"Your family is complicated," says a journalist named Okawa to a young woman named Yae. It's an understatement in 1958's Sardine Clouds (鰯雲). Her family is complicated because of a series of remarriages and for the increased pressure it puts on rural farmers whose children are attracted by city universities and city jobs. One of Mikio Naruse's few colour films, it uses a beautiful, subdued, and simple palette. It tells a story, as usual for Naruse, fraught with anxieties about money and uses Tae's complicated family as an eloquent case study of a people shifting from the ancient customs of an agricultural society to the seductive, uncertain future of city employment.
Yae (Chikage Awashima) lives with her young son and her mother-in-law on a farm. She's forced to do most of the work but finds time to write a newspaper serial about the changing dynamics of rural family life. As she explains to Okawa (Isao Kimura), although her mother-in-law receives money from a daughter who lives away from home, she refuses to spend any of this money, treating Yae as a workhorse. Before Yae had a child, it seemed as though she wouldn't be accepted by the family at all.
Meanwhile, Yae's brother, Wasuke (Ganjiro Nakamura), lives with his third wife, three sons, and several daughters. Wasuke has several fields, one of which is used by his second wife and her husband. They have a rebellious young daughter, Hamako (Kumi Mizuno), who wishes to go study at the university, like Wasuke's second son, Shinji (Hiroshi Tachikawa). We meet Shinji begging his father for money to go study at the university--later, after he's gotten a job, it's Wasuke who asks him for money to pay for the marriage festivities of his eldest son, Hatsuji (Keiju Kobayashi) to a young woman found by Okawa. Shinji, seemingly seeing himself as a patriarch already, coolly refuses to indulge in his father's old fashioned idea of putting on a grand ceremony. As Yae explains later, the tradition with such ceremonies was based on the idea that the wife was coming to the new family as a new daughter, now marriage was a custom between just two people.
The film is an ensemble piece but unlike most of Naruse's films, which centre on a female protagonist, Wasuke takes centre stage. We see his frustration and despair as everything he believes, and every measure of his self-respect, is gradually eroded by his children. And it's all done without malice as each child is simply trying to assert his or her independence with what seems clearly to be the best means of survival.
The last portion of the film does go back to Yae a lot more as she's forced to deal with her affair with Okawa. Both Awashima and Nakamura give very good performances.