April 25, 2019
What Did the Lady Forget? – Japan, 1937
As I watched Yasujiro Ozu’s 1937 “comedy,” What Did the Lady Forget? I couldn’t help feeling that I was watching a master’s narrative instincts being restrained and undercut. Part of the reason for this notion, I suppose, is that I know what came later in Ozu’s career, and since he tackled similar issues in later films, sans the seemingly obligatory happy ending, it’s possible to interpret the later films as his true feelings on the issues brought up in the film. This is perhaps a more reassuring reading of the context in which the film was made, but it is much better than thinking the alternative – that the film’s tidy and rather controversial conclusions actually reflected his thinking on different generations of men and women and ties that can bind or pull them apart.
The film’s central characters are Komiya (Tatsuo Saito), his wife, Tokiko (Sumiko Kurishima), and their cousin Setsuko (Michiko Kuwano), who is visiting from Osaka. Komiya is a college professor with a rather extensive knowledge of diseases; from all appearances, Tokiko is a housewife, and as such has assumed the role of head of household. Interesting, it is this position that is portrayed as having a rather corrosive effect on women, turning them from sweet to controlling, demanding, and blind to the good that lies in front of them. To Setsuko, a liberated 20th century woman, Tokiko represents everything that is wrong with society, with its emphasis on conformity instead of individualism and tradition over freedom. Over the course of the film, Setsuko, aided by Komiya, will set out to do what tradition seeks to restrict, things such as smoking (not acceptable for a woman who has not had children yet) and going to Geisha houses (usually reserved for men).
It is a promising set-up, and post-World War II, free from government constraints and propagandist messages, it would have made for a fascinating film. However, for most of its running time, What Did the Lady Forget? is a film that seems in search of a purpose. Sure, the film adequately shows the lack of respect that some members of the young generation have for those older than them, but to what effect? In one scene, Ozu shows two young children playfully mocking a tutor for not knowing how to do a math problem. Are we meant to see how disrespectful the young are, or is the film showing how the older generation is ill prepared for the future? I couldn’t tell. In another scene, Tokiko tells Setsuko to stay home simply because someone needs to stay there (the reason is not fully explained). When Setsuko leaves anyway, I was unsure whether I was supposed to side with Setsuko for rebelling against an unreasonable request or with Tokiko, for whom being disobeyed must be akin to losing face. And there are so many scenes in which these two characters clash that the film begins to feel repetitive and somewhat one-note.
Elevating the film beyond its melodramatic overkill is the soft-spoken Komiya. He clearly loves his wife, yet her interactions with him seem to have devolved into a never-ending cycle of orders, demands, and complaints. She seems to micromanage his life, often relying on what she thinks is a pattern of behavior that both of them will be able to live with, even if doing so means that they do most things apart. Perhaps it is not surprising then that Komiyo is so taken in by Setsuko. It is not so much that he agrees with her whole-heartedly, but rather that she represents something new, a version of himself that could easily take over were he not under the impression that the rewards it yields are rather hollow and short-sighted.
Later Ozu would likely have left the film at an impasse. The gap between generations would remain, and the relationship between Komiya and his wife would still be strained. Wartime Ozu probably didn’t have the option. Perhaps that is why the film’s final act rings so hollow. This is actually an understatement, for hollow does not truly describe the feelings I experienced as the film reached its insulting and jarring conclusion. These are some pretty strong terms for a film by a man as beloved as Ozu, I know, but how else can I describe a film whose core message against complacency is undercut by the sexist suggestion that violence is a man’s way of showing he cares and one in which women are shown being envious of a woman because her husband “cared” enough to hit her?
By the time the movie ends, it is clear what the film’s title is referring to: Tokiko forgot to be “ladylike” and “grateful” for a good man, and it is ultimately this message that Setsuko learns. Her desires and complaints are to be subjugated, and she is to suffer with a smile on her face. She is never to lose sight of just how lucky she is to be loved by her husband, and if he ever raises his hand, it can be justified as long as the slap is the kind that wakes her from emotional slumber and alerts her to the true blessings in her life. Then she can smile and touch her cheek with pride. Yes, her husband cared enough to hurt her. Isn’t she lucky? the film asks. It’s a message that erases whatever good will the film had previously earned and leaves you with just one resounding thought: This is just so wrong.
However, unlike other films that start off well only to fall apart at the end, the bad taste I was left with after watching What Did the Lady Forget? was so strong that I’d hesitate to recommend it. After all, poor endings can be tolerated so long as they don’t diminish or contradict what came before them too terribly. When that happens, as it did with this film, I’m more likely to advise a film be avoided. Just watch Good Morning again if you are in the mood to be humored by the great Ozu. (on DVD in Region 2 as part of BFI’s Blu-ray release of Early Summer)
I don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t parts of the film that I quite enjoyed. There are several humorous scenes involving Tokiko and two of her neighbors that brim with humor and caustic remarks, and they reveal Tokiko’s ulterior motive for sending her husband off to play golf. I also found Komiya’s friendship with his student intriguing, for rarely would you ever see such camaraderie among American professors and their students. There’s also a final heart-to-heart between Tokiko and Komiya that is both revealing and sweet.
2 and a half stars
*What Did the Lady Forget? is in Japanese with English subtitles.