Friday, August 17, 2012

A Hen in the Wind (Kaze no Naka no Mendori)

A HEN IN THE WIND (Kaze no Naka no Mendori)               A-
Japan  (84 mi)  1948  d:  Yasujirō Ozu

A rarely seen, postwar Ozu film depicting Japan as a moral wasteland, a film haunted by the regrettable actions of the past, showing great difficulty finding reconciliation within one’s own life.  Shot just three years after the war ended while still under the American occupation, the sound of industrial reconstruction can be heard throughout, showing signs of rebuilding both outwardly and inwardly, reminiscent of Antonioni’s RED DESERT (1964), which uses a similar industrial sound design to show how humans have been alienated by modernization.  This film is unlike any other Ozu film, as it shows the damaging psychological effects of the brutality of war, including disturbing behavior within a marriage that includes a rape and domestic violence.  The wrenching melodrama might seem more at home in a Mizoguchi film, but Ozu does an expert job framing and editing the scenes.  Set in the cramped quarters of a rundown factory district, the film is bookended by images of a gigantic, unfinished steel frame that looms high above the populace that resembles a roller coaster ride at an amusement park, but is more likely the leftover ruins of something that once stood there, but was demolished during the war.  Tokiko (Kinuyo Tanaka), along with her young son, live in a rented second story room up the narrow stairs in someone else’s home, in desperate financial straits while her husband Shuichi (Shuji Sano) has been away from home for the past four years serving in the Japanese Army.  Having sold nearly her entire wardrobe, including her last ceremonial kimono’s, she has nothing left to pay for the needed hospital care when her son falls seriously ill.  At the advice of one of her benefactors, Madame Orie (Reiko Mizukami), who bought her last kimono, she agrees to take a customer at a local house of prostitution in order to pay the bill, an event taking place entirely offscreen, where the audience sees a friendly card game with American jazz playing in the background and only hears about it afterwards when she painfully confesses her shame to one of her friends. 

Similarly, the husband’s war efforts are also offscreen, so Ozu makes no effort to dramatize the actions that drive the narrative, as they speak for themselves.  Instead he delves into each individual’s personal reaction to this blunt trauma, where Tokiki couldn’t be more ashamed, especially having waited faithfully for her husband all those years, not wanting to upset him and cause more strain when he comes home, but that’s exactly what happens, as no sooner does Shuichi arrive back home, but he grows defiantly distant and angrily suspicious, losing faith in his wife, finding her actions incredulous, grilling her with incessant questions about exactly where she went, curious about the kind of man she was with, eventually raping her in a dark corner before getting up and leaving in the middle of the night.  This marital tension contrasts with the earlier pastoral scenes of Tokiki walking to the riverside with her son, spending her afternoon having a picnic watching her son play in the high grass as she watches the boats go by in a timeless reverie waiting for her husband to return from the war.  Shuichi literally walks through the debris and burnt out ruins of war, where signs of demolition are everywhere, but Ozu uses corroding cylinders lying on the ground as new lens or prisms to see through, where people can be seen passing by in the distance, which is simply a different or new way of looking at something.  Shuichi finds the house of prostitution, pretending to be a client, asking about someone resembling his wife’s description, learning she worked an evening but never came back, before a young 21-year old is sent to his room, Fusako (Chiyoko Fumiya).  In one of the scenes of the film, the brothel is across the courtyard from an elementary school, where a children’s choir can be heard through the open windows.  Shuichi chides the young woman for her choice of profession, suggesting she needs the willpower to do more with her life.  When Fusako acknowledges she once attended the school, Shuichi leaves her money and quickly leaves the premises.      

In an empty landscape overlooking the river, the two meet again, as Shuichi is sitting alone collecting his thoughts when Fusako joins him, as she often takes her lunch there.  Without acknowledging anything, it’s clear Shuichi is struggling to understand the young woman, and in doing so, his wife, understanding perhaps for the first time how women (like men in the Army) are often forced into undesirable work, often against their will, enduring great hardships for little gain.  With a backdrop of Japan’s defeat in the war, this is heady stuff, as it’s a poetic recapitulation of a loss of noble purpose that had been used to justify the war, where in the end survival is all that matters.  In one of the more highly original cinematic expressions, Shuichi is having a discussion with his employer trying to find a job for Fusako while the slightly clouded and unclear windows behind them reveal a couple’s dance class taking place with American jazz playing softly in the background, where his boss notices Shuichi is ready to forgive the young girl, but not his wife.  It’s clear the war has left him a battered and bruised man, where he takes out his own frustrations on his wife.  Even as we sense he’s ready to forgive her, when he hears her apologetic pleas, it recalls his sense of dishonor and shame at their agonizing humiliation, and loses it, throwing her down the stairs.  Out of shame, Tokiki lies to the landlady, claiming she clumsily fell down the stairs, a desperate act to protect what’s left of the marital sanctity and their honor, even as they’ve been forced to lead such broken lives.  Her fall is prefaced by an earlier moment when Shuichi angrily kicks a tin can down the stairs, where the sound reverberations play in our heads as we recall the can noisily falling down the stairs.  The image of Tokiki slowly pulling  herself back to her feet and limping up those stairs, with what appears to be a sprained or broken ankle, while her husband simply watches and stares in amazement, offering no help whatsoever, is an unsettling reminder of the painful difficulties that lie ahead, a reflection of the broken spirit of the nation that must heal itself from the disastrous ruins of war.  This disturbing finale is heartbreaking for its lack of resolution, as there remains unfinished business at hand.  The unusual openness in exposing the disgrace and humiliation of defeat in this film led to Kurosawa’s STRAY DOG (1949), another national reconstruction film that becomes an extension of the nation’s quest for identity and a restoration of moral order. 

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