April 8 (Calcutta Tube): THE JAPANESE WIFE by Aparna Sen film Review: A huge carton covered with colored labels arrives on a boat along the Matla River to a village in the Sundarbans. It is then piled on to a hand-pushed wooden van and carted to a house in the village, chased by a gang of curious village kids. What does this carton contain? More importantly, who is it addressed to and who has it been sent to? The camera pans on the face of a bespectacled man with slightly white-streaked hair, the one the carton is addressed to. This is Snehamoy, and the gift is from his Japanese wife Miyagi sent in celebration of their 15th wedding anniversary. Snehamoy and Miyagi have never seen each other. Their means of communication is through letters penned with the help of a dictionary on either side as both husband and wife are very weak in English. The letters are voice-overs, the voices soft and child-like, the content as naïve and as innocent as the people who pen them. Snehamoy and Miyagi exchange 637 letters over 17 years of marriage, slowly seeping into Snehamoy’s life, family and room in other ways – a Japanese lamp, a wall-hanging, a transparent dry-flower arrangement, a collage of Miyagi’s photographs arranged under the glass top of Snehamoy’s table and those longish envelopes that arrive regularly. The carton of kites recurs in the film, like an ode to the most unusual love story one ever imagined.
The Japanese Wife is a tribute to man-woman relationships mapped out over a landscape distanced from all accepted and recognised notions of love and marriage. It also celebrates the lost art of letter-writing by raising it to a level of unparalleled beauty in redefining relationships. It describes a marriage where rituals are self-styled – the husband sends the bride a pair of white conch-shell bangles and the bride sends him a silver ring. Aparna Sen’s film, a celluloid adaptation of Kunal Basu’s short story, sweeps across the Matla River, scanning Snehamoy and his slowly growing family comprised of his Mashi, who brought him up, and later, Sandhya, Mashi’s friend’s daughter who is offered shelter along with her son by Mashi when she is widowed. This small boy is a catharsis in Snehamoy’s quiet, introvert, timid and diffident life, filled with the joy of writing and receiving letters to and from Miyagi, his Japanese wife. The other relationships that dot his life are as indefinable in ordinary terms as is his relationship with Miyagi. Mashi is not his mother but loves him as much as his mother would have, had she lived. Sandhya is not related to him by either blood or friendship. Yet, she grows on him, slowly and silently, her unobtrusive presence sometimes casting a shadow on his unconsummated marriage to Miyagi. Sandhya’s cheerful little son brings him tidings from his Japanese Kakima. He pushes Snehamoy into the beautifully orchestrated kite competition. The contest becomes a war of prestige between India and Japan for the villagers but for Snehamoy, it is an insight into a world of joy and fun he has never experienced before. The huge Japanese kites in all colours and shapes with strange faces painted on them, humble the coloured Indian squares of colour, simple and small, dotting the azure blue sky with splashes of colour.
The Japanese Wife is Aparna Sen’s most visually rich film till date. The colourful threads of manja criss-crossing Snehamoy’s home and compound strike a vivid contrast with the changing colours of the Matla River that separates the village from its nearest town Gosaba. The river is an important character. It is the only point of contact for the villagers with the rest of the world. It takes the villagers to Gosaba that has a crowded market place, corner shops, telephone booths, and practicing doctors. It is the only source that brings and sends the letters that bind Snehamoy to his wife. It offers shelter to boats tied to the shore that Snehamoy seeks when he is sad or filled with unfulfilled sexual desires. But when the weather changes, it changes colour, character and mood, turning violent against the very people it helps at other times. When flood strikes and the night sky heralds fear and terror with its jagged lines of lightning, the river’s anger severs every line of communication, including the lifeline to the outer world – the ferry service, destroying Snehamoy’s hopes of hearing again from the very sick Miyagi, or, getting the right medication when, drenched to the skin in torrential rain and caught in a night of flood, Snehamoy catches pneumonia.
Miyagi arrives in a boat to the village across the river. Black circles surround her eyes because she is terminally ill. She is draped in a pristine white sari and blouse, as Snehamoy had told her in one of his letters that Bengali widows wear white when their husbands die. But he had forgotten to add that they take their white conch shell bangles off too. So, she still wears the conch shell bangles on her wrists. Sen keeps the three deaths – the death of Haiku, Miyagi’s pet pup, the death of her ailing mother and Snehamoy’s tragic death away from the visual frame making the tragedy all that more palpable and moving. The credit for the visual richness of the film goes to cinematographer Anoy Goswami and also to art director Gautam Basu. Sagar Desai’s background score, sometimes as if floating in from a distance complements the mood of the film.
Rahul Bose gives his career-best performance as Snehamoy. He slowly grows from a diffident and extremely shy young man to a mature, somewhat responsible husband and ‘family’ man who grows fond of Sandhya’s little boy and is intrigued by the quiet presence of Sandhya in his life. His English pronunciation with its heavy Bengali accent – the ‘f’ pronounced as ‘ph’ – is grounded in reality. Moushumi Chatterjee as his Mashi puts on a heavy dokhno accent and her talkativeness stands in sharp contrast with the quiet silence of Sandhya and Snehamoy. Moushumi is wonderful in a character crafted against her grain. Raima speaks with her eyes, with tiny gestures, with her body and gait and has little to do with speech. She is stripped of glamour and this makes her beauty more eloquent. Chigusa Takaku in her maiden performance as Miyagi is tender and soft as she grows from a teenager of 18 to a woman of 35 wracked by cancer. She lisps rather than speaks. Her face is captured mainly in mid close-ups, mid-shots and long shots, lending a touch of the unreal to the character. The brief cameos – the Ayurvedic doctor who insists on feeling the pulse of his patient, the homeopathic doctor, the shopkeeper who gives away kites for free, the young boy whose pride is humbled in the kite fight, the oncologist who is surprised when Snehamoy walks out of his chamber, are fleshed out as if from real life.
The Japanese Wife is a film that grows on you slowly, much after the film is over. I would give it a rating of eight on ten. The two I take away is for a film based purely on an absurd premise – a ‘marriage’ that crosses all conventions of the social institution, and one in which the married couple remain distanced till one of them passes on. The Japanese Wife, all said and done, is poetry on celluloid.
Review by Shoma A. Chatterji
Databazaar Media Ventures has acquired the distribution rights of THE JAPANESE WIFE and will be releasing the film over 19000 retail stores including Amazon, Blockbuster, Netflix and iTunes in the USA and Canada.DMV is the media arm of USA’s leading online printer supplies retailer Databazaar.com.