Saturday, June 5, 2010

Review – Repast

June 6, 2010

Repast – Japan, 1951

Mikio Naruse’s Repast takes place in an area of Osaka, Japan, that is apparently so far from the city’s bustling downtown district that it feels more like a small town than a major city. Jobs are hard to come by, and one resident has turned to selling rice door to door to eke out a living. The only one who seems to have it easy is the mistress of a successful businessman. The residents of the area are also having to cope with a society that is rapidly changing. Many of its young residents wear Western clothes and are beginning to display values that are considered much more Western than Eastern. I wonder if these Western values are in conflict with what people often do during times of great economic difficulty. After all, given a choice between someone they love who is poor and someone who they might be able to like later on but who can support them financially now, many independent-minded people, I imagine, would have a hard time automatically listening to their heart.

Repast is the story of a marriage in trouble. We first meet Michiyo Okamoto (Setsuko Hara), who through narration explains that she and her husband, Hatsunosuke (Ken Uehara), have been married for five years and that after three years they moved from Tokyo to Osaka. In Osaka, her dreams of having an exciting, easy life faded, replaced by hours of mundane housework often done in complete solitude. In addition, according to Michiyo, her husband hardly notices her anymore. In the film’s opening scene, Hatsunosuke sits in the living room reading the newspaper, looking up only to ask his wife, “Is breakfast coming?” Their conversation doesn’t improve much from there. Later that day, Hatsunosuke’s much younger niece Satoko (Yukiko Shimazaki) arrives unexpectedly from Tokyo. The change in Hatsunosuke’s demeanor is immediately apparent. He finds himself smiling more and seems much more energetic. I suppose part of the reason for this is that Satoko breaks the monotony that had existed before her arrival. That she openly flirts with her uncle is an added bonus. Eventually, Michiyo decides that she has had enough and returns to her family in Tokyo to think things over.

Repast tells a story that on the surface seems rather simple. I suspect that the reason it appears so is that the first scene is shown from Michiyo’s point of view, and therefore it causes us to initially accept what she tells us about Hatsunosuke as fact. However, as the film’s perspective widens, we see that there is more to Hatsu that what Michiyo sees. In fact, he has many admirable qualities. He is hardworking during a time of high unemployment, faithful even when given the opportunity to cheat, and observant of others’ feelings. He seems well aware of the effect his cousin’s presence is having on his wife. He simply doesn’t know what to do. It seems rude to ask her to leave, but it may be disrespectful to allow her to continue staying with them.

Repast, like his later film Sound of the Mountain, takes places in a Japan still greatly affected by World War II. Crime has risen, and women far outnumber men, a fact that may have caused Michiyo to get married a bit earlier than her and her family would have liked. We also get the impression that there is a great deal of competition for available men and that Hatsu would probably not have too much trouble getting married again if Michiyo indeed left him. In Tokyo, Michiyo runs into an old friend whose husband is still listed as missing from the war. With a child to take care of and her government aid ending in two months, her friend’s future seems bleak. In another scene, we see throngs of people lined up outside the unemployment office. Their slow heavy walk gives us the impression that they’ve been lining up like this for some time now. Clearly, starting over will not be easy for Michiyo. There is another problem. Perhaps in other, more prosperous times, Michiyo’s family would be more supportive of her decision to leave Hatsu. However, under these circumstances, they are unanimous in their belief that she should return to Osaka and to her life with Hatsu.

Despite these interesting subplots and the empathy I had for Michiyo, I always felt that I knew exactly how the film would end, and unfortunately, I wasn’t wrong. However, exactly why it happens is up for debate. Is it the result of Michiyo rediscovering her passion and hopes, or is it a response to the realization that she has few other options? Has she simply resigned herself to the fact that this is what her life is going to be like? There’s evidence to support both viewpoints. Being a romantic by nature, I wanted to accept the rosier perspective, yet I found myself drawn toward the more pessimistic one. This was despite my newfound respect for Hatsu, who by the end of the film sees his wife from an entirely new perspective.

Repast requires patience, as it moves at a rather deliberately slow pace. However, what it lacks in pacing, it makes up for in fascinating characters and situations. In addition, Naruse gets excellent performances from his cast. Repast is also a very timely film. Watching it now, I couldn’t help but recall an article I read about the increase divorce rate among retirees in Japan. According to the article, many of these divorces stemmed from retired husbands returning to a house they had hardly spent time in and to wives they barely knew and expecting to be taken care of. The men were apparently completely caught off guard by their wives’ response. They shouldn’t have been, though. Films and books like Repast had already shown how unhappy people could be in such an arrangement. Why would it have been different fifty years later? (on DVD in Region 2 and 3; the Region 3 DVD does not have English subtitles)

3 and a half stars

*Repast is in Japanese in English subtitles.

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