Writer-director Mikio Naruse’s Wife! Be Like a Rose! has the distinction of being the first Japanese talkie to receive a commercial U.S. release, though it would be an understatement to describe its reception as lukewarm. In his entry on Naruse for Senses of Cinema‘s ongoing Great Directors series, Tokyo-based writer Alexander Jacoby calls particular attention to Variety‘s April 14, 1937 review of the film, which carps about Wife‘s “lack of pace” and “agonisingly underplayed” performances, goes on to praise its “quiet drollery” and “honest human values,” and then concludes—in what must be one of the more retrospectively jaw-dropping punchlines ever concocted—that “Jap femmes are okay for looks.”
Though cinema has the power to open the world and offer all cultures new ways of seeing, the Variety review makes clear that progressiveness often happens in a series of fits and starts and that we frequently stumble like babes afflicted and hindered by a peculiarly adult myopia. This facet of human experience quite evidently applies to Kimiko Yamamoto (Sachiko Chiba, Naruse’s then fiancée), the bubbly protagonist of Wife! who, under the pretext of requiring a go-between to officialize her engagement, rather naïvely attempts to reunite her despondent poetess mother Etsuko (Tomoko Ito) with her estranged father Shunsaku (Sadao Maruyama). Kimiko’s hopes for a fairy-tale resolution start to disintegrate the moment she visits her father’s mountain home and discovers he is raising a family with Oyuki (Yuriko Hanabusa), a retired geisha. (At the screening I attended, Mary Richie, former wife of film scholar Donald Richie, pointed out that Oyuki speaks to Kimiko in the most formal Japanese dialect, a culturally-specific acknowledgement of both class placement and blood relations that is unfortunately lost in the subtitle translation.) Kimiko convinces Shunsaku to return to the city and meet with Etsuko, but the poetess treats her husband with drunken disdain. Kimiko still holds out a kind of hope as she takes her awe-struck father around a city he hasn’t seen in years (in a particularly hilarious moment of cross-cultural referencing, the duo reenact the hitchhiking scene from Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night), yet there remains a burgeoning sense that her dreams of reconciliation are futile.
In the film’s final, powerful sequence Shunsaku takes his leave while an intoxicated Etsuko rails against her family and misfortunes. Naruse then intercuts isolated images of Kimiko and Etsuko staring intensely at each other while slowly tracking out from them, an agonizing dissolution of a tenuous mother/daughter bond illustrated as a tragic/ecstatic loss of the soul. It’s one of the first instances where the young Naruse’s stylistic and psychological obsessions achieve perfect unity, and it rather boldly suggests that progress of any kind (in family and in life) can lead us as much into darkness as it does into light.