People talk even to-day about a double standard for men and women, that a man is respected for sleeping around a lot while for a woman it's considered cause for shame. I was impressed and a little amazed by how directly and progressively the issue's addressed in Mikio Naruse's 1953 film Older Brother, Younger Sister (あにいもうと). Even next to other strikingly feminist films of the period by Naruse and Mizoguchi, it's bold in its argument for sexual equality. It's also beautifully shot and contains astonishing performances. It's a really good movie.
Despite the title, the movie's actually about three siblings--Yoshiko Kuga is the youngest, San, Machiko Kyo plays Mon, the middle child, and the eldest, Ino, is played by Masayuki Mori. One might conclude the title refers to Mon being at the centre of the story, though she's hardly in the movie for the first hour. Instead, the story concerns the fallout from Mon getting pregnant by a student she barely knows and refusing to get an abortion. Mon moves out as the movie begins, leaving for Tokyo where we learn her baby is stillborn and she leads a lifestyle that requires her to constantly change her address. In the small town in which the movie takes place, San finds her relationship with her fiancé jeopardised as his parents now disapprove of her based on the behaviour of her sister. San's father is a lower class worker and Ino seems like a more ornery version of him. When he's not at work, he's at the Pachinko parlour or banging loose women.
Masayuki Mori seems like he was aiming for a versatility prize--within this five year period, he played the superficially stoic samurai in Rashomon, the Prince Myshkin character in Kurosawa's adaptation of The Idiot, and now here he plays an ignorant young working class live wire. Maybe if Toshiro Mifune hadn't been overshadowing him, Mori would've gotten greater international recognition. Though Mifune did seem to deliver more engaged performances. Mori here even seems to be imitating Mifune a little with his use of chin-jerks for emphasis.
The student who'd gotten Mon pregnant shows up after she's already moved to Tokyo and he apologises profusely to the father, offering a meagre sum of money he managed to scrape together. Mon's parents are upset, but things end quietly and amicably and the guy leaves. Ino's not satisfied, though, and stalks the young man before beating him.
Ino talks about how close he'd been with Mon growing up, talking about how they'd even gone to the toilet together, emphasising the connexion between the two. Their mother later also remarks on how similar they are, sex, and the social requirements attendant upon sex, significantly pointed out as the main difference between the siblings.
When Mon returns home and finds out what Ino did to the young student, she becomes enraged and an extraordinary scene ensues--Mon and Ino engage in what can best be described as a brawl while their mother and sister desperately try to break them up.
I need hardly say this isn't how a woman was supposed to behave. Mon's mother disapproves of Ino beating her, but she seems horrified that Mon fought back. She observes Tokyo has made Mon a "fearsome woman." And, incredibly, Mon calls Ino out on the double standard--explicitly saying he's angry at her for doing exactly what he does--sleeping around.
Machiko Kyo and Masayuki Mori make this scene brutal and captivating, particularly when Naruse's characteristic tranquillity takes up the bulk of the film. It's an amazing film.