This week, for a change, I’m doing a special director focus on Mikio Naruse, who in light of contemporaries like Ozu and later filmmakers such as Mizoguchi and Kurosawa, is perhaps an underappreciated Japanese cinematic master. A couple of weeks ago I rounded up a number of his 1930s sound films, and I’ve previously mentioned his biopic Tochuken Kumoemon (1936), but I realised I still had enough reviews of his great 1950s works, not to mention his earliest silent cinema, to merit an entire week dedicated to him. These silent works are collected on a boxset from the Criterion sub-label Eclipse, dedicated to lesser-known films presented in bare bones DVD editions, albeit with good transfers and liner notes. [NB Outside of the context of this director-focused week, I intend to do future posts about other Eclipse boxsets, though watching them all can sometimes take a bit of time.]
26.1: 腰弁頑張れ Koshiben Ganbare (Flunky, Work Hard, 1931) [short film]
The liner notes sell this earliest surviving short by Mikio Naruse as a comedy or slapstick but I’m not buying that. It has comedic elements, and the hapless insurance selling dad has a goofiness to him, but this is filled with pathos as his son fights with other kids, and the grinding poverty takes its toll. There’s also a final sequence in which his son is close to death, as Naruse experiments with flashback formalism to great effect.
Director/Writer Mikio Naruse 成瀬巳喜男; Cinematographer Mitsuo Miura 三浦光男; Starring Isamu Yamaguchi 山口勇, Seiichi Kato 加藤清一; Length 29 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 2 October 2016.
26.2: 生さぬ仲 Nasanunaka (No Blood Relation, 1932)
Only his 1931 short film survives prior to this feature, so it’s difficult to speak to how Naruse’s style developed (he appears from his filmography to have made around 15 films before this one), but this early film of his is, to my mind, beautifully developed. Quite aside from some of the contortions of the plot, it’s about what it means to be a mother, and everything resolves as it probably should. However, along the way there are some excellent performances, notably from a sexy bearded neighbour of the child’s non-blood-relation foster mother. More than the acting, though, there’s an expressive range of camera movements — quick pans and especially the dollies into people’s faces — that enhance the emotional arc of the melodramatic narrative and impart a lively modern sense to the film.
Director Mikio Naruse 成瀬巳喜男; Writer Kogo Noda 野田 高梧 (based on the novel by Shunyo Yanagawa 柳川春葉); Cinematographers Masao Saito 斎藤正夫, Suketaro Inokai 猪飼助太郎 and Eijiro Fujita 藤田英次郎; Starring Yoshiko Okada 岡田嘉子, Shinyo Nara 奈良真養, Yukiko Tsukuba 筑波雪子; Length 79 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 6 December 2017.
26.3: 君と別れて Kimi to Wakarete (Apart from You, 1933)
There’s clearly no reason for any film to be more than an hour really, because there’s more than enough in here to call it a fully-rounded feature. It’s a simple story I suppose: a young man Yoshio (Akio Isono) drifts into trouble with a gang of hoodlums out of feelings of shame towards his home situation, specifically that his mother works as a geisha (not a prostitute, as far as I can tell, but still somewhat socially looked down upon). His mother Kikue (Mitsuko Yoshikawa) for her part feels washed-up — reflected by the blurb on the DVD box which talks about her being “ageing”, which, given the actor is only 32, I find a bit of a stretch (but I suppose that’s the nature of the entertainment business after all). A younger colleague of the mother, Terugiku (Sumiko Mizukubo), who also feels loathing towards her job and towards her bullying parents, intervenes and tries to persuade Yoshio to relent, which reaches some sort of climax with a scene between them at the beach which finds just the right emotional balance (with some formal interest too, as one of the intertitles strikingly appears over a shot of the waves). Elsewhere, Naruse continues his interest (after his previous film) in using dolly zooms into characters’ faces to heighten moments of tension — which doesn’t happen until about halfway through, but once he starts, he just can’t seem to hold himself back. However, for the most part this is a bravura piece of filmmaking with real poignancy.
Director/Writer Mikio Naruse 成瀬巳喜男; Cinematographer Suketaro Inokai 猪飼助太郎; Starring Mitsuko Yoshikawa 吉川満子, Akio Isono 磯野秋雄, Sumiko Mizukubo 水久保 澄子; Length 60 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 6 December 2017.
26.4: 夜ごとの夢 Yogoto no Yume (Every-Night Dreams, 1933)
A gorgeous hour-long demonstration of filmmaking mastery from Mikio Naruse, one of his last silent films before moving to sound. This is another melodrama focused on a woman, who works at a bar (not unlike the geisha at the centre of Apart from You) and while she doesn’t exactly love her job, she’s good at it. When her ex (Tatsuo Saito) and father to her child Fumio (Teruko Kojima) comes back into her life, he wants her to quit, but he can’t find himself a job, so things just seem to carry on as ever. Deadbeat though he is, he does love Fumio, and there’s a touching scene of him playing baseball with Fumio’s friends while his son fixes a hole he finds in his dad’s shoe.
At this point it’s a beautiful evocation of precarious lives in stasis, but once again that ever-burning narrative engine of wounded male pride steps in to take the story onwards towards tragedy. Through all of it, the heroine Omitsu (a radiant Sumiko Kurishima) remains staunch and full of determination, more than capable of dealing with creepy male customers at the bar but thrown a little by the return of her husband and his wayward dreams for them as a family. Naruse’s style, replete with his favoured dolly close-ups (including to some of the intertitles, at heightened moments) and careful match-cutting on action, is in evidence and this remains one of his most beautiful films of the early phase of his filmmaking.
Director Mikio Naruse 成瀬巳喜男; Writers Naruse and Tadao Ikeda 池田忠雄; Cinematographer Suketaro Inokai 猪飼助太郎; Starring Sumiku Kurishuma 栗島すみ子, Tatsuo Saito 斎藤達雄, Teruko Kojima 小島照子; Length 65 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 7 December 2017.
26.5: 限りなき舗道 Kagirinaki Hodo (Street Without End, 1934)
Going in to this final film of Naruse’s silent output, I had this worry it was going to be one of those melodramas where a chance encounter would lead to a woman’s life being destroyed — there are too many of those around, especially among male directors doing ‘women’s pictures’ in the classical era of filmmaking. However, there’s a lot more nuance than that here, though once again Naruse fits in an automobile accident as one of the drivers of the plot. The film is focused around Setsuko Shinobu’s character of Sugiko, an enigmatic tea house waitress who has her admirers, has her golden cinema opportunity, and then life takes a turn (as it will). Naruse engineers things such that whenever situations change for a character and it looks like their character arc is heading in a certain direction, that in fact it doesn’t quite work out that way. The film is filled with these subtle little reverses of fate, and moments of ponderous self-doubt (not least in the striking sequence towards the end as Sugiko enters the frame from three different directions), and you get the sense that all these characters exist beyond the film, as indeed does the very system of values that defines their lives (class, patriarchy, society, whatever you want to define those as), and so the film is bookended by these images of the bustling city, at first with faces of people on the streets welcoming and happy, and then with backs turned, shuffling away, in search of another story.
Director Mikio Naruse 成瀬巳喜男; Writer Jitsuzo Ikeda 池田富三 (based on a story by Komatsu Kitamura 北村小松); Cinematographer Suketaro Inokai 猪飼助太郎; Starring Setsuko Shinobu 忍節子, Akio Isono 磯野秋雄; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 27 January 2018.