When People Give It to Us, We Will Have Cake
In Ozu's world, the cake is not a lie. The cake is, as in "MacArthur Park," a metaphor, but this is actually a good and worthwhile metaphor. For one thing, cake as it appears here is a Western import. There are various sweets in Japanese tradition, but that isn't what they're eating here. Frankly, I'm not sure baking is a real Japanese traditional cooking method, though I must confess to a general lack of interest in Japanese cuisine. (I don't like fish or vegetables, so a lot of Asian food is right out for me.) This is also an extremely elaborate cake, by the look of it, and not a cheap one, by the reactions of various characters to the price. This is not cake for every day consumption. If you are not going to be marrying a rich man, you are not going to get to have this cake very often. But there's cake now, and who knows? Maybe there will be cake again, and if not, there's the memory of cake!
Noriko Mamiya (Setsuko Hara) is another one of those women in Ozu films who are being pressured by their families to marry. She is twenty-eight, so they think it's high time. She's not as determined as they are, being perfectly content to live with her brother (Chishû Ryû) and sister-in-law (Kuniko Miyake) and her parents (Ichirô Sugai and Chieko Higashiyama). However, her boss (Shûji Sano) has a friend who's looking for a wife. Word gets out, and the family decides that Noriko will marry him. Half of Noriko's friends are married, and they're in a sort of battle of wits with the unmarried half; it's clear which group thinks she should marry this total stranger. She is also friends with Kenkichi Yabe (Hiroshi Nihon'yanagi), who had been friends with another brother of hers before the war; that brother was killed. Yabe is himself a widower and doctor who works at the same hospital with Koichi, the living brother. When Yabe is offered a good job at a far-off hospital, his mother (Haruko Sugimura) asks Noriko to marry her son and come north with them.
Now, in an American film of the same era, the family would be thrilled to bits that Noriko had sorted her problem on her own--and, of course, the Americans of that era would also see an unmarried twenty-eight-year-old woman as a problem. But of course the extended Mamiya family was not consulted by Noriko before she agreed to marry Yabe. It's true that he's a long-time friend of the family, but that doesn't mean they think he deserves to be allowed to marry Noriko. Especially given that Koichi has just gotten him a job in a total backwater. Everyone says it will only be a few years, and then they'll be back to Tokyo, but of course there's no guarantee of that. Besides, the reason he agreed to take the position was that it was a better opportunity for advancement than he'd seen in many a year. Opportunities in Tokyo will probably open again when he gets back, but there's that "probably" again.
It is also true that this was a Japan in conflict, though not the one in which Noriko's brother died. The influence of the Americans was changing Japanese culture from things which had been the same for literally thousands of years, some of it. Everyone expected Noriko to want a modern, Western home and marriage, but they seem rather taken aback by the idea that she would be Western enough to want to choose her own husband without help. Yes, all right, she accepted an arranged marriage to the extent that she was willing to be asked by the man's husband, but that was as much a case of who had the nerve and who didn't as anything else. I have only seen a very few of the films of Yasujirô Ozu, probably the second-best-known of Japanese filmmakers, but it seems what he excelled at was quiet slices of ordinary Japanese life, and I think in particular he worked with people dealing with the incredible changes that the twentieth century brought to his native land.
As always, of course, any film in which Japanese women are getting married reminds me of my college days and my friends stuck in Alternative Calendars, who spent more time on the subject than they had any reason to have expected. Probably the sheer frustration they would have had with the subject matter would have meant that they would not have had the slightest interest in the film. However, if they did watch it in class, it might also have been a welcome relief. Ozu is not as flashy as Akira Kurosawa, it's true. However, as you may have noticed, a lot of my favourite Kurosawa films aren't anywhere near as flashy as the films people think of when they think Kurosawa. Not that even [i]Seven Samurai[/i] is all that flashy. I think, on further consideration, that the art of Japanese film, at least in the middle of the twentieth century, had to do with doing a lot with a little. Even Kurosawa never really got as much cake as you'd think, given how famous he is, and Ozu got even less cake than Kurosawa.