Friday, March 12, 2021

Learn From Experience (1937)

Kafuku zempen (pt. I) / Kafuku kohen (pt. II), Japan, 157 minutes
Director: Mikio Naruse
Writers: Fumitaka Iwasaki, Kan Kikuchi
Photography: Mitsuo Miura
Music: Takio Niki
Editor: Toshio Goto
Cast: Takako Irie, Chieko Takehisa, Minoru Takada, Yumeko Aizome

Japanese director Mikio Naruse was a prolific filmmaker who worked on silent films in the early 1930s and continued with sound well into the 1960s. He is generally considered second-tier behind the usual suspects of Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Yasujiro Ozu. Naruse may have been overshadowed most by Ozu, whose themes of domestic life Naruse also tended to pursue. But this domestic sphere is one I happen to like very much and to my mind Naruse is nearly the equal of Ozu (though I have many films still to see by both). The lengthy Learn From Experience is classed as a "woman's film," which probably explains why it was cut into two separate releases, in the manner of Children of Paradise or Kill Bill, even as the story, cast, production crew, and other elements simply continue from one to the next. A movie this long in 1937 needed to be epic in order to be commercially viable, and Learn From Experience is many things but it is not epic. At the same time the complexities of the story are such that not a minute of it is wasted.

A reviewer over at IMDb praises the film but complains about the title—but really, Learn From Experience could practically be the working title for any "woman's film." It's a commercial Hollywood designation as much as anything and the idea is that women would pay to see stories full of romantic heartache and incidentally a feminist critique when it can be slipped in. Learn From Experience mixes in class elements as well to fortify the doom of its doomed relationship. Toyomi (Takako Irie) and Shintaro (Minoru Takada) are young and in love, but Shintaro's father is in debt and needs him to marry a woman who can deliver a dowry, and furthermore he has a particular woman in mind. Shintaro, a gentle but weak man, intends to go home and stand up to his father and so stirring is his declaration that the night before he leaves Toyomi spends the night with him.

Well, we all know how that goes. In 1937 there was not a lot that could be done overtly in a Japanese film about illicit sex and pregnancy, and to our jaded eyes it may seem subtle almost to a fault. But to my jaded eyes such subtlety is also a relief as long as it's telling the truth, which this picture does by and large. Irie's performance is masterful, with notes of despair behind the required brave face of dignity. She is from a lower class and thus infinitely more vulnerable. Shintaro (who of course, per romantic requirements, is not aware of her pregnancy for years) is a student training to be a diplomat. The pressure his family can bring to bear is tremendous but he always has the better choices.

The story becomes interesting with a plot point that likely comes from the source novel by Kan Kikuchi. The woman Shintaro's father has in mind for him, Yurie (Chieko Takehisa), is someone Shintaro knew when he was growing up. Yurie's family are long-time neighbors and friends of his family. Yurie is now considered headstrong and unmarriageable by her family, who are happy to offer a large dowry. When we meet her we find she is actually perfectly charming and likable. It's easy to see why she might be considered headstrong—she dresses in Western clothes, takes up horse-riding, and is insightful and assertive about her opinions. In short, she's clearly a catch. Shintaro is not exactly smitten but certainly he's more willing to entertain something with someone he likes.

Shintaro is weak and still callow. He is under a lot of pressure between what his family wants and what he thinks he wants (or may really want). Yurie's case is strengthened both because she is so pleasant and because she also comes from Shintaro's class. It does not take him very long to decide on Yurie but he's kind of a rat about breaking it to Toyomi, for whom, of course, the news is devastating. At this point, likely again from the novel by Kikuchi, preposterous conveniences start to creep in when Yurie moves to town to prepare for her wedding and new life and by coincidence in a teeming city befriends Toyomi, now a single working mother. The specific connection is that Toyomi works in the dress shop where Yurie often buys clothes. Yurie's heart goes out to her for her situation.

You have to forgive a certain amount of that in Learn From Experience, as in any "woman's film." It comes with the territory. And the fact is that by the time we're into the second movie all three characters, as well as a loyal friend of Toyomi's, Michiko (Yumeko Aizone), are established as interesting people we care about. Now we're just watching them sort out the situation, the shifting balances of who knows what and when, and how they respond. It resolves in a way that is both surprising and surprisingly satisfying, and there may not be a dry eye in your house either.

Top 10 of 1937
1. La Grande Illusion
2. Learn From Experience
3. Make Way for Tomorrow
4. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
5. The Awful Truth
6. Lost Horizon
7. Black Legion
8. The Thirteen
9. Stage Door
10. A Day at the Races

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