There's something audacious about how unremarkable the story is in 1939's The Whole Family Works (はたらく一家)
. Directed by Mikio Naruse, who by this time had only a few sound films under his belt, it shows his improved proficiency with the medium while still not being like the nuanced, dark melodramas he directed in the 50s and 60s. Nonetheless, in focusing on the unremarkable events in the lives of a ordinary family in financial trouble, it subtly highlights problems in the Japanese economy at a time when most filmmakers in Japan were making propaganda films for the war effort.
As the title suggests, the whole family works. Well, really just the father, Ishimura (Musei Tokugawa), and the four eldest sons, the other kids are still too young and Mrs. Ishimura (Noriko Honma) works hard at the domestic duties of a housewife who doesn't have a lot of cash to work with. Ishimura and four of his sons all work in dead end, menial jobs.
The eldest son, though, Kiichi (Akira Ubukata), has a little ambition and this serves as the point of tension for the whole film--he wants to take off five years to go to school in the hopes of getting a better job so he can provide for the family. This may seem a trivial problem for a movie but Naruse makes it clear how delicate the situation really is for the people involved, spending a lot of time focusing on Ishimura mulling over the issue. Even with five people in the family working, they're already barely getting by and the loss of just one source of income for five years could be devastating.
One might expect a scene where Kiichi does something drastic or embarrassing but in the climax of the film he just gets drunk, something his father doesn't even mind. In conversation with another man, Ishimura says he's much more worried about Kiichi getting a girlfriend so the young woman who tends the local bar, Mitsuko (Sumie Tsubaki), seems to him a much bigger danger than the alcohol she serves. The last thing he needs is an addition to the family, a source of stress that adds some subtly melancholy tension to seemingly innocent and friendly conversations between Mitsuko and the sons.
Only just over an hour long, nothing terribly dramatic happens in the film but with Naruse's storytelling instincts its a nice little snapshot of the tensions experienced by a family in a precarious situation.