You know, I’ve never really felt comfortable with Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, which, for those not in the know, is about a man who marries a woman against her will, then bullies and abuses her until she consents to “love”—obey—him. Now, I generally like to distinguish between the morality and the aesthetics of a work of art—after all, plenty of art is full of “political incorrectness—but the domestic abuse is so central to the plot of The Taming of the Shrew that it’s just hard to get beyond it. This ethical trouble is not as problematic in Shakespeare’s other least-comfortable-for-a-modern-reader play, The Merchant of Venice (at least in my experience), because even though the anti-Semitism on display here is appalling, it is not (again, to my mind) central to the play.The issue of domestic violence comes up again in, of all places, Yasujiro Ozu’s 1937 film What did the Lady Forget? Ozu is one of the gentlest, least offensive filmmakers in all of cinema (in this respect, he rivals his countryman Hiroshi Shimizu, who once directed a film called Mr. Thank-You, about the non-adventures of a scrupulously courteous bus driver). Overt violence is profoundly alien to Ozu, at least in the Ozu movies that I’ve seen, and it’s important to note that I’ve only recently started to explore his pre-war film output, when he depicted a far greater variety of themes and subject matters than he would in the post-war family dramas for which he is most famous. So imagine my surprise when watching a generally cheerful and gentle movie like What did the Lady Forget?, about a young, modern woman who tries to encourage her uncle to rebel against his wife’s controlling ways, when the film reaches its climax with the uncle slapping his wife in the face. Now first off: this is a comedy and that’s not funny. Second, this is an Ozu film, and that’s not Ozu. And thirdly, and perhaps most troublingly, the assault on his wife is played as her receiving her just desserts. The niece congratulates her uncle and declares her satisfaction with the action. The uncle admits that he probably shouldn’t have slapped her, but he doesn’t seem too troubled by it, and anyway, his wife becomes more submissive to him, so she learned her lesson. And, most appallingly, the next day, the wife boasts to her friends about how her husband hit her. And the friends are impressed! Their husbands are pushovers who would never do such a thing; they never fight back, even though that’s what the wives secretly want.
So what the fuck happened here? Because I’ve never encountered anything like this in any other Ozu movie (that I’ve seen). I’ve seen it in other Japanese movies, but always as something transgressive and wrong; the kinds of men who beat their wives are typically drunken assholes. The uncle in What did the Lady Forget? is a kindly doctor.
Now, I don’t like to make sweeping historical claims about movies, because (a) it is a fundamentally Philistine venture to seek to reduce a work of art to a political argument and (b) they’re usually wrong. But I find it interesting that What did the Lady Forget?, which contains the only example of domestic violence that I can recollect in any Ozu movie (and, let me reiterate, I haven’t seen them all), was directed in 1937, the same year the Japanese army invaded China and perpetrated the Rape of Nanking. The Japanese people in Ozu’s movies of this period are all smiles and good cheer, but thousands upon thousands of those same Japanese were off in China carrying out some of the worst atrocities in human history. It is provocative, to say the least, to think that at least a tiny bit of that violence, which was to become such a pervasive element of the Japanese history of this time period, should find its way into the films of a gentle and civilized man like Ozu. The Rape of Nanking—Shintaro Ishihara’s claims to the contrary notwithstanding—is so called because of the violence perpetrated by men against women. And a small but nonetheless revolting form of that violence manifests itself in the supposed comedy that is Ozu’s What did the Lady Forget?