One of my summer projects is a close study of the films of Mikio Naruse, often seen as Japan's fourth greatest director, after Mizoguchi, Ozu, and Kurosawa. This project started with a viewing of the surviving five silent films, which have been released as a box set, Eclipse 26: Silent Naruse by Criterion. I have also started reading Cathrine Russell study of Naruse, The Cinema of Naruse Mikio: Women and Japanese Modernity (2008). After her introduction, "Introduction: The Auteur As Salaryman," she takes on the silent films in the first chapter, "The Silent Films: Women In The City, 1930-1934." She explains that the classical cinema emerging in Naruse's films of the 30s is predicated on melodrama as the popular form specific to the experience of modern life. Russell writes that no other director provided as complex figures of modern women in this decade as did Naruse with his films about "new women", professional women, cafe waitresses, wives, and daughters-in-law. The second group following the silent films is "Naruse at P.C.L.: Toward A Japanese Classical Cinema, 1935-1937." This section discussed the following twelve films: Three Sisters with Maiden Hearts, The Actress and the Poet, Wife! Be Like a Rose!, Five Men in the Circus, The Girl in the Rumor, Tochuken Kumoemon, The Road I Travel with You, Morning's Tree-Lined Street , Feminine Melancholy, Avalanche, Learn from Experience. Of these I have only previous seen, Wife! Be Like a Rose!. All of these are available on DVD, You Tube, or other means.
Three Sisters With Maiden Hearts (1935) is Naruse's first talkie and it is an impressive debut. Naruse makes great use of sounds: voice over narration, ambient noise from boats, background music, and the actors singing and playing performances. It is set in Asakusa and opens with a montage of signs and shots from an outside location that show what it was like in the mid 30s, in fact there are several outside location shots throughout the film. This film was also an adaptation of novelist Yasunari Kawabata's novel, Sister of Asakusa, he would later adapt Kawabata's The Sound Of The Mountain. This story is about a fatherless family in which the mother trains country girls to play and shamisen and sing accompaniment in bars and restaurants for room and board in the seedy Asakusa. A task that her oldest and middle daughter have also done. The youngest daughter dances in a burlesque dance troop. It is learned through flashbacks that the middle daughter has left he family to take up with a sickly pianist. In this film as in others, there is a contrast between modern women who dress in the western style, in this case the youngest, and those who wear the more traditional kimonos, the oldest and middle daughters. Naruse continues to use progressive camera techniques that are largely absent from the later films: mostly medium and close shots, shots through windows and grates, pans, montages, fades and dissolves.
The next film in this period was The Actress and the Poet (1935), a comedy of sorts that deals with traditional roles of husband and wife. It is one of many available on You Tube. It concerns Geppu, a house husband and a poet whose poems bring in meager earnings, sponge cake for example.The wife, Chieko (Sachiko Chiba who was briefly Naruse's wife), is an actress who rehearses late and has colleagues over for parties and such. In one scene his wife rehearses a play that closely resemble his situation and a friend, Nose, comes by and tries to break up the fight before realizing it was only make-believe. He invites himself to live with them until he gets on his feet and convinces Geppu that it's his idea. This triggers real fight about his intrusion and as in comedy of manners the wife realizes how to play the role forgives the husband and Nose and becomes a dutiful wife serving the husband breakfast and attending to his needs. On a side note a young couple tries to commit double suicide to collect on a insurance policy-the second such mention-the previous in Three Sisters with Maiden Hearts-apparently it was in vogue at the time.
After this, Naruse created one of his early masterpieces, Wife! Be Like A Rose! (1935), which I viewed earlier this year. It was the first Japanese film to get a release in the US. It is largely due to the performance of Chiba as a modern woman that it became one of Naruse's greatest success. There are some formal editing elements that standout: movements that occur just before or just after shot-change proper and cutaways that have been said to be more "disruptive" than Ozu's pillow shots. The camera movement is also impressive and not as excessive as some of his silent films.
This was followed by the light comedy, Five Men in the Circus (1935), which I could only find without subtitles, thus Russell's analysis of the is film was very helpful in understanding the film. It is a story about itinerant musicians who play popular music. The owner's daughter, Sumiko, is in love with one of the performers and stages a fall, which can be seen as an attempt at suicide, from the trapeze. Her failed suicide allows her to marry. This inspires one of the troupe to reconcile with his mistress and she joins them signaling a familiar pattern in Naruse where a dramatic crisis resolve a key conflict, but it leads to an ending that opens to a new beginning for the characters. A journey without a destination as Russell points out.
The Girl in the Rumor (1935) was produced from an original script by Naruse. This is one of his shorter productions at 54 minutes, and available with subtitles on You Tube. It is about a struggling family sake business run by a widower and his two daughters. Again we have the traditional one, Kunie (Sachiko Chiba) and the modern western style daughter Kimiko (Ruyuko Umezono). The father is trying ot marry off the oldest daughter, while the youngest has been seeing the prospective groom ruining her sisters chances and doesn't want her father to let his mistress live with theme even after it is revealed that she is her true mother. The melodrama comes to a conclusion when the father is arrested for diluting his sake to help make ends meet. It has themes, pointed out by Russell. that recur through Naruse's oeuvre in that his film as these films are often concerned with the bonds and relations between women confronted with a social practice that is silently condoned by social convention but rarely publicly addressed.
Naruse's first film in 1936 was Tochuken Kumoemon (You Tube), a study of masculine pride and egoism. Tochuken's poor behavior toward his samisen player and wife as well as his son are among the major themes of the film, whereas, he feels that family should be secondary to his singing career. He resents his son for trying to make him a fully realized human and father-this is also how he feels toward his wife who is dying of TB. Tochuken is a very unlikeable lead and the contradictions of the film indicate that Naruse's fixation on gender include this study of male arrogance. The scenes of Tochuken reciting rokuyuko are impressive: they are made up of multiple tracking and panning shots that dissolve into one another and have sweeping shots of the audience.
The Road I Travel With You (1936) represent somewhat of a departure for Naruse as he set this film among the upper middle class. (You Tube) The film is concerned with the display of wealth even if they are not empowered by it. Two brothers approaching marriage age and their mother, a woman who was a mistress to a wealthy man, are living in Kamakura. Their fates for marriage depend on several outside factors such as status, money, and parental decisions about the fates of their children-usually based on acquiring new wealth. It challenges the traditions of sustaining class hierarchies by exchanging children among wealthy families. Like many Naruse films it end inconclusively and ambiguously. It can be considered a minor work in Naruse's oeuvre.
There are no trees in the urban underbelly of Tokyo's pleasure quarters where Naruse's Morning's Tree-lined Street (1936) takes place mostly in a hostess bar downtown. (You Tube) A younger sister, Chiyo (Sachiko Chiba), arrives in Tokyo looking for work to find that her sister, Shigeyo, is employed as a down-scale hostess in a tawdry lifestyle. Chiyo is taken with a young bachelor, Ogawa, and begins to work as a hostess until she can find something else. There is an unusual dream sequence, which isn't recognizable by any film grammar to alert us of the shift in the perspective of the film, but later she wakes and find that Ogawa has been transferred to Sendai rather than on the lam for embezzling from his company. Naruse will return to this milieu later in his career, most notably in A Woman Ascends the Stairs.
The middle class is the setting for Naruse's next film, Feminine Melancholy (1937), where Takako Irie stars as Hiroko, a woman trapped in an unhappy arranged marriage. Russell suggests that it one of the most damning critiques of women's social roles in prewar Japanese cinema in the depiction of a the arranged marriage as a form of servitude or slavery. The Japanese home for Naruse in the 1930 served as a structural allegory for the harmony of the family that is inevitably threatened by his narratives of family relationships. In this film, Hiroko eventually leaves the unhappy marriage and looks forward to living life single to find her own way.
Avalanche (1937) is an adaptation of a novel that Naruse and critics felt was a failure. (You Tube) He uses a new cinematic feature in the film when he periodically pauses while a dark filter drops like a screen over the image and there is a voice over of the character's thoughts. It is a love triangle about a man who has married a submissive traditional girl, but regrets not marrying the modern fast talking girlfriend. There is too much speechiness in the film. It ends somewhat ambiguously. This film reinforces the idea of the emotional distance between men and women that create misunderstandings and miscommunication.
The last films of 1937 (the peak year of production in Japan-562 films produced) by Naruse were a two part (each was 78 minutes long) adaptation of a novel by Kikuchi Kan, Learn From Experience (You Tube). Takako Irie plays Toyomi, who is abandoned by her lover for another richer, more modern woman, Yurie (Chieko Takehisa), when his father insists on arranged marriage to save the family. She has a child out of wedlock that is eventually adopted by the married couple and a sort of tug of war between the child ensues, before the father intervenes. The film is remarkable for the way it showcases modern Tokyo: strolling in Ueno, dancing in Tokyo dance-halls, and shopping for Western clothes in Ginza.