In this riveting examination of mad love and social obligation set at the eve of the Russo-Japanese War, Okane (Ayako Wakao) returns to the small village of her youth where she endures the scorn and rejection of the townsfolk with sullen distemper. When Seisaku (Takahiro Tamura), the village’s “model youth,” returns from military service, the beloved patriot strikes up an unlikely romance with Okane, marginalizing himself in the process. Based on a story by Kojiro Yoshida and written by Kaneto Shindo, Seisaku’s Wife is a sensual tale of rebel love and wild obsession standing against the strict military demands of Imperial Japan.
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Unlike Ayako Wakao’s nuanced emotional conflicts in A Wife Confesses, her performance in Seisaku’s Wife is typified by fiercely intense feelings and single-minded resolve. In this exceptionally tense tale set in a small village in 1904, as Japan approaches war with the Russian Empire, Wakao plays Okane, a beautiful young woman struggling against the judgements of this small community and the conflicting priorities between love and duty. Yasuzo Masumura brings this story of l’amour fou, written by famed Japanese director Kaneto Shindo, to a wild and bloody conclusion, one in keeping with the film’s overwrought and mercurial nature.
Okane is first introduced as the unhappily kept woman of an older man with a thriving kimono business. As the object of his love/lust for the last 3 years, the 20-year old woman recoils from his obtrusive affections, running home to her sick parents only to be sent back. When her benefactor suddenly dies, as does her father, she and her mother decide to return to their original village to live off the small fortune paid to her by the man’s embarrassed family. Life in the village is hardly idyllic, as Okane is ostracized and called a “whore” by the villagers who are aware of her past indentured companionship. In response, the young woman lives reclusively in sullen, but obvious contempt for the townspeople.
Circumstances suddenly change when Seisaku (Takahiro Tamura) returns to the village on leave from military service. As the town’s favourite son, Seisaku can do no wrong and he quickly sets upon rousing the productive, patriotic spirit of his fellow villagers by ringing at dawn a large bell he’s bought with his own pay. Okane proves the only exception, dourly refusing to answer Seisaku’s call and fall into the collective fervour. Seisaku finds Okane’s ostracism contrary to the Imperial ideals of brotherhood and community and he is quick to act when Okane’s mother is stricken ill and dies, helping to organize the funeral. In reaching out to help the young woman, he finds her needing meaningful companionship and himself romantically drawn to Okane, much to the chagrin of his mother and sister.
Okane takes in her mentally challenged cousin Heisuke at her dying mother’s request, but her world is inextricably tied to Seisaku by her all-encompassing love for him. Seisaku’s tests his family objections when they advise he cannot return home if he marries Okane, an ultimatum he ignores. When the village’s young role model, his reputation now slightly sullied for his association with Okane, leaves to return to military service contrary to the wishes of his unofficial bride, she is left withering in isolation from him and struggling to win any favour with his family that might bring her closer to him.
Seisaku eventually returns from the war to complete his recovery from an injury, sparing Okane from some of the villagers nastier treatment and relieving her of the emotional and spiritual agony caused by his absence. When he advises that his military duty requires him to return to service in 6 months, his lover is heavily distraught, pleading in vain that the pair run away together. Seisaku rejects such a proposal as dishonourable and craven. At the moment of Seisaku’s departure, at a party celebrating his service and bravery, Okane blinds him with a nail. If conventional in its depiction, the sequence is harrowing in its intensity and striking in its harshness and its callousness.
Okane is punished with 2 years in prison, but her goal is achieved – Seisaku does not return to the front. And while others demand that he wash his hands of his lover and attacker, Seisaku’s compassionate nature prevents him from doing so, instead using the intervening time to consider how the rumours and rejections directed against him (over whether he put Okane up to blinding him to hide his own cowardice and prevent him from returning to the war) compare to Okane’s previous experience with the same villagers. Thoughtful and caring in his judgement, Seisaku apologizes for valuing their love less than his patriotism or the accolades of his peers, and he commits unequivocally to his beloved wife. Seisaku’s Wife concludes with the modest image of a blinded Seisaku sitting quietly while Okane tills the soil of their modest farmland, a scene that foregrounds their both their comfortable, considerate relationship and the physical and social toll incurred in reaching this tranquil moment.
Virtually all of Seisaku’s Wife is made up of single-note performances. These are mostly constituted by awful, petty women spitting their venom at Okane or blustering men pontificating on the duty of other men to fight and die for their Empire. Ayako Wakao comes closest to offering a rounded character with depth of feeling, although her performance has far less moments of conflicted emotion than presented in A Wife Confesses. Instead, Wakao’s Okane is typified by sequences of singularly intense, excessively felt emotion – moving from ashamed disgust to reciprocating disdain, then anguished isolation, frantic alarm, and finally grateful constancy. Aggravating the acute tension of these overwhelming emotions is Tadashi Yamauchi’s uneasily mournful score of climbing tones, one that puts the listener on edge as its slightly shrill tones seem to increase in pitch and anxiety. The flatness of Masumura’s characters is not a criticism however. They function with keen effectiveness and make Seisaku’s Wife a thrilling, nearly fanatical film that blisters with melodramatic power. No wonder then that Wakao’s masterful, essential, and film-carrying performance won her both a Blue Ribbon Award and Kinema Junpo Award. In The Wife of Seishu Hanaoka, Wakao will return to the suffering domestic role of A Wife Confesses, making her daring, spirited role here all the more valuable.