Directed by Mikio Naruse
Nobody can really explain the friendship between Nobuko and Tomiko. The two young schoolgirls are close friends despite what Japanese society in the late 30s would consider to be damning differences. Nobuko is from a well-to-do middle-class family. Her mother leads a patriotic women’s association that helps maintain the home front while the men are away at war. Her father is a successful banker. There are whispers that he may be drafted into the army as an officer. Truly, Nobuko family represents the perfect wartime nuclear unit. Tomiko, on the other hand, does not. Her’s is a poor family led by a single mother who makes ends meet as a stay-at-home seamstress. The two share their house with an invalid grandmother. While Nobuko’s family is engaging the Enemy at home and abroad, Tomiko’s family can’t even offer a single male to serve as a private in the Imperial army. And yet Tomiko is head of her class while Nobuko ranks tenth. Nobody can explain the friendship between Nobuko and Tomiko. Even more, nobody seems to want to confront what their friendship implicates.
Not that this bothers Nobuko and Tomiko. The two live blissfully unaware of what their friendship represents. Yes, Nobuko is obviously from a superior family, but that doesn’t bother them. They seem to be made for each other. In one scene where the girls are being taught gardening skills (after all, they are girls in late 30s Japan) at school, a teacher comments that their work compliments each other. One works fast, the other thoroughly. They are both sides of a single coin.
Of course, Nobuko’s mother can’t comprehend how Tomiko could be getting higher marks. At first, she blames the teacher. But no, he is a good man who says that Nobuko isn’t working hard enough. So her resentment of Tomiko and her family simmers. She tells her husband about the situation. He seems less interested in Nobuko’s performance than in Tomiko’s achievement. Something about that girl seems familiar. He buys an expensive doll for Tomiko without any explanation. Who would have thought that such a simple gift would have such explosive ramifications. Such is life in Sincerity, a wartime effort by legendary Japanese director Mikio Naruse.
The giving of the doll comes at an uneasy time in Tomiko’s life. She discovers that at one point her mother and Nobuko’s father were in love. Tomiko begins to want to know about her own father. But she is given varying accounts of him. Tomiko’s mother claims that he was a great, honorable man. Tomiko’s grandmother yells back that he was a drunken scoundrel. Nobody seems to be able to agree what he was actually like. They have an old, dusty photo of who they claim was her father. But the photo is unmarked, faded, and of questionable origins. Her father remains an unspoken enigma within the family.
And then comes the gift of the doll. I would like to tell you that Nobuko’s father is revealed to be Tomiko’s father. I would like to tell you that it is revealed that the girls are really sisters.
Yes, I would like to tell you that. But I can’t. The last fourth of the film marks one of the strangest developments that I have ever seen in a film. The first three-fourths of the film focus on Tomiko. We follow her as she runs the emotional gauntlet of sadness, betrayal, joy, and acceptance as she comes to terms with her missing father. There are several delicately filmed and emotionally powerful scenes of the two girls trying to salvage their friendship after the revelation concerning Nobuko’s father is revealed. There is even a dream sequence where Tomiko imagines her mother and Nobuko’s father being reunited. But suddenly, near the end, the film makes a sharp turn and makes Nobuko’s father the center of attention. We are treated to a bizarre scene where Nobuko’s mother confronts her husband about the rumors concerning Tomiko’s father. He sharply rebukes her and reprimands her for thinking such things. Then the film transitions to a scene at a train station where Tomiko, Nobuko, and their two mothers cheerfully send off Nobuko’s father to the army. The girls wave flags, the mothers reconcile, and the father waves merrily as he is spirited away to the front lines.
And then the movie ends.
I have only one explanation for why the movie does such an abrupt about face: wartime censors. Many Japanese films of the era ended in the exact same way as Sincerity with families tearfully waving goodbye to valiant men off to battle. At the time, directors were not allowed to depict families mourning over their loved ones being sent off to battle. This explains why everybody is so happy when they first hear that Nobuko’s father is drafted. Disharmony was not allowed to be depicted among Japanese citizens and, even more insanely, selfishness. Filmmakers were literally not allowed to show Japanese citizens acting selfishly or partaking in actions that didn’t involve personal sacrifice for the wartime effort. I suspect that Naruse was ordered to reshoot the ending of this film. Naruse may still have been learning the ropes as a director in 1939, but not even the most inexperienced novice would purposefully end the film in the same manner.
So in the end we have a film that works more as a museum piece than a work of art. It is a glaring example of the reach and impact of Japanese wartime censorship during the Second World War. I would love to see how Naruse would have ended the film had he not been shackled by Imperial censors. The film suggests a powerful climax where the members of both families come to terms with Tomiko’s parentage. But what we have is a film with a tacked on ending that seems naive, insulting, and potentially offensive to modern viewers. Thankfully, Naruse’s career continued long after the Imperial censors left. We have many great films by Naruse that do justice to his original artistic intentions. But as it is, when we look back on Sincerity, we can only see wasted potential and hints of what could have been.
Note from the Editor: I will be uploading this film along with The Whole Family Works as soon as I figure out how to do it on my new MacBook Pro. Hang in there!