At one point during the remarkable train sequence late in the film—this elliptically poetic episode runs approximately nine minutes, considerably longer than what I had imagined from my initial viewings—Takamine Hideko’s character forlornly looks at her brother-in-law, sitting fast asleep across from her, with tears in her eyes. Although emotions end up getting the better of her, and she wakes him in the process, but not before she had made an important, life-altering decision, as we later discover. This is an example of something purely emotional or sentimental not hindering the psychological in Naruse Mikio’s cinema, applying equally to both the writing and the filmmaking.
Written by Matsuyama Zenzô, Takamine’s husband, Yearning (Midareru) features this talented Japanese actor as Reiko, a war-widow in her late thirties who runs a provincial grocery store for her in-laws, which she resurrected on her own after the end of the war. Played by Kayama Yûzô, son of the great Uehara Ken, the aforementioned brother-in-law, an ostensibly wayward twenty-five-year-old, named Kôji, quits a desk job in Tokyo and returns home under the pretext of helping out with the store, but we eventually learn that he too had other underlying reasons for his actions.
However, the element of modernity (the supermarket) Naruse introduces right from the beginning abruptly brings things to a head, affecting not only the livelihood of the family but also the relationships between its members. Speaking of which, the initial scenes between Reiko and Kôji establish a very interesting dynamic between them, with Reiko treating him both as the son she’s never had and a surrogate of sorts for the husband she barely knew, while Kôji insisting on acting like a delinquent in order to see how much it worries Reiko. Later on, he would employ a very different method to draw her attention. Much of it is conveyed non-verbally, one of Naruse’s trademarks. While Kôji’s feelings and motivations become known in due time, Reiko’s remain an enigma, even though she continues to behave the way she is supposed to in a traditional Japanese household.
And Naruse and DP Yasumoto Jun’s elegant lighting schemes never betray her: the drama of light and shadow, especially during the frontal long-shot at about the midway point in the film—after Reiko had become aware of Kôji’s feelings—in which she slowly moves toward the back of the shophouse before sitting down, is stunning to behold (one of the primary reasons Naruse liked shooting in sequence was so the lighting would be consistent). And the same could be said for Takamine and her gestural vocabulary. This was one of her more emotionally demanding roles and she was never better. The Best Actress award she received at Locarno is well-deserved; Claude Chabrol and, more importantly, renowned curator Kawakita Kashiko were among the jury members.
It seems fitting, then, that Takamine only got to see Yearning, in its complete form, at Tokyo’s Kawakita Memorial Film Institute in 1989. Until then, she had only taken in a few rushes during the making. When the lights came up after the screening, Takamine was reportedly seen crying in her seat. “But it’s a Naruse film,” she added in her usual deprecating manner. “So it’s too long, too slow. And all that hesitating.”  This hesitating—more specifically in this case a state of midareru or “anguished confusion”—has perhaps never been more convincingly portrayed onscreen. And it beautifully sets up the film’s final shot, one of the most devastating in cinema.
Exquisitely captured by Yasumoto, who shot a number of Naruse’s ‘scope film in the Sixties—here, previously, his medium- and long-shot compositions had emphasized Reiko’s loneliness—it’s a close-up of Reiko’s face, in which she might as well be a spiritual companion to Edvard Munch’s silent screamer. However, as the late, great Taiwanese master Edward Yang has argued, “Her expression suddenly becomes calm as if she were saying to herself, ‘This is life, and life must go on.'” While to me the transformation is much more subtle, closer to what the Dardennes accomplished with Émilie Dequenne at the end of Rosetta (1999), which only speaks to the greatness of Takamine’s performance in this moment, her expression does move ever so slightly from despairing to quietly defiant. As much as we might want to, I don’t think we need to pity Reiko. She’ll be okay.