(All images are details from iPhone photos taken of the film playing from the FilmStruck app on Apple TV; built-in screen-capturing is disabled during playback from the Web and from the FilmStruck app on iPhone/iPad.)
Prefatory note: The go-to reference work in English about Naruse's films is Dan Sallitt's A Mikio Naruse Companion: Notes on the Extant Films, 1931-1967, which exists as a WordPress site accessible from the link. I've been reading his entries on each film after my initial viewing, and have been enjoying tremendously the lucid and sensitive considerations he's drawn from his own viewings over the years.
The film is based on another Fumiko Hayashi novel, Chairo no me [Hazel Eyes, 1950], — it's almost to Repast what Ozu's Early Summer is to Late Spring, although Ozu's two films are superior. Here again, we have a solitary housewife Mineko (Mieko Takamine) living with an essentially chaste dissatisfied workaday husband (Ken Uehara): these are the Nakagawas. (Despite the film's title, and the fact that Mineko's inner monologue lends the opening of the film its V.O. narration, the wife's point of view is not dominant.) With regard to the title, Wife [Tsuma, 1953]: a digression on Japanese nouns and the poetic benefits of the lack of articles to express at once the specific case and the general phenomenon... — cf. the scandal of Godard's La femme mariée vs. Une femme mariée — one could translate the title "The Wife," "A Wife," etc... But: "Wife" seems most appropriate to me, in keeping with the Japanese generality...
The Nakagawas have been married ten years. The first time I saw the film I felt it was a masterpiece, the second and third times its power and complexity diminished. I'm not ready to offer any definitive judgment, not here for that... Isn't that though what keeps us intrigued by a great director's work? Even typing this I am ready to watch the film again, and so as Nakagawa-san exits his house to head to work, Naruse assigns him his own monologue. ("I wonder why we can't make it work.") — This strikes me as almost proto-Godardian, or rather let me say: here is the literary influence carried over in part from Naruse/Hayashi and their previous entanglement Repast.
The Nakagawas run a boarding-house; the Matsuyamas are a couple who board; there's a painter too, Tanimura (Kantarô Mikuni): fine-arts, but at present he pays the bills with contract painting.
(Structural flourish: Short flashback to a job Tanimura copped decorating a bar in Ginza: his anecdote stretches on in V.O. across the soundtrack....) — He spied Mrs. Matsuyama (Chieko Nakakita) there, showing up for her secret shift to work as a hostess (bartender who accommodates the patrons' moods). — "She looks like a schoolteacher to me," offers Yoshimi (Michiyo Aratama?), a visiting neighbor. "You never know with women," Tanimura replies, then gets a bucket of water splashed on his head from the height of a balcony above; the woman apologizes: "I'm sorry, I didn't see you there..." Wife expands excitingly beyond previous Narusean confines. It's difficult to discuss the film's mise-en-scène; I feel it's more on the invisible end, Naruse-wise, which only means the intense Naruse-heads will argue the fact (but I'm open to accept all contrary appraisals).
We move to Nakagawa-san in his workplace, pissed off about his delivery-lunch while his secretary Ms. Sagara (Yatsuko Tan'ami) who delivers his meal unwraps for herself a more delicious looking bentô.
The boarder Eiko Matsuyama leaves her husband the freeloading drunk — short shots around her (when she arrives home to find him passed out, as she packs her belongings onto the moving truck).
Tanimura the painter on his way to the newest exhibition, spots Nakagawa and the secretary leaving the museum together — Sagara is a widow with child, formerly lived in Osaka.
Once evening falls, still strolling, Nakagawa discloses his feelings for Sagara, after the two see a movie together, when they're on a bench in the park. ("Bad boy / Petting in the park / Bad girl / Petting in the dark") A relatively chaste admission, for his wife awaits him home while Sagara herself is on the brink of the return to Osaka.
Skip ahead: Mr. Matsuyama, in continuation of a series of departures and arrivals, ejects himself from the house for good after drunkenly dragging Eiko back to the place and causing a row. In the days ahead Eiko will return and ask Mrs. Nakagawa if she would rent a room to a single friend who works with her at the bar; she discloses that the friend has a "patron." (So this Mineuchi will eventually move in upstairs: all mod cons supplied by her patron ("Papa-san"), Kitô.) Coming home from work, Mr. Nakagawa is indifferent to the prospect despite the new boarder's promise of a ¥50,000 deposit: he announces he's leaving on business in Osaka.
I'll take a break from recounting the intensive plot. (1) Note Tanimura's covert fascination with Mr. Nakagawa's private life and his lamentation, upon hearing of the new boarder's move-in, that women just don't like him. (2) Note that the vacillation between house-/neighborhood-space and work-/city-space trace a similar delineation to that of Repast; Uehara unsatisfied, as in the earlier film, which is not to say in Wife that he is so conflicted. (3) There's a proto-There's Always Tomorrow [Douglas Sirk, 1956] moment with a toy-truck falling off the steps at Sagara's in Tokyo; she wishes she could could return to Tokyo with him.
Mrs. Nakagawa has drawn her conclusion about her husband's relationship with Sagara upon his return from the Osaka trip. — He confirms they're lovers, and this is the midway point of the film. "I can't believe what we're facing. This is awful."
Kitô-the-patron's wife appears at the boarding house, heartbroken upon Mineko's confirmation of the intel that a Ms. Mineuchi lives there (as she learned from a hired private eye). — "And your husband fell for a woman working at a bar."
The second-half 'settles' into an alternative groove — confrontation, Sakurai arriving to cook the estranged couple halibut — some comic so-and-so —
Odd cut from her harangue to Mineko to Nakagawa's look-in from outside — moments later. She tells Mineko (she's storming off to see her parents): "Let me say this now. You're a cold-hearted person. Have you ever offered anything to others?" — she storms out, appalled by Mineko's attitude — and Mineko departs to her parents'.
Sagara unexpectedly rearrives in Tokyo, phones Nakagawa to meet up.
Sôbei Niimura — Mineko is née Niimura apparently — he shows up at Nakagawa's workplace. — He beckons him to a meeting — afterward Nakagawa goes to "Lambre" to meet Sagara: their place.
Once she's home she's urged to return to her husband — she's chided by her sister for applying too much rouge — sis advises: stick to the lips. Mineko says: "Women are pitiful." — "When men fall for other women, don't they care about their relationship with their wives?" "Of course they do; they're humans too. That's why divorce court is always busy."
Mineuchi and Kitô come home. Anxious, Mineko rifles through Nakagawa's blazer and finds a card with Sagara's address — she proceeds to pay a direct visit. She confronts Sagara, they go for an extended walk. Everything comes out. — They stop at a café and order black tea. Mineko Nakagawa: "I refuse to get divorced to receive alimony from him. If you still want to be with him, I'll kill myself and haunt the both of you."
Showdown and Sagara leaves —
Nakagawa heads to Lambre and a note awaits him delivered by a hostess, from Sagara.
The very end, in bookended monologues — he wonders whether divorce can happen; she wonders the same and expresses how she could only wish to confess more of her feelings. — "Is that what being a woman or a wife is supposed to be?"
Last two shots: (1) Nakagawa walks to work, crossing the rail line. (2) Mineko dusts the house whippingly.
As you might be able to tell, for me, this is a Naruse film where I'm trying to come to something. I'm writing these pieces with the hope that one picture leads to a revelation in the next, revelations in the nest notwithstanding. My acquaintance Brad Stevens deems this his favorite Mikio Naruse film.
More writing at Cinemasparagus on the films of Mikio Naruse:
Nasanu-naka [No Blood Relation, 1932]
Kimi to wakarete [Apart from You, 1933]
Yogoto no yume [Every-Night Dreams, 1933]
Kagirinaki hodô [Endless Pavement, 1934]
Ginza keshô [Ginza Makeup, 1951]
Meshi [Repast, 1953]