Three bad marriages interlock in Yama no oto, based on Nobel Prize-winning Yasunari Kawabata’s novel, which Yôko Mizuki adapted. Director Mikio Naruse, perhaps overwhelmed by the novelistic character of the script, has not realized, precisely, a film, although a summary meeting by the two main characters in a Tokyo park, exceptionally fluent, knocks one’s socks off.
Shingo and Kikuko Ogata, his daughter-in-law, account for two of the three “bad” marriages. Shingo may have been in love with his wife’s sister, who died, before his marriage; at least this is what his wife believes. Another strain on the marriage is Shingo’s much greater level of comfort, and perhaps infatuation, with Kikuko. Indeed, Kikuko also is more comfortable with her father-in-law than with her cold, philandering spouse, Shuuichi, who works in his father’s firm. Both couples live together under the same roof, where Kikuko, since the departure of the household servant, has become something of a drudge. Emotionally bottled-up, she sometimes explodes into hysterical release, reinforcing Shuuichi’s conviction that she is more like a child than like a desireable wife. Chicken-and-egg: It is impossible to determine whether Kikuko’s neurotic demeanor preceded her husband’s neglect and adultery, or vice versa—or, for that matter, whether the closeness between Father and Kikuko provoked Shuuichi’s marital disappointment or came after. Although it is convenient for us to have “answers” to relational ambiguities, to assign blame to someone and exonerate someone else, feelings are complex; they often contribute to outcomes while they are as yet anticipatory or unconscious. They may weigh in, even destroying a relationship, reciprocally, simultaneously. The “human material” in this film fascinates and partially redeems its Jane Wymanish soap operatic tendencies.
The third “bad marriage” belongs to Fusako, Shingo’s daughter and Shuuichi’s sister, who periodically, when she again packs up her children and leaves her husband, is also under the same roof. She also is jealous of her father’s preference for Kikuko, whose “beauty,” at least to her eye, trumps her own Mother-like plainness. Ironically, Kikuko’s “beauty” is largely the impression made by the neurotic intensity of her feelings, her walking-woundedness and often cover-up forced elation.
“The child,” as in the case of Shuuichi’s perception of his wife, is a recurrent image in the film. There is the haunting Noh child-mask that Shingo comes into possession of after the death of a colleague—a vague reminder of lost innocence, lost certainties and, possibly, lost love. It is an elusive and poignant symbol. There is also an aborted child; Kikuko has an abortion despite her love of children and her patient desire for a child. Perhaps this is her way to end her marriage definitively and to punish Shuuichi, although Shingo credits her instead with the noble motive of refusing to “use” a child to manipulate Shuuichi back. All three motives may hold. It is also the case that Kikuko may be unconsciously punishing herself by in some sense remaining a child by not having a child. On the other hand, Shuuichi’s mistress rejects his instruction that she have an abortion when she becomes pregnant with their child. He beats her as a result and ends the affair. Some commentators have thus credited Naruse’s film for engaging the issue of “choice,” a woman’s reproductive rights and right of self-determination; but, in context, neither wife nor mistress here seems involved in such matters, let alone expressing a progressive outlook. Rather, each reflects a shifted postwar morality that comes to the fore when the mistress’s apartment-mate notes, “Few women today would give up a relationship because the man is married.” All the characters in this film, with the notable exception of Shingo’s largely clueless wife, operate in an unsettled time.
Naruse’s film, which is somewhat lackluster, attempts to draw strength from the far, far superior cinema of Yasujiro Ozu. Shingo resembles some of the fathers that Chishu Ryu had played in Ozu films, there is Ozu’s Setsuko Hara onboard as Kikuko, and there are gracious shots, sometimes with the camera at their backs, of Shingo and Kikuko in extended walks. At the same time, however, Naruse uses Ozu as a point of reference, creating a chillier complexion. Shingo reverses the feeling of helplessness that sometimes attaches itself to Ozu’s fathers, but he is almost entirely deluded as to his command of things. At the same time, while Kikuko is painfully neurotic here, Hara’s characters aren’t the least bit neurotic in Ozu’s films. (Unlike Ozu, Naruse doesn’t like women much.) Finally, whereas Ozu creates visual poetry that often bathes characters in empathetic warmth on the basis of their disappointed lives, Naruse employs similar visual poetry as mere respite from his meticulous, somewhat studied observations of characters he generally seems not to care that much about. This may be why Hara, such a great and moving actress for Ozu, never quite comes to life for Naruse.
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