Director Mikio Naruse has admitted to going through a dark period as a younger man and his 1958 film Anzukko (the first he is credited with writing after 1950’s White Beast) seems, in part, his way of dealing with the tortures of his past. In Ryokichi Urshiyama (Isao Kimura), a struggling writer who, over the course of the film, sinks into a vicious cycle of despair and drunkenness, Naruse creates a vividly unsympathetic on-screen surrogate. He’s a character as much cursed by fate as by his own inadequacies, a constant failure who takes out his frustrations on those around him and who is never redeemed. In a late sequence, Ryokichi jealously destroys the garden of his successful novelist father-in-law Heishiro (Sô Yamamura), then breaks down and cries before quickly renouncing all responsibility for his actions. Such is his circuitous, sorrowful behavior throughout, nearly one-dimensional in its predictability and repetitions, yet Naruse clearly has an affinity and understanding for this character who many would no doubt toss aside without a second thought.
Naruse examines his own faults and fears through Ryokichi, though he also considers the reverberating effects of the character’s actions. In truth, Anzukko is less Ryokichi’s story than it is his long-suffering wife Kyoko’s (Kyôko Kagawa). Naruse details the couple’s courtship in the film’s romantic and intoxicating first half-hour, as the characters ride bicycles and speak their minds against a series of mountain-town backdrops photographed in crisp, naturalistic black and white. As is typical in late Naruse, the setting is post-World War II, though the mood is decidedly—as it turns out, deceptively—less bleak. Kyoko’s parents are well off, seemingly old-fashioned (especially when it comes to courtship rituals), yet desirous, nonetheless, of their daughter’s happiness over all else. And yet when Kyoko finally marries Ryokichi it is this very push-and-pull between the traditional and the progressive (mirroring, I’d suggest, Japan’s indeterminate post-war mentality) that leaves her character in a kind of spirited, yet submissive limbo. —Keith Uhlich
Mikio Naruse is one of the least known of Japan’s early master directors, both in the West and in Japan, yet he created some of the most moving, darkly beautiful works in Japanese cinema. Like Kenji Mizoguchi, Naruse showed an uncanny understanding for the psychology of women. Like Yasujiro Ozu, he preferred subtle shifts of character over broad strokes of plot. Unlike either of these early greats, however, Naruse’s vision of humanity was much darker and more clinical. He stripped all vestiges of hope or acceptance from his films, what remains is only a willful struggle to endure. His relentlessly negative view of human existence has resulted in Naruse’s often being labeled a nihilist.
Born in Tokyo, in 1905, Naruse was the youngest of three sons of a desperately poor embroiderer. Although he excelled in elementary school, his family could not afford to further his education. He was instead enrolled in a two-year technical school. There, he spent virtually all of his free time… read more
This finds Naruse dealing with complex themes of marriage, artistic failure, disillusionment, alcohol abuse and the human ability to cope and eventually to try and heal wounds. Set in a beautiful, rural landscape, the first part of the film is filled with a glimpsed-happiness, of biking along country roads, but descends into a moving study of a wife standing by her failed husband as he sinks lower into depression.