March 6, 2014
A Hen in the Wind – Japan, 1948
Yasujiro Ozu’s post-World War II film A Hen in the Wind may be the bleakest film he ever directed. It takes place in a Japanese countryside that at times seems to have been completely forgotten. With its piles of unused rocks, half-completed structures, and dilapidated buildings, the area has little to suggest much in the way of post-war reconstruction. In addition, instead of homes filled with thriving, joyful families, most of what we see are people struggling mightily to get by in homes so barren that it is immediately apparent just what people have had to do to get by. The film demonstrates just what can happen when a truly decent someone has run out it options. The tale it weaves is somber and deeply moving, and it is likely only the film’s final act that has kept the film from being placed on the same pedestal as many of Ozu’s other films.
The film’s central character is a young woman named Tokiko, wonderfully played by Kinuyo Tanaka. Tokiko has a young son named Hiroshi and a husband named Shuichi (Shuji Sano) who fought in the war and has yet to be repatriated. In a way, she’s lucky. At least she knows her husband is still alive. Many women at this time didn’t. On Tokiko’s vanity is a large picture of Shuichi in a business suit. In the lower left of the picture frame is a much smaller snapshot of him in uniform, a sign perhaps that the majority of their time together has been free of war and strife. The beginning of the film lays bare the depths of Tokiko’s desperation. Having sold almost everything she owns of value, she makes the decision to part with her last kimono. The woman she entrusts its sale to suggests she make money a different way. Making matters worse are the sudden illness of Tokiko’s son and the unplanned expenses that come with it. Just what is someone in this situation supposed to do?
Depictions of women in such circumstances are not uncommon in film. The 2000 film Malena told a version of this story from an Italian perspective; Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour explored it from a French point of view; and Ruan Lingyu practically made a career of it. Here we see it through the eyes of two characters whose traditional upbringings do not allow them the luxury of being able to forgive and forget, and in this way the film is unique. It is also this aspect of the film that may prevent Western audiences from completely embracing it the way they do other Ozu films. In fact, while Tokiko and her husband are both characters audiences can readily empathize with, it is two characters connected to them that they will likely be able to relate to best: Tomiko’s best friend Akiko (Chieko Murata) and one of Shuichi’s colleagues, Satake (Chishu Ryu). These two characters give voice to the very questions that the audience is likely asking – Why did she tell him? and Why can’t he forgive her?
I will not declare A Hen in the Wind a forgotten masterpiece as others probably have. Its ending is far too divisive for that. Yet the film has moments to truly cherish. Many of them involve friends talking heart to heart about times that were much more innocent, times that they know are gone forever. In others, characters talk incredibly honestly about the events that have transpired, and these conversations reveal a great deal about both these characters and post-war Japan. Another fascinating series involves Shuichi’s attempts to deal with both his anger and his growing obsession with doing something - anything really. We expect conflict to erupt, but Ozu is smarter than that. Instead, he presents us with a realistic and rather enlightening conversation between Shuichi and a young woman whose own state of affairs resembles Tokiko’s. The scene is utterly fascinating, for we watch as his compassion and empathy expands in front of our very eyes.
And then, just when Ozu has lulled his audience into believing that everything will now work out, he pulls the rug out from under us and unveils one of the most controversial and violent final scenes in a film of this kind. It is the type of scene that has the power to deeply divide audiences. However, I have no doubt that the ending, and all that it implies, will stay with viewers long after the credits have ended, just as it has with me. In the end, A Hen in the Wind is an eye-opening look at a time not seen much on the silver screen. It is both compelling and heartfelt. Does it always go where we want it to? No, it doesn’t. But then again, neither does real life. (on DVD in Region 2 and 3)
3 and a half stars
*A Hen in the Wind is in Japanese with English subtitles.