Ukigumo, the perfect title of this absorbing, deeply affecting film, comes from the 1951 novel, by Fumiko Hayashi, on which it is based. (I’m presuming that the English translation is accurate.) Recurrent shots of the two principal characters aimlessly walking give form to the drifting, uncertain nature of postwar Japanese lives following defeat and during the U.S. occupation. (Listen for “Jingle Bells.”) The term “floating clouds” is also an apt formulation of the film’s melancholy, the woman’s moody flashbacking memories, her eventual death and the possibility that the man will continue to be haunted by her memory.
Yukiko Koda is the woman; Kengo Tomioka (Masayuki Mori—brilliant; best actor, Kinema Junpo Award), who is married, the man. They meet during the war and have their brief affair, which means everything to Yukiko and little or nothing to Kengo. We thus come to observe the formation of Yukiko’s disappointment and disillusionment; she descends into prostitution—a “floating” downwards. Meanwhile, Kengo’s wife is critically ill and his career slips. Japan, as he once knew it, is no longer there for him, either.
Critics describe the Yukiko-Kengo relationship as being out-of-sync, their needs never quite coinciding in time. The film’s fragmented time-scheme reflects this as well as the discontinuity of the relationship as Yukiko experiences it. In another sense, though, the couple “match up” seamlessly; for self-pitying, paranoid Yukiko so loves Kengo precisely because of the unavailability of his feelings for her, while he comes to appreciate her love for him, when she dies, precisely because of her unavailability to him. Therein lies a stunning metaphor for a Japan “unavailable”—lost—to its people.
Best film, best director: Mainichi Film Concours, Kinema Junpo and Blue Ribbon Awards—and subsequently voted Japan’s third greatest film of all time.
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