In Keisuke Kinoshita’s Wedding Ring (Konyaku yubiwa, Japan, 1950), Noriko Kuki (Kinuyo Tanaka) finds herself on the threshold of adultery when she falls in love with the young medical intern Ema (Toshiro Mifune), who has been assigned to her husband Michio (Jukichi Uno), suffering from tuberculosis.
The first encounter between Noriko and Ema takes place in a bus on a winding road that follows the coastline. This opening sequence with almost no dialogue is a series of comical moments created around Ema. Standing next to the seated Noriko, he is trying to keep his balance but stumbles and falls into her lap. The first thing he catches sight of is not her face but her engagement ring with its diamond solitaire that she wears together with her wedding ring on one finger. The close-up of the rings is also a clear signal to the viewer that she is a married woman, and it alludes to the complications in the ensuing relationship between the two characters.
Noriko is a successful businesswoman who runs the Kuki family’s elegant jewellery shop in Tokyo, something that her sick husband and her retired father-in-law can no longer do. Tanaka’s flawless performance presents Noriko as a woman full of self-confidence and energy. Ema is a handsome young man bursting with energy and deeply committed to the wellbeing of his patients, and in contrast to these two characters and due to his illness, Michio is excluded from social life. He also has to refrain from sexual activity.
Ema’s appearance in their life brings the couple’s repressed sexual desires to the surface. One can conclude that Noriko has had no sex life since her husband was drafted one year after they married in 1944. There are no sex scenes in the film, but sexuality and carnal desire are evoked both verbally and symbolically. Michio confesses how much he suffers from being unable to lead a normal married life, and his doctor, Ema, suggests that moderate sex with his wife would help him more than sleeping pills. After this conversation, Michio is framed in close-up staring into the garden and touching his face and throat as if in a fever in a clear expression of his intense but unfulfilled desire.
Ema is depicted as a virile object of desire, with Mifune’s well-proportioned muscular body showcased in scenes in which Ema wears swimming trunks. In one such scene, vertical movement of the camera from feet to head gives a detailed view of his athletic body before he jumps into the sea. Noriko is clearly attracted by his vitality and winning smile, and she is the one who takes the initiative, inviting the less well-off intern to an elegant European-style restaurant and presenting him with expensive leather shoes.
There is one daring scene in which Noriko’s strong desire is fully revealed, expressed in an allusion but one that is fraught with significance. Ema’s jacket, drenched with his sweat, becomes the substitute for his body. She stares at the jacket and then touches her face with her hands as if in agony before plunging it into the garment and breathing in deeply the smell of Ema’s body. Gestures and her facial expression supported by mise en scène and dramatic music reveal marvellously the mixture of desire and shame that Noriko experiences.
Having both internalized the moral codes of their time, Noriko and Ema live in a constant struggle between deep longing for each other and feelings of guilt, with Ema’s inner torment no less strong than Noriko’s. In the sequence in which he blames himself for having wished Michio dead, a great variety of contradictory feelings are mirrored on his face, which is twisted with grief, and his hands running repeatedly through his hair reflect his confused state of mind.
Despite the professional seriousness expressed by his strong wish to cure people, Ema has juvenile traits that contribute light-hearted and even funny moments to the film and counteract the melodrama. For example, Ema’s impulse to cry in Noriko’s lap after he has accepted her decision to stay with Michio has its comic counterpart in the opening scene in the bus. In a different sequence early in the film, Ema pays a visit to Noriko at her shop and teases her, even poking out his tongue at her – clear evidence of familiarity. Another comic moment is provided by the scene at the beach when Ema stands on a rock, flaunting his youthful body but then cannonballs not very elegantly into the sea.
Ema ostentatiously displays his healthy body, but Michio is confined to his room, his sad face indicating his depressed mental state. He too is torn between contradictory feelings – jealousy and the wish to make his wife happy. There are numerous sequences in the first part of the film that are accompanied by lively music, but in the second part, in which Michio plays a more important role, the atmosphere and also the music on the sound track become more sombre.
Kinoshita’s film delivers fine portrayals of human feelings that are convincingly mediated by his actors. However, the weather (heat and rain), nature (the beach, a rushing brook) and a variety of objects including bottles with foaming beer also contribute to this cinematic tale of desire and morality. It is in particular Noriko’s diamond ring (and in a few shots her plain wedding ring) as well as Ema’s footwear that serve a dramatic as well as a symbolic purpose in an economically presented storyline.
Frequent close-ups of the diamond ring are a constant reminder of conjugal fidelity and of Noriko’s taboo status as a married woman. At one crucial moment in the narrative, Noriko accidentally leaves the ring at home, and this makes her husband suspicious as he knows how much she treasures it.
Ema’s shoes also play an important role. In the film’s first sequence, when Ema and Noriko have left the bus and each is going his/her own way, the camera frames their feet, showing for the first time Ema’s plain white sneakers. A little later, when their paths cross again, Noriko smiles when she notices them. She later presents him with a pair of elegant leather shoes, but is disappointed that he does not wear them, his explanation being that his old sneakers are more comfortable. A later meeting with Noriko is at a level crossing in front of two signs, one bearing the word “Crossroads” and the other “Stop” and both written in English. This leaves Ema in a state of increased emotional confusion, and when he walks on towards the station, his feet with the sneakers are once again shown in close-up. However, in the next shot, one day or a few days later, another close-up reveals that he is now wearing the new leather shoes, and he confesses to Noriko that during their conversation near the railway track he became fully aware of Noriko’s feelings for him.
In his mind, Ema has crossed a boundary (a crossroads), but both characters respect the warning of the “stop” sign, a feeling of guilt hovering over all of their subsequent meetings. In the last part of the film, Noriko, having decided to stay with her husband, agrees to meet Ema at an inn. In this dramatically and visually very complex scene, Ema is still torn between his intense emotions and a strong sense of duty, while Noriko spends most of the time listening. However, her face and body indicate her sadness, and after she has poured him a beer, her hand touches the bottle gently.
Ema accepts Noriko’s decision to stay with her husband, and in spite of being rivals, he and Michio admire Noriko, and they also respect each other, the film showing that there is a strong bond between these two men, who were both soldiers during the war. However, if Michio is the epitome of the defeated Japanese male, Ema has a positive approach to life, his contagious vitality making him act like a catalyst in helping the couple to become reunited. Ema reawakens in Noriko the feeling that she is desired, and he also arouses Michio from his self-pity and lethargy.
The film’s ending has nothing melancholic about it. Harmony is restored, and husband and wife leave together for a sanatorium in the mountains, where Michio can fully recover. Ema, who sees them off cheerfully, already has a new patient – the young female bus conductor from the opening sequence – suggesting that his feelings for Noriko may not have been as deep as he imagined. A close-up of his feet as he walks away happily, wearing his sneakers again, suggests that he is really a carefree young man.
In social terms, the film suggests that it is possible to overcome the trauma of war. Post-war Japan is returning to normality, with women returning to their traditional role as caring wives. In two of the last sequences and for the first time in the film, Noriko wears a kimono, implying that she is now “back on track” in a Japanese society that is still decidedly patriarchal.