Husband and Wife is one of director Mikio Naruse’s stranger films. Primarily a personality-clash comedy in which married couple Isaku and Kikuko Nakahara (Ken Uehara and Yôko Sugi) move in with eccentric male widower Ryota Takemura (Rentaro Mikuni), the film plays, much of the time, as a sort of meta-movie “what if?” (in this case: what if Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were locked together in a room and forced to fight over Mary Pickford?) The Chaplin parallel becomes explicit halfway through when the trio goes to a Christmas pageant and view a stage show reenactment of one of the Tramp’s comedy routines. It’s telling that Takemura (whose broad physical mannerisms and naïve City Lights stare are more than vaguely Chaplinesque) laughs uncontrollably throughout the performance; he’s Narcissus captured by his own reflection, his character exemplifying the profound connection and the uplifting sense of identification that exists between performer and viewer. Comparatively, Isaku is the Great Stoneface of the scene; he’s Buster Keaton internalized and inactive, sitting silently in stoked jealousy, looking slightly perplexed and/or annoyed as his wife laughs along with Takemura. Naruse uses Chaplin and Keaton’s diametrically opposed iconography as a way to psychologically delineate where Takemura and Isaku stand in relation to the woman they both love. In the end he comes down more on Isaku’s side (hence Keaton’s), though I think this is less a facetious desire to preserve the traditional husband/wife relationship than it is Naruse’s insightful recognition of which point of view is more open to growth, change, and adaptation.
Chaplin’s art is primarily external and bathetic; he revels in naked emotion that, at its worst, manipulates each viewer’s reactions to Pavlovian extremes. The upfront superficiality of his comedy was probably ideal for a post-war Japan beat down into semi-powerless insecurity, yet note, in Husband and Wife, how Naruse reveals the limitations of both the comic’s method and the country’s mood. In a seemingly incongruous transitional scene, Takemura tangles a young boy’s kite in an electrical power line. While Takemura rubs his head in an exaggerated expression of befuddlement (an action not far removed from the animated way in which Chaplin crinkles his mustache) the child, upon seeing what’s happened, turns around like a robot and breaks into a tearful, hit-your-mark wail. It’s all action/reaction and at the screening I attended it was the moment that got the biggest laugh—the quintessential bell that set off the appropriately slobbering hilarity. Yet the scene turns a simultaneously critical eye to its viewers, reflecting our reactions back at us, while further revealing Takemura as something of a two-dimensional construct/constant. Inevitable, then, that the film and characters finally abandon him. He’s all surface and—despite the attractions of his ingratiatingly bewildered façade—there’s nowhere left to go with him.
In contrast, Keaton’s sensibility is one of internalized pathos; out of the comedian’s impassive countenance springs—as in Steamboat Bill, Jr.—a literal tornado of external actions. It’s a very intellectual style: the subconscious gives rise to a comic consciousness and the complicit viewer projects his or her own sentiments upon the resultant situations. The limitations of this viewpoint come about when it is placed within a harsh, demystified reality; hence the character of Isaku in Husband and Wife often seems a superficially pathetic fish out of water because he is rarely connected to, and hence never in control of, his surroundings—his subconscious is imprisoned and mostly unable to express itself. Isaku is thus happiest when an external stressor allows him to make a withering wisecrack as when he tosses off cruelly insulting bon mots about Takemura’s pajamas and deceased spouse (“Wives are so easy to replace,” Isaku states in the cruel tenor of an absolute). For the most part, though, Isaku keeps his body and heart rigid and unreadable. Ostensibly, he’s defending and protecting himself against changing situations and times, but in actuality the character only succumbs to those things over which he believes he has no control (much as Keaton finally, tragically acquiesced to the evolutions of an art form to which he seemingly could not adapt).
As is so often the case in Naruse’s films, the journey in Husband and Wife is toward a reconciliation of those contradictions inherent to being human. What thus begins as a romantic comedy of errors takes a surprising third act turn to melodrama when Kikuko announces to Isaku that she is pregnant with his child. This woman, whom the film has previously portrayed (via the two men’s comically differing perspectives) as a Pickford-like innocent, suddenly takes on the emotional depths and vitality of The Wind-era Lillian Gish. The parallel is again made explicit in the film’s heavily stylized final sequence where the couple visits a literally windswept abortion clinic and a life-altering decision must be made and mutually agreed upon. It is here, in the film’s epiphanic final moments (which should not be revealed, but experienced by each and all), that the film’s dichotomous discourse between the comic and the tragic, between the reel and the real, and—most importantly—between a husband and a wife resolves itself and coalesces into a singular expression of the most beautifully genuine emotion.