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Three Sisters with Maiden Hearts

Three Sisters with Maiden Hearts (乙女ごころ三人姉妹) is a 1935 drama directed by Mikio Naruse and produced by Toho Company Ltd., the company's first-ever film and Naruse's first sound film (most of his earlier silent films remain lost). A major theme in Three Sisters is financial struggle. The three sisters live with their strict, abusive mother and a trio of other young girls, all of whom rely on meager earnings from their shamisen and dance performances for men in a theater and shady bars in Asakusa, the center of Tokyo's shitamachi, or "low city." I read Naruse grew up in poverty and it's a theme that surfaces in several of his other works.

Another theme in Three Sisters is the dual acceptance and reluctance to accept one's circumstances and social standing. The youngest (Ryuko Umezono; left side in below photo) is permitted by the mother to dress in modern clothing, and the family's hope—that she'll marry well and get out—is invested in her. The eldest sister (Chikako Hosokawa; center in photo) does leave but only to later discover that life is much harder than what she dreamed it would be, while she struggles to cope with a depressive husband dying of TB. And the middle sister (Masako Tsutsumi; right side), the most compelling of the three characters, endures the humiliation of her trade and loneliness while for the most part (when she's not smashing up her shamisen) is purely selfless and unconditionally devoted to the happiness of her sisters, to the bitter end.

The film seems unnecessarily experimental at times, making it more interesting, like the odd camera angles in the boat scene (from shots at head level to views a fish would enjoy if it were to poke its head into air). In this scene, girl and guy light-heartedly chat about what others would think if the boat were to capsize and be taken for a double suicide, a scene that's unnecessary to the plot but an intriguing digression. Another thing that makes Three Sisters interesting is the footage of 1930s Asakusa, from rooftops to back-alleys, and kudos to whomever subtitled the translations of the business names shown on the shop signs.


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