Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
There’s an almost cubist visual sensibility at work in this 1933 silent from director Mikio Naruse. Scenes are fractured into barrages of angles, the camera sometimes moving in on its subjects in kamikaze fashion. Many of the shots are composed on diagonals, their planes bridged via rack focusing, as though Naruse wants to provide a visual corollary for the characters’ struggle to find common ground. These stylistic curlicues seem part of an attempt, perhaps somewhat naive, to communicate the complexity of the relationships being mapped. Later, in Naruse’s mature works, that complexity is subsumed, communicated primarily through structure rather than editing and style.
At the turbulent center of the plot is Omitsu, played by Sumiko Kurishima, one of Japan’s first movie stars. She’s a geisha whose husband, Mizuhara, is absent for unspecified reasons. Presented right at the start of the film, that absence is suggestive. We naturally assume Mizuhara is a cad or a lowlife. What else would explain Omitsu’s clearly expressed hatred of him? Later, when Mizuhara resurfaces, it becomes apparent that he’s a weakling, a sad-sack, and that Omitsu’s disgust derives not from an unfaithfulness on his part but from a lack of attraction on hers. She chastises Mizuhara for abandoning her, yet we wonder: Did he leave of his own accord or did she chase him away?
Unable to find work even after Omitsu welcomes him back, Mizuhara is sweet but so fragile that you worry he’ll break into pieces given the slightest nudge. Perhaps in order to underscore Mizuhara’s subservience, Naruse employs a running motif concerning his feet. His shoes and socks have holes in them, and when he plays baseball with the neighborhood kids — an embarrassingly juvenile moment — he gingerly runs the bases in stockings, embarrassing his son in the process. Omitsu, too, has a signature motif: She likes to smoke cigarettes, usually procured from clients and males with whom she flirts. The device highlights her lingering coquettishness as well as her willfulness. It also helps to banish any suggestion of nobility from Kurishima’s portrayal.
Omitsu is a fascinatingly ambiguous figure. Though she occupies a place in the scheme normally reserved for either a villain or a saint, Naruse refuses to pigeonhole her. Like the Takamine character in “Untamed,” it’s hard to determine how you feel about her even after the movie ends. We see that she’s on tentative terms with nearly everyone in her orbit; even her doting neighbors, who are inclined to treat her favorably, often seem at a loss to explain her attitudes, especially her unwillingness to find a job that’s more socially acceptable. (There are hints that she enjoys being a geisha.) And she’s cold: When Mizuhara commits suicide, her main reaction is to denounce his weakness, and to goad her son to grow into more of a man than his father.
Where Mizoguchi would undoubtedly treat such a heroine as a martyr, Naruse — perhaps the most Hobbesian of major film directors — sees her in a more practical light. Omitsu’s behavior seems intended not to appeal to our sympathies but to force us to reckon with the strength of her survival instincts. The characterization wouldn’t be so interesting absent Kurishima, whose performance lets you see the contradictory planes of Omitsu’s personality, often all at once.
I love the ending: A weirdly brief, almost arrhythmic series of shots that punctures the bubble of melodrama that occasionally inflates around the narrative. It’s almost like a parody of those picturesque summing-it-all-up shots on which Ozu liked to end his movies.