The problem with repasts is that, as nourishing and social as they can be, someone has to prepare them.  And – even worse – to clear up after them.  Michiyo Okamoto (Setsuko Hara) is the heroine of Naruse’s Repast, and she has reached the end of her tether with her marriage.  Her husband Hatsunosuke (Ken Uehara) sees her as nothing but a maid. The absence of children and his constant indifference points to a long-term absence of intimacy, and his lack of ambition means the couple must live in a shabby neighbourhood in the suburbs of Osaka with prostitutes, thieves and the unemployed.  The final straw is the arrival of Satoko (Yukiko Shimazaki), Hatsunosuke’s vivacious 20-year-old niece who has fled Tokyo from an arranged marriage.  While Michiyo skivvies, confined to kitchen and table, Satoko flirts with her uncle, lounges about all day, chats with disreputable neighbours, and wanders about the city.

Lack, absence.  Michiyo is apparently open about her feelings – Repast is shaped by her dissatisfied voiceover, and she tells anyone who will listen (in particular those who think she is happily married with a thoughtful husband), that she is wasting away from her domestic duties.  However, she is not entirely honest in her disapproval of Satoko, who admits a secret fear of Michiyo.  Most viewers seem to be happy to accept Michiyo at her word, and follow the orthodoxy of the dominant English language interpreter of Naruse, Catherine Russell, who in articles, DVD booklets and her pioneering book The Cinema of Naruse Mikio : Women and Japanese Modernity (2008) reads Naruse as a director who sympathetically charted ‘the desires and disappointments within women’s lives over the middle decades of twentieth-century Japan’ (1) throughout the four decades of his career.  Anything that interferes with that interpretation – such as Michiyo’s return to Hatsunosuke after deserting him to return to her family in Tokyo, suggesting that a woman’s happiness consists in serving her husband – is interpreted as ironic or an expression of bitter resignation, attributed to commercial factors such as conservative audiences (2), or explained away by the fact that Naruse replaced the original director when he fell ill (3).

But a key scene contradicts such a simplistic reading.  One evening Satoko visits Michiyo’s family home having fled her parents again.  A later episode with this thoughtful couple suggests that her accounts of their severity are exaggerated.  But this scene indicates that Michiyo protests too much: her brother (Keiju Kobayashi) rebukes Satoko for her emotional frivolity, and chides both her and Michiyo for letting his mother and wife do all the housework.  In one shot, both Satoko and Michiyo stare as they are accused of the very neglect Michiyo spends most of the movie feeling victimised by.  Once she had returned to the family home, she lapses into the behaviour she earlier disparaged in Satoko: sleeping all day while others work, leaving her room in a mess, and wandering about the city with older men.

This confirms an earlier, tacit identification of Michiyo with Satoko.  In her opening voiceover where she asks ‘where have my hopes and dreams as a young bride gone?’, she tells us that – like Satoko – she left Tokyo against her parents’ will, for the love of a man who could not economically support her.  What Michiyo says and what Naruse shows are not necessarily the same thing. For a start, her literary voiceover warns us that her account is very much a partial and considered construction, and not a halting effusion of the heart.  Michiyo is in many ways an unsympathetic character, hardened by grievance, shoring up her own precarious social status by looking down on her neighbours.    There is something passive-aggressive about her complaining: she goads her husband for not taking risks like other stockbrokers, implying his failure as a Man (4).  This is a vicious circle: Michiyo’s visible unhappiness is a continual reproach to Hatsunosuke who internalises his sense of inadequacy in a silence Michiyo misreads as indifference.  Despite the dominance of Michiyo’s point of view, Naruse does not make Hatsunosuke (or any of the men in Repast) a patriarchal pig.  Hatsunosuke’s humiliations at work, his exhaustion, and his sense of helplessness is shown with more sympathy then Michiyo can extend.  As Michiyo discovers when she stays with her family, it is easy to exploit others who are prepared to look after you.

Russell states that Michiyo’s options are limited (5), but Naruse populates his film with women working in a limited range of roles such as office or shop employees, dancers and musicians, craftswomen, newspaper sellers, courtesans, hostesses, barmaids, and tour guides.  There is an implication in Michiyo’s complaints about eternal housework and the failure of her husband that she wants someone to take care of her rather than participate in an equal marriage.  Significantly, things improve in her Osaka suburb when she is away; Hatsunosuke gets a promotion, and their feckless neighbour gets a job.  The film’s ending may be bleak – Hatsunosuke returns to sleep at the very moment Michiyo is about to make a confession to him, suggesting he is already slipping back into the bad habits that caused Michiyo’s misery in the first place.  Another reading is that, after a series of voiceovers solely concerned with her own pain, she finally recognises that of her husband. He is a person, an other, with his own problems and yearnings, and not simply the Japanese stereotype of the lazy, bored, defeated salaryman (6), a barrier to her happiness.

The final image suggests a kind of mental or spiritual transformation.  It is a return to the street view that begins and punctuates the film, the area outside their modest home.  Each previous iteration of this scene has been virtually identical, either an objective correlative to the monotony Michiyo feels, or a demonstration of ‘life go[ing] on’ (7) outside her solipsistic woes.  But this final image is different, a creeping tracking shot that seems to belong to a point of view while not directly attributed to one.  There are several of these moments throughout Repast which may accord to Michiyo’s subjectivity, external evidence of her inner growth and her developing empathy: the film’s voiceovers are in the mutable present tense rather than fixed and retrospective, allowing Michiyo to emotionally mature as the film continues.    The lighting and framing of this scene suggests a mental transfiguration, implying that it is not material circumstances that make Michiyo’s life unbearable but her emotional and spiritual attitude.  The reactionary conclusion is that Repast is less a critique of marriage and the limitations on Japanese women than a petition for greater understanding within it.

 

Endnotes

1.  Catherine Russell, The Cinema of Naruse Mikio: Women and Japanese Modernity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), p. xiv.

2.  According to Russell, Naruse and studio Toho ‘tam[ed]’ Fumiko Hayashi’s feminist story for public consumption, and imposed this ending against the will of screenwriter Tanaka Ide, who abandoned the project.  Russell, pp. 25, 215, 219.

3.  Russell, p. 220.

4.  Russell says that Naruse’s female characters ‘complain relentlessly about their circumstances’.  Russell, p. 5.

5.  Russell, p. 214.

6.  Russell, pp. 18, 217.

7.  Russell, p. 2.

 

Repast (Meshi 1951 Japan 97 mins)

Prod Co: Toho  Dir: Mikio Naruse  Scr: Toshirô Ide and Sumie Tanaka, based on an unfinished serial by Fumiko Hayashi  Phot: Masao Tamai  Mus: Fumio Hayasaka  Art Dir: Satoru Chûko

Cast: Ken Uehara, Setsuko Hara, Yukiko Shimazaki