The High Cost Of Low Price
***This Review Contains Spoilers***
Mikio Naruse’s Yearning is a unique melodrama with its story combing unorthodox romance/family drama alongside commerce with the Morita family struggling to keep their Mom & Pop store in business against the closet the picture has to a villain in the form of the Walmart-esqe Shimizuya Supermarket. This scourge of modernity with its low prices and ease of convenience is represented throughout the film by a promotional truck as it drives through this small, unnamed town accompanied by music with sinister undertones to it and even more so when it is seen driving along the town’s outskirts with its barren wastelands making it all the more haunting. The supermarket simply doesn’t have the human touch that the shop around the corner such as the Morita’s store provides. However, they simply can’t compete when the supermarket sells a single egg for 5 yen when Mom & Pop need to sell them at 11 yen in order to turn a profit. It is surprising to see this subject matter being explored in 1964, but is the film’s fatalism justified with the supermarket owners acting like bullies and one of the town’s shop owners even committing suicide over the prospect of another supermarket opening? At least in the UK the corner store still soldiers on, many trading under franchise names but independent ones do exist. Yearning does have that British kitchen sink vibe with the store itself having an English feel to it with all its canned goods, glass bottles and weighing scales. Even the music score courtesy of Ichirō Saitō is oddly kitschy at times, throwing in what appears to sound like a theremin or synthesizer on occasions.
At the beginning of Yearning, we are treated to a scene in which a group of young people hold an egg-eating contest in a bar (move over Cool Hand Luke!). Before the contest begins, one woman speaks of how she “ate 12 of those, had diarrhoea and couldn’t stop burping for 3 days” (you know, like you do), as the gross, undignified spectacle proceeds with the young folk frantically stuffing eggs into their mouths while the referee sings the Can-Can (man, the Japanese are weird). The scene does introduce the character of Koji Morita (Yūzō Kayama) and establishes the rivalry his family’s store has with the supermarket, but why do it in such a bizarre manner? A potential metaphor that Koji is a bad egg is the best I can derive from the spectacle. I think of this scene like the Thunderlips fight in Rocky III, one which has no greater purpose or relevance to the plot but it sure is entertaining to watch.
Koji Morita is a total beta-male. This 25-year-old is unemployed with no desire to work, no concern for his future, takes no responsibility for his actions and frequently gets into trouble with the law (Kayama would play another spoiled-brat type character the following year in Kurosawa’s Red Beard). However, his sister-in-law Reiko (Hideko Takamine) is the polar opposite. Reiko has been with the family for 18 years, marrying in when she was 19 and Koji was 11 years her junior at 9 (the film forces the viewer to do some mental arithmetic to figure out the character’s ages). Following the death of Reiko’s husband during the war, she stayed with the family and rebuilt their business after it was destroyed in bombing raids. There is an odd and fascinating relationship between Reiko and Koji, the manner in which they interact you would believe they are biological siblings who grew up together, partially aided by Koji referring to Reiko throughout the picture as “sister”. Koji has an unhealthy dependence on Reiko, relying on her to run the family business which allows him to pursue a gallivanting lifestyle – in ways she is like a mother figure to him, often addressing him like a child. This already unconventional relationship is made all the more so with the film’s big reveal, Koji admits to Reiko that he is in love with her, leading to the most awkward will they/won’t they in cinema history (talk about the extreme opposite of being out with the in-laws, amirite?). Koji appears to be oblivious to the issues which could arise from the taboo and emasculating nature of an older woman/younger man relationship and while the film makes no mention of this, the question should be asked as to how much does he resemble his deceased brother? Moral and ethical conundrums are often raised in Naurse’s films. In the case of Yearning, one of these is to what extent can an in-law remain part of a family after the spouse has passed away – blood is thicker than water. This alongside the business implications of the family’s plan to merge their business with another in order to open their own supermarket puts pressure on Reiko to ultimately leave the family.
During the act of Yearning, Reiko embarks on the train journey home to her original family in Tokyo, only for Koji to unexpectedly accompany her. During their time on the train, there is a natural build-up of her affection towards him. Reiko eventually decides the two of them should get off at the next station and they travel to a little village in the woods called Silver Mountain, the most romantic setting imaginable. At this point it appears they may actually get together as Reiko delivers one of the film’s most poignant lines; “I’m a woman too. You told me that you loved me. To tell you the truth, I was so happy when you said that”. This period of romantic bliss doesn’t last long however as Reiko suddenly comes back to her senses when Koji attempts to kiss her. Yearning concludes with a final image which does stay burned into your memory after watching. When Reiko discovers the following morning that Koji has been found dead after falling off a cliff (boy, that escalated quickly), the picture finishes with a Leone-style close-up of Takamine’s face followed by a hard cut to “The End”. It is a very abrupt ending but I do believe it is appropriate as is does enhance the tragedy and also metaphorically relates to the film’s original Japanese title “Midareru”, meaning to be disordered, disarranged, disarrayed, dishevelled or to lapse into chaos.
As of writing this review, Yearning has never had any western home media release but you can watch it on the Criterion Channel but only in the US & Canada, that is of course unless you head over to our friends over at Express VPN and get three extra months for free, ok only joking (I’m not going to do a Ben Shapiro style ad read).