Reiko (Hideko Takamine) married into the Morita family as a 19 year-old during the war, with her husband killed in action shortly afterwards. While American bombs destroyed the Morita store, and the family fled for safety, Reiko alone remained behind to rebuild and reopen. 18 years later, she continues to manage the shop despite pressure from her mother and sister-in-law to remarry and leave, and tries to convince her young brother-in-law Koji (Yuzo Kayama) to take his family responsibilities more seriously. With a discounted supermarket opening nearby, the temptation grows to sell the family business and move on.
Yearning, which was released in 1964, is a lesser known Mikio Naruse drama, but it punches well above its weight in terms of personal drama, social commentary, and entertainment value. It has the reputation and profile of a second-string effort, but the quality and emotional weight that represents the director at his very best. Naruse was very well-regarded as a creator of human drama: unrequited love, failed relationships, and struggling families had a tendency to make his films remarkably melancholic – if not actively tragic. This tendency is in full flight with Yearning, particular once Koji – presented as a freewheeling, irresponsible playboy – confesses a prolonged and passionate love for Reiko: 12 years his senior.
Takamine and Kayama play their lead roles incredibly well, and contribute a lot of depth and texture to what could easily become soap opera-style histrionics. Their interactions pull in opposite directions simultaneously: there is a tremendous and clearly mutual affection, but at the same time Reiko recoils from such a scandalous and inappropriate proposition. These performances make the film as good as it is, particularly Takamine’s – the actress worked many times with Naruse, and is considered as much a creative partner as Ozu and Hara, or even Scorsese and DeNiro.
As with many of his post-war dramas, Naruse presents Japan in a process of change. There is an element of social commentary to Yearning, as traditional family-owned stores are supplanted and put out of business by large-scale corporate supermarkets. It is a process that builds convenience – for one thing the supermarkets are much cheaper – but also separates communities. In one key example during the film, a shopkeeper ultimately takes his own life rather than suffer the indignity of being driven out of business. It represents a potent clash of Japan’s old world and new. It chafes uncomfortably.
Naruse directs his film with a strong visual eye (Jun Yasumoto was the cinematographer) and good sense of detail. The film’s later scenes expand beyond the immediate surrounds of the story and expands to a lengthy train journey and an isolated mountain village. As with many Japanese features of this kind, the black and white photography and widescreen presentation give everything a striking beauty. Naruse is a hugely impressive director of Japan’s mid-20th century period; each of his films seems its own unexpected discovery, and Naruse’s comparative obscurity with international audiences (he sits just behind Ozu and Mizoguchi in that regard) means each is also a wonderful little gem. Yearning is one of the very best of his works I have seen.