From a novel by Fumiko Hayashi, which her death left unfinished, Meshi (Repast) revolves around Michiyo Okamoto, who after five years of marriage is profoundly dissatisfied with her life. Two years ago, Michiyo left Tokyo to settle into suburban Osaka, where her life became a daily grind of domestic chores. She and her spouse, Hatsunosuke (Ken Uehara, perfect), must make do with unflavorful cut-rate rice on his low salary at a brokerage firm, where he works honorably and intelligently, but to the point of daily exhaustion. The Okamotos’ street is charmless and threadbare, but at least Hatsu has his sometime barroom escape after work. Michiyo has not even toured Osaka yet.
Two events—the visit of Hatsu’s flirtatious young niece, who has fled the prospect of an arranged marriage; a reunion with friends from school, her one-time compatriots in dreaming about the future—help push Michiyo’s unhappiness to a point of decision. She leaves home and returns to Tokyo, ostensibly to visit her mother and married sister; she writes Hatsu that their marriage is finished, but she cannot quite bring herself to post the letter. Michiyo is torn by contradictory impulses and life’s contradictory nature.
Mikio Naruse’s light gray, probing yet gracious film finds Japan’s patriarchal culture unsettled by the outcome of the Second World War, which discredited the authoritarianism supporting this culture. Hatsu is no miniature tyrant; he loves his wife but presumes she should cater to his happiness. Both are uncertain pioneers at the front of Japan’s very slowly changing identity. Michiyo must somehow arrive at her own happiness.
Setsuko Hara, as Michiyo, gives what may be her most subtly inflected performance (best actress, Blue Ribbon and Mainichi Film Concours Awards). Naruse: best film (tied with Ozu’s Early Summer), best director, Mainichi Film Concours.
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