The film must have resonated strongly with postwar women, many of whom found themselves at the same moral crossroads in the years immediately following the war as dressmaker Tokiko (Kinuyo Tanaka). Still awaiting the repatriation of her soldier husband, she struggles to make ends meet in a decimated but slowly recovering Japan. She lives in a tiny, second-floor apartment with her toddler son, Hiroshi, and in the film's opening scene sells her last kimono because she's dead broke.
Just then her son gets sick, requiring emergency care and a 10-day stay in the local hospital. The neighbors downstairs give her some money, but that won't nearly cover his medical expenses. Partly out of a sense of guilt (she had given him some cake that may have caused his illness), partly because she's terrified at the thought of being left all alone, and partly because she sees no other way, she accepts the suggestion of an associate (Reiko Mizukami) to prostitute herself. She does this just once, to cover Hiroshi's medical expenses, and her relief at his recovery largely puts this unfortunate experience out of her mind.
Major Spoilers Ahead
But then her husband, Shuichi (Shuji Sano), returns home from the war after four long years, and her basic honestly compels her to tell him what has happened. But instead of sympathizing with her plight, he can only feel rage and completely refuses to understand the sacrifice she has made, at one point interrogating her like a criminal with she acting like one. At this point the film becomes something of a puzzle viewed with Western eyes and 60-plus years of hindsight. Shuichi's extremely selfish and extreme reaction now plays so unsympathetically that one watches the film wondering why Tokiko would ever want anything to do with this man in the first place. And yet the film's script seems to at least partially empathize with Shuichi's anger.
At one point Tokiko actually begs her husband to hit her, hoping that will reconcile for good his terrible "suffering." She ends up taking a nasty fall head-first down a flight of steps (old Japanese homes have notoriously perilous stairways) but he can't even bring himself to go downstairs to help her. Instead, she slowly hobbles back up to him, limping all the way with what appears to be a broken ankle, to beg her brooding husband's forgiveness. Although he eventually realizes that his wife had no other choice, the film seems to suggest that his reaction is also understandable.
(It's extremely ironic that, in the same year she played such a character, actress Tanaka would also film Mizoguchi's My Love Has Been Burning [Waga koi wa moenu , released 1949], one of the most assertively feminist films in postwar Japanese cinema.)
Despite this, A Hen in the Wind has much to offer, particularly in the superb performance by Kinuyo Tanaka (then 38 but convincingly playing a woman ten years younger), one of Japan's two or three greatest film actresses ever. Early scenes with her trying to sell her kimono and later fretting about her son's condition wonderfully evoke early postwar life, her relationship with the neighbors downstairs, etc., and are extremely well done. Indeed, where Kurosawa in Stray Dog captured the bustle of postwar Tokyo in an extravagant montage sequence, beautifully edited, Ozu takes just the opposite approach, brilliantly expressing it in a very simple way: the characters all live in the shadow of some massive, unnamed industrial complex whose girders resemble colossal Tinker Toys.
(Ozu regular Chishu Ryu appears in a small role as Shuichi's co-worker. Because he's not in the usual Ozu role of the aging father, it's a bit of a shock to see him, just one year before Late Spring, with flowing black hair and playing his real age.)
The film's unexpected turn occurs when Yuichi decides to investigate and possibly confront the owners of the brothel that facilitated Tokiko's one-time venture into prostitution. Pretending to be a customer, he ends up talking with a young woman not unlike his wife, and their surprising conversation plants the seed that maybe Tokiko wasn't such an irresponsible wife after all. It alone makes the film worth watching.
Video & Audio
A Hen in the Wind looks fairly good relative to other late-1940s Japanese films. The full frame image is a bit soft, but okay. However, the sound on this release is just awful, at times crystal-clear but mostly sounding as if it were derived from a scratched-up 78rpm record. A Dolby Digital logo precedes the film, but the engineer must have been asleep on the job, because the volume of the audio fluctuates so widely for the film's entire 84-minute running time that this reviewer had to constantly adjust it with a remote. Fortunately, the English subtitles, though not perfect, are fairly good. Optional Chinese subs are also included.
The only supplement is a booklet with a brief biography and filmography of Ozu, all of which is repeated in text form on the DVD itself.
A Hen in the Wind is good if not great Ozu, with performances and sequences better than its whole, and somewhat undermined by a now-curious resolution to its drama.