Hideko Takamine (displaying real star wattage here even though she was only 17 at the time) plays the titular heroine Okoma, who works for a financially struggling bus company in a small, sleepy town and comes up with the idea of giving a speech to passengers about places of interest on her local bus route in order to drum up business. After employing a somewhat disreputable local writer (Daiijiro Natsukawa)to pen Okoma’s speech – which allows Naruse to insert a few industry in-jokes of the ‘I’m a writer, I’m used to not being paid’ variety – the plot throws up a succession of obstacles through which Okoma and her driver Sonoda (Kamatari Fujiwara) remain unfailingly cheerful.
All looks like it’s going to plan until the climax cuts between a radiant Okoma performing her narration to a series of passengers and her manager (Yotaro Katsumi) back at the depot concluding the sale of the company to an asset stripper. The effect is to lend Okoma’s speech a genuinely poignant quality. The poor girl thinks she’s helping the company unaware that it’s too late; the company can’t be saved. This element of grit in an otherwise gentle and observant comedy is what to me distinguishes Mikio Naruse from his contemporary Yasujiro Ozu. And although it might be pushing things a bit, on reflection, I was struck by the way the lies told to Japan’s people by the Government of the day seem mirrored here in the way Okoma and her equally youthful driver are manipulated by an untrustworthy employer who encourages them toward a brighter tomorrow with false promises of success.
An 11 year old country boy named Hideo (Kenzaburo Osawa) moves to Tokyo with his middle-aged, widowed mother Shigeko (Nobuko Otowa) to stay with relatives. Shigeko finds work as a hostess at a local inn while Hideo gets into scraps with the local kids at the bath house before befriending Junko (Futaba Ichiki), the 9 year old daughter of his mother’s employer. As the two children become best friends Hideo’s mother runs off with a salesman she’s met leaving the boy in the reluctant care of his relatives. Meanwhile Junko’s mother prepares for a reunion with her estranged husband and his two unlikable children. After Hideo and Junko run away to the seaside together Junko begs her mother to adopt Hideo as her brother and for him to come live with them. But the mother isn’t interested and Hideo finds himself alone except for his beloved pet beetle.
Two superbly understated performances from child actors Kenzaburo Otawa and Futaba Ichiki are the heart and soul of this wonderful film about childhood hopes and dreams that end up dashed by the realities of adult life. It has the usual elements of a Naruse film, not the least of which is a struggling working class woman (a sincerely felt performance by Nobuko Otawa) but Ryozo Kasahara’s script offers a fresh perspective because everything is seen through the eyes of the two children. Although the younger family members such as brother Shotaro (Yosuki Natsuki) who takes Hideo for a joyous nighttime ride around Tokyo on the back of his moped and sister Harue (Hisako Hara) have much more of a zest for life Naruse doesn’t make the error of turning the older adults into uncaring monsters either. Whether it’s Shigeko’s forlorn desperation not to be left on the shelf, or the yearning of Junko’s mother to get back together with her husband, or the drunken, tightfisted character of Hideo’s uncle, (a man so mean he feeds his family with the out of date vegetables from his greengrocer’s shop) Naruse depicts these characters with a clear eye, using the honesty of the children to illuminate their foibles and weaknesses. It’s both funny and charming. That honesty supplies the film with some of my favourite moments. His attention captured by a photo in Junko’s bedroom Hideo asks the little girl if it’s her Dad. ‘He looks pretty old’ says Hideo. “No”, replies Junko, “My mother says he looks young for his age.” Lol, as they say.
There’s also a very Ozu-like moment here where the two kids exchange distinctly unimpressed looks after a shop assistant tries to ingratiate herself with them. And I loved the negotiation of a wire fence in which the 11 year olds swarm up and over like monkeys while the infants scrabble straight underneath. Naruse cleverly uses actual locations – the children frequently play on ground earmarked for construction – to imply that everything connected to Hideo’s childhood is in flux. Ichiro Saito’s wistful, melancholy music perfectly underscores the emotions on display here. It’s a funny film in many respects but also a very poignant one. Your heart just aches for Hideo when Junko suggests his mother has run off for good or when the boy goes looking for his mother at her lodgings and finds only a baseball glove intended as a present with which to buy his affections. When he responds by kicking it across the room we fully sympathise with his feelings. A memorable sequence in which Junko is taken by her mother to meet her estranged father and his ghastly kids simply underscores how much Hideo and Junko deserve to be together. The climax – in which Hideo races across town to give Junko the beetle she needs for her science class only to find an empty house and a departing removals truck – is so crushingly sad. The final scene as Hideo and his pet beetle gaze out over the sprawl of urban Tokyo – a crowded horizon of infinite possibilities and each one of them out of reach for the little boy – will, I think, strike a chord with anyone who remembers what it was once like to be Hideo’s age. This is a film full of sentiment but never once sentimental and it remains my favourite of Naruse’s exceptional filmography.