“Money is everything,” someone remarks in Bangiku, Mikio Naruse’s masterpiece based on three stories by Fumiko Hayashi: “Bangiku,” “Suisen” and “Shirasagi.” Postwar Tokyo; Japan suffers a depressed economy. Four retired geishas are depressed also on other grounds: their youth and beauty, and hopefulness, have faded. Indeed, Okin faces no financial crisis; a landowner, landlord and money-lender, she has made the most of the money she was able to save in her days as a geisha. But she is miserable, her purchasing property, money-collecting and money-counting numbing activities behind which she hides a lonely existence. Meanwhile, two of the other past geishas are bedeviled by grown children who are eager to leave and strike out on their own. Financial stress isn’t the sum of anxiety, agony; one past geisha may be deathly ill. “Why does [Okin] rush around for money all the time?” Tomi asks. “Money is all she cares about.” Money is what Okin pretends to care about to appear enviable. A favorite former client writes Okin; she eagerly anticipates his visit, applies makeup perhaps for the first time in a while. However, it turns out he wants only to borrow money from her. Money, Naruse’s film reminds us with precise irony, is not “everything.”
Nevertheless, money is necessary for survival and, because time marches on in any case, increasingly making our disappointments incapable of reversal, financial duress only further mocks each vestige of hope. The deep nighttime darkness swallowing up much of this film’s imagery projects the course of their lives that the main characters anticipate for themselves. Poverty—in Okin’s case, an abiding fear of poverty—is only one element contributing to the darkness. Life itself is slipping away.
Devastating—in retrospect: the opening shot of young children cheerfully running up the street.
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