Review: The Whole Family Works

The Whole Family Works feels more of a piece with Mikio Naruse’s quietly observant and psychologically charged later work.

The Whole Family Works
Photo: Toho Company

Mikio Naruse’s adaptation of Sunao Tokunga’s novel, The Whole Family Works feels more of a piece with the writer-director’s quietly observant and psychologically charged later work. For the Naruse-familiar, it is an anomaly only in its placement within his filmography—indeed, this could be a film made by the elder, stasis-minded Naruse momentarily inhabiting, through a metaphysical twist of fate, his stylistically exuberant younger self. Set in depression-era Japan around the time of the Sino-Japanese War (which the director evokes, during a brief dream sequence, by dissolving between children’s war games and actual adult warfare), The Whole Family Works gently observes a family coming apart at the seams. Ishimura (Musei Tokugawa) is the jobless father of nine children. Unable to find work he tasks his sons and daughters with the monetary support of the clan, an order no one questions openly until eldest son Kiichi (Akira Ubukata) comes home with a discontented headful of ideas imparted by his platitudinous teacher Mr. Washio. (Similar filial discontentedness behind the scenes: Naruse scholar Audie Bock suggests that the film’s focus on “the working poor” quite deliberately skirted the requirements of the national policy propaganda films then encouraged by the patriarchal Japanese government.) The tension between father and son builds over the course of the film until they fight it out during a torrential downpour, a sequence featuring one of Naruse’s most striking juxtapositions: a dissolve between Ishimura and Kiichi’s heated debate and the increasingly violent rainstorm pattering rhythmically against the outer walls of their home. Though The Whole Family Works finally feels like something of a warm-up for the director’s stylistic and thematic obsessions post-Ginza Cosmetics, it is moments such as this (along with an equally striking last image, breeding revolution, of the younger sons heedlessly somersaulting on the floor above their parents) that show Naruse’s raw, burgeoning talent shaping itself into something expressive and masterful.

 Cast: Musei Tokugawa, Noriko Honma, Akira Ubukata, Kaoru Ito, Seikichi Minami, Takeshi Hirata, Seiichiro Bando, Kiyoko Wakaba, Den Obinata, Sumie Tsubaki, Kinji Fujiwa, Jun Maki  Director: Mikio Naruse  Screenwriter: Mikio Naruse  Distributor: Toho Company  Running Time: 65 min  Rating: NR  Year: 1939

Keith Uhlich

Keith Uhlich's writing has been published in The Hollywood Reporter, BBC, and Reverse Shot, among other publications. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle.

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