What Did the Lady Forget? (Shukujo wa nani o wasureta ka) isn’t considered among Ozu Yasujirô’s greatest achievements but it is a richer film than what it appears on the surface. This Lubitschian comedy of manners and mores may lack the gravity and complexity of a Tokyo Story (1953) or a Late Spring (1949), but it contains a number of narrative, visual, and thematic elements that render it extremely fascinating and worthy of our attention and exploration. The film involves a hen-pecked husband and his socialite wife whose lives are turned upside down when their mischievous niece comes to visit them.
Although it serves as a precursor to Ozu’s own postwar effort, Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (1952), which was initially written much earlier, the premise also recalls Naruse Mikio’s Repast (1951). The key difference being, however, that, as was often the case in Naruse, the financial situation of the couple in Repast acted as an important factor in bringing them to the brink. In What Did the Lady Forget?, on the other hand, the problems are strictly behavior oriented and are mostly assigned to the female and her social life.
Among the first Ozu films to depict the bourgeoisie, it contains a hilarious scene early on between Kurishima Sumiko, once the country’s first major female star who plays the forbidding woman in question, and her two society friends, wonderfully portrayed by Lida Chôko and Yoshikawa Mitsuko, in which they could not possibly be more superficial; Lida’s character even suggest a new way of laughing that would somehow prevent facial wrinkles.
The dynamic between Kurishima and Saitô Tatsuo, the cowed husband who happens to be a professor of medicine, is similar to that of the couple they played in Naruse’s Every-Night Dreams (1933), but again, their economic situation in this film is entirely different. Kurishima’s character here makes sure that her husband plays golf on the weekends so she can hold court with her friends. The only major plot development occurs when, perhaps feeling more confident after the arrival of the brazen niece, he decides to skip the scheduled outing and heads for the Ginza.
The niece is played by Kuwano Michiko, who was seen in a similar moga (or “modern woman”) avatar a year earlier in Shimizu Hiroshi’s Mr. Thank You (1936). Also a part of Ozu’s The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (1941), she tragically died in 1946 at the young age of 31. Her daughter, Kuwano Miyuki, essayed supporting roles in Ozu’s Equinox Flower (1958) and Late Autumn (1960); she was named Michiko in the latter.
Ozu’s camera in this film is not nearly as mobile as it is in a few of his early efforts. Other than the brief shot of the rows of students in a classroom, the only other entirety “unmotivated” camera movement in this film is the slow revealing of the Don Quixote quote, “I drink upon occasion, sometimes upon no occasion,” which Ozu would revisit, much less fruitfully, in The Munekata Sisters (1950). The two traveling-shots are exquisite, however; Ozu strikingly cuts to the second as he catches the trench-coated Saitô and Kuwano, mid-movement and in unison, emphasizing their spiritual bond, trying to avoid facing the wrath of Kurishima’s character. There aren’t many pillow-shots or shots of prominently placed objects, and Ozu uses deep-focus more than usual, but no one will mistake it for someone else’s work.
Ozu’s love of cinema is once again evident in this film in the Fredric March and Marlene Dietrich citations. Attentive and knowledgeable viewers may also catch the fleeting presence of the then-rising star Uehara Ken, perhaps the most handsome of all Japanese actors, who is nearly acknowledged as such by the abovementioned trio of ladies. It’s a rare case of someone not resorting to “reverse” (or “reverse-reverse”) psychology in this film to keep any problems at bay.