Note This review contains spoilers and assumes the reader has watched the film.
Director Mikio Naruse’s style has been described as “like a great river with a calm surface and a raging current in its depths”. I can’t think of better evidence than his 1964 film Yearning.
The film’s plot concerns itself with themes familiar to Classical Japanese cinema viewers - generational differences, post-war change, and tradition versus modernity. A family-owned market is being threatened by a corporate chain. A widow won’t move on and remarry. A younger son lives an aimless life.
What I like about Naruse’s take is that he’s not too concerned with taking sides. The audience may be led to be on widow Reiko’s side as the rest of the Morita family plots against her, but her adherence to tradition and stubbornness are the true causes of the film’s tragic ending. Modern Western audiences may be confused as to why a widow is still living and working for her husband’s family, but once this idealistic pre-WWII Japanese attitude is accepted, Naruse’s criticisms are clear. It’s only a declaration of love (and thus a threat to Reiko’s devotion to her dead husband) that causes her to return to her own family.
In the last quarter of the film, Reiko’s actress Hideko Takamine’s subtle and tragic acting shines. After Koji, the younger Morita son, declares her love for her and follows her home, we are treated to a long and quiet train ride. They’re not arguing; they’re not even talking - Koji falls asleep. We only see Reiko’s eyes calmly looking at him, dealing with the emotions raging inside her.
When Koji declares her love and asks to marry her one more time, the audience (especially a modern one) is ready to believe that Reiko will accept. And she almost does, but she catches herself at the last moment and pushes Koji away one last time. Naruse is a realist, after all. Again, Takamine’s acting shines: she both fools the audience for a second but when she refuses, we believe her. She’s thinking of how guilty she’d feel marrying her husband’s brother and being part of the sale of the grocery store. In the end, we take her side.
I find the ending - Koji’s suicide - too melodramatic. It fits his rash and immature character, but Naruse could have taken this opportunity to show development and the Japanese skill for saving face during a tragedy.
Yearning is a must-watch for fans of Classical Japanese film. Naruse once again successfully marries the family drama of Ozu with the depressing realism of Mizugochi.