I was raised on Bollywood cinema and one reason I watch very little of it today is that I developed a bias against it at some point. Ours was a humble middle-class Indian home: a small glass of milk was rationed to us kids each morning; we owned no stereo, just a small radio that we all huddled around; and my dad home-made our class notebooks from scrap paper each term. The day was spent in vigilance of every rupee in our pockets; though millions lived below the poverty line (and we didn’t), we weren’t that far off from the edge. Bollywood movies never showed us our own reality; they swept us into faraway non-existent realms. I enjoyed this at first, then started taking umbrage (“Are our day-to-day lives so unimportant and wretched that filmmakers don’t want to go anywhere near them?”). So, when I encountered the anti-escapist Indian "New Cinema" of Mrinal Sen and Shyam Benegal as a teen, it was like stumbling into a pool of water in the Sahara.
Naruse’s Repast (1951) moves me because of the insistent way in which he focuses on the petty details of “balancing the domestic books” that each day demanded in a household like our own. Naruse accords money the miserable respect it deserves. Bills change hands in close-up; people lend and borrow specific, carefully recorded amounts; salaries are discussed in unblushing detail; and a wife stares at a sheaf of unaccounted-for yen notes sticking out of her husband’s pocket as he sleeps after a long night of drinking.
These may seem like banal, uninteresting details but I could relate to the paramount importance they held in our own home, and their too-rare appearance in movies has always puzzled me. In India, the days of our lives were spent maintaining the delicate balance of solvency. When I moved to the States and went to a supermarket for the first time, I was stunned that I could actually buy a gigantic gallon of milk for a dollar eighty-nine — no more rations. It’s this feeling for the import of money in our daily lives (something separate from greed and acquisitiveness) that Naruse seems to have a keen appreciation of.
Repast (a.k.a. A Married Life) is told from the point of view of an unhappy wife trapped in a marriage to a dull and uninterested man. (Since the woman is, you know, Setsuko Hara, the husband’s indifference is baffling). His coquettish runaway niece arrives to stay with them and shakes things up a bit — when asked what kind of occupation she has in mind for herself, she politely announces that she wants to be a stripper. As time passes, the wife gradually considers leaving her husband.
There’s a lot more going on in this film than money, so let me point out a few other aspects. The film opens with a black screen and a terrific epigraph (I’m a sucker for those) from the writer of the original novel, Fumiko Hayashi: “I like the simple lives of simple men and women in the limitless universe.” Before I had seen a single image, the film had me by the lapels. There is a superb essay on Naruse in Phillip Lopate’s eclectic collection Totally Tenderly Tragically (the title comes from a profession of love Michel Piccoli makes to Brigitte Bardot in Contempt). Lopate says:
One of the charms of Naruse’s art is his earned pessimism. It takes for granted that life is unhappy; therefore, we can relax in the possession of sadness, acquiesce from the start to the fate of disenchantment, the only suspense being which details Naruse will use to bring it about. In American films and novels, it often takes the characters three-fourths of the plot to win through to the insight of unhappiness, whining and kicking all the way. We can see it as a trade-off: American art has a dynamism and energy generated by its optimism, Japanese art a serenity and grace by its acceptance of the persistence of suffering.
I caught the film in the company of the Siren and there’s a shockingly familiar street procession scene towards the end that made us both exclaim, “Voyage To Italy!”, but Rossellini didn’t make his film until two years later. After the curtain went down, the Siren went home to relieve her babysitter and, contemplating the long dark drive home from Toronto to the States, I almost decided to ditch the second film of the evening and hit the road. So glad I didn’t — it was a beaut. But I should save that for next time.