Running Time: 104 mins.
Release Date: September 15th, 1953
Director: Shiro Toyoda
Writer: Masashige Narusawa (Screenplay), Ogai Mori (Original Novel)
Starring: Hideko Takamine, Hiroshi Akutagawa, Choko Lida, Eijiro Tono, Jukichi Uno,
Wild Geese a.k.a The Mistress is based on a novel by Ogai Mori (real name, Mori Rintaro, 1882–1916), an interesting figure in himself. Originally born to a family of doctors, he was expected to follow that path but, instead, found fame as a translator, novelist, and poet. He lived through the transition from the Meiji era to the Taisho period and, from what I have read on Wikipedia, his works are humanist dramas as is evident in this particular film that tells a quiet tragedy about a poor woman who dares to dream of escaping the confines of her lowly position through marriage but finds herself trapped by gender and class as is revealed when she falls in love.
Taking place some time at the end of the Meiji era and the beginning of the Taisho period, Japan is awakening to the modern world as Western ideas and fashion are embraced. However, many people still experience grinding poverty such as the film’s heroine Otama (Hideko Takamine). A beautiful woman with a mournful face, she is barely listening to a marriage broker who is selling a prospective relationship as the mistress of a “recently widowed” kimono merchant with children. The terms: at first, she gets her own house and after the mourning period, the marriage is on and she moves in with the groom.
Otama is cautious for she was tricked into marrying someone whose wife was still alive but, as a divorcee with an elderly father who is on his last legs, her options are limited. As the old woman states, being once-married, she has become damaged goods and… “Once she becomes damaged goods, a woman cannot escape unhappiness.” These words turn out to be prophetic but for now, Otama meets the merchant named Suezo (Eijiro Tono) and accepts his proposal.
With a simple screen wipe we are taken from dark, crowded and squalid streets lined by rickety row-houses, where women in dishevelled clothes dodge potholes and puddles to hang out washing, to a broader hilly street with cherry blossoms and beautiful residences with stone foundations under a broad sky. The film’s tones, location and lighting reflect her rise in status. Otama’s pristine house, which is on the sloping street of Muen-zaka, not too far away from the University of Tokyo, shows it. She, like her neighbours has fancy kimono and delicate items that adorn the walls of her comfortable home. She even has a maid to keep everything in order. Becoming a kept woman doesn’t seem so bad after all but bliss soon turns into a nightmare because, what Otama slowly realises is that the marriage broker has tricked her. Not only is Suezo still married, and his wife has no intention of giving her husband up, but he is a despised loan shark, as shown by the hateful glances and comments that he gets from people he passes by and people who distance themselves from Otama herself once they find out who she is the mistress of.
At this stage, it might seem like the film will pile in on making Otama a victim but it complicates her. She is clearly fully aware of what she is getting into and resigns herself for compromise as detailed in the middle portion of the film where we see her accepting the scorn of neighbours for being a mistress and, without even a blush, playing out her role as a sexual object for the older man. Shiro Toyoda makes no bones about showing the two preparing their love nest for the night and even a little bit of fondling. We can understand her decision having seen the poverty described in the film’s early scenes and listening to her father’s entreaties to just accept it. There are also countless examples of women who have had to compromise and become street walkers around her, many being Suezo’s clients. We now understand how her gender has limited her future and also, once again, how wretched poverty makes people. Despite all of this, the pressure and shame Otama feels bubbles up, as does the sense that she is trapped.
Some basic symbolism like Otama constantly being seen through the latticework of shoji screens, a parakeet (inko) she keeps caged, and kids outside singing songs about caged birds and turtles with some interesting imagery make everything clear. Just as compellingly, we see how, as she is propelled away from poverty by Suezo, she becomes more aware of how people around her who are trapped in it thanks to his ruthless business practices and the resentment he is held in by the community.
There are various characters that pop in and out of the narrative, their money problems providing fuel for drama and, as they pawn items like bolts of cloth to stave off starvation, these items serve as ways to identify the connection between Suezo and Otsune after she takes ownership of them. The misery his profession as a money-lender creates soon spreads like a foul taste throughout her life. It taints everything with a bitterness that is inescapable and felt in every interaction she has in her small community. Far from being free, she realises she is just as much in Suezo’s debt as others and we watch Otama’s face go from blissful smiles to sourness as she understands just how scorned she is outside her home and how it has become a cage since she dare not leave him and go back to being poor.
Despite being vilified by the community Suezo is not a caricature. His own rise in poverty is heard in backstory given in snatches of dialogue and he is shown to be a hard working man with a knack for making things and he even has a sense of humour but he is capable of cruelty and exploitation. Ultimately he is pitiable as we see how his own poverty has made him greedy and this has led him to making others miserable.
The humiliations and misery for Otama culminate in wordless confrontations with Suezo’s still-living wife, Otsune. One scene in particular where she runs into her on the street on a rainy day is very effective. The two carry matching umbrellas. Like a samurai duel, they square off, eyeing each other. The pressure mounts as the older and stouter woman suddenly dashes forward. Otama breaks and flees! The atmosphere is electric as we wonder how it will end.
And so we understand that in an effort to escape poverty, Otama has ended up trapped in her home as the mistress of a miserly moneylender and the situation grates until she can bear it no more. Which is where a handsome young man named Okada comes in.
As mentioned earlier, situated not far from Muen-zaka is Tokyo University and Otama’s house is along the daily walk for Okada (Hiroshi Akutagawa). Like many of the male students seen in the film, he is a vision of youthful idealism and energy, especially in contrast to the slouching and shifty Suezo, a middle-aged man steeped in malfeasance. He is noble and intelligent as told by people who Otama overhears gossiping and she sees how brave he is when he saves Otama’s caged parakeet from a snake in one scene. But he too is also a victim of Suezo’s profession since he is a medical student with tuition and tests to pay for. Despite this, or maybe because of it, Otama feels closer to him and tries to catch his attention with acts of kindness. Of course, he responds.
The two chat like bashful kids, they openly gaze at each other, and linger when they time comes for them to part. There is an almost palpable tension between the two when they are close, that aching love that makes you want to physically embrace a person and never let go. It causes them to flout social conventions and so we watch as Otama risks Suezo’s wrath and Okada seems to reciprocate. And yet we know it is impossible. Other characters warn them. Their lives are too different. How will they live? We wonder, can the two be happy together? As one of Okada’s friends says, “neither you nor I are free from the restrictions of the Meiji era.” Whether that restriction is poverty or gender roles, both are hard to escape.
This content is ripe for melodrama but everything is restrained. Words and actions are laced with ambiguity and we focus more on body language and facial expressions that tell a closer version of the truth. There is a frankness about sex that makes this believable and the drama darker but the most powerful moments are the exchange of gazes between people who love each other and people who despise each other.
Shiro Toyoda uses plenty of close-ups on the faces to show us world’s of experiences and thoughts. The lined and sly face of the old marriage broker with her disingenuous smiles, Suezo’s sharp features that suggest jealousy, ruthlessness but also regret. As for Takamine, her angelic face radiates with a range of emotions that will bowl viewers over. Up there with Setsuko Hara and Ayako Wakao, Takamine played a range of characters but does a good deal with suffering women. Her face relays depths of emotion which the camera gets to zoom in on as she aspires to love, the background going black behind her as we focus on her visage. It eventually buckles with frustration and disappointment and resolves itself with resignation over the course of the film and it is quite moving to see a woman accept her sad fate. Indeed, we feel everyone’s emotions keenly through the screen. We understand their social situations, and feel the desire for a true love that Otama feels. Alas, they cannot escape their place and some haunting words from Otama’s father come back.
“No matter how much we dwell on it, there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Released in the same year as Ugetsu Monogatari (Kenji Mizoguchi) and Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu), it doesn’t get much press but was recently given a profile boost, along with An Inlet of Muddy Water (Tadashi Imai), with some festivals around the world screening it to celebrate Japanese actresses. This is one of Hideko Takamine’s best works and is definitely worth checking out for the human drama, the beautiful period details and sense of society seen on screen.