Review: The Munekata Sisters (1950)

Review: The Munekata Sisters (1950)

Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963) was a type of uncommon administrators who appeared incapable of creating a very terrible movie. Granted, a large portion of his early profession within the Twenties and ‘30s has been misplaced—swept away by the cataclysms that worn out an estimated 96% of Japanese silent cinema1—so we’ve got no entry to Spouse Misplaced (1928) and Magnificence’s Sorrows (1931), critically maligned movies that even their creator deemed substandard. However of Ozu’s many extant works, the bulk vary between honest and glorious, with masterpieces (1949’s Late Spring, 1953’s Tokyo Story, 1958’s Equinox Flower, and so forth.) that rank with cinema’s most profound achievements. Even lesser efforts (1934’s A Mom Ought to Be Beloved, 1948’s A Hen within the Wind) function sufficient good moments and strong craftsmanship to warrant occasional viewings. Such can be the case of the lesser-known The Munekata Sisters.2

Based mostly on the novel by Jiro Osaragi and launched in August 1950, The Munekata Sisters marked the primary of three situations the place Ozu directed for a studio aside from Shochiku.3 In spring three years earlier, workers at rival firm Toho turned pissed off with their labor union’s guidelines and inventive interferences, and thus shaped an alternate union to symbolize themselves. Referred to as the Society of the Flag of Ten, they had been allowed to work in a beforehand vacant set of soundstages and had been christened Toho Second Manufacturing Department. Alas, tensions between the Society and the earlier union continued, the previous finally breaking off to kind a subsidiary referred to as Shin Toho (“New Toho”).4 Shin Toho initially obtained distribution and monetary backing from its dad or mum firm—in change for twenty-five % of all income—however in March 1950 defected to function by itself. Their output included debut movies by up-and-comers like Kon Ichikawa in addition to freelance jobs from established moviemakers. Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Canine (1949) was one such movie, the Ozu image underneath dialogue being one other.

Making The Munekata Sisters proved considerably irritating for Ozu, because the entrance workplace not solely dictated casting however picked the supply materials.5 “To be frank, I discover it tough to make a movie out of a novel,” he recalled in a 1958 interview with Kinema Junpo journal. “You’re compelled into remodeling the creativeness of the creator, after which have to pick out somebody to play a task already created. After I write, I all the time write with an actor in thoughts from the start, and this helps create the position within the movie.”6 Working from what he described as a “very heavy” script,7 he additionally discovered himself quarreling with star Kinuyo Tanaka, with whom he’d labored quite a few occasions earlier than however who’d lately returned from three months in Hollywood and consequently had new concepts concerning movie performing. Ozu, accustomed to dictating performances all the way down to the tiniest motion (“You aren’t presupposed to really feel, you might be presupposed to do,” he as soon as instructed an actress), was even overheard grumbling about his main woman.8 Nonetheless, he remembered the shoot being a straightforward one and addressed the story predicament by directing the “heavy” script “very evenly.”9

The Munekata Sisters begins with one of many titular siblings, Setsuko (Kinuyo Tanaka), visiting the previous capital of Kyoto, the place she learns her father (Chishu Ryu) is terminally unwell with abdomen most cancers. A really “conventional” Japanese lady, she spends a lot of her time touring the town’s well-known temples—a lot to the boredom of her youthful, “trendy” sister Mariko (Hideko Takamine). Infused with up to date methods of considering, Mariko’s likewise pissed off with the trail her sibling’s chosen: Setsuko tolerates an unemployed husband, Mimura (So Yamamura), regardless of lasting love for Hiroshi (Ken Uehara), a person she knew earlier than the warfare. Mimura learns of his spouse’s emotions, turns in opposition to each siblings, opposes Setsuko looking for monetary help from Hiroshi to avoid wasting her bar, and bodily strikes her after suggesting they divorce.

At this level, the movie goes comically off the rails. The husband’s subsequent demise of a coronary heart assault results in a nauseating denouement whereby his widow refuses to marry Hiroshi for concern of being haunted by the previous. (The subdued writing and performing within the resultant breakup scene feels misplaced amid overheated melodrama.) However the issues start even earlier than that, with contrivances and the drained cliché of interrupted intimacy. On the verge of divorcing her husband, Setsuko rendezvouses with Hiroshi at an inn to debate the longer term. The 2 are slowly leaning in for a kiss after they hear somebody entering into the room; as they step aside, Ichiro Saito’s music involves a halt, accentuating what’s already an awkwardly staged scene. Ozu professed all through his life to have been bored with romance,10 and nowhere is that this extra evident than right here. Further issues stem from the daddy and his inconsequential sickness subplot: as written, his solely narrative operate is to proffer recommendation to his daughters.

Earlier than Act Three, nevertheless, The Munekata Sisters fares as a modest entry in Ozu’s oeuvre, thanks in nice half to Hideko Takamine. A serious star since age 5, Takamine appeared in over 100 photos as a toddler—together with one directed by Ozu, 1933’s Tokyo Refrain—earlier than transferring to Toho in her adolescent years. Clinging to reputation after the warfare, she’d been one of many founders of the Society of the Flag of Ten and thus accompanied them to Shin Toho. In The Munekata Sisters, Takamine performs a tomboy (“She seems to be like a woman however acts like a toddler,” says her father) vulnerable to humorous tics (protruding her tongue, scrunching her face, describing others’ lives with a theatrical tone of faux-profundity). Most apparently, although, her character Mariko is a byproduct of occupation-era (learn: westernized) Japan, incessantly at odds along with her sister, whom she deems “old school.”

At its core, The Munekata Sisters is in regards to the conflict of life between its two protagonists. Whereas Setsuko dons kimonos, Mariko struts about in Occidental attire; whereas the previous’s content material roaming the temple of Kyoto, the latter’s happier in cosmopolitan cities resembling Kobe and Tokyo; Mariko enjoys being spoken to in English and, at one level, kicks her slippers at a displayed set of samurai armor, one thing her sister would by no means do. Within the film’s greatest scene, the siblings sq. off in opposition to one another and their respective methods of life. (“Issues which can be actually new by no means get previous. What does ‘new’ imply to you? Quick skirts? Fashionable nail polish coloration?” “You and I are completely completely different. We had been raised in numerous occasions.”) The movie by no means chooses a aspect, although the siblings’ father, whereas assuring Mariko to seek out her approach, cautions her that “being fashion-conscious is boring.” By drama’s finish, the sisters stroll collectively by way of Kyoto, clinging to their world views—Setsuko nonetheless in kimono, Mariko nonetheless in western clothes.

Persevering with on the subject of modernization: The Munekata Sisters is retroactively enjoyable as a glimpse into the later years of Japan’s postwar occupation. Whereas no foreigners seem, their affect is plainly seen: an workplace constructing rife with English indicators for Time, Life, and Bible Home; a café with a Coca Cola signal prominently hung from the ceiling. Meantime, the characters reminisce in regards to the warfare and prewar years: a bartender character is a former pilot, and Mariko attended junior excessive in Manchuria, the Chinese language demographic infamously annexed by Japan in 1931.

And there’s a pleasure constant throughout all surviving Ozu works: the beautiful sense of design, the pure movement of pictures. Along with cinematographer Joji Ohara, the director will get artistic with climate, at one level staging an inside scene throughout a thunderstorm, reaching mild results by way of the shadow of raindrops streaming down home windows. Pictures that little doubt look spectacular within the movie’s new restoration. I haven’t seen the print in query (it’s to make its debut on the 2023 Cannes Movie Competition) however hope it will definitely makes its strategy to residence media markets there and elsewhere. For even minor Ozu movies resembling this are well worth the consideration of great movie lovers world wide.

Works cited and additional studying:

  1. Russell, Catherine. The Cinema of Naruse Mikio: Ladies and Japanese Modernity. Durham: Duke College Press, 2008, p. 52
  2. A disclaimer on the movie’s title. Per a Japanese correspondent of mine, the correct pronunciation of the sisters’ surname is “Munakata.” Nevertheless, I lately attended an Ozu exhibit on the Kanagawa Museum of Fashionable Literature in Yokohama, Japan; and the plaque associated to supplies for the movie underneath dialogue spelled the English title as “The Munekata Sisters.” This seems to be the official English spelling per the movie’s copyright holders; and so, for the sake of illustration, that is the spelling I’ve used on this article.
  3. The opposite two situations are 1959’s Floating Weeds, shot for Daiei, and 1961’s The Finish of Summer season, shot for the Toho subsidiary Takarazuka Eiga.
  4. Anderson, Joseph L. and Donald Richie. The Japanese Movie: Artwork and Trade (Expanded Version). Princeton: Princeton College Press, 1982, pp. 167-8
  5. Bordwell, David. Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema. Princeton: Princeton College Press, 1988, pp. 311-2
  6. Richie, Donald. Ozu: His Life and Movies. Berkeley: College of California Press, 1977, p. 236
  7. Bordwell, p. 313
  8. Richie, pp. 144; 236
  9. Bordwell, p. 313
  10. Richie, Donald. “The Later Movies of Yasujiro Ozu.” Movie Quarterly 13, no. 1. Autumn 1959, p. 21

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