Theme: Family; Aging
Runtime: 114 min
Directed By: Kichitaro Negishi
Starring: Tatako Matsu, Tadanobu Asano, Shigeru Muroi
2010 Cleveland International Film Festival
2010 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival
2009 Montreal World Film Festival
Best Director, Montreal World Film Festival 2009
33rd Japan Academy Prize (Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor: Tadanobu Asano, Best Actress: Tatako Matsu)
Villon’s Wife is set in post-World War II Japan. The exact month, December 1946, and the atomic bomb cataclysm just barely a year ago presumably implying a grayish, bleak cityscape. The country struggles to come to terms with such a monstrosity; what began as a goal of a visionary—to broaden the pastures of the Japanese Empire into region—had ended rapidly, along with the hopes and lives of millions.
Yet the Japanese were no weaklings. The stereotypical image of Japanese soldiers have never bowed down in the face of adversity, the fierce opponents they’ve been as seen from the HBO TV mini-series The Pacific (2010) and war films like Letters from Iwo Jima (2006). But admittedly this forms the limit of what most know of the Japanese in that era. Many films depict the wartime period, rather than its aftermath. As such, layman knowledge of everyday Japanese lives is pittance at best.
Setting the tone right from the start is a black-and-white sequence of a young Otani activating a ‘spinning wheel’, the metaphorical scene an indicator of the strong will it will take to propel a family forward up the socioeconomic strata. Even back then a clear proletariat-bourgeois hierarchy had been formed. This perhaps serves as a backdrop to the rapid economic advancement Japan saw in the following years.
But what provides food for thought is how the boy was unable to set the spinning wheel running beyond the minimal two-or-three turns on his first spin. He spun harder only on the goading of his mother. This weak reflex was to eventually prove telling of Otani’s character as an enfant terrible novelist unable to lift himself out of a rut for the sake of his life and his family. Rather, he rested on the laurels of one particular success, with his subsequent work floundering among critics.
This initial sequence led into another black-and-white scene via a graphic match. Otani, now a man decked in business-wear, pants heavily as he sprints down an otherwise quiet road. The picture shifts from black-and-white into color as the man moves nearer and nearer the stationary camera as he runs. The mise-en-scene of which is a barely-lit bent road. The attention is solely on Otani and Otani alone. Eventually, the shot becomes a colored close-up of the tired man. The lack of dynamism of this low-octane scene (a static shot without any camera movement whatsoever) creates a stark contrast vis-à-vis Otani’s rapid sprint down the road. The viewer senses that he is running away from something—and that is something he needs to take ownership of alone—as the viewer is not made to ‘run along’ with Otani. This forms a lack of interaction with the protagonist, and rather than look at Otani from an empathizing perspective, the viewer sees himself on a vantage point detached from the world of the protagonist altogether.
The distal effect gleaned throughout the course of the movie is that Otani was running away from himself alone, though the proximal reason was because he was running away from the owners of a wine bar he store from just minutes ago. Yet throughout the apparent chase we do not see the owners of the wine bar appearing within the shot. The impact of the previous scene was evidently a clever double entendre technique that features more than the running away from these owners.
The movie then shifts into Otani’s home and introduces his wife, Sachi, to the viewer for the first time. Having reached home and caused a ruckus with his noisy entrance, Sachi awoke to find her fatigued husband. Evidently, the latter refused to say anything of his plight, and Sachi had to find out of the theft, rudely, through the owners’ appearance at their home.
The set-up of the home was a traditional one, implying traditional Japanese familial relations where nurturing wives are viewed upon by society as subversive to their husbands, the natural breadwinner of the family. Indeed, the theme of Japanese masculinity and a nurturing wife was a running thread throughout the film. And this was precisely the character Sachi embodies, much to the certain aghast of feminists around. It is definitely implausible today that a woman can possibly bear with such hardship—a philandering, thieving, good-for-nothing husband no less—and still not voice out any unhappiness or illspeak. Granted, Sachi appeared to have gotten the short end of the stick, and there doesn’t seem to be any shift in her character arc throughout the film. But rather than a 2010 perspective, the viewer should bear in mind the 1946 Japanese anachronism.
Yet in this particular family, the wife acts as a rational balance to the irrational Otani, caught up in his own dreams of an idealistic utopia that proves unachievable to say the list. Otani spouts highbrow quixotic lines such as:
- “Women know neither joy or grief, men know only grief. They’re always fighting fear”
- “It sounds pretentious but I really want to die. All my life I’ve been thinking of that”
- “What frightens me is that there is a God in this world.”
- “I’m a writer, so I’m good at being deluded.”
- “What you don’t know about me isn’t worth knowing”
- “I wonder what dying is like”
- “Even monsters have feelings. I’m afraid to die, I’m afraid to live, but I’m most afaird of you”
- “I can’t even love a dandelion the way I should”
Meanwhile, Sachi laughs to hide her anxiety and nervousness; she laughs to defuse awkward situations; she laughs to digress from a confrontation of her husband.
In the confrontation scene through which the bar owners came by Otani’s home:
Bar Owner: “Your husband almost single-handedly drank us dry. And that wasn’t praise.”
Sachi: (Nervous laughter) “I’m sorry” (Laughs)
This exchange evidently was in a bid to defuse (i) the confrontational mood of the bar owners, and (ii) the sorry life she found herself caught in through the marriage. Her husband is a philanderer and a drunkard, who is unable to bring in a stable income. And now she realizes, the hard way, that he’s a flagrant thief as well. He loses himself in the fin de siècle of Tokyo’s underground of bars and brothels, kasutori culture to the Japanese, named after a vile and often poisonous homebrewed alcohol called kasutori shochu, exploiting this world of black markets and illegal nomi-ya drinking houses purportedly to gain inspiration for his writing (Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow, 2010)
But as an inkling of familial relations of the past, she opts to believe that he stole so as to give the family a better life, and says: “The three of us [Otani, herself, and their son] living together is enough for me.”
To repay the owners of the bar, Sachi takes on a job of waitressing at the bar. This act also implies that women were precious commodity in post-war Japan. Sexily clad women appeared to have the connotation of prostituting themselves. This in turn leads to a comedic bar turn where all the males in the bar clamored to please Sachi in a tipping competition to flaunt their wealth. Money is power, and those in power will get the woman. Indeed, prostitution was a legal trade in 1946-1947 Japan; only the Anti-Prostitution Law of 1956 outlawed the act in its entirety. One can easily draw reference via Sachi’s outfits in these scenes, which are uncannily similar to what the prostitutes wore in post-war Japan.
But though Sachi gladly accepted the tips, she refused to perform any act that might bring disgrace to the family and her husband. Yet the job evidently left her empowered. In a scene, she purposefully placed away the tips she earned in front of her husband—obviously with the intention of provoking her husband, a sarcastic attack on his apparent good-for-nothing nature. The fly-by-night nature of her cash did not go unnoticed by the husband, who proceeded to demean her efforts by stealing the cash to fund his own needs yet again. And at this point I’d like to draw parallels to the starting “spinning wheel” scene.
Evidently, this is no longer a symbol of passive duty toward country, but an indication of the necessary actions required for survival. Again, a parallel might be drawn to the beacon of survival in postwar Japan.
Otani eventually decides that life was too much for him, and wants to perform ‘love suicide’ with a mistress. Yet after his mistress popped pills that left her unconscious, he chickened out, such is his character of being unable to bring a plan to fruition.
Yet Sachi, while heartbroken, chose to forgive Otani instead.
In a pivotal scene, Sachi called up her old flame to help fight Otani’s case of attempted manslaughter in the love-suicide gone awry. But being unable to pay off the debts required for the lawyer services, Sachi appeared to have struck a Faustian bargain with the lawyer. A symbolic sequence of Sachi entering the law firm ensued. She bought a tube of lipstick off the street from a girlfriend of an Allied soldier. The bright red hue of the lipstick forms a clear semiotic symbolism of seduction, of sexing up her look, of wanting to provoke desire. She puts on the lipstick, and ensures that everything was perfect before she enters the law firm. No hair is out of place, her immaculate attire reeking of longing. The pay-off was perhaps coital, through her eventual emergence with frazzled hair and a comparatively messy outfit. Bidding “goodbye” to the woman she had bought the lipstick from, she laid the tube to rest against the lush green grass and wiped the lipstick off her lips. This scene itself symbolized how this was supposed to be a one-time act that will never be mentioned ever again in future.
It is definitely germane that the film was released in 2009, the centennial anniversary of the birth of revered author Osamu Dazai, and based on the latter’s titular thinly veiled autobiographical novella, Villon’s Wife. That, itself, was a reference from 15th century French poet François Villon. With muted performances, particularly from Tatako Matsu as the long-suffering Sachi and Tadanobu Asano as the brooding Otani, the subtle nuances and exchanges of this film are exceptionally affective.
Note: Caught the film while it was on a limited run in the cinema. All screen caps included in this essay are gleaned from its trailer on Youtube.