Fumiko Hayashi wrote fiction that Mikio Naruse converted into notable films, among them Repast (1951), Late Chrysanthemums (1954) and Floating Clouds (1955). Hayashi was in her late forties when she died in 1951. Hourou-ki, sometimes called Her Lonely Lane in English, sometimes A Wanderer’s Notebook or Vagrant’s Diary, came from Hayashi’s 1927 autobiographical Hōrōki. It chronicles a desperately poor life, afflicted with chronic bad matches and marriages, that ultimately reaches a level of literary popularity and financial success, by which time, however, Hayashi is an embittered cynic. Hideko Takamine plays Hayashi. One has to admire the extent to which the former child star is willing to detail such an unpleasant character (twice Hayashi loses a job because she is drunk at work), but one doesn’t necessarily believe that Hayashi is capable of writing anything, no matter how many shots show her hunched over a table busily writing to the light of a single hanging bulb. To be honest, I find it hard to believe that Takamine is capable of even reading a book.
Still, Naruse’s film is an estimable achievement, not least so for its compelling portrait of a struggling community of poets and fiction writers in Tokyo slums. Indeed, the widescreen, black-and-white film is emotionally gorgeous at first, steeped in dark gray nostalgia deepened by Takamine’s accomplished voiceover and the memorable main theme of Yuji Koseki’s score. The film’s first movement reminded me of George Cukor’s Little Women (1933).
But the thing goes on for more than 140 minutes, and as it insists on Hayashi’s pathetic, unhappy life it peters out. Hayashi is scarcely made more sympathetic by the periodic punctuation of male abuse.
Naruse, shrewd, attends to both the social context and Hayashi’s self-destructive attitude. These concerns, though, never quite come together.