Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963) was one of those rare directors who seemed incapable of making a truly awful film. Granted, a sizable portion of his early career in the 1920s and ‘30s has been lost—swept away by the cataclysms that wiped out an estimated 96% of Japanese silent cinema1—so we have no access to Wife Lost (1928) and Beauty’s Sorrows (1931), critically maligned films that even their creator deemed substandard. But of Ozu’s many extant works, the majority range between fair and excellent, with masterpieces (1949’s Late Spring, 1953’s Tokyo Story, 1958’s Equinox Flower, etc.) that rank with cinema’s most profound achievements. Even lesser efforts (1934’s A Mother Should Be Loved, 1948’s A Hen in the Wind) feature enough good moments and solid craftsmanship to warrant occasional viewings. Such is also the case of the lesser-known The Munekata Sisters.2
Based on the novel by Jiro Osaragi and released in August 1950, The Munekata Sisters marked the first of three instances where Ozu directed for a studio other than Shochiku.3 In spring three years earlier, employees at rival company Toho became frustrated with their labor union’s rules and creative interferences, and thus formed an alternate union to represent themselves. Called the Society of the Flag of Ten, they were allowed to work in a previously vacant set of soundstages and were christened Toho Second Production Branch. Alas, tensions between the Society and the previous union continued, the former eventually breaking off to form a subsidiary called Shin Toho (“New Toho”).4 Shin Toho initially received distribution and financial backing from its parent company—in exchange for twenty-five percent of all profits—but in March 1950 defected to operate on its own. Their output included debut films by up-and-comers like Kon Ichikawa as well as freelance jobs from established moviemakers. Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949) was one such film, the Ozu picture under discussion being another.
Making The Munekata Sisters proved somewhat frustrating for Ozu, as the front office not only dictated casting but picked the source material.5 “To be frank, I find it difficult to make a film out of a novel,” he recalled in a 1958 interview with Kinema Junpo magazine. “You’re forced into reworking the imagination of the author, and then have to select someone to play a role already created. When I write, I always write with an actor in mind from the beginning, and this helps create the role in the film.”6 Working from what he described as a “very heavy” script,7 he also found himself quarreling with star Kinuyo Tanaka, with whom he’d worked numerous times before but who’d recently returned from three months in Hollywood and consequently had new ideas regarding film acting. Ozu, accustomed to dictating performances down to the tiniest movement (“You are not supposed to feel, you are supposed to do,” he once told an actress), was even overheard grumbling about his leading lady.8 Nonetheless, he remembered the shoot being an easy one and addressed the story predicament by directing the “heavy” script “very lightly.”9
The Munekata Sisters begins with one of the titular siblings, Setsuko (Kinuyo Tanaka), visiting the former capital of Kyoto, where she learns her father (Chishu Ryu) is terminally ill with stomach cancer. A very “traditional” Japanese woman, she spends much of her time touring the city’s famous temples—much to the boredom of her younger, “modern” sister Mariko (Hideko Takamine). Infused with contemporary ways of thinking, Mariko’s likewise frustrated with the path her sibling’s chosen: Setsuko tolerates an unemployed husband, Mimura (So Yamamura), despite lasting love for Hiroshi (Ken Uehara), a man she knew before the war. Mimura learns of his wife’s feelings, turns against both siblings, opposes Setsuko seeking financial assistance from Hiroshi to save her bar, and physically strikes her after suggesting they divorce.
At this point, the film goes comically off the rails. The husband’s subsequent death of a heart attack leads to a nauseating denouement wherein his widow refuses to marry Hiroshi for fear of being haunted by the past. (The subdued writing and acting in the resultant breakup scene feels out of place amid overheated melodrama.) But the problems begin even before that, with contrivances and the tired cliché of interrupted intimacy. On the verge of divorcing her husband, Setsuko rendezvouses with Hiroshi at an inn to discuss the future. The two are slowly leaning in for a kiss when they hear someone stepping into the room; as they step apart, Ichiro Saito’s music comes to a halt, accentuating what is already an awkwardly staged scene. Ozu professed throughout his life to have been uninterested in romance,10 and nowhere is this more evident than here. Additional problems stem from the father and his inconsequential illness subplot: as written, his only narrative function is to proffer advice to his daughters.
Before Act Three, however, The Munekata Sisters fares as a modest entry in Ozu’s oeuvre, thanks in great part to Hideko Takamine. A major star since age five, Takamine appeared in over a hundred pictures as a child—including one directed by Ozu, 1933’s Tokyo Chorus—before transferring to Toho in her adolescent years. Clinging to popularity after the war, she’d been one of the founders of the Society of the Flag of Ten and thus accompanied them to Shin Toho. In The Munekata Sisters, Takamine plays a tomboy (“She looks like a lady but acts like a child,” says her father) prone to humorous tics (sticking out her tongue, scrunching her face, describing others’ lives with a theatrical tone of faux-profundity). Most interestingly, though, her character Mariko is a byproduct of occupation-era (read: westernized) Japan, frequently at odds with her sister, whom she deems “old-fashioned.”
At its core, The Munekata Sisters is about the clash of lifestyles between its two protagonists. Whereas Setsuko dons kimonos, Mariko struts about in Occidental dresses; while the former’s content roaming the temple of Kyoto, the latter’s happier in cosmopolitan cities such as Kobe and Tokyo; Mariko enjoys being spoken to in English and, at one point, kicks her slippers at a displayed set of samurai armor, something her sister would never do. In the movie’s best scene, the siblings square off against each other and their respective ways of life. (“Things that are really new never get old. What does ‘new’ mean to you? Short skirts? Stylish nail polish color?” “You and I are totally different. We were raised in different times.”) The film never chooses a side, though the siblings’ father, while assuring Mariko to find her way, cautions her that “being fashion-conscious is boring.” By drama’s end, the sisters stroll together through Kyoto, clinging to their world views—Setsuko still in kimono, Mariko still in western clothing.
Continuing on the topic of modernization: The Munekata Sisters is retroactively fun as a glimpse into the later years of Japan’s postwar occupation. While no foreigners appear, their influence is plainly visible: an office building rife with English signs for Time, Life, and Bible House; a café with a Coca Cola sign prominently hung from the ceiling. Meantime, the characters reminisce about the war and prewar years: a bartender character is a former pilot, and Mariko attended junior high in Manchuria, the Chinese demographic infamously annexed by Japan in 1931.
And there’s a pleasure consistent across all surviving Ozu works: the exquisite sense of design, the natural flow of images. Together with cinematographer Joji Ohara, the director gets creative with weather, at one point staging an interior scene during a thunderstorm, achieving light effects through the shadow of raindrops streaming down windows. Images that no doubt look spectacular in the film’s new restoration. I haven’t seen the print in question (it’s to make its debut at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival) but hope it eventually makes its way to home media markets there and elsewhere. For even minor Ozu films such as this are worth the attention of serious film lovers around the world.
Works cited and further reading:
- Russell, Catherine. The Cinema of Naruse Mikio: Women and Japanese Modernity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008, p. 52
- A disclaimer on the film’s title. Per a Japanese correspondent of mine, the proper pronunciation of the sisters’ surname is “Munakata.” However, I recently attended an Ozu exhibit at the Kanagawa Museum of Modern Literature in Yokohama, Japan; and the plaque related to materials for the film under discussion spelled the English title as “The Munekata Sisters.” This appears to be the official English spelling per the film’s copyright holders; and so, for the sake of representation, this is the spelling I’ve used in this article.
- The other two instances are 1959’s Floating Weeds, shot for Daiei, and 1961’s The End of Summer, shot for the Toho subsidiary Takarazuka Eiga.
- Anderson, Joseph L. and Donald Richie. The Japanese Film: Art and Industry (Expanded Edition). Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982, pp. 167-8
- Bordwell, David. Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988, pp. 311-2
- Richie, Donald. Ozu: His Life and Films. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977, p. 236
- Bordwell, p. 313
- Richie, pp. 144; 236
- Bordwell, p. 313
- Richie, Donald. “The Later Films of Yasujiro Ozu.” Film Quarterly 13, no. 1. Autumn 1959, p. 21