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November 27, 2011

Japanese Film: "The Munekata Sisters" (1950) by Ozu

The Munekata Sisters is a study in contrasts: between the conservative, married older sister Setsuko (Tanaka Kinuyo), always wearing kimono, and the free-spirited younger sister Mariko (Takamine Hideko), always in Western-style dress; and between the locations of Tokyo, the center of the modernization of Japan, and the Kansai with the old temple cities of Kyoto and Nara.

Setsuko lives in Tokyo with her husband Mimura (Yamamura So), who is out of a job and into hard and fast drinking. With them also lives her younger sister Mariko. To sustain the family finances, Setsuko operates a bar and Mariko helps her. Their ailing father (Ryu Chishu) lives in Kyoto and Setsuko and Mariko regularly visit him. Also based in the Kansai (in Kobe, a Westernized city) is Setsuko's former flame, Hiroshi (Uehara Ken), who has just returned from France and now has an antique shop. He often visits Tokyo as well. Mariko – who is rather childish - tries to reunite Setsuko and Hiroshi, although she herself is also secretly in love with Hiroshi. Her meddling, however, has unintended tragic results when Mimura gets jealous of his wife and Hiroshi.

This film has been called “lesser Ozu” because it is different from his other, mature works in being more melodramatic. But it serves to show one thing: that Ozu could make quite different films, and not always repeated the same story as some other critics say. The main theme of The Munekata Sisters is typical Ozu: the loss of traditional family values due to Japan's Westernization, embodied in Mariko who lightly advises Setsuko to separate from her drinking and violent husband. On the other hand, Setsuko is the very embodiment of those traditional values: she is reticent (reason why she did not speak out to Hiroshi about her love in the past) and after her husband dies, she refuses to marry Hiroshi. It seems natural that she now should do so and Hiroshi actually asks her, but she decides to never meet him again as marrying him after what happened to her husband – who died doubting her truthfulness to him – does not seem right to her. Instead, she moves to Kyoto to take care of her ill father.

  • One of only 3 films Ozu made for another company than Shochiku. 
  • His only adaptation of a novel, by then popular novelist Jiro Osaragi. 
  • The script is more melodramatic than the usual Ozu – Mimura slaps Setsuko in the face and Mariko screams when she sees that Mimura has died from a heart attack (it is the only Ozu film to contain a woman's scream!). 
  • The film took seventh place in the Kinema Junpo ranking for 1950.
  • Contrasting two women, usually sisters, of different types – one traditional, one modern - was common in Japanese film since the 1930s. A famous example is Mizoguchi's Sisters of the Gion. 
  • The film contains several famous, idyllic Japanese spots as the temples in Kyoto and Nara, or the resort town of Hakone. 
  • The use of Yakushiji Temple in Nara is probably intentional: it is dedicated to the Buddha of Healing (Yakushi Nyorai) and during the visit to this temple, Hiroshi hopes to “heal” his relationship with Setsuko. By the way, in 1950 Yakushiji looked very different from today – both main hall and second pagoda were later rebuilt, but I prefer this old Yakushiji with pine trees growing in the courtyard. 
  • Osaragi Jiro loved cats (see his museum in Yokohama!) and Mimura is constantly carrying a cat with him.