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08 January 2013

The Japanese Wife (2010)

Directed by: Aparna Sen
Music: Sagar Desai
Starring: Rahul Bose, Chigusu Takaku, Raima Sen, 
Moushumi Chatterjee, Sagnik Choudhary
How far would you go for love?

Moving between past and present, The Japanese Wife introduces us to three very shy people - Snehamoy (Rahul Bose), an arithmetic teacher in a little village school in the Sunderbans, Miyage (Chigusu Takaku), a young Japanese woman who is first Snehamoy's penpal and later his wife, and Sandhya (Raima Sen), a young widow who, with her son, is forced by circumstances to live with Snehamoy and his maashi (Moushumi Chatterjee), the widowed aunt who has brought him up after the death of his parents.
A pen-friendship that begins when Snehamoy is in college, he and Miyage exchange countless letters filled with the minutiae of their lives even though neither of them know the other's language. Even being forced to write in English, a foreign language for both of them, with the help of dictionaries, does not dampen their enthusiasm - nothing is too small or too unimportant to relate to each other.

So Snehamoy writes to her about getting a job as a teacher soon after graduation, while she writes to him about her father's death and her little store that she manages from home. She even sends him a gift - a Polaroid camera so he can take photographs of himself, his aunt, and his house and send them to her.
So it happens that when his maashi brings a friend's daughter home so he can 'see' her, Snehamoy writes about that too, including the fact that the girl, Sandhya, was so shy he never got to see her face. In a return letter, Miyage proposes to him - if he is willing, she will be his bride. Snehamoy takes a month to think it over - he is willing but how will he go to Japan? Will she be able to come to India?

Miyage is amused. Men are so silly, she tells him, worrying about unimportant things. The important thing is that he has agreed to get married. They will meet when it is time to meet. He has responsibilities, so does she. Neither of them have much money. She sends him a silver ring with his name engraved on it. He sends her conch shell bangles and sindoor.  And they continue to write letters to each other.

When his maashi's friend and daughter come home again a year later, Snehamoy is forced to tell his aunt the truth - he is already married. His aunt is shocked...
She, the aunt, is not going to allow just any girl into her house! 

She is speechless when she hears the truth. Slowly, however, she comes around to the idea of an absentee daughter-in-law, especially one who pays so much attention to the needs of her husband and his aunt. The lack of a physical relationship does not come in the way of their feeling every inch a married couple. Miyage sends hand-knitted shawls for maashi, and socks for her husband.
Snehamoy sends her champak flowers wrapped carefully in the hope that they will still retain their fragrance when it reaches her, and so their relationship continues, considered strange, yet accepted even by the villagers who have seen the regular stream of letters and packages arriving from Japan for their schoolmaster.

Fifteen years pass; the two have not met each other even once, their personal obligations coming in the way of their meeting. Maashi is upset - what sort of a marriage is this? Yet, she cannot dislike Miyage even though she is amused that a wife's fifteenth wedding anniversary gift to her husband is a box of Japanese kites. She is also upset that Miyage has to stay back to look after her mother; after all, Miyage has a brother who is married - why can't he look after his mother and send Miyage to her husband's house? 

In the meantime, maashi's friend dies, and maashi has invited Sandhya, widowed a year before, to come live with them. As always, Snehamoy writes to Miyage about her. Sandhya's arrival changes life as Snehamoy knows it - she not only helps maashi with her daily chores, she takes over the reins of their little household in her capable hands. Suddenly, Snehamoy has ironed shirts kept neatly on the shelves, his room, once a mess of papers and other stuff, with an unmade bed and clothes all over the place, is now neat and tidy, and the gifts that Miyage had sent him over the years is neatly displayed.

Maashi is adamant that Snehamoy cannot spend his life writing letters and shirking responsibilities. She had done her duty bringing him up, and now it is his turn to help bring up Sandhya's fatherless son. Paltu is very easy to like; he turns to Snehamoy very naturally, and despite himself, Snehamoy finds himself drawn to the boy. He is also experiencing domesticity for the first time in his life, even though, at heart, he is still devoted to Miyage. 

Miyage, in the meantime, is going through her own troubles. Her mother has finally passed away, and she would like to visit Snehamoy but she is not too well herself. Snehamoy is worried because her doctor has advised her to close her shop and go live with her brother. Unable to visit her himself, Snehamoy takes a six-month sabbatical from his job and consults one doctor after another about her symptoms, sending Miyage ayurvedic, homeopathic and Unani medicines and the advice of allopathic doctors. 

Amidst this, maashi  asks him to take Sandhya shopping - Paltu's thread ceremony has to be performed, and Sandhya needs to pawn her jewellery to buy everything that is needed. Spending the day together brings Snehamoy and Sandhya closer.
But the evening brings bad news - Miyage is worse. As he is struggling to come to terms with that news, he also becomes aware of Sandhya's grief and loneliness. His effort to console Sandhya also makes him aware, for the first time, how easy it is to be attracted to her. He is now caught between two strange relationships -  a marriage which is deeply intimate but precludes any domesticity, and a domesticity that is strangely comforting but with no chance (or desire) of intimacy. What will become of these people caught in such conflict?

Based on a short story by Kunal Basu, The Japanese Wife  is truly an unconventional love story. While based on an improbable premise, the film makes you question yourself - how far would you go for love? Can you love someone just by writing to them? Can you commit yourself to a relationship that exists only in a world apart? Is it possible to sustain such a relationship?

Snehamoy's and Miyage's love story transcends language, culture, geography and distance, and endures for nearly two decades, without them meeting once. The film's strength lies in its believable characters whose fears and hopes you can empathise with.

It is anchored by strong performances, not just from the three leads (more about them later), but also the characters at the periphery of this romance - Moushumi Chatterjee as the loving, ever-so-subtly manipulative aunt, and Sagnik Choudhary as Paltu, the fatherless little boy, who, with the insouciance of childhood, accepts (and indeed, forces) Snehamoy as a father figure. Moushumi, in fact, is brilliant as the aunt who so badly wants to see her nephew married and settled; the affection between her and Snehamoy is so real, yet, like the rest of the characterisations, so subtle.
So also the postman, the ayurvedic physician, the doctor - they all make their presence felt, emphasising Snehamoy's struggles to help his wife from thousands of miles away.

Rahul Bose as Snehamoy brings the mild-mannered schoolteacher to life, and his chemistry with Raima Sen who plays Sandhya, is a joy to watch. Shy Snehamoy seems to find the freedom to express himself, albeit in broken English, only through his letters. The desire to be loved, to be accepted for who he is, and his very human attraction to the beautiful woman who lives in his home, Bose's expressions portrayed every change in his emotions. So also is his speech - the accent, peculiar to that region of Bengal, both while speaking Bengali and later, when he switches to English.
One of the film's most endearing scenes is when, trying to make himself understood on the telephone by Miyage, he confesses to the man in the STD booth that his English skills are lacking; it's okay when he is writing a letter, he says, he has a dictionary that he can look up, but when he speaks...

Raima is an actress I have come to like very much, her performances a treat to watch. Her acting is effortless and she has a screen presence (and the ability to choose roles) that is endearing. As Sandhya, the young widow, who takes care of a man she is not allowed to love, she brought a certain dignity to the role.
Newcomer Chigusu Takaku, similarly, is perfectly cast as the chatty, pragmatic Miyagi. She is loyal, devoted, and takes care of Snehamoy as best she can. It is a nuanced performance, and a fine one from a debutante.
A note about the cinematography (Anay Goswami) - the landscape is used very effectively. The natural beauty of the Sunderbans, the tranquillity of the river, the fury of the monsoons, the shots of the kites flying in the sky - each frame is lovingly shot, and adds to the cinematic experience. 
There is a sense of restraint that permeates the film, and yes, you must have the patience to sit through its slow pace. The story flows gently, almost like the river that is a continuing presence on screen, and will grow on you if you will allow yourself to be part of the narrative. The epistolary romance depends more on the interactions between the characters, and is told with empathy and sensitivity by Aparna Sen.

This is a film that will probably appeal to a niche audience, people who are willing to allow a film to unfold at its own pace. There is love, there is yearning, there is commitment, and sadness - all waiting for you, if you are patient, in a poetic tale that does not encompass a great and undying passion but unfolds the fragrance of a quiet love that is yet real, petal by petal.

*Poster - Courtesy: saregama.com


  1. This is an excellent Bengali film, highly underrated in Bengal(idk why). It is an excellent made out of a short story; the cinematography was so good that you can easily forgive Raima Sen's incapability to act. Rahul was mesmerizing, Moushumi charismatic. This is the only Aparna Sen film I love; it is her only film in which she doesn't go beyond to prove in vain her great direction. I loved the b/w ending. A bit of trivia: the writer, Kunal Bose appears for a second in the film(the man Rahul accidentally bumps with)

  2. Mmm. I've heard of this, but didn't know (or bother to find out) what it was about. But it sounds wonderful - another to add to my unmanageable list of must-watch films.

    Incidentally, Anu, one sentence from your post especially jumped out at me: "Can you commit yourself to a relationship that exists only in a world apart?" It reminded me of the Korean film Failan, about a marriage of convenience to enable an immigrant to live in South Korea. It's purely a business transaction - the couple barely meet just for the very brief procedure of the wedding, and then they part ways. But the way the woman still thinks of him as her husband is very touching. A film I found a little difficult to get used to (much violence etc), but eventually very poignant too. 

  3.  I agree about it being underrated; I'd wanted to watch it when it first came out because the premise was interesting, but then there were so many mixed reviews that I pushed it to the back of the queue. Then, recently, a friend told me that I would like it, so I picked it up - and was pleasantly surprised.

    I did read about Kunal Bose making that split-second appearance. :)

  4.  It is a film that you will enjoy, Madhu; I think I can guarantee that. :) Your note about Failan is intriguing, but I usually tend to keep away from films that have too much violence, so now I'm conflicted. It does not help that I have a growing list of must-watch films either. :(

  5. Was told that the movie did not live upto the book, so there are apprehensions but an Aparna Sen movie must be always be something to look forward to even though her first job was probably her best work.

    Yes, the same line that Madhu mentioned struck me - long-distance relationships; it strikes a personal chord of something deep in the past! Wonder how this can be sustained; needs a deep level of commitment from both parties and even then, commitment is not the only thing..

  6.  Was told that the movie did not live upto the book

    That's funny; most people seemed to feel that the short story was quite badly written. I liked this film a lot; I think you will, too.

    Yes, long-distance relationships can be sustained. Don't ask me how I know that.

  7. Beautiful film! Would love to see this! Such an unusual story!

  8.  Just like most of the films you have recently reviewed, this one also seems to be a must-watch. And of course Rahul Bose is a favourite. His ability to bring a character to life with minimum dialogue and gestures sets him far apart from most other actors. And yes, Aparna Sen usually has something good to offer. Must try to watch it. 

  9. Harvey, it is available on YouTube. The 'original' full-length version is not of much use because it has no sub-titles, and the non-English parts do need translating. But the film in parts, is a DVD rip, I think, and that has sub-titles. Here is Part 1 of 7 clips.


  10.  Nalini, it is an unusual film and one that I thoroughly enjoyed. It is available on YouTube; if you look at my comment to Harvey (below yours) I have put the link to the first part. Do watch if you can.

  11. Just saw the opening titles and fell in love with it!
    Maybe Feb, then!

  12. I'm glad. :) Let me know how you liked it.

  13. Haricharanpudipeddi15 February 2013 at 04:37

    Great blog and an equally great review. Haven't even heard about this film. Will make it a point to watch it soon and return with a comment.

    Here's my blog - www.movieroundup.in Let me know your thoughts.


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