流れる Nagareru (Flowing, 1956)

I’m finishing off my week dedicated to Mikio Naruse with this 1956 drama, though he kept making films for another decade after this. One of them (When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, from 1960) is in the Criterion Collection so will eventually get reviewed here when I get to it in my regular Criterion Sunday feature.


I love Mikio Naruse’s films but I’m also very conscious that I don’t really have the language to describe them, but this was an era when (because there were essentially no women directing films, aside from rare examples like Kinuyo Tanaka, who stars in this film, and Park Nam-ok in Korea) you’d get a whole cadre of venerated older men anointed as being excellent at ‘women’s pictures’. There are barely any men in this film, but there’s still a strong sense that the women we see — from the woman who runs the business (Isuzu Yamada), to her geisha employees, her maid, her daughter (Hideko Takamine), her sister and mentor — are all essentially still powerless in a society that esteems the money of men most highly. Even a drunken family member of a former employee seems to get his way, while the woman who owns the business is having trouble keeping it going. The story is largely told from the new maid’s point-of-view, and Kinuyo Tanaka is just wonderful at giving depth to this middle-aged woman fallen on hard times, but who still has enormous empathy and a remarkable grace in dealing with all the backstabbing and various fallings out. And yet for all this behind-the-scenes drama of the geisha house, it’s still a rather gentle and sweet film — the title suggests the gentle movement of a river, but also its inevitability and unchanging nature — about events which are not particularly gentle or sweet.

Flowing film posterCREDITS
Director Mikio Naruse 成瀬巳喜男; Writers Toshiro Ide 井手俊郎 and Sumie Tanaka 田中澄江 (based on the novel by Aya Koda 幸田文); Cinematographer Masao Tamai 玉井正夫; Starring Hideko Takamine 高峰秀子, Isuzu Yamada 山田五十鈴, Mariko Okada 岡田茉莉子, Haruko Sugimura 杉村春子, Kinuyo Tanaka 田中絹代; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 17 February 2019.

浮雲 Ukigumo (Floating Clouds, 1955)

Another Naruse melodrama about a single woman living her life and finding others — perhaps society itself — can’t quite live up to her standards. Exquisite as ever, and available on DVD.


Mikio Naruse often makes melodramas, and when he does them they’re as big and bold in many ways as contemporary Hollywood ones — with almost as much exploitation (if that’s the right word, perhaps not) of the suffering of women — but yet there’s so much elegance and subtlety as it unfolds. In a way the central character here, Yukiko (played by the wonderful Hideko Takamine), is a metaphor for post-war Japan, but her travails in love — finding a man while working in Indochina, then discovering he’s married when they return to Japan after the war, and proceeding to doubt his motives throughout, as he courts other women — also pretty starkly illustrate her place as a woman in this society. I find it really difficult to write about what’s good in the film, as I lack a lot of context for writing about 1950s melodrama, a rich and complex topic, except that Naruse’s film is compelling and beautiful.

Floating Clouds film posterCREDITS
Director Mikio Naruse 成瀬巳喜男; Writer Yoko Mizuki 水木洋子 (based on the novel by Fumiko Hayashi 林芙美子); Cinematographer Masao Tamai 玉井正夫; Starring Hideko Takamine 高峰秀子, Masayuki Mori 森雅之, Mariko Okada 岡田茉莉子; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 February 2019.

晩菊 Bangiku (Late Chrysanthemums, 1954)

This film by Mikio Naruse is a beautifully understated piece of work, one of the great achievements in post-war Japanese cinema. Usually I reserve Wednesdays each week for films directed by women; as my theme this week is the films of a male director I cannot do that. However, this film focuses solely on the lives of four women, and is written by women.


Another of Naruse’s lovely quiet films about people just living their lives, though it’s a few decades on from his first works, so it doesn’t start with an automobile accident (as many of those seemed to do). This tells of the lives of four former geishas, one of whom is a moneylender (Haruko Sugimura), with the others variously in debt to her. A couple of them have adult children, and lovers pass through town too, but it really does keep its focus very much on the women’s lives. Nothing melodramatic really happens: life passes; the kids move away; the lovers disappoint. But it is exquisite in its simplicity, which like many of Naruse’s films of this era was written by women (specifically Sumie Tanaka. based on writing by Fumiko Hayashi).

CREDITS
Director Mikio Naruse 成瀬巳喜男; Writer Sumie Tanaka 田中澄江 (based on short stories by Fumiko Hayashi 林芙美子); Cinematographer Masao Tamai 玉井正夫; Starring Haruko Sugimura 杉村春子, Chikako Hosokawa 細川ちか子, Yuko Mochizuki 望月優子, Sadako Sawamura 沢村貞子; Length 101 minutes.
Seen on train from London to Brussels (DVD), Friday 1 June 2018.

山の音 Yama no Oto (Sound of the Mountain, 1954)

Mikio Naruse made three films in the year before this one, and I’m willing to bet at least one of those is equally brilliant, because he was very much on form this decade. A lot of his work was adapted from the writing of Fumiko Hayashi, but she is not the source for this one but rather the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Yasunari Kawabata, though it uses a lot of the same key cast as Naruse’s earlier film.


This is some film, one of Mikio Naruse’s finest, and I don’t want to attribute all of its success to one person, because it’s made with such sensitivity by everyone involved, but Setsuko Hara must be considered pretty central to that. Partly it’s the role she’s playing, a wife shunned by her husband (who is having an affair with a younger woman), but Hara is expert at making it not just a tragic account of this woman, but a far more rounded and nuanced portrait of familial relationships, in which Hara’s character is not to be pitied, but instead a really developed character whose motivations and actions cut against the expectations of her society and her family. I just find her every expression to be that little bit heartbreaking (not unlike in Tokyo Story, where she proved that sometimes smiling cheerfully is the saddest emotion of all). The film itself is framed by her father-in-law (So Yamamura), who is disappointed in his son (Ken Uehara) and just trying to understand Hara’s situation and consider what is best for her, which is why his reaction to news of her abortion is both so deeply felt and also so unusual in a film of this era. Surely a masterpiece of Japanese cinema, and I still have so many Naruse films yet to watch.

Sound of the Mountain film posterCREDITS
Director Mikio Naruse 成瀬巳喜男; Writer Yoko Mizuki 水木洋子 (baed on the novel by Yasunari Kawabata 川端康成); Cinematographer Masao Tamai 玉井正夫; Starring Setsuko Hara 原節子, Ken Uehara 上原謙, So Yamamura 山村聰, Yoko Sugi 杉葉子; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 13 January 2019.

稲妻 Inazuma (Lightning, 1952)

Breaking up the films which have had proper DVD releases is this film which you can see in a fairly good print on YouTube right now if you want, and I’d recommend checking it out. I certainly think I need to watch it again to pick up on all its subtleties, but Hideko Takamine’s wonderful acting is clear enough.


Nothing happens in Lightning, or rather I should say it’s filled with incident — bickering, sisterly squabbles, family fallouts, creepy dudes (and nice ones too) — but there’s nothing really big, there’s no disease killing one of them, there’s no life-changing event that they all rally together around, there’s no war, it’s just the flow of life. I think somehow Naruse’s films of this period, many of them (like this one) adaptations of the novelist and poet Fumiko Hayashi, stop somewhere just short of full-blown melodrama, though emotion clearly roils beneath the placid surface of his shots. Hayashi’s work, it seems, had a particular interest in individual women making a life for themselves, and her work is brilliantly conveyed by Hideko Takamine (another of Naruse’s regular collaborators in this period). Takamine, like Setsuko Hara, like many of the great actors, conveys a wealth of emotions through her eyes, though Takamine (and the character she plays here, Kiyoko) has a harder edge, perhaps developed in response to the insistence of her family that she settle down. It’s mentioned at one point that there’s one man to every 23 women in this post-war period, and certainly her half-brother has little interest in settling down, while another family friend, a sleazy baker, is on the prowl amongst all of the sisters. The resolution of the film, such as it is, just seems to be a level of understanding between mother (Kumeko Urabe) and daughter, the latter of whom has moved out of the family home by this point. These characters have a future, but we are left to imagine it.

Lightning film posterCREDITS
Director Mikio Naruse 成瀬巳喜男; Writer Sumie Tanaka 田中澄江 (based on the novel by Fumiko Hayashi 林芙美子); Cinematographer Shigeyoshi Mine 峰重義; Starring Hideko Takamine 高峰秀子, Mitsuko Miura 三浦光子, Chieko Murata 村田知英子, Kumeko Urabe 浦辺粂子; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Thursday 23 April 2020.

めし Meshi (Repast, 1951)

Continuing the Naruse theme, I’m now starting in on his 1950s masterpieces. All of these major films from the 1950s are easily available on DVD through the Masters of Cinema label in the UK, while many of his minor works can be viewed on YouTube (many with English subtitles).


This is, as one might expect from Naruse, a beautifully modulated film about Michiyo, a woman unhappy in her marriage. Setsuko Hara (surely familiar to even the most idle viewers of Japanese cinema from Ozu films like Tokyo Story and Early Summer) plays Michiyo, and Hara remains so very brilliant at conveying her dissatisfaction even as she’s smiling and reassuring people. Such indeed is the weight of societal expectation that there’s no meaningful way for her to confront the misery of her household chores and the disinterest of her husband (Ken Uehara), who only becomes animated when his young female cousin comes to visit spontaneously. My favourite moment is when Michiyo is asked “so what do you talk about with her husband?”, and she pauses, looks away and replies “I have a cat.” (It’s a very cute cat.)

Japanese films confronting domestic politics aren’t a million miles away from those of other traditional cultures (old British films like Brief Encounter seem to operate on a similar subterranean level, as everyone observes the correct etiquette and minuscule breaches are punished), so here too elaborate codes of conduct loom just beneath the surface of everyone’s actions, and it’s a great testament to the filmmaking skill that it’s all so very evident without being showy and didactic. Within this context (and I am treading carefully in how I phrase this), I was initially disappointed with the ending, but in retrospect it feels like a bitterly sardonic riposte to everything that has gone before, like the way Hollywood tacked on demonstrably phony ‘happy endings’ to films that really weren’t heading that direction. This is a brilliant and watchable — and, at times, even light-hearted — film about profound unhappiness.

Repast film posterCREDITS
Director Mikio Naruse 成瀬巳喜男; Writers Yasunari Kawabata 川端康成, Toshiro Ide 井手俊郎 and Sumie Tanaka 田中澄江 (based on the novel by Fumiko Hayashi 林芙美子); Cinematographer Masao Tamai 玉井正夫; Starring Setsuko Hara 原節子, Ken Uehara 上原謙, Yukiko Shimazaki 島崎雪子; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 26 April 2018.

Film socialisme (2010)

I had not intended to review this most recent of Godard’s features, but then I had forgotten I’d put it on my rental list, and it just showed up the other week, so here we go. I could tell you that there’s a tripartite structure, like Notre musique (2004), and that there’s even a plot of sorts threading its way through the film (a young woman’s investigation into some gold which went missing during World War II). However, none of that would really capture Godard’s style, which is so elliptical and opaque as to make the film far closer to poetry than narrative. But if it’s poetry, it’s a densely allusive poetry that draws on influences that are largely unknown to me, meaning that like many of Godard’s late-period films, I find it difficult to connect with.

The bulk of the film is shot on board a cruise liner, intended by Godard to perhaps be the locus of late-Western capitalism in all its excesses (and a location which in real life, perhaps fittingly, came to its own rather controversial end a few years later, being the Costa Concordia). There are characters who flit in and out of the flow of scenes, but the chief way of describing the film is in the textures of its images — digitally shot, but alternately clear and cleanly framed, and degraded and pixellated, overlaid with white noise. There are certainly some beautiful shots, but by this point Godard’s cranky sense of “beginning, middle and end but not necessarily in that order” has become a knotted tangle.

I don’t want to just write it off because it’s not to my taste. It’s just that there’s less a sense of characters and stories involved here, as ideas and themes. They are certainly grand themes at that, taking in the political history of the twentieth century (if not the whole sweep of Western civilisation) and all its traumas. Like Notre musique, Godard remains particularly interested in Israel’s relationship with Palestine, and Jewish and Arabic characters show up throughout. The film concludes with a brief section (“nos humanités”) taking in six sites of conflict from earliest times (Egypt and Greece) to the most recent (Barcelona in Spain, where the recent economic downturn has hit hardest).

The film moves from this wide focus, taking in the locations of world-changing events, to the minutiae of one family living in provincial France at a petrol station, but retains an interest in the grandest of themes (specifically those of the French Republic: liberté, egalité, fraternité) as the two children question their parents. However, by this point I must confess my attention had started to stray under the burden of the film’s unrelentingly discursive style. Perhaps it could be shown on loop in a gallery, but as a cohesive feature film, it is undeniably demanding, and for those with a taste for Godard’s allusiveness, it may well be a rewarding one. I fear I am not yet equal to it.

Next up: I do still intend to review Nouvelle vague and Histoire(s) du cinéma, but who knows when at this rate…

Film socialisme film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard; Cinematographers Fabrice Aragno and Paul Grivas; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 9 November 2013.

Notre musique (Our Music, 2004)

What with some family commitments and the London Film Festival taking place in October, what I had originally intended to be a ‘Godard Month’ has rather stretched on, and I still have a few films left to review, therefore I may yet be posting Godard Month entries in November…


By the time of Godard’s previous feature, Éloge de l’amour (2001), he was starting to place things in a rather more elegiac emotional register. That film grappled with his ageing, while this one focuses on similarly weighty existential issues — war, death, heaven and hell. Like most of his feature films, it remains concise in its running time while also seeming expansive thanks to his knack of densely layering image, text, music and voices. If at times it feels perplexing, then that’s all part and parcel of Godard’s way of presenting his films, especially in this late period.

I’ve mentioned the dense layering effects Godard likes, but though these are definitely present here, there’s a more uncluttered narrative than has often been the case in the past. The structure of the film is a fairly straightforward tripartite one, split into the “Kingdoms” of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. The first section consists of 10 minutes of archival footage and film clips spliced together with some sombre music, which suggests a certain mediated view of the horrors of war and conflict. The last section of Heaven is similarly brief, a pastoral scene (albeit one policed by military guards), featuring a character who has just been reported as having died. But for the most part (Purgatory), the film is set in Sarajevo, at an academic conference where Godard himself is a participant, delivering a lecture about shot/reverse-shot construction, transposing images in front of students just as he’s been doing on film for the previous 15 years or more.

Within this narrative are a couple of female Jewish characters, Judith (Sarah Adler) and Olga (Nade Dieu), each pursuing through their respective means (journalist and documentary filmmaker) an understanding of the Israeli-Palestine conflict. None of this is particularly straightforward and the points that Godard is trying to make are opaque as ever. However, the film is not about suggesting answers as about opening up arenas of discussion, such as the sites of wartime damage in Sarajevo, or the classroom where Godard lectures the students. At the close of this sequence, a question regarding the future of cinema is posed — about whether digital cameras will sustain cinema — and Godard, a shadowy presence in the half light, remains quite silent.

Like all of Godard’s films, especially the later ones, Notre musique remains a film of textures and ideas far more than of plot and characters, and the viewer has to keep that in mind. Still, it’s a film that poses questions about geopolitical security and humanity/cinema’s future, so it was never likely to have a clear conclusion, and the film struggles to outdo its brief but affecting opening sequence of Hell.

Next Up: I’m finishing the chronological journey with his most recent film, Film socialisme. The only other two films I wanted to deal with in my Godard director focus are Nouvelle vague (1990) and Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998), which I shall try to do shortly, as this project is stretching on rather longer than I’d anticipated!


Our Music film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard; Cinematographers Jean-Christophe Beauvallet and Julien Hirsch; Starring Sarah Adler, Nade Dieu, Jean-Luc Godard; Length 77 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 27 October 2013.

Éloge de l’amour (In Praise of Love, 2001)

With a bit of a break for Hélas pour moi (1993) and For Ever Mozart (1996), for the majority of the 1990s, Godard was engaged on his densely-textured multi-part video work Histoire(s) du cinéma. Given his devotion to that project (which I shall be reviewing later), it’s no surprise to find in this return to the narrative feature format, something of both that and his celluloid roots, both in terms of the textures as well as some of the themes. Éloge de l’amour is every bit as interesting and complex a work as his other late-period films and probably demands (certainly deserves) more attention than I was able to give it on my one sole viewing (so far), but it feels to me like a great film.

Those allusive textures I mentioned are most obviously in the last half-hour, shot on video and pushed towards an extreme colour balance, all thickly saturated blocky colours threatening to overwhelm the fragile human figures. But the first half too reminds us of Godard’s past, utilising starkly monochrome photography of Paris by night. If the style is not quite the same as back in those 1960s films with Raoul Coutard behind the camera — here it’s more contrasty, with deep inky blacks pressing in everywhere — it still feels redolent of that era. Filming in the street recalls his debut feature, while a scene by the river brings to mind a similar one in Bande à part. It’s a modern Paris but the filming renders it once more timeless.

That said, Godard the filmmaker is concerned above all with time, and as in many of his films, channels whatever are his current autobiographical obsessions. With Éloge, it’s his advancing age that is part of the backdrop. In fact, in many ways this film is more elegy than eulogy, its blend of textures and repeated classical music motifs drawing us back in time, with reminiscences of the French wartime resistance becoming part of the story (one commodified by Hollywood filmmaking — the ‘resistance’ here is as much Godard’s towards those methods of telling a story, as it is the wartime French). Love, which from the film’s title is ostensibly more important, is just one aspect of history and one that can so easily disappear into the shadows. Intertitles which flash up during the first part of the film are unclear as to what’s being eulogised: “DE L’AMOUR” or “DE QUELQUE CHOSE” (“of something” else). By the final video-shot part of the film, the intertitles are more interested in the passage of time — this section is set two years in the past, the “ARCHIVES”, “a long time ago”… “so long ago” — and the fact that the past utilises grainy colour video footage is even more a provocation.

The story itself is as opaque as ever in late-period Godard. There’s some sense that a writer (played by Bruno Putzulu) is trying to recall a love he shared, and is auditioning women to play parts in his story, but it’s all very obliquely presented. The ravishing black-and-white images show face-and-shoulders shots of the women speaking to camera with the writer’s voiceover questioning them, the writer in various settings of wealth and aspiration talking about the project, and night-time Paris with its tourist monuments in the background and its night-time workforce of cleaners and caretakers passing through. All these shots come in a flow of associative ideas, broken up by black leader suggesting images snatched from memory or from time itself.

I suspect audiences either go with Godard’s dense filmic poetry or actively resist his generalising and pretensions. He doesn’t make it particularly easy — for the American audiences, there are some challenging positions with regards to US hegemony and Hollywoodisation of history, which certainly come through as sore points when flicking through the critical commentary online — but his way with sound and images remains undimmed after all these years. He’s certainly grown crankier as a filmmaker, but the end result is a beautiful film that I believe stands up to repeat viewings and gives something of a sense of how it is to grow old within a medium that fetishises beauty and youth. It is something of a swansong.

Next Up: The most recent film of Godard’s I’ll be looking at is Notre musique (2004), which deals with violence and colonialism.

In Praise of Love film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard; Cinematographers Julien Hirsch and Christophe Pollock; Starring Bruno Putzulu; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 25 September 2013.

Allemagne année 90 neuf zéro (Germany Year 90 Nine Zero, 1991)

Following his great experimental Nouvelle Vague (1990), Godard did this shorter, rather more atypical piece set in Germany following the fall of the Berlin Wall. In it, he reunites with the star of Alphaville (1965), Eddie Constantine, again assuming his Lemmy Caution persona as he moves around Berlin, not unlike a time traveller, crossing past, present and future, and offering observations on the changes that have taken place.

I say it’s atypical, but that’s only because it goes on location, which the Godard of the 1980s onwards seemed less willing to do than the one who made, say, Le Mépris. However, it has most of the defining qualities of late-period Godard in its opacity and referentiality. It’s ostensibly a documentary, but takes in a lot more material, including interpolations of film clips and extensive quotes from literary and artistic sources, not to mention allusions and cryptic jokes. Therefore, it’s difficult for a viewer such as myself who is unfamiliar with a lot of the sources to make sense of this dense mélange, except in the broadest sensory terms.

Most notable perhaps is the presence of Constantine, who moves through the film’s largely depopulated spaces with a leathery old visage and basilisk stare. Echoing Germany’s own liminal state, it’s a film of uneasy spaces — border zones and shipyards and quarries — and Constantine seems appropriately out of place. He throws some flowers to the ground to join a battered street sign for Karl-Marx-Strasse that his car promptly drives over. The quarry in particular is accompanied by the most fantastic mining machine, a vast assemblage that could scarcely be contained in the mind of Terry Gilliam (it’s pictured in the poster included at the top of this review), and which threateningly towers over our narrator and guide.

It’s not just the weight of history and the bulk of machinery that seems to overwhelm the increasingly aged Constantine, for the film itself forcefully pursues its own formal strategies. Most striking is the soundtrack, which has its own dense sonic texture quite apart from (but at times working together with) the image track. Images and sounds weave into one another so densely that even the passing of a few days since I saw the film has made it difficult to recall any specifics. However, it’s fair to say that Godard isn’t really interested in just presenting a history of modern Germany in orthodox terms, but more as a assemblage of influences that reveal a state of mind, complete with some tendentious statements about the German national psyche as well as clips that pull in German poetry, painting, music, films and — of course — the politics that have defined its mid-20th century.

In the end it’s an experience that cannot easily be contained in a review. The Godard of this era — here and more so in the larger Histoire(s) du cinéma project — reasserts his role as a critic, marshalling evidence to support his sometimes rather too opaque claims. Just as the wall between East and West Berlin has fallen, and the borders between the two halves have opened, so the distinction between the two has become blurred — as our guide on this journey, Constantine is constantly seen asking those he meets “which way to the West?” to be met with at best confusion, but more usually totally blankness. At times, that’s the experience of the viewer too, but Godard’s richly layered filmmaking ensures that it’s never boring.

Next Up: Godard spent the rest of the decade focusing on his video work Histoire(s) du cinéma, but my next review will be of his 2001 return Éloge de l’amour (In Praise of Love), a densely poetic but ravishingly beautiful evocation of ageing that returns to some of the images and themes of his youth.

Germany Year 90 Nine Zero title cardCREDITS
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard (based on Nos solitudes: enquêtes sur un sentiment by Michel Hannoun); Cinematographers Stépan Benda, Andréas Erben and Christophe Pollock; Starring Eddie Constantine; Length 61 minutes.
Seen at Goethe Institut, London, Wednesday 11 September 2013.