A Wanderer’s Notebook (放浪記) – film

「放浪記」(A Wanderer’s Notebook or Her Lonely Lane) was one of the Naruse films that have recently been re-released on DVD. I loved his 流れる (Flowing) and 浮雲 (Floating Clouds), both of which were based on stories written by this film’s subject Hayashi Fumiko, and was interested to see more of his work.

The film is based on Hayashi’s autobiography. Having grown up in the countryside in grinding poverty, Hayashi is now in Tokyo working as a bar hostess to make ends meet. She has an unfortunate habit of speaking her mind at inappropriate times, which costs her numerous jobs and friends along the way. For example, when a big-spending yakuza tough comes into the bar, she yells at him for his crude behavior, leading to a fight among the male customers and infuriating the bar owner for speaking that way to a customer. She also has a knack for picking out the wrong men, always choosing the pretty face with the rotten (and abusive) personality instead of, say, the bumbling but kind man who lives in the same boarding house. Obsessed with the idea of being in love, she practically debases herself to stick with her men no matter how they treat her. Her only escape is her writing, though this begins to seem more an escape from life rather than a true pleasure. She takes up with a good-looking writer, but he ends up abusing her physically and mentally and even pointedly brings a new woman into the house in a complete humiliation for her. She finally makes it as a writer but only by an act of deceit, purposely failing to submit her friend’s manuscript with her own in order to ensure her own publication. She is also accused by her male writer friends of exploiting her poverty for her works. In the end, she is rich and famous and much in demand by the press and such, but she has become bitter and sad, refusing even then to reach out to those who try to help. Her final meeting with the bumbling man who has always loved her is very sad, and the visit from the female writer who she stabbed in the back presents an utter contrast, someone who no matter what will always be happy versus Hayashi’s determined pessimism. The final image in the film is Hayashi slumped asleep over her desk, giving no sign at all that anything will ever change.

The movie is not unrelentingly depressing, occasionally offering moments of hope and humor. The scenes in the bar are lively, and there do seem times when everything will turn out right. Characters like the man upstairs are also endearing. But Hayashi is a self-destructive character, and it’s difficult to imagine her happy under any circumstances. As this is a dramatized autobiography, I was impressed that Hayashi could write about herself so honestly, but it still doesn’t make her a very appealing person.

Takamine Hideko is in peak form here, giving an uncompromising performance. She doesn’t try to smooth over the writer’s deep flaws, and her weariness and cynicism at the end are searing. She’s also great in the happier scenes, but somehow it’s the dark side that stays with me. The rest of the cast was terrific as well, especially Kusabue Mitsuko as the rival writer (fantastic scene when she slaps Hayashi at the book publication ceremony) and the nerdy guy upstairs. Tanaka Kinuyo, as usual, was highly effective in her quiet way as the mother.

The movie was extremely well done in just about every way, but it does make me wonder what the point is supposed to be. So many of Hayashi’s troubles were self-imposed that I found it hard to be sympathetic. I coincidentally re-watched Raise the Red Lantern soon after and noticed that the main character in that was also a flawed character who brought her tragedy onto herself. But Hayashi’s life was more shocking in that it was real. Floating was equally tragic but in a much more melancholic and “Cherry Orchard” way, with the world changing in perfect indifference to the characters. Hayashi could have made things better but, through stubbornness or blindness or stupidity, did nothing to help herself. I would absolutely recommend this film for its acting, direction, period portrayal and more, but not for casual viewers. And not for anyone in a depressed state.

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