In Nippon Modern: Japanese Cinema of the 1920s and 1930s, Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano cites the contradictory delineation between urban and provincial life in Mikio Naruse’s Wife! Be Like a Rose! as an example of interwar Japan’s amorphously defined domestic and social spaces that arose from society’s ambivalence towards the rapid pace of modernization in the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake. In Naruse’s film, this nostalgia for a distant, idealized hometown is embodied by Hirao Village, where the estranged father, Shunsaku (Sadao Maruyama) has gone to prospect for gold in the mountains (a paradoxical emigration from Tokyo that is antithetical to the idea of moving to the city to seek one’s fortune). Having settled into a new life with a former geisha named Oyuki (Yuriko Hanabusa) and their children, Shizuko (Setsuko Horikoshi) and Kenichi (Kaoru Ito), Shunsaku’s new life reflects a return to a more traditional way of life even as it represents a rejection of another tradition – his marriage to Etsuko (Tomoko Ito) who, along with his now grown daughter, Kimiko (Sachiko Chiba), were left behind.
In turn, the seeming modernity of Tokyo with its Western-dressed workers and bustling streets (made all the more kinetic by the establishing shot of offices closing at the end of the work day) is contradicted by Etsuko’s anxiety over being asked to act as a go-between for a former student in Shunsaku’s absence. Channeling her loneliness and heartbreak through poetry, Etsuko ostensibly plays the role of the devoted, long suffering wife waiting for her husband to return – a reunion that seems at hand when Kimiko decides to go to Hirao village to fetch her father in order to attend to family obligations. However, inasmuch as Shunsaku’s trips between Tokyo and Hirao Village reflects what Wada-Marciano describes as the cultural negotiation of space, the separation also reinforces Naruse’s familiar themes of perpetual disappointment, stubbornness, and perseverance that would resurface throughout his body of work. For Etsuko, the poems express a romanticized longing for the absent Shunsaku, an image that evaporates when the idealization converges with the reality. For Oyuki, a life of sacrifice and shame are the price of her devotion to the feckless Shunsaku. For Kimiko, the desire to reunite her family is undermined by her parents’ self-absorption. In this respect, Naruse’s social observation transcends the contemporaneity of interwar society and converges towards a broader commentary on the human condition, where the quest is elusive and grace lies in the longing.
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