It is best to begin a discussion of Mikio Naruse's Yearning by focusing on its concluding image: a close-up of war-widow Reiko Morita, played by the director's favored actress Hideko Takamine, as she watches the body of her brother-in-law Koji (Yuzo Kayama) being wheeled away along a rocky rural path. I bring up the film's devastating final visual first because of its reverberatory complexity; what passes across Takamine's face here echoes not only through this singular narrative (its screenplay authored by the lead actress's husband, Zenzo Matsuyama, from a story by Naruse), but also across the entirety of its director's career. This is the key moment in Naruse's filmography and so it is tempting for the critic, struck dumb by awe and admiration, to avoid interpretation at any cost. Isn't it better to trot out a well-worn cliché (something along the lines of "words cannot express…") rather than spoil what is, in effect, a miracle? Yet adherence to such "silence is golden" dogmatics finally gets us nowhere; indeed, it is silence of a sort that ultimately undoes Reiko, who masks her true feelings for so long and with such societally-sanctioned deference—she is, in a way, the ultimate Naruse heroine—that it breeds a tragic turn of events mired in irreversible uncertainty.
This sense of inescapable tragedy is apparent from Yearning's opening scene. A truck owned by the Shimizuya Supermarket chain winds its way through the streets of a post-war Japanese suburb, blaring an obnoxious and intrusive advertising jingle. The sounds of its movement rise and recede as it skulks, like a stealthy bird of prey, across several starkly composed black-and-white widescreen images. As the truck drives by Reiko, who stands in front of the small grocery store that is her deceased husband's hand-me-down legacy, she gazes solemnly after it. If the protagonist's last close-up is indescribable, her introductory one is all-too-readable: change, of an unduly harsh and destructive nature, is in the air and Reiko knows it. What has just passed before her is an omen of inevitability, though one lacking the crushing context of hindsight. A weightless symbol, in other words, foreshadowing the endpoint to a journey yet to be mapped. The narrative road that follows this ominous opening, though clearly demarcated into three acts, is nonetheless characterized by knife's-edge shifts in tone that keep all involved, both on- and off-screen, in a perpetual state of imbalance.
At first, Yearning appears to be a typically late-Narusian offering, a low-key and observational drama that obsessively details Reiko's day-to-day routines. In addition to keeping her small business afloat, Reiko must deal with her meddling in-laws, who have their minds set on selling the grocery store, and also attend to Koji, who inexplicably indulges in a rebellious cycle of petty crime and violence. One of Naruse's great talents is in making the mundane mysterious so when Koji declares, seemingly out of nowhere, that he's been in love with Reiko for years, it takes more than a few moments to acclimate to the film's suddenly malleable emotional terrain, even though, in retrospect, it makes perfect psychological sense. It's a shock to witness how charged and raw the duo become after Koji's admission, and Naruse's camera, under the guiding eye of cinematographer Jun Yasumoto, never blinks, maintaining a harsh, voyeuristic presence as the characters move, like increasingly frenzied celestial bodies, through a space made unfamiliar because of a naked confessional moment.
In Naruse's world, such bald emotionalism is often seen as an exploitable sign of weakness and so it is with Reiko's in-laws, who use this new vulnerability to their advantage and force her to relinquish control of the grocery store. Despite its casually cruel nature, this action seems to bring Reiko some level of peace and also gives her the strength to rebuff Koji's advances. Yearning's Japanese title, Midareru, literally means "to be disordered" or "to get confused" so when the film's second act comes to a close (in a sequence eerily reminiscent of the final minutes of Naruse's '30s melodrama Apart from You) it feels like a proper, present-tense ending. Having achieved some semblance of order, Reiko calmly boards a train and waves goodbye to her former life; the character, like many a Naruse protagonist, quietly accepts her fate and its disappointments in order to maintain and/or regain a sense of status quo. But it is not to last for Koji has followed Reiko onto the train.
What ensues is probably Naruse's most brilliantly sustained sequence. As the train races on to an unspecified destination, Reiko and Koji play out a romantic, yet foreboding courtship-in-miniature. The melodramatic tensions of the second act fade away (it is as if the characters have gone beyond the movie they inhabited into entirely new surroundings) and it seems possible that the duo can build a life together. But their initial sense of excitement (one that Naruse implies could only continue if the train never stopped) eventually erodes, and with the end of the characters' journey comes a kind of emotional atrophy.
The psychological burden of the duo's old lives finally catches up with them when they retreat to a mountain town shrouded in a thick, immobile fog—one of Naruse's greatest visual metaphors for purgatorial stasis. In an emotionally charged confrontation, Reiko once more denies Koji's affections and he storms off into the night, seeking the numbing solace and deadly company (or so the finale ambiguously suggests) of alcohol. This brings us full-circle to Reiko's final close-up, about which pages should be written though such extended analysis will not be attempted here. Suffice to say that it is one of the cinema's most primal images, a silent scream of recognition and understanding by way of soul-crushing regret, one that forever hangs, like a masterpiece of portraiture, within its own timeless space, waiting to be looked upon so that it may gaze back, alternately, in horror and in revelation.