“I had a dream. I was crying. When I woke up, I was really crying.”
Naruse’s highly-acclaimed film about the struggling hostess, Keiko (lovingly dubbed “Mama” by her friends and acquaintances), is a stunningly understated story that is tasteful and beautifully minimal in its narrative and execution. Keiko embodies what is often an uninteresting (for this reviewer anyway) character choice: the likeable protagonist. Her likeability, however, is the unwavering mode of progression for the film. She is a woman who was drawn into the profession for the money, but her traditional tendencies leave her tentative in how she progresses her career.
Keiko (Hideko Takamine) is a bar hostess working in the Ginza district and her dilemma is deciding on whether to open her own bar or marry one of her many suitors. Her plight is a common one for those in her profession and Naruse expertly delineates how these characters of different classes and backgrounds interact with each other. Keiko is a widow who began pursuing the career after her husband died. She rents a flat apart from her family and maintains the independent image expected of her. She enjoys a comfortable lifestyle and, while she sends money to her mother and brother, she is intent on sustaining the way of life she has become accustomed to without concessions. Her nephew has polio and needs an expensive operation, her brother needs bailed out of jail – there are many obstacles that prevent her from obtaining her goal. Money is, of course, the only “character” in the film which directly creates conflict – almost everyone needs it, and the few who do have it must be convinced to give it away (and they’ll never just give it away) – a roundabout progression that the film tends to employ more often than not.
Keiko is respected (and, in many cases, loved) by nearly everyone she knows because of her pristine and unattainable reputation. She is always kind, always compassionate, and (most importantly) always willing to listen to the troubles of others. Of the many characters that populate Keiko’s life, the most notable is Komatsu (Tatsuya Nakadei), the bar owner. He secretly (at least he believes it to be a secret) loves her but never voices it until the most inopportune moment. He is one of her many close acquaintances who regard her as an angel rather than a human being capable of sorrow or fault. The most interesting aspect of the film is how all of these supporting characters, despite their admiration and respect for her, successively fail her when she needs them most. There’s Junko, who represents the hostess who has compromised; she is young, naïve, and successful. Naruse’s cynicism is ambiguous and quiet, but ever-present. There is Yuri whose fate presents the very real underlying danger of a hostess who is unable to marry or maintain her own bar. Finally, there are the many patrons of the bar who flash money around promising financial security, expecting physical favours. Some are frauds, some are married, but all of them reek of opportunity. The central conflict of the film is the will of woman being challenged by a male-dominated society where men are merely products created and driven by their own fantasies.
Technically, the film is undeniably flawless. From the iconic xylophone opening to the final fade, the film is a pitch-perfect model of restraint and taste. To say the film is unsentimental is not to say it’s without humour or character dynamic; Keiko is a character who is flawed and often prideful to a fault but a generous person who ultimately strives to be unselfish and independent. Situations occur and events pass with an existential realism that is neither tragic nor fortunate but inevitable. It is certainly one of Naruse’s greatest later films.