YEARNING (1964) | FILM REVIEW & ANALYSIS
Updated: Sep 12
Mikio Naruse's Overlooked Masterpiece!
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, Tokyo Story
Mikio Naruse is often overshadowed by more famous Japanese directors, even though his resume is brimful of classic films. His directing style might be less unique than that of Ozu or Mizoguchi, but he still made films on par with Japan’s leading directors in the post-war 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. Beneath the surface, the story tackles issues like generational differences, 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.
Background & Facts
Like the majority of Naruse's films, Yearning falls within the so-called «shomingeki» genre, which is to say dramas about the lower middle class. The story confirms Naruse's well-known negative outlook on life, in the sense that it doesn't leave much room for hope or ease from the relentless reality he saw in post-war Japan.
Throughout his career, Naruse often depicted strong women in tough situations, many of which was played by Takamine, like in Floating Clouds or When A Woman Ascends The Stairs. The two of them first collaborated on the 1941 dramedy called Hideko the Bus Conductor.
Their teamwork would continue for more than 25 years, until Naruse's passing in 1969. Before Yearning, Takamine had appeared in fifteen of Naruse's films, but their director-actor relationship was hardly normal. Though their synergy grew strong, it developed in silence and was built on antisocial tendencies.
When looking back at their collaboration, Takamine described Naruse as a very reserved director, who hardly spoke to any of his actors or the crew. Possibly, his behavior stemmed from a lifetime of hardship. He lost his parents at a young age and lived in poverty for many years.
Somehow though, the silent director got more and more powerful performances out of Takamine. It culminated in Yearning, which turned out one of the strongest films in both Naruse and Takamine's filmography.
A Yearnful Story
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 was running the store all by herself.
However, business expansion soon became necessary 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, everything changes when Reiko has a confrontation with Kôji. She scolds him for being a loafer with no purpose in life. As it turns out, he left a promising future in order to 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 journey. It is his last chance to change her mind.
Hours on end in a cramped train cabin is too much of an emotional turmoil for Reiko. Finally, she gets off the train to stay at a local inn. In a rural mountain village, with stunning Japanese scenery on all sides, she explains to Kôji that she would rather die than to dishonor her husband’s memory.
Yearning Versus Tokyo Story
The tale of a young woman who supports the family of her deceased husband was not an uncommon scenario in post-war Japan. Torn Japanese families were a perfect breeding ground for drama. The particular dynamic of a wartime widow, estranged in her own home, was also applied by Ozu a decade earlier in Tokyo Story.
It was 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 developed a finely tuned melodrama machinery.
By 1964, they had become a melodrama power house whose delivery of comments on post-war Japanese society had become as natural as breathing. Yearning might be more melodramatic than most of Naruse’s films, but the storytelling never stumbled towards predictable tear-jerking.
As in Tokyo Story, also this family takes 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 the Perfectionist | The Production of Yearning
Naruse never developed a wholly original film style, which might explain why he was less noticed than Ozu or Mizoguchi abroad. Still, Naruse’s directing was not without personal touch. He always managed to make mundane everyday situations look strikingly beautiful, but never forced.
Whereas Ozu went for realistic and unflattering depictions of Japanese society, Naruse often went for beautiful locations and camera angles. Within stunning backdrops, he put worn and tattered props, costumes, and characters, which reflected the dualities in Japanese society.
As such, the brutal reality in Yearning appears convincing and natural. Naruse and Takamine might not have communicated directly, but their teamwork clearly got more confident. Few teams in the history of Japanese cinema displayed despair as effortless as this duo, and Yearning was their crowning achievement.
The latter half of the film is particularly beautiful. When Reiko and Kôji gets off the train and find themselves in a remote town, surrounded by picturesque scenery. The mountains, the river, and the traditional houses create an enthralling atmosphere that perfectly fits the slow building narrative’s climax.
Takamine's performance, coupled with the mountain village atmosphere, makes for a highlight in both hers and Naruse’s careers. Seldom did her performance feel so convincing and moving as it does here, which perfectly underlines the gravity of the subject matter in Yearning.
Mournful Messages | Yearning Analysis
On the surface, Yearning brings up generational differences and the harsh business tactics that came with post-war modernization in Japan. The country quickly adapted many traits of the «American modernity model», one of which was the establishing of large supermarket chain stores. This ran countless family-run mom-and-pop stores out of business.
Naruse also liked to bring up the unfair treatment of WWII-widows in post-war Japan, many of which fell trough the cracks of the new social order. Between the lingering patriarchy and rapidly increasing capitalist ideals, widows and housewives were neglected and overlooked.
Though the above mentioned issues are given much space in Yearning, a more pressing message looms beneath the surface. Reiko knows that she must honor her husband, and that any other love is unacceptable to the Japanese codex of honor.
She is bound by her respect for the traditional values of Japan. Much like Noriko from Ozu’s Tokyo Story, Reiko's emotional restraint is unwavering, yet, as a strong, independent woman in post-war Japan, she ends up thoroughly disheveled.
Though Yearning is a well-suited title for the film, the translation of the Japanese title «midareru/乱れる» would actually be «to lose one's composure», «to get confused», or «to be disheveled.»
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 that samurais displayed in ancient times. Rather than disgracing themselves, they would commit suicide.
If push came to shove, this might very well be Reiko’s choice as well. Her entire character is the embodiment of an idea, an idea that is highly recommendable, but has no place in modern day society. When her former family life is at an end, she is taken advantage of and left with nothing but her dignity. Her sense of honor gives her nothing but grief.
Whether the Japanese codex of honor was maintained in post-war Japan as anything more than an idea, is hard to say. If Yearning is any indication, it appears to have been intact by the mid 1960s, but then again, it might just be a romanticized idea for the benefit of good filmmaking.
Final Verdict for Yearning
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 became 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 Japanese film experiences from the 60s. Either way it is an emotional roller coaster like none other.
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Reverse Shot: Yearning
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Toho Kingdom: Yearning (1964)
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.