiguous, harder to decipher. (Good thing it does not last longer, since it is almost impossible to breathe while watching it.) Leading up to it is a slow-burning, unusually structured film: after an hour of patient, achingly drawn-out build-up, the story takes flight in an unexpected direction. The routine, cooped-up existence so painstakingly established by the first part is what makes the last half hour so electrifying, as every shot becomes agonizingly beautiful and charged with feeling.

Takamine plays Reiko, a widow in her late thirties. Although she was married for only six months before her husband was killed in World War II, she has remained for eighteen years with his family, rebuilding their business (a small liquor and grocery store) after it was destroyed in an air raid, and running it with little help. At first and even second glance, she is an exemplar of Japanese womanhood at its most dutiful, modest, and self-denying. She looks, in moments when she is alone, like someone who has been sad for so long she doesn’t notice it anymore. The shop, along with other old-fashioned Mom-and-Pop operations, is being squeezed out of business by a new supermarket; a sound truck broadcasting cheerful jingles and relentless announcements of the supermarket’s “super sale” keeps circling the streets, rubbing it in. Reiko’s in-laws guiltily resent her dedication, except for her handsome young brother-in-law Koji (Yuzo Kayama), an irresponsible loafer who—it seems—admires her but also takes advantage of her loyalty. There is a mood of autumnal melancholy, as Reiko contemplates her meager existence, and comes to realize the family secretly hopes she will leave.

So far, so familiar. Naruse’s great theme was the quotidian battle of women to hold things together, either without husbands or with spouses who are worse than none. He catalogs the petty indignities they are subjected to, and the way they are worn down yet endure. To differing degrees—more so in Yearning—he employs the conventions of melodrama. Importantly, Naruse centers women’s lives and their point of view without idealizing them; his women are sometimes confused, self-sabotaging, whiny, or even selfish. His men range from lovelorn nice guys to lazy, entitled jerks, but they are almost always rather ineffectual, and often emotionally stunted—the furthest cry from the archetypal heroic samurai. Men are immature, even infantilized, Naruse seems to suggest, because they are always being waited on, pampered, and propped up by women.

I have always been impressed by how postwar Japanese films, in the wake of catastrophic wartime defeat and humiliating occupation, unsparingly diagnosed the society’s maladies and skeptically examined its history and traditions. I was very taken with Joan Mellen’s description of film as “Japan’s great dissident art form” in Voices from the Japanese Cinema. But I wonder: does Naruse think society can, or should, change? His films, like Kenji Mizoguchi’s, indict the exploitation and devaluing of women, but rarely propose an alternative. Naruse’s Untamed (1957) is an exhilarating exception, one of the few films of its era to follow a woman’s journey to independence and self-confident agency. Usually, resignation and stoicism are the best his heroines can do. “From the earliest age,” Naruse said, “I have thought the world we live in betrays us.”

Few nations can have experienced more radical and disorienting change in the twentieth century than Japan, emerging from centuries of isolation to pass through accelerated modernization, imperial expansion, nationalism, war, unprecedented destruction, postwar hardship, economic boom and bust. I am fascinated by the way tensions between traditional and modern values and styles play out in films, but I think I have looked too hard for clear-cut dualities that provide neat frameworks for drama. Giri (socially imposed duties and obligations) vs. ninjo (personal desires or human emotions). Honne (private feelings) vs. tatemae (public face). Reality is always messier than the concepts invented to explain it. Yearning portrays a coarsening society—represented by crass businessmen who urge bar hostesses into a grotesque hardboiled-egg-eating contest, and by Reiko’s greedy in-laws, who want to shunt her aside so they can sell out to another supermarket. But the film seems deeply ambivalent towards the conservative ideal of the self-sacrificing woman. Is she a victim who has wasted her life fulfilling society’s expectations, or has she—as she insists—lived the life that she chose and wanted? I’m not sure this can be answered; private feelings aren’t always clear, even to their owners.

As for honne and tatemae, the view of Japan as a society of elaborate courtesies, strict etiquette, and emotional reserve probably has the same mixture of truth and exaggeration as most cultural stereotypes, but I am struck by how frank and even blunt people are in Naruse’s films. Family arguments unleash cruelty all the more shocking for being casual, even as some male characters (especially those played by Ken Uehara) are almost caricatures of undemonstrative Japanese men as the coldest of cold fish. In Sound of the Mountain (1954), starring the bravely smiling Setsuko Hara, a middle-class family talks openly about the wife’s abortion and the husband’s extramarital affairs. (Such subjects, along with prostitution and rape, were treated with a freedom unimaginable in American movies of the fifties, even as Japanese cinema largely eschewed the on-screen kissing and romantic love scenes that were Hollywood’s specialty. A reminder of how the foundations of morality differ in a non-Christian country—a subject much too complex for me to speculate on here.) Perhaps more shocking than the honesty about sexual matters is the way people talk about money. In films like Ginza Cosmetics (1951) and Late Chrysanthemums (1954), the characters talk of little else; the need for cash is a constant refrain, like the dripping of a leaky tap.

Naruse’s films communicate as much through texture as through narrative. The locations—alleys of shabby neighborhoods, neon-cluttered Ginza streets, suburban train stations, and homes with scuffed tatami mats—are rarely picturesque, but they have a tactile realism that makes you feel you are breathing the same air as his characters, smelling the same smells. This immersive sense of place is one of the things I love most about them. And maybe this is where I should mention that I have been to Japan many times, since my brother has lived for the past twenty years in Osaka. From the first day of my first visit, I noticed a paradox: everything was completely foreign, yet I felt completely comfortable; I couldn’t understand anything I heard, or much of what I saw, but I felt happily curious and oddly serene. While my short visits don’t make me any kind of authority on the country or its cinema, they do give me an affection for the rhythms and rituals of daily life that adds something to my experience of films where they appear. Naruse’s gracefully unobtrusive style is attentive to mundane details: table manners, tedious routines of housework or office culture. There are small pleasures to be found, but he also shows daily life as a process of erosion or weathering.

He said of his characters: “If they move even a little, they quickly hit the wall.” Yearning illustrates this bedrock pessimism, but it offers one of the loveliest interludes of ephemeral motion and release in any of his films. The turning point comes when Koji confesses his love for his sister-in-law, who is eleven years his senior. (Underlining the awkwardness of these quasi-incestuous romantic feelings, he only ever addresses her as “onēsan,” or “big sister.”) This admission makes her acutely uncomfortable, adding to her final decision to leave her in-laws and return to her distant hometown. But Koji turns up on the train, toting a bag of mandarin oranges, and announces that he will accompany her home. The rail journey is one of the most beautiful in cinema, mingling the melancholy of leave-taking, the anticipation of setting out on a trip, and the ineffable comfort of being in motion. The train slithers across the widescreen frame, shimmering against steel-grey skies, misty landscapes, and grimy cities. A succession of brief, mostly wordless scenes delicately traces a shift in Reiko’s feelings for Koji over the course of the long ride, annoyance giving way to bemused tolerance, then to affection, then to a sudden epiphany of longing as she watches him sleep, her eyes welling with tears. Stunningly, she suggests that they get off the train together at the next stop.

I love everything about this sequence—not only because I am a sucker for trains, but because of the fluidity, naturalism, and lightness of touch, which recall my newest passion, the 1930s films of Hiroshi Shimizu, with their breezy spontaneity and sense of both transience and possibility. The last section of Yearning takes place (like several of Shimizu’s films) in a mountain hot-springs resort, a cluster of wooden houses around a river, steaming in the winter sunlight. Reiko confesses that she was secretly happy when Koji told her his feelings, admitting for the first time her pent-up loneliness and desire. Insisting that after one night he must return home, she ties a string around his ring finger, recalling a game he played with her as a child. And then, at the crucial moment, she can’t go through with it, recoiling involuntarily when he tries to embrace her. It is a hideously painful moment, and there is no explanation, beyond her horrified apology, “I didn’t know it would be like this.” Is it a society-imposed taboo that stops her, lingering loyalty to her husband, or simply the fact that she thinks of this man as her brother?

One cultural generalization I’ll stand by is that there is no cinema like the Japanese for pulverizing your heart. It has reduced me to inconsolable sobbing more times than I care to recall (don’t even mention Sansho the Bailiff to me—I’m not strong enough to go through that again.) Yearning bides its time before felling you with a single blow. Fleeing his beloved’s rejection, Koji drowns his sorrows in a small restaurant where the owner tells him her son was his age when he was killed in the war. Alone in the bar, he calls Reiko and lies that he is going to spend the night with a prostitute. The next morning, when she sees men carrying a body up from the river, and realizes it is Koji (we never know whether he committed suicide or fell in while drunk), she reacts with shock and horror, racing wildly down the street after the sad little procession. But then she stops—still breathing hard, her hair disheveled—and in that long final close-up her face subtly falls. Something happens behind her almost immobile features, a kind of noiseless collapse into a black hole that sucks all feeling into it. Shock drains out of her face and leaves it empty, tasting cold bitter ashes. But none of these descriptions is quite right. I’m left with a feeling of reaching out towards something I can’t quite grasp—yearning for something I can’t put into words. Maybe there are none, in any language.

Thanks to Tomomi Saeki and Colin Smith for their translation assistance.