There’s a lot of great Japanese cinema of the past and most of the famous names kept up a prodigious output of films, of which only a handful of ‘masterworks’ tend to get any kind of release (at least in the West). The great director Mikio Naruse, for example, has one film in the Criterion collection (1960’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs) as well as an Eclipse boxset of his four surviving silent films from the early-1930s, but otherwise is only known for a few 1950s films like Sound of the Mountain and Floating Clouds. However, given he made around 3-5 films every year, as you can see on his filmography, there’s a lot to watch and very few places to do so. Luckily, some kind soul has thought to upload a number of them to YouTube, albeit in fairly poor video quality (presumably from VHS rips), of which I’ve already reviewed one film, the biopic Tochuken Kumoemon (1936). I would love to see Naruse’s work on the big screen in a retrospective, but even Kurosawa rarely gets this kind of treatment so I suspect my chance to do so will be a long time coming (if I haven’t missed it already). In the meantime, here are a few of those 1930s sound films.
妻よ薔薇のやうに Tsuma Yo Bara No Yo Ni (Wife! Be Like a Rose!, 1935)
The setup to this film seems familiar from some others of Naruse’s 1930s output, though whereas The Road I Travel with You (see below) is about two brothers living with an ex-geisha mother who has been abandoned by the father of her children for his ‘real’ wife, this one is about a young woman who lives with a mother who has been abandoned by her husband for his geisha partner. Needless to say, the young woman (Kimiko, played by Sachiko Chiba) doesn’t think much of her father Shunsaku (Sadao Murayama), nor very much of her poet mother either (who always prefers to compose her haiku to being a good mother, or so seems to be her daughter’s implication). Nevertheless, Kimiko wants to get married, which requires her father’s involvement. This journey to visit him out in the countryside upends her opinion of her father and his relationship, as she comes to get a sense, perhaps, of the complexity of marital relationships. The recurrence of the theme makes me wonder if it wasn’t somehow personal to director Naruse, but the acting is excellent and it’s one of his finer sound films of the 1930s (though I still prefer his earlier silent works like Every-Night Dreams, which again features a single mother).
Director/Writer Mikio Naruse 成瀬巳喜男; Cinematographer Hiroshi Suzuki 鈴木博; Starring Sachiko Chiba 千葉早智子, Yuriko Hanabusa 英百合子, Sadao Murayama 丸山定夫, Toshiko Ito 伊藤智子; Length 74 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Wednesday 15 April 2020.
君と行く路 Kimi To Yuku Michi (The Road I Travel with You, 1936)
An interesting early sound drama from Mikio Naruse, which like many of his films deals with a largely domestic subject — lots of scenes set in rooms with the actors holding themselves rather stiffly in position to deliver their lines. It’s about two young men born out of wedlock to a woman who was a mistress to a wealthy man, and thus lacking a certain status that befits the style to which they seem to be living (certainly they both dress in western fashion and suits). This particularly rankles with Asaji (Heihachiro Okawa), whose girlfriend’s family want to have nothing to do with his, and he even takes against the many unforced compliments he receives for his good looks (apparently another sign of his lowly status). His brother Yuji (Hideo Saeki) is more easygoing but he’s finding relationships difficult too, and the title thus comes to seem particularly (and cruelly) ironic, not least towards the end of the film when Asaji takes a drive. There’s a sense of a social problem here that reminds me of some Korean films (like My Mother and Her Guest or The Widow) where characters have trouble because of strict social mores around relationships and widowhood. This one never quite resonates as Naruse’s best films do, though he layers on plenty of melodrama and even tragedy to keep things moving.
Director/Writer Mikio Naruse 成瀬巳喜男 (based on a novel by Yukiko Miyake 三宅由岐子); Cinematographer Hiroshi Suzuki 鈴木博; Starring Heihachiro Okawa 大川平八郎, Hideo Saeki 佐伯秀男, Naoyo Yamagata 山懸直代, Masako Tsutsumi 堤真佐子, Tamae Kiyokawa 清川玉枝; Length 69 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Tuesday 14 April 2020.
雪崩 Nadare (Avalanche, 1937) [medium-length]
There’s a sort of formality to this film, characters holding themselves still as they talk to one another on domestic sets, but that perhaps echoes some of the themes it’s dealing with — of loveless marriages, and arrangements founded on property and succession, of honouring agreements and keeping faith with those you’ve made (marital) promises to. It concerns Goro (Hideo Saeki), a man who doesn’t love his wife Fukiko (Noboru Kiritachi) — perhaps never did — and feels instead strongly for Yayoi (Ranko Edagawa), and the film melodramatically charts the conflict this creates within his family. The drama is as much about Fukiko in the end; though she smiles benignly through much of the film, nobody seems to feel that strongly towards her (even her dad’s best friend can’t get her name right), and her father-in-law belittles her as a little simple-minded. Of course Goro is no good, and the drama certainly takes a surprising turn towards the end, which threatens for a time to move the film into quite a different genre. The film is notable for having a number of competing internal monologues, signalled by a vertical wipe of gauze that descends whilst in voiceover a character speaks their thoughts, and in Goro’s final fraught reckoning with himself is combined with double exposure to show him pacing about on top of the image of him standing stiff by his wife. There’s a lot of feeling in this film, and some day a proper release of Naruse’s films needs to happen (because the YouTube rip I watched was hardly ideal).
Director/Writer Mikio Naruse 成瀬巳喜男 (based on a novel by Jiro Osaragi 大佛次郎); Cinematographer Mikiya Tachibana 立花幹也; Starring Hideo Saeki 佐伯秀男, Noboru Kiritachi 霧立のぼる, Ranko Edagawa 江戸川蘭子; Length 59 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Monday 13 April 2020.