The same year as his famous Meshi (Repast), Mikio Naruse made another, not-so-famous film: Maihime, based on the novel by future Nobel Prize-winner Yasunari Kawabata, which Kaneto Shindô adapted. It is the melancholy story of Namiko Yagi, a former ballet dancer who currently runs a ballet school in postwar Tokyo. Although they have two teenaged children, a son and a daughter, Shinako and Takao, Namiko and educator Motoo are stressfully married; Namiko is being pursued by both an old flame, Takehara, and her longtime business manager. When the former wants her to leave her husband and go away with him, Namiko counters, “Why didn’t you ask me this twenty years ago?”
Indeed, the passage of time, along with her current family ties, has frustrated Namiko’s outlook. Similarly, the intervention of war and the passage of time have conjoined to frustrate her career ambition as a ballerina; here, too, freedom has arrived “too late” for her. Her daughter, who is training to become a ballerina, might redeem Namiko’s “unfulfilled dream.”
Only those who neglect the film’s philosophical underpinnings and its ironical though heartfelt commentary on wartime and postwar Japan could mistake Naruse’s Maihime for a marital melodrama.
Moreover, Naruse has done the opposite of giving this beautiful film a heavy, self-important style. Rather, it unfolds for the most part as an airy series of sighs and anxieties, made all the more poignant by the deceptive lightness. While she and her extramarital suitor take a stroll, Namiko fleetingly notes a young couple, their freedom and time all before them, passing hand-in-hand under a distant tree. (Naruse’s long-shot even has us wondering whether Namiko is glimpsing her younger self in her wistful mind’s eye.)
This sustained stylistic lightness adds considerable power to two ruptures: Motoo’s dinnertime abusive outburst; legless, Namiko’s former dance partner’s and Shinako’s old teacher’s deathbed exhortation: “As long as you have legs, dance!”
Naruse’s closing shot is brilliant, with the forward movement of the camera and inserted closeups seemingly reuniting the married couple and a static shot freezing the distance between them: a tug-of-war between camera use and mise-en-scène.
Mieko Takamine, as Namiko, is superb.
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