May 12, 2016
That Night’s Wife – Japan, 1930
Not much happens in Yasujiro Ozu’s 1930 silent film That Night’s Wife. I say this not as a criticism, but as an introduction to the notion that a movie’s thrust is sometimes in its actor’s faces and not its script. Here, we get knowing glances between characters who know the truth is too bleak to say aloud, pained expressions on characters trying to put on brave faces, and the ever-changing human landscapes of characters in enormous emotional fluctuation. It is something silent films often excelled at showing, and something that spoken words or long-winded explanations often weakens. Yasujiro Ozu understood this, and, judging from the rest of his work, it is something he never truly forgot.
That Night’s Wife is a family melodrama that would have made D.W. Griffith proud. The film involves a desperate family (Takohiko Okada and Emiko Yagumo), a sick child (Mitsuko Ichimura), and a police detective (Togo Yamamoto), and in its early moments, the audience learns pretty much all they need to know about the plot. In those scenes, a masked man commits armed robbery and then rushes home to tend to his very ill young daughter, who, as their doctor explains it, is facing the toughest battle of her life. To get home, he takes a cab driven by someone who keeps giving him suspicious looks, as if he is on to him – and in truth, he is. From there, the film becomes a waiting game, in which one person is on alert for the slightest slip-up, and the other two wait anxiously for the any hint of recovery.
After a slow start, the film build to a very powerful ending, and the credit for this goes solely to the hard work of the cast, who without words make us understand what a good man driven to desperation goes through and what a man whose job it is to uphold justice is faced with in a situation in which being legally correct feels almost wrong. I also admired the way the mother in the film is never a passive bystander relying on her husband to save the day. At certain points, she displays a strength that is both admirable and a bit worrying. At key points, I began to suspect that she would do quite well for herself on the other side of the law.
At just sixty-five minutes, That Night’s Wife does not have much time in which to tell its story, and therefore it is slightly disappointing that so much time is wasted in the first quarter of the film. In those early moments, Ozu shows us police cars arriving, policemen lining up to receive instructions, and policemen rushing off to catch their man. None of these actions seems particularly important and it’s unclear what message they are sending. After all, these same policemen enable the criminal to get away. And then there’s the matter of the robbery itself and the film’s McGuffin, ill-gotten gains from the robbery. There’s every indication that the money is desperately needed to pay for the child’s medical care, yet its gain or loss becomes increasingly inconsequential. The visiting doctor never demands payment, and there’s no mention of the prohibitive cost of medicine. This renders the robbery unnecessary, which would be fine if someone in the film acknowledged it and repented. No one does. Instead, the characters linger, the father at his daughter’s side, the mother trying to protect them both, and the detective watching, waiting, and praying for a slip up.
That Night’s Wife is not in the vein of Ozu’s later taut masterpieces. It lacks complete originality, partly because it bares such a close resemblance to other “sick children stories” that cinema was churning out during the silent period. Mikio Naruse would do a variation of the same theme a year later with Flunky, Work Hard, and Griffith had made The Country Doctor in 1909. Seen in this light, That Night’s Wife may sound like a minor footnote in the career of one of cinema’s giants, yet what the film does better than many similarly-themed films is give the cast time to fully express their angst and inner conflict, and as a result of that, the film builds in both power and resonance and ends in a scene that, while a bit of a cliché, must have had audiences reaching for a handkerchief. In short, Okada, Yagumo, and Yamamoto are a revelation, and their performances alone are enough to recommend the film. (on DVD as part of Eclipse’s Silent Ozu – Three Crime Dramas)