Film depicts a long-suffering woman's relationship with her brilliant but self-destructive husband.

Vet Japanese helmer Kichitaro Negishi’s period meller “Villon’s Wife” depicts a long-suffering woman’s relationship with her brilliant but self-destructive writer husband in postwar Tokyo. Based on Nipponese bad boy Osamu Dazai’s semi-autobiographical 1947 novel, the story centers less on the womanizing, heavy-drinking, suicidal hero than on the wife who loves him. Negishi accords his characters an acceptance that sabotages facile judgments, steering a subversive course by encouraging tiny deviations from expected behavior in his quietly magnificent cast. Feted at home, Negishi remains virtually unknown in the West, but Montreal’s directing prize may change that.

After her husband steals ¥5,000 from a middle-aged couple who own a bar where he has already run up a huge tab, Sachi (a luminous Takako Matsu) arrives at the establishment as a self-professed “guarantee” for the stolen money. Her beauty and genuine friendliness, against an implied backdrop of Japan’s WWII defeat, soon has the joint jumping.

Sachi basks in the warm welcome extended by the tavern keepers (Shigeru Muroi, Masato Ibu), enjoying her newfound popularity and economic independence, and finding a wider stage for her homemaking talents in the now-convivial watering hole.

The polite, kimono-clad men and women, moving through ritualized spaces against a muted palette, might almost have stepped from a 1940s Ozu film. Yet Negishi’s characters display a stubborn autonomy distinct from their prescribed roles.

Meanwhile, Byronic hubby Otami (Japanese heartthrob Tadanobu Asano) makes sudden dramatic appearances, strolling in on the arm of an older woman who makes good on the money he’s stolen, or tracking down Sachi’s would-be suitor (Satoshi Tsumabuki) to lure him into drunken revelry.

Prone to extreme bouts of despair he tries to stave off with sex and liquor (Dazai himself committed suicide a year after “Villon’s Wife” was published), Otami seems alienated even from his own talent, the power of his writing giving consolation to everyone but himself. Though director Negishi attempts no explicit link between characters’ states of mind and Japan’s downfall, a larger context is never entirely absent –from the returning soldiers that clog the narrow alleyways between the home and bar that define the couple’s world, to the English-language signs that herald the incoming occupation.

The peculiar dynamic of Otami and Sachi’s marriage, a seemingly exploitative if not abusive one, deepens and shifts with Sachi’s growing empowerment, her continued allegiance to her spouse no longer a passive duty but a beacon of postwar survival.

Villon's Wife

Japan

Production

A Fuji Television Network, Papado, Nihon Eiga Satellite Broadcasting Corp. presentation of a Fuji Television Network, Papado, Shichosha Publishing, Nihon Eiga Satellite Broadcasting Corp. production. (International Sales: Pony Canyon, Tokyo.) Produced by Chihiro Kameyama, Michiyo Yamada, Shigemichi, Sugita Kuga Maeda, Kumi Kobata, Miyoshi Kikuchi. Executive producers, Takashi Ishihara, Satomi Naio, Akira Sakai. Directed by Kichitaro Negishi. Screenplay, Yozo Tanaka, from the novel by Osamu Dazai.

Crew

Camera (color), Takahide Shibanushi; editor, Akimasa Washima; music, Takashi Yoshimatsu; production designer, Yohei Taneda; sound, Kiyoshi Kakizawa. Reviewed at Montreal World Film Festival (competing), Sept. 6, 2009. Running time: 114 MIN.

With

Takako Matsu, Tadanobu Asano, Shigeru Muroi, Masato Ibu, Ryoko Hirosue, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Shinichi Tsutsumi.
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