The works of Japanese director Mikio Naruse have achieved an almost apocryphal state in the West, at least when compared to the better known works of the canonical Japanese masters: Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that Naruse’s films don’t provide audiences with the moving enlightenment of Ozu’s films or the entertaining value of Kurosawa’s works. Instead, the director specialized in crafting little movies that deal with domestic dramas, single women, lots of car accidents and eventual resignation at the merciless hands of destiny.
Considering Naruse once said “from the earliest age, I have thought that the world we live in betrays us”, it’s obvious that his pessimistic worldview wasn’t what Japan wanted to export. Naruse became an exemplifier of “mono no aware”, which can be roughly translated as being aware of the transience of things and showing a gentle sadness at their passing. His dryly melancholic films were bookended by the Great Depression and the entire WWII experience, leading to the Cold War, which meant that watching them would be much like rubbing salt on a proverbial wound.
Up until now, due to the mentioned emotional content and studio policies, Naruse’s films have remained Japanese cinema’s best kept secret and other than the random, traveling retrospective of his work, it had been quite tough to get access to his films if you lived in the American continent.
This will hopefully change with the arrival of Eclipse Series 26: Silent Naruse, a sturdy boxset featuring the only surviving films of Naruse’s silent era. These five films (out of the two dozen he made during this period) have been curated by The Criterion Collection and are presented without any bows and fanfare through their Eclipse series. The lack of adornment, bonus materials or even a meticulous restoration (as is the case with all Eclipse series releases) this time around achieves something that resembles historical urgency. It’s as if we have to see these movies now!
Flunky, Work Hard! (the earliest of his surviving films) tells the story of an impoverished insurance salesman (Isamu Yamaguchi) trying to provide for his family. Here Naruse displays a great sense for Chaplinesque slapstick, especially in scenes featuring children. During this time, Naruse was working for Shochiku Studios, which demanded he deliver the kind of films that were popular with audiences. As such,Flunky, Work Hard! is completely contractual work.
Still, the director found a way to insert complex sociopolitical commentary and experiment with the camera. Throughout there is the recurring motif of a toy plane which the salesman can’t buy his son. In a particularly poignant sequence the son is asked by his richer friends to fetch them their plane which has landed on a roof. The child grabs a ladder, brings down the plane and is then ignored by the children he just helped. Naruse knows that climbing ladders (metaphorical or otherwise) won’t save you from a bleak fate.
Things didn’t change much when Naruse made No Blood Relation except that this time he wasn’t forced to include comedy and delivered his first melodramatic work of art. This film centers on the struggle between two mothers –one biological, the other surrogate—to gain guardianship of a child. In this case Naruse focuses on the fight between tradition and change, as the biological mother is an actress (Yoshiko Okada) who just arrived from a successful Hollywood career. In the antics of domesticity we can also see embodied Naruse’s own battle with the studios who insisted in delivering more American-like features while he remained true to his vision.
It was in this film where Naruse first started using men as sideshow spectacles; they are either criminals, inefficient fathers, or are under the supervision of strong women. At the beginning of No Blood Relation, the child’s father gets arrested and we rarely see him afterwards. While exploring the nature of what makes a woman a mother, the director was also experimenting with camera techniques and the use of dramatic dolly shots (that go suddenly from medium range to close-up) are the stylistic flourish of choice for these movies.
In Apart From You we see the struggles of an aging geisha (Mitsuko Yoshikawa), whose teenager son (Akio Isono) becomes a gang member to express his resentment towards his mother’s profession. Naruse contrasts her story beautifully with that of the young geisha (Sumiko Mizukobo) the son falls for. In different hands this plot could’ve taken a turn towards the noir but under Naruse it achieves pure melancholy.
Inefficient men continue appearing in Every-Night Dreams when a Ginza bar hostess (Sumiko Kurishima) receives a visit from her ex-husband (Tatsuo Saito) who desperately wants to be with her and their son. He asks her to quit her job but fails to find himself one and as the wife says “for [my son’s] sake I’d slave away in Hell”, the man submits to a self pity that culminates in suicide. Naruse nabugates through economical editing and severe camera angles, to show that life shall go on after death, too.
By 1934 sound cinema was pretty much the standard and we even see the main characters in Street Without End attend a “talkie”. Said characters are a poor waitress (Setsuko Shinobu) and the rich man (Hikaru Yamnouchi) who accidentally hits her his car and then falls in love with her. Their rushed courtship ends in marriage and the young waitress soon learns that class differences aren’t solved by things like love (one of the title cards even calls Japan’s class system “feudalistic”). The film maturely deals with social issues that might’ve been too harsh for the era but Naruse expresses them through careful compositions and visual metaphors: a title card announcing the couple’s marriage is followed by the image of two birds caught inside a cage.
The richness of the title cards in this film proves that Naruse’s art would thrive with the arrival of sound dialogs and later in his career he would use sound cues, particularly music and narration, to express emotions he’d struggled suggesting with the camera. Street Without End was his last silent film and makes for a perfect closing volume to this crash course of early Japanese cinema.
Given the fact that most home viewers are unlikely to have seen too many Naruse films, this boxset perhaps won’t serve to reveal a magician’s secrets, instead it might give people the rare chance to achieve time travel and discover a filmmaker’s work in chronological order. If you watch When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (the only other Naruse release officially available in Region 1) before Eclipse Series 26: Silent Naruse you might not think they were made by the same person.Yet all you have to do is look closer to realize that the director’s previous love for fast cuts and expressionist dolly shots has been replaced by an eerie calm, or that his fear of getting hit by a car is ever present (was this perhaps a representation of the dangers he saw in technological progress?).
Throughout his filmography there is a pervading sense of doom and eventual acceptance, never conformity, that fails to overshadow the sincere beauty found in his work. For there is overwhelming beauty in the way Naruse ties loose knots and sends his heroines alone down their own life path and in the way his characters measure happiness by their current situation. Happiness in this films isn’t the kind of swelling sensation cinema would have us believe; instead it’s a sensation of calm and inner peace, because for all we know, as Naruse reminds us, we might as well get hit by a truck.