Bangiku (1954)


(director: Mikio Naruse; screenwriters: Sumie Tanaka/Toshiro Ide/based on three stories by Fumiko Hayashi; cinematographer: Masao Tamai; editor: Eiji Ooi; music: Ichirô Saitô; cast: Haruko Sugimura (Okin), Sadako Sawamura (Nobu), Chikako Hosokawa (Tamae), Yuko Mochizuki (Otomi), Ken Uehara (Tabe), Ineko Arima (Sachiko), Hiroshi Koizumi (Kiyoshi), Bontaro Miake (Suzuki Seki), Sonosuke Sawamura(Sentaro), Daisuke Katô(Itayu); Runtime: 97; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Sanezumi Fujimoto; Criterion Collection; 1954-Japan-in Japanese with English subtitles)
“Directed with compassion, feeling and clarity by the great Mikio Naruse.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Emotionally gripping humanistic tragicomic character study of four aging middle-aged former geisha girls in postwar Japan, who look back at their past with regrets but maintain an inner toughness to survive their current problematic life. The black-and-white psychological drama is directed with compassion, feeling and clarity by the great Mikio Naruse(“When A Woman Ascends the Stairs”/”Street Without End”/”Sudden Rain”). It’s based on three stories by Fumiko Hayashi.

The main focus is on the unmarried and childless Okin (Haruko Sugimura), who lives alone with her mute maid (Sonosuke Sawamura). Okin’s an embittered ex-geisha who worked in Manchuria during the war servicing the troops and has had bad luck with men. One lover, an obsessed client named Seki (Bontaro Miake), always with money problems that made him a jailbird, tried to kill her in a double-suicide in Manchuria; another handsome military lover named Tabe (Ken Uehara) coldly dumped her to marry another. The strong-willed Okin calls men vampires, who try to live off women and in a single-minded way embraces a solitary and restrained life-style though still yearning for a real relationship. Okin manages to navigate the postwar new economy successfully as a moneylender and unwilling to lend money to her deadbeat friends without collecting a high interest. The tightwad wisely invests her savings in real estate ventures with the cheerfully astute financial adviser Itaya (Daisuke Kato) to become a prosperous landowner and landlady.

Okin’s three former geisha friends Nobu (Sadako Sawamura), Tamae (Chikako Hosokawa), and Otomi (Yuko Mochizuki) all have money problems and are poor. Nobu and her husband run a small bar, that barely ekes out a meager living. They owe money from a loan they took out with Okin that they can’t pay back, and their financial problems prevent Nobu from having a child. The other two friends are widows. Otomi is a gambler, whose hardened live-at-home modern daughter (Ineko Arima) abandons mom to marry an older man who will support her and runs off with him without any goodbyes. Tamae’s slick sometimes live-at-home son Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Koizumi) gives up being a gigolo and leaves mom’s Tokyo home to earn money as a coal miner in far off Hokkaido. The women stoically accept their losses as their karma and bond together to share their disappointments and express their resentment that their friend Okin has become so greedy.

When Okin’s former lovers Seki and Tabe make separate appearances to beg for money, she turns her back on them and in one case burns Tabe’s soldier photograph to let us know that the sexy man is now looked upon with contempt.

Though none of the women seem set for a rosy future and their friendship has its down moments, it’s still this friendship that allows them to have at least companions to share their pains and joys and help them get over some of their tougher hurdles.