Updated: Jul 29, 2020
Classic Japanese melodrama at its best!
Director: Mikio Naruse
Cast: Hideko Takamine, Yûzô Kayama, Mitsuko Kusabue, Yumi Shirakawa, Aiko Mimasu
Related films: Floating Clouds, Flowing, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs
Mikio Naruse is often overshadowed by more famous Japanese directors, even though his resume is brimful of classic Japanese films. His filmmaking style was perhaps less unique than that of Ozu or Mizoguchi, but Naruse definitely earned his place next to the country’s leading directors in the postwar era.
Yearning is possibly Naruse’s finest moment. The main attraction is an eye-watering tale of a love triangle between a widow, her deceased husband and his still living brother. Underneath the surface the story tackles issues like family relations, work ethics, postwar modernism and the Japanese codex of honor.
The sociopolitical undercurrents in the narrative add depth, though it is hardly needed with such a timeless tale of forbidden love and undying devotion. Yearning is as gripping today as it was 50 years ago, much due to the well-aged and confident teamwork of Naruse and his signature actress Hideko Takamine.
The story is set 18 years after WWII. Reiko lost her husband during the war, but decided to stay with his family to help them run their family business. After a while she is running the store all by herself, but business expansion soon becomes a necessity to survive in the rapidly modernizing society. At this turning point it becomes clear that Reiko’s sister in law wants her out of the family business.
Though Reiko is somewhat oblivious to what is going on behind closed doors, she insists on staying. She has a very good relationship with both her mother in law and her husband’s brother Kôji. One day this all changes when Reiko has a confrontation with Kôji. She scolds him for being a loafer with no purpose in life, but it turns out that he left a promising future so that he could be close to her.
When Reiko understands Kôji’s true feelings she decides to leave the family business. Her only option is to go to live with her brother. Kôji refuses to accept this decision and decides to join her long travel. This is the last chance he will get to change her mind.
Hours on end in a shared train booth are too much of an emotional turmoil for Reiko. Finally she gets off the train to stay at a local inn for the night. In a rural mountain village, surrounded by the most beautiful Japanese scenery, she explains to Kôji that she would rather die than to dishonor her husband’s memory.
The tale of a young woman who is supporting the family of her deceased husband was not an uncommon scenario in postwar Japan. Torn Japanese families were a perfect breeding ground for drama. The particular dynamic of a wartime widow, estranged in her own home, was similarly applied a decade earlier by Ozu in Tokyo Story.
This is not the only thing Naruse and Ozu had in common. Just like Ozu nurtured his working relationship with legendary actress Setsuko Hara, Naruse and Takamine worked together on more than dozen films. Yearning was their second to last collaboration, and it proved just how far the two had come. It might be more melodramatic than most of Naruse’s films, but the storytelling never stumbles towards predictable tear-jerking.
Akin to the situation in Tokyo Story, also this family applies a somewhat passive aggressive stance towards their daughter in law. The death of their brother, son and husband torments them still. Although Naruse approached this scenario from a different angle than Ozu did, Yearning still appears his equivalent to Ozu’s masterpiece.
Naruse’s directing was not without personal touch. He always managed to make mundane everyday situations look strikingly beautiful. Whereas Ozu went for realistic and unflattering depictions of Japanese society, Naruse constantly found the perfect locations and camera angles needed to make stunning backdrops for his films.
The latter half of Yearning is particularly beautiful. When Reiko and Kôji gets off the train and find themselves in a remote town, the scenery is nothing less than breathtaking. The surrounding mountains, the river and the traditional houses makes for a picturesque atmosphere that perfectly fits the slow building narrative’s climax.
It seems equally fitting that Hideko Takamine is at the top of her game in Yearning. Her performance coupled with the mountain village atmosphere makes for a highlight in both hers and Naruse’s careers. The tragedy that befell her character, both before and during the story, makes for a heartbreaking outcome. Seldom have Takamine’s performances felt so convincing and moving as it does here.
Between the lines
Naruse deals with the harsh business tactics of modernization, generational differences and gender roles in Yearning. More so, it is a love story handling the Japanese sense of honor. The manner of emotional restraint shown by Reiko is not only reminiscent of the character Noriko from Ozu’s Tokyo Story, it is remarkably unfathomable in the world we live in.
Reiko’s sense of honor appears to underline something rooted in her very heart and soul. The resistance of her feelings for Kôji seems akin to the codex of honor displayed by samurais in ancient times. Rather than disgracing themselves they would commit suicide. This might very well be Reiko’s choice also if push came to shove. Her entire character is the embodiment of an idea, an idea that is highly recommendable, but has no place in modern day society.
This is perhaps what Naruse tried to say. Reiko is taken advantage of and left with nothing but her dignity when her former family life is at an end. In modern day Japan her sense of honor seems but a faint memory. Whether or not it was still being maintained in post war Japan is hard to say. If Yearning is any indication the Japanese codex of honor was still intact by the mid 1960’s, but then again, it might just be a romanticized idea for the benefit of good filmmaking.
Even though Yearning operates on many levels and reflects many Japanese social difficulties, it never loses its focus on the emotional aspect. It is a love story through and through. This is why it never ceases to engage, and that is also why it is one of Naruse’s most effective dramas.
Due to its melodramatic emphasis Yearning tends to be ignored when Naruse’s best works are listed. Depending on what you are after, this film might be your worst nightmare or one of the most beautiful film experiences from the 60’s. Either way it is an emotional rollercoaster like none other. JCA suggests you give it a try.
Yearning can be hard to find, which might explain why it is often overlooked. For European readers there exists an overpriced Naruse box set on Amazon UK. The good news is that it comes with five Naruse classics in total, all of which are highly recommendable.
For American readers Yearning appears to be available for streaming on The Criterion Channel. This is a streaming service which is untested by JCA, but at least we have yet to come across any disappointing Japanese film releases in The Criterion Collection. In other words, it appears legit, but stream at your own risk.