“A Hen in the Wind” (1948)

Ozu’s A Hen in the Wind isn’t as famous as some of his other stuff, but taken as poetry it’s one of his most perfect ones. The story’s a simple one: an impoverished young woman is waiting for her husband to come home from the war. She lives in a slum with their young son, and when the kid gets sick, her only way of raising money for his hospital bill is by working as a prostitute for a night. The kid recovers, the husband eventually comes home, and one day the occasion of his asking a simple question brings out the truth. The rest of the movie is about him reaching a place where he—and she, too, for that matter—can forgive her for what happened that night. A dark but mostly unstated masochism chews at both characters in the last half of the movie, and one of the things which makes A Hen in the Wind feel so real is the husband’s intellectual impulse to forgive his wife before his emotions are ready to let him do so. It’s just the kind of insight into human nature I wish today’s movies had more of.

There are three or four passages that are just mind-blowing. When Tokiko is coming to terms with the fact that she’s got to sell herself to get the money, Ozu expresses her mental journey by cross-cutting between close-ups of her looking into a mirror and then her reflection staring back at her/us, her face deepening with emotion on every cut. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen a character’s reflecting on a matter be literalized this way or, for that matter, a scene knitted together from a single face reacting to itself.

In another scene the heartbroken husband spills his guts out to a friend. The two men are sitting in a bar, and across the street, just out of focus, is a dancehall whose windows are filled with couples slow-dancing. As the husband talks about his inability to let go of what his wife did, the blurry dancers—a vision of the licentiousness that he’s projecting onto her—seem to envelope his head like a swarm of slow-moving gnats. When he does finally come back down to earth, the couple comes together in a tight conciliatory clinch, and the camera closes in on the husband’s back as Tokiko’s hands wrap around it, her fingers meshing and then tilting ever so slightly upward, as if in prayer. (It brought to mind Fredo’s white-knuckled fingers digging into Michael’s back in The Godfather Part II.) And on a simpler, gut-punch level, Tokiko at one point takes such a hellacious head-first spill down a flight of stairs that it’s a wonder it didn’t kill the actress Kinuyo Tanaka.

All of this action is relieved by some of Ozu’s mesmerizing montages, this time of daily life in Tokyo’s industrial slums. A fleet 84 minutes, it’s up there with Passing Fancy, The Only Son, and my other favorites of his work.

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