Domestic rivalry finds unexpected expression in Yasuzo Masumura’s The Wife of Seishu Hanaoka, the true-life story of the Japanese physician who first developed general anesthetic for use in 1804 and the women who competed to be his test subjects. Hanaoka (Raizð Ichikawa) has little attention for his imperious mother (Hideko Takamine) and his dutiful wife (Ayako Wakao) while he searches for the precise formula for his herbal anesthetic. Screenwriter Kaneto Shindo and director Yasuzo Masumura step away from the expected conventions of the bio-pic by focusing on the doctor’s spouse Kae, portraying her commitment and sacrifice to her husband’s endeavor as the truly heroic act of this dizzying tale of love and obsession.
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In prologue, The Wife of Seishu Hanaoka reveals the prolonged, but seemingly inevitable joining of Ayako Wakao’s Kae to the Hanaoka family. At age 8, Kae, the daughter to an admired samurai family, is taken by her nurse so she can see Otsugi, the renowned and beautiful matriarch to the Hanaokas. Otsugi’s husband, Naomichi (played ably by Oh, My Bomb‘s Yûnosuke Itô) plays the homely physician to Kae’s grandfather, his stories of landing the beautiful Otsugi for his wife (his wagered reward for curing her skin ailment) being overheard by a teenage Kae, adding to the idealized image the young woman has constructed of the doctor’s wife. Three years following the death of Kae’s grandfather, Otsugi petitions Kae’s parents to allow her to marry her son Seishu, who is away studying medicine. Aware of the gap in class between Kae’s samurai family and the modest Hanaokas, Otsugi asks that Kae’s parents ask her “if she will marry uneventfully into a big family, or build a castle by developing a poor family.” Kae’s mother and nurse convince her father to ask Kae of her wishes, and she admits to wanting to be part of the Hanaokas, fufilling a childhood dream.
The film’s title and credits appear once Kae steps into the role of wife to Seishu Hanaoka. She departs her home in traditional bridal dress and travels to the Hanaokas’ home/medical office where the marriage ceremony proceeds with her husband in absentia. Standing in his stead is the “guardian deity of the house,” a book of herbs dating back to the Ming dynasty translated and kept by the Hanaokas. It is a portentous wedding, as Seishu’s return home is not expected until 3 years after Otsugi’s proposed the union to Kae’s parents, leaving Kae to support her husband by contributing to the Hanaokas’ business (weaving and other duties in addition to the medical practice) all with the aim of raising funds to send to her unseen spouse. When Seishu does eventually return home to assume his father’s medical practice and meet his (not so new) wife, his devotion to medicine is revealed to be so singularly focused that Kae’s relationship to him proves comparable to her wedding to the family’s textbook, a metaphorical gesture made literal by her husband’s obsessive research into developing a general anesthetic.
Seishu’s assumption of his father’s practice is accompanied by is heart-felt vow to discover the secret of his idol Hua Tuo, a Chinese doctor who purportedly developed a general anaesthetic 2,000 years earlier. As he conducts his research, Kae acclimatizes to life as a doctor’s wife and sours in her view of Otsugi, whom she increasingly views as overly controlling, harshly practical, and unable to accept any perceived compromise to her authority and reputation. Thus starts a peculiar competition between Kae and Otsugi to not merely become Seishu’s test subjects, but to also be the patient that demonstrates the success of his technique and the individual that most greatly sacrifices themselves.
Masumura and cinematographer Setsuo Kobayashi exhibit a restrained cinematic style comparable to Seisaku’s Wife. The Wife of Seishu Hanaoka engages in few of the visual flourishes common to A Wife Confesses, occasionally doubling Kae and Otsugi and sometimes engaging in Masumura’s frequent technique of splitting his screen between content and negative space. The mass of the film’s dramatic power is found in yet another tripartite relationship, this time between Seishu, Otsugi, and Kae, like the tensions between Seisaku, Okane, and the village in Seisaku’s Wife or between A Wife Confesses‘ Ayako, Osamu, and her husband/the court and society standing in judgment of them. Ayako Wakao again succeeds, this time capturing the earnest devotion of a woman to her role as a wife and the corresponding anxiety of living under the watchful dominance of her mother-in-law. Hideko Takamine’s Otsugi perfectly matches Wakao in the brilliance of her performance, portraying the Hanaokas’ queen bee with equal parts austere pragmatism, canny self-interest, and tragically felt heartbreak. Together, their quasi-rivalry overtakes a tale of scientific innovation and compulsive determination, imbuing it with the dark, repressed mania of melodrama.
By the film’s conclusion, Kae will assume the mantle of esteemed matriarch of the Hanaokas, while having made substantial sacrifices and having found a degree of generosity and sensitivity undiscovered by Otsugi. It is a fitting place to conclude this proposed Eclipse set, with Wakao battle-scarred but triumphant, modest in her achievements and still captivating in her beauty, a testament to one of cinema’s great, but often unheralded collaborations. Thankfully, we have the Criterion Collection and the Eclipse Series to ensure these moments in film history are given their due regard.
A Final Note: While working on these posts celebrating the collaboration of Yasuzo Masumura and Ayako Wakao, I stumbled across an upcoming blogathon organized by Theresa, the Cinemaven, that seemed complimentary to this proposed Eclipse set. Scheduled for January 23-24, 2016, her ESSAYS from the COUCH will be devoted to the Classic Symbiotic Collaborations: The Star – Director Blogathon. The response has been tremendous and some great topics and posts are on the horizon. For those who are interested, it looks like the blogathon is still open to potential participants interested in writing on cinema’s classic era. While MMC! is not participating, this project is just too impressive to go unmentioned and we look forward to reading some great writing on film.