A Mirror for Mama-san

How the young Tatsuya Nakadai offered a crafty old director a new shade of maleness
by Chris Fujiwara  posted June 4, 2008
Email  |  Print  
A  A  A

Tatsuya Nakadai, Film Forum, June 20-July 17, 2008

Mikio Naruse's cinema, from as far back as it is known to us (i.e., starting with his earliest surviving film, 1931's Flunky Work Hard), is the spectacle of male deficiency. Naruse's women endure more than the men do, are more vibrant and intelligent, and remain more faithful to the ideal of what they are (which is part of what they have to endure). They embody the truth that Anna Karina's Nana realizes in Godard's Vivre sa Vie: "I lift my hand, I am responsible." The Narusean man, on the other hand, would rather not make decisions for himself and dispenses with the illusion of mastering his destiny.

Tatsuya Nakadai joined Naruse's informal stock company at a time when the director, having lately completed a string of masterpieces that culminated in Floating Clouds (1955) and Flowing (1956), was about to enter a caustic late phase of brisk refinement and recapitulation. Nakadai offered Naruse a new shade of maleness. Perhaps its significance lies in its modernity, though the young actor's quiet and sober (if physically arresting) image differs from the brasher juvenile-delinquent type that was then becoming a staple in Japanese films. Nakadai's ambiguous, dark, and brooding personality would blossom outside Naruse's cinema, but Naruse caught it as it was taking form, at its height of ambivalence.

Nakadai's first appearance in a Naruse film, late in Untamed (1957), establishes some features of the figure he would continue to play for the director: the well-behaved admirer who is younger than the woman he worships and subordinate to her professionally, and whose role consists mainly of waiting for the moment when she should need him. In Untamed, Hideko Takamine plays Oshima, another of the long-suffering Naruse women who get passed or kicked from house to house—but this time one who fights back. The last phase of the episodic plot finds Oshima running a clothes shop with her philandering husband (Daisuke Kato) and two assistants, one of them young Kimura (Nakadai). Usually a silent figure working in the background of shots, Nakadai makes his presence felt enough that the final twist—declaring her independence from her husband, Oshima invites Kimura to join her at a hot spring to plan a new business—feels inevitable and right. Kimura is the just reward Oshima claims after her travails and the sign that from now on she will dominate men rather than let them dominate her.

Nakadai's next, and best, role for Naruse, the bar manager Komatsu in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960), builds on his small role in Untamed. Takamine plays Keiko, the popular "mama-san" (hostess) of a succession of Ginza bars to which she attracts rich businessmen who hope to obtain her favors. Deferential, full of silent concern, and armed with a reliable knowledge of the ins and outs of his little sphere, Komatsu is always ready to advise Keiko on her next move or to follow her to the next bar when her boss presses her to get friendlier with the customers than she would like.

Komatsu is the counterpart to Keiko: he, too, has his integrity ("good managers don't touch their girls" is his rule) and his moment of weakness (when he falls down, offscreen, with a venal bar girl played by Toho cupcake Reiko Dan). Komatsu loves Keiko because as a widow still faithful to her husband she represents an ideal of feminine integrity. When the ideal gives way to the real world, Komatsu and Keiko reject each other. He was not just the admirer but also the symbol of the purity he believed in, and for her, too, the purity has become a lie.

Through Nakadai, Naruse presents a tamed and diminished male ideal and a critique of male obsessiveness and narcissism (the care with which Komatsu dresses in a mirror in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is telling). In Daughters, Wives, and a Mother (1960), in which the object of Nakadai's respectful attentions is, for once, not Takamine but Setsuko Hara, Nakadai plays Rock Hudson to Hara's Jane Wyman. In a home movie within the movie, he resembles a figure from a dream: an ever-replenishable image offering itself again and again to the camera. His character is so docile and subdued that the utmost protest possible for him, when the hopelessness of his love for this unattainable widow becomes clear, is to silently refuse to get up when she invites him for one last dance together.

Reteamed with Takamine, Nakadai is again a patient, good-natured, and ultimately disappointed suitor in As a Wife, As a Woman (aka Poignant Story, 1961). It's significant that, as in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, Takamine once again plays a bar "mama-san" and that therefore the Nakadai character (now a customer rather than a colleague) once again addresses her as "mama": she is a mother figure for him, a way to justify his dependency. Nakadai's brief part in the film ends with a notable Narusean chill. Success seems within the grasp of Minami (Nakadai), the object of his desire having gotten drunk with him and invited herself to his apartment, but there, as they talk, she realizes the impossibility of this relationship and abruptly escapes. Minami takes one urgent and futile step forward. The lid he's kept on his need for her has finally come off, but it's already too late.

Nakadai's last film with Naruse, A Woman's Story (1963), is anomalous: though Takamine again plays a widow, Nakadai's character is not obsessed, and this time his failure to form a couple with the heroine results from straitened postwar circumstances rather than from a fatality inherent in the relationship. Naruse and Takamine appear to be treading well-worn paths throughout A Woman's Story, but Nakadai's cheery ruggedness (discarded only in the scenes in which, playing older than his years, he seems to be imitating Chishu Ryu) makes it obvious why, in Naruse's next, reinvigorated film, Yearning (1964), the Nakadai role of the doomed young admirer of Takamine's widow would go to Yuzo Kayama. During the six years of his association with Naruse, Nakadai had become a star (mainly for his epic starring role in Masaki Kobayashi's The Human Condition [1959-1961] and his appearances in Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo [1961] and Sanjuro [1962]) and acquired a stature that would less easily suffer being undermined and checkmated by the machinations of a crafty old master director. In Naruse's world of doubt and disaster, such self-assurance could have, in turn, no place. 


Fighting Words

Fighting Words
by Imogen Sara Smith
posted August 12, 2014

Fighting Words, Part 2

Fighting Words, Part 2
by Imogen Sara Smith
posted August 20, 2014

On the Margins: The Films of Patrick Lung Kong

On the Margins: The Fil…
by Andrew Chan
posted August 12, 2014

Robin Williams: A Sense of Wonder

Robin Williams: A Sense…
by David Schwartz
posted August 12, 2014

Courtesy Criterion Collection and Toho, Ltd.
Tatsuya Nakadai and Hideko Takamine in Mikio Naruse's When a Woman Ascends the Stairs
Photo Gallery: A Mirror for Mama-san


June 20-July 17, 2008 Tatsuya Nakadai


Chris Fujiwara's latest book, Jerry Lewis, is published by University of Illinois Press.

More articles by Chris Fujiwara
Author's Website: insanemute.com