I have so many DVD´s to see, piles of them, that I tend to think everything is available at will and am shocked when I see that it´s not. The films of Yuzo Kawashima have been such a revelation to me that my first impulse was to go on Amazon to buy some more only to see that they´re not available, so I´m doubly grateful to MUBI: first for allowing me to discover major works from a major director, secondly, by programming five films together, allowing me to compare, to discover actors, to see that what at first seems simple cumulatively adds up to subtlety, complexity, and depth.
Like The Balloon, Our Town, and. Burden of Love, Hungry Soul is also about Japanese society in the process of change. Kimonos brush up against pencil skirts in the streets of Tokyo, tea ceremonies share space with westernised nightclubs, but Patriarchy still rules and there are very strict rules about what it is to be a woman in this culture.
Kawashima´s melodramas bear comparison to those of Douglas Sirk´s, not stylistically but thematically. Moments of Hungry Soul made me think of All That Heaven Allows, the widow with the children who are appalled by the idea their mother might have sexual and emotional needs, and their punitive actions once they realise she does.
Thematically the film is blunt. It begins in a hospital (see image capture above). A woman is having a hysterectomy. Peter Baran pointed out to me how one can´t imagine a Hollywood film, even today, starting with Hungry Soul´s opening line (see below)
The film then cuts to the patient, recovering in the hospital, telling her friend, ‘being a woman really sucks….Men and women will never be equal…and men have no idea of the pain women go through. At the patient´s bedside is her old friend Mayumi (Yukiko Todoroki), a lively middle-aged widow with two teenage children who´s getting by and supporting her children through school by working as an estate agent (Á very unwomanly job´). Soon Reiko (Yoko Minamida), a relative also arrives to visit. Reiko´s a young and beautiful woman trapped in a loveless marriage with a much older man for whom she´s not much more than a decorative maid and who treats her tyranically.
As the film unfolds Mayumi and Reiko develop hungry souls but they´re ones that can´t be fed. Their individual desires come crashing against social rules and regulation, spoken and unspoken, putting them in danger and leading to further loss and pain. Reiko meets a young and handsome politician, Mr. Tachibana (Tatsuya Mihashi) who awakens all the desires that she´s repressed. Mayumi is chased by Shimotsuma (Shiro Osaka), her deceased husband´s best friend. They finally have a fulfilling night but are awakened by a phone call urging her to return home where she finds that her young daughter has tried to commit suicide because she thought her mother might do what she in fact did. The suspicion of the relationship also leads her son to leave home, which is where the first part of this film ends.
For Reiko, the idea that the young politician will follow her wherever she goes both thrills and scares her. It´s awakened a passion, an idea for a future that had been dormant if not dead. For Mayumi, her whole life comes crashing around her. Moreover, the film shows us that none of these men are prizes. Reiko´s husband is an insensitive pig, but what we see of the young politician when the film allows us to see him on his own is not very appealing either: a selfish playboy who treats women badly. If he does finally seduce Reiko, will he in fact treat her any better. Even nice Mr. Shimotsuma is no prize. His wife is on her deathbead and there he is chasing the widowed Mayumi around Tokyo and Kyoto.
When I first encountered Kawashima´s work I didn´t think much of him as a visual stylist. And he´s certainly no Sirk. But as you can see below, he makes for simple, measured, but interesting and expressive images. Everything counts in these films, and the films are wise, tender and side with the powerless, like all good melodramas should. And like all good melodramas should, they certainly succeed in eliciting feeling. I want to see them all again and get to know them better.
**Many thanks to Edmund Yeo for helping me match the names of the characters to the names of the actors. Much appreciated.