Well, this is a new first – this is the first time a film has left me feeling personally insulted.
I can explain.
Chishū Ryū stars as “Shūhei Hirayama”, a widower in early 1960s Japan. He’s a war vet working a middle-management office job in Tokyo. He has three kids; eldest son Kōichi (Kenji Sada) is married and lives nearby, while the baby of the family – another son, Kazuo (Shin’ichirō Mikami) – just got out of college. Daughter Michiko (Shima Iwashita) handles the cooking and housekeeping for himself and Kazuo. He regularly meets up with a cluster of high school buddies to drink and shoot the breeze. It’s a quiet, simple life.
Then one evening Hirayama and his buddies invite one of their old teachers, Mr. Sakuma, out to join them (Eijirō Tōno). Mr. Sakuma has a bit too much to drink and Hirayama helps him get home – and finds that Mr. Sakuma, also a widower, now runs a cheap ramen shop, and also lives alone with an unmarried daughter to look after him. Hirayama visits the shop once during the day to help Mr. Sakuma out a little, and notices Mr. Sakuma’s daughter is perpetually grumpy.
Mr. Sakuma says that it’s likely because he kept his daughter around to take care of him when she was younger, and now she’s too old to find a husband of her own and has been bitter about that. Hirayama starts to fear he’s doing the same thing to Michiko; he asks her about it later that night, but she insists no, she’s fine, and besides what would he and Kazuo do without her? But Hirayama isn’t so sure. Neither is Kōichi, who says that he thinks Michiko has a crush on a friend of his. Hirayama sends Kōichi to check things out there, and looks into another prospect on his own – or at least means to, because Michiko’s right, what would he do without her?….
…So, we have a lot of guys fretting about Michiko’s unmarried status, and taking it into their hands to find her a husband. We have many scenes about how Hirayama would handle living without her. We even get some feedback from Kōichi’s wife about things, and from Hirayama’s buddies.
But – do we ever hear from Michiko herself about the situation?
No. Incredibly, no, we do not.
The whole engine of the plot is “Michiko is single and Something Must Be Done”, and her wedding is the goal everyone is working towards – but Michiko is a minor character in this story. She gets that one mild protestation when her father asks if she wants to get married, and she gets a very brief moment where she wipes away a tear at some bad news, and – that’s it. Towards the end we se her in a wedding dress heading out to go get married, but we don’t even see the wedding or even learn the name of the guy she’s marrying. That reduces her to a mere plot device – and speaking as another unmarried daughter of a father, that is leaving out one hell of a perspective in this story. I mean – who is she marrying, first of all? Her crush? The guy her father picked? Some other guy? Does she even want to marry? Is she a lesbian, maybe? Who knows? And – the film implies – who cares?
And it’s not even like there wasn’t time for it. There’s a whole drawn-out subplot about Kōichi and his wife having a spat about money management, and there’s a whole weird scene with Hirayama getting dragged to a bar by someone who remembers him from the War and meeting a barmaid who looks like his late wife, and then bringing Kōichi to see her and they get into a debate about that. I mean, those scenes are cute and subtle and add color – but they add color to Kōichi and Hirayama, and meanwhile poor Michiko is given short shrift. But hey, she gets married at the end so it’s okay!….Doesn’t matter who she marries, she’s married and that’s all that matters, right?….And what a sacrifice Hirayama made letting her go, alas…
Come on. Now you get what I mean about feeling insulted by this film. And even taking into account that this was likely a very different time and a different culture and Japan was at a point where it was modernizing more – at least we can present Michiko’s opinion on the matter for just five minutes, instead of dwelling yet again on “how lonely Hirayama’s gonna be”.