Films based on actual incidents are often rife with mistakes, as Wikipedia-educated experts are quick to point out.

However, these films can also shine welcome light on overlooked real-life heroes. One example is “Glory,” the 1989 Edward Zwick film about the first African American regiment to serve in the American Civil War and prove that Black soldiers could fight valiantly, confounding the era’s racists. The film contained inaccuracies, but it was also sincere about wanting to enlighten its audience.

The same is true of “Angry Rice Wives,” Katsuhide Motoki’s drama about the women in a Toyama Prefecture fishing village who started in what came to be known as the 1918 “rice riots” — protests against soaring rice prices that spread across the country, despite official crackdowns.

Angry Rice Wives (Dai Kome Sodo)
Run Time 106 min.
Language Japanese
Opens Jan. 8

Scripted by Kaori Tanimoto, the film simplifies the history of the riots, airbrushing out male participation. It does, however, highlight the real bravery of the female protestors, who fought not only ingrained sexism, but also the deep poverty that put their families at risk of starvation.

The perky score and broad gags are familiar from the many TV and film jidaigeki (period dramas) that try to brighten up an often-grim past, as are the teary developments that appear in the film’s latter, more serious scenes.

The film’s heroine is Ito Matsuura (Mao Inoue), a woman whose kindhearted fisherman husband (Takahiro Miura) leaves with other village men to work in the rich fishing grounds off Hokkaido and Sakhalin, then partially a Japanese colony. Left to fend for themselves, Ito and the other fishermen’s wives lug heavy bales of rice to the shore for transfer to waiting boats. Their daily wages are barely enough to buy rice. Then the price of this key staple starts rising.

Led by Obaba (Shigeru Muroi), a formidable village elder, the wives attempt to stop a shipment of rice, but fail. This “riot,” aimed at fending off rice scarcities and accompanying price hikes, attracts the attention of an idealistic young journalist (Masaki Nakao), who journeys from Osaka to report on the protests.

Meanwhile, Ito, who is one of the few literate village women, reads her fellow stevedores news items in the local paper, including the rumor that the rice may be bound for Japanese soldiers in Siberia. But as a farmer’s daughter from outside the village, Ito is only tentatively accepted by the other women. Also, she is not yet accustomed to their rough words and ways, a reaction to living without the support and dominance of their husbands.

This makes her look somewhat hesitant and even weak, but in Inoue’s layered performance we also see the inner steel behind the apologetic words and lowered glances. When she emerges as a fiery protest leader, the transition feels right, if not entirely unexpected.

Though the film centers on the women’s righteous battles with power structures — from buffoonish cops to a sly, sexually predatory tycoon (Renji Ishibashi) — its story is not simply black-and-white. As a perceptive local school teacher (Haruka Kudo) explains to the journalist, the women are not naturally strong. Instead, they are compelled to fight because of their dire circumstances. And they are subject to all-too-human temptations, Ito included.

But the tumultuous climax of their struggle is rousing to watch — and made me want to eat every single precious grain in my evening rice bowl.

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