So many of Ozu’s films are family dramas, and while this is no exception it takes a form much less common in his body of work. Instead of intergenerational conflict of any kind this is about the conflict between a husband (Shin Saburi) and wife (Michiyo Kogure). We quickly learn that the wife Taeko is contemptuous of her husband Mokichi to a degree that even her friends find remarkable, though they none of them have idyllic relationships with their husbands.
Indeed Mokichi seems, despite his wealth, success, and respect at work to be oddly dull when Taeko attempts rather ineptly to deceive him. He is also a sort of mentor to a young man who is something like an intern. The young man, with Mokichi’s help, has just obtained a good place with another company. Mokichi’s direct boss and the CEO are impressed with his ability and have made a plan to send him to South America for a few months to oversee the company’s operations there. His professional success is at odds with his unhappy home life.
Childless, Mokichi clearly indulges his wife; she has her own maid, a section of their (large) house to herself that is furnished in a Western style, and what seems to be a fair bit of pocket money. In return she resents his lack of modishness and considers him dull, backward, and stupid.
When he does manage to talk to Taeko for more than just a few moments and attempts to explain how he feels, he says that what he likes is “the flavor of green tea over rice”. She does not find this illuminating. As viewers, however, we are afforded an additional insight into his character that his wife is denied when a chance encounter leads to him reuniting with his wartime platoon sergeant. Chishu Ryu cameos as Sadao Hirayama, the sergeant who served under Mokichi during World War II.
Hirayama now runs a pachinko parlor and is living in rather straitened circumstances in small, dingy rooms above the shop. He invites his old lieutenant and his business protege in for a drink despite barely having enough sake to go around. As they reminisce, it is clear Hirayama reveres Mokichi as a good man, a good leader, and one of the bright spots in the dark memories of the war. Our hero, for his part, despite being far more wealthy and much more elevated in class, is happy to connect again with an old comrade and is not in the least put out by the humble surroundings. He is happy to treat with Hirayama as a peer.
As the movie draws to a close, we know better that Mokichi is, at heart, a humble, hard-working, simple man. What he wants very much is just to feel close to his wife, but cannot easily express this. The question that remains is what it will take for Taeko to recognize this, and whether she is even willing to learn and appreciate it given the opportunity. If this was a Hollywood movie, then of course she would. But this is an Ozu film, so you’ll have to watch it yourself if you’d like to find out.