Co-adapted by Tanaka Sumie and Ide Toshirô—who, together or separately, collaborated with director Naruse Mikio on some of his finest films of the fifties and sixties—Late Chrysanthemums (Bangiku) brings together three short stories by Hayashi Fumiko, Naruse’s favorite author. In each of the stories, Hayashi portrayed a middle-aged woman at a crossroads in her life, a theme prevalent in Naruse’s Hayashi adaptations, not to mention in a number of his other films such as Ginza Cosmetics (1951), When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960) and Flowing (1956), which this film echoes in particular.
Naruse and his screenwriters not only merged the individual backgrounds of the women in terms of their work history but also made them former colleagues in order to explore their past and present relationships with one another. And they added a fourth woman (played by Sawamura Sadako), who conveniently runs a bar where the others often drop by to share their daily trials and tribulations.
Although Sugimura Haruko’s Kin, a moneylender who is by far the most financially stable of these former geishas, occupies the center of the film, ample screen-time is devoted to Hosokawa Chikako’s Tamae, a physically frail woman who sometimes works at a love hotel, and Mochizuki Yûko’s Tomi, a janitor with a gambling habit. The most pathetic of the women, she’s more or less the film’s only source of comic relief. Both Tamae and Tomi have an adult child who further adds to their frustrations. Although at times a point of envy for the childless Kin, they help prove her theory that children eventually abandon you.
The various stories and relationships could have compromised the effectiveness of the film by constantly shifting its focal point; instead, they enrich it by expanding its scope to the larger social reality that surrounds the women. Credit certainly goes to Naruse, the writing team, and the actors for revealing much about the characters and the world around them with as little as possible. Of the four women, only Kin appears to have truly kept up with the times—she even dabbles in the real estate market to take advantage of a rebuilding postwar Tokyo. On the other hand, Tamae and Tomi are often busy reminiscing about the old days and, despite being part of the water trade in the past, or perhaps due to it, are unable to deal with the mores and values their children possess.
Most filmmakers would have turned Kin into a cold and affectless hag who is morally and spiritually regenerated during the process of the film. That’s not the case here. Although Kin often projects a tough outer appearance and is extremely guarded about her life, we’re allowed to get a sense of her loneliness and what may have caused her to be this way. And while she is generally accused by her friends, her regular customers, for being far too stingy, she happens to be the reason why they’re able to live without paying rent or interest for long periods of time. Kin does her best to collect, however.
The only person who’s able to fluster her is Tomi’s daughter (Arima Ineko), who, for a brief moment, makes her wonder about the way she is. Even Kin’s deaf-mute maid is surprised by her excitement upon learning that a former paramour is coming to see her. But it does not take Kin long to come to the conclusion that her money maybe both a blessing and a curse. The film’s lone flaw is Naruse’s sudden and unnecessary dependence on Kin’s voice-over narration late in the proceedings.
Like John Ford’s, Naruse’s oeuvre also contains a few films in which supporting actors are seen in prominent roles. Sugimura, who is best known in the West for her busybody supporting parts in Ozu’s Late Spring (1949) and Tokyo Story (1953), could not have been more perfect for this character, and she certainly rises to the occasion. Ditto Mochizuki, who in fact dealt with something similar a year earlier in Kinoshita Keisuke’s remarkable A Japanese Tragedy (1953), a film that lives up to its title. But Late Chrysanthemums is neither as bleak as the Kinoshita film nor as melodramatic or nihilistic. The kind of pointed realism if presents through its measured accumulation of routine events and behavioral insights is practically impossible to categorize. This is true of the majority of Naruse’s work. What’s also there is his belief that our lives and relationships are often based around monetary concerns. Late Chrysanthemums offers arguably the most plangent crystallization of it.