Directed by Mikio Naruse
In a cramped dining room, a large family huddles and dines in the late evening. Ishimura, the unemployed father, retires for the night to drink away his problems. Even though he has nine children and almost no money to feed them with, Ishimura always keeps his sake cup full. And why wouldn’t he? Life is hard. Japan is mired in a devastating depression as a result of the Sino-Japanese War. His sons all work meaningless and monotonous tasks at a local factory. His daughters have no ambitions other than to be married off to rich suitors. His wife, once beautiful enough that Ishimura was compelled to have nine children with her, is becoming bloated with age and sour of disposition. But at least there is routine. Ishimura drinks, his wife stays at home and tends the house, and his sons toil for the war effort. In their own way, the whole family works.
Such is the state of affairs within Ishimura’s household in this curious wartime effort by legendary Japanese director Mikio Naruse. Widely considered to be the unofficial fourth godfather of Japanese cinema (the other three being Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, and Kenji Mizoguchi), Naruse was a tireless creator, directing 89 films during an almost 40 year career. His films were characterized by leisurely and relaxed pacing and a focus on mono no aware, or, “an awareness of the transience of things, and a gentle sadness at their passing.” Much like his contemporary Ozu, Naruse frequently made films about Japanese families. But whereas Ozu would focus primarily on the middle-class, Naruse chose to explore the lives of the poor and disenfranchised. While Ozu was busy dissecting concepts of filial piety, familial loyalty, and tradition in the face of progress, Naruse would busy himself with the harsh realities of life, such as how to make money and how to keep food on the table.
His film The Whole Family Works centers on a conflict between Ishimura and his eldest son Kiichi. Kiichi does not want to waste away in a factory. Inspired by his encouraging teacher Mr. Washio, Kiichi begs his father to allow him to stop working for five years and study to become an electrician. He argues that although the family will have to suffer for five years to support him, it will be worth it when he can provide the family with extra money once he gets his license.
Both Ishimura and his wife refuse to let him stop working. Ishimura’s wife argues that without his factory salary, they will not be able to eat. Ishimura seems to disagree because he is afraid of the idea of change. Although his family lives a difficult life, Ishimura enjoys the status quo. Without all of his sons working, he would have to seek employment again. And then how would he enjoy his permanent vacation? Of course, Ishimura never says any of this out loud. But watch closely during the scene where Kiichi initially confronts him. His body movements, his motions, and his excuses speak volumes.
The Whole Family Works is an unusual outing for Naruse. Whereas his other films focus on traditional, immediate problems such as monetary crises, this film seems to depict a struggle between the forces of modernism and traditionalism. Kiichi represents the new generation, full of bright ideas concerning the future. Ishimura represents the established way of things and conservatism. After all, the family could quite conceivably survive for five years without the extra salary. It is the violation of familial piety and parental devotion that seems to bother and trouble Ishimura and his wife. Such a film is even more unusual when it is considered within its historical subtext. During 1939, Japan was heavily involved in World War Two and Imperial censors were cracking down on cinematic content like never before. Films that even hinted at dissension within society were quelled and removed. Wives were not even allowed to be shown weeping for their husbands going off to war. Instead, they were supposed to be depicted as cheerfully wishing them well as they went off to fight the good fight. So one wonders how this film was approved and made in the first place?
However it was made, the film survives and represents an interesting time of transition for Naruse between his earlier expressionist work to his later, simpler, almost minimalistic work. There are two moments in particular that seem boldly out of place for those who are familiar with his later work. The first is a scene where a group of children playing war games abruptly transitions to scenes of actual warfare. Such a bold edit seems more reminiscent of Soviet cinematic theorists and not a relaxed Japanese director. The second is one of the final scenes where Kiichi confronts Ishimura in front of his family and begs him again for the opportunity to go to school. As the argument brews and grows more intense, Naruse makes several cuts to a thunderstorm outside.
But the fact remains that The Whole Family Works is a fascinating film from one of Japan’s true cinematic masters. While it doesn’t rank with his more famous films, it still deserves recognition as an important stepping stone in Naruse’s career. It was partially through the lessons learned and mistakes made in The Whole Family Works that Naruse became the cinematic genius that he was.
Stay tuned for Part Two of my Entry to the CMBA's 1939 Blogathon!!
Editor's Note: Sorry that it took so long to get this article up. I recently got a new computer and I've been trying to figure it out. Also, I'll try to post this video on youtube as soon as possible.