Bright Lights Film Journal

Notes on Naruse: An Auteur Ascends

Pitch-black pessimism, unsparing emotional truths, and women on the verge

In the eighties, an impressive full-scale retrospective of Mikio Naruse’s films traveled the world and his reputation in the West began to grow. Increasingly he is considered on the same level as Mizoguchi, Ozu, and Kurosawa as one of Japan’s greatest directors. Another program of his films played in 2005 in New York and it will also travel. Only two or three of Naruse’s movies are on video, and none are in commercial DVD release in the U.S. at this writing, so there is really no way to experience Naruse outside of a retrospective like this. He seems to be a director you need to immerse yourself in, as all of his films feed each other.

They are mainly about lower-middle-class women and their struggles to survive, filmed almost entirely in cramped interiors and filled with astringent, strategically placed voice-overs. Lack of money is a constant concern. In his fifties movies, the people he deals with are middle-aged and their future looks grim, so they talk constantly about the past. Of the 31 films that played, I saw 9 (I used Philip Lopate’s excellent essay on Naruse in his book Totally, Tenderly, Tragically in order to select which ones to see). Here are a few impressions.

The earliest film I saw, Wife, Be Like a Rose! (1935), was the first Japanese movie distributed in America. It’s a troubling, too-brief film about an estranged marriage between a refined poetess and her wayward husband. Their daughter, who is about to be married, tries to bring them back together, but they are essentially incompatible. This thirties film is stylistically different from his patient fifties movies: Naruse lets the camera jump all over the place and uses fast, jerky editing. The most striking moment in the film is when the girl’s uncle (also artistic), sings a sorrowful song he wrote: “You lost your eyesight,” he sings, “poverty made your situation worse . . .” and on and on. Naruse looks askance at such masochistic sentimentality. This director has been called a pitch-black pessimist, and he is, but he can be quite funny when he observes despair. It’s the kind of black humor that Fassbinder had at his best, and it’s a salient feature of Naruse’s work.

Naruse said that he went into a long slump after Wife, Be Like a Rose!, though he made nearly three dozen films before his “comeback,” Repast(1951). That film was based on a novel by Fumiko Hayashi, an embattled female writer who served as a soulmate to Naruse; he made six adaptations of her work (and a bio-pic of her life, A Wanderer’s Notebook in 1962). Repast(right) is a tale of a dead marriage, set in Japan’s “second city,” Osaka. In voice-over, housewife Setsuko Hara speaks of her lost hopes, while her husband, cruel-faced Ken Uehara, gets drunk and barely speaks to her. Supposedly the marriage was a love match, but we see not a moment of love between them. Fed up, Hara goes home to her mother in Tokyo. You feel her liberation as she stretches after a long sleep, but her mother wants her out of the house immediately. When she tries to find a job, Hara is stymied by the long lines of people she sees outside of an unemployment agency. Defeated, she accepts her role of wife again as she travels back to Osaka with her husband, but her resolve feels forced. She can’t change her life, so she has to find the strength to make the best of it, or at least the strength necessary to keep going. This is a key theme in Naruse that is refined as his career goes on.

Mother (1952) is a minor film that leans rather heavily on Kinuyo Tanaka in the lead. It’s a prosaic, somewhat dull slice of life until its killer ending (all of these movies have killer endings). As her daughter wonders, in voice-over, what she is thinking, Tanaka gets a haunting close-up, catching her breath after wrestling with her little boy, a look of apprehension and doubt stealing across her face. It’s clear that she isn’t thinking anything; this is an ordinary woman who suddenly feels a sort of general dread about life. Sound of the Mountain (1954) takes the themes of Repast further, with the same actors, Hara and Uehara. In the first scene, Hara’s father-in-law wishes he could get his brain washed of all thoughts, and Hara smiles happily at this idea. She has reason to: Uehara is much worse here than he is in Repast, actively cheating on his wife. However, it’s made clear that Hara isn’t good in bed (this would be an unthinkable issue in an Ozu film) and that’s why her husband strays. Hara suffers because she’s an old-fashioned Japanese (Ozu) woman in a rapidly modernizing Japan. But she strikes back, aborting their child out of spite. Uehara’s mother’s reaction to this news is peculiar: she wonders where Hara got “such will-power.”

Late Chrysanthemums (1954) is the best film I saw in this series. Everyone in the movie has an inner life; it’s like a razor-sharp novel, melancholy but ferociously tough. Haruko Sugimara is amazing as a former geisha who has hardened herself against men and emotions. She’s become a moneylender and has made her whole life into a pursuit of money, which sustains her. Naruse doesn’t judge this; if anything, he admires her strength. In a society where no one has money, by necessity it has to become the ruling passion of everyone’s life: when a little boy runs into a bar and shouts, “Buy this!”, we can see how finer feelings have to be brushed aside (children in Naruse movies are typically bratty and unappealing).

Naruse puts Sugimara’s strength remorselessly to the test when two old patrons visit her. The first patron (Bontaro Miyake) tried to kill her with a knife years ago and went to jail. Free now, he comes to her to ask for money. We don’t know what her feelings are for her attacker, and Naruse gives her her privacy after she gets rid of him; her deaf serving girl (an audience surrogate) closes the doors of Sugimara’s room after he leaves so that she can be alone with her thoughts. Sugimara admits to the girl that the second patron (Ken Uehara) is someone she really loved. She looks affectionately at his handsome young photograph, prepares for him, makes herself up, even acts girlish and flirtatious when he arrives, a bit of past behavior cunningly pasted onto her current self-sufficient personality (this lets us see what she was like before). As they get drunk, Naruse gives her a clinical voice-over where she admits that her love for Uehara has faded. The voice-over plays out as she watches him drink, and we see him as she does, as a weak, helpless old child. Then he asks her for money.

When he goes into the next room, Sugimara lights a match for a cigarette, picks up his photo, and burns it. There is no regret in her face, no pain, and there is nothing at all deliberate or significant about the way she destroys the photograph. It’s a simple but awesome act of will. Naruse suggests that we all have to eventually burn this man’s photo, in one way or another. Many fall by the wayside when asked to relinquish their illusions, and in other movies we are asked to cry for them and for ourselves. This doesn’t happen in a Naruse film. He deifies Sugimara’s steel-nerved, matter-of-fact resolve. This resolve is contrasted with the lives of two former geishas from Sugimara’s past, one a roly-poly, shameless old drunk (Chikako Hosokawa), the other an elegantly-gone-to-seed, passive aggressive mother (Yuko Mochizuki). These two get wasted in a very realistic way; drink makes them sodden and enervated as they talk endlessly about the past. When Mochizuki gloatingly concludes that even happily married women will eventually die, Hosokawa laughingly calls her friend “an intellectual.”

The ending is unforgettable. After seeing off Mochizuki’s son, the two past-their-prime friends stand on a bridge (to nowhere, most likely.) They see a tarty woman bounce by, and plump Hosokawa says, “Look! The Monroe walk! I can do it!” She then sashays down the bridge, swaying her hips hopelessly. Maybe she’s a bit deluded, but she knows that she’s mainly just making a joke at her own expense, and Mochizuki appreciates this: “You’re grotesque,” she says, a typically tender Naruse-ian insult that leaves the two friends laughing at where life has left them. Naruse then cuts to Sugimara looking for her money as she descends some stairs. I wouldn’t be surprised if Late Chrysanthemums stood as Naruse’s greatest film. It’s certainly his most perfectly judged.

Floating Clouds (1955), another masterpiece, is a harsh, unsparing, black-comic look at a l’amour fou between an obsessive, jealous woman (Hideko Takamine) and a don’t-carish, caddish yet self-aware man (Masayuki Mori). Takamine gets off a boat with refugees from Indochina and goes to see Mori, her old lover. As they begin the first of many aimless walks, Naruse seamlessly blends the present with lyrical flashes of their past affair. He uses a lush musical theme with drums in these scenes. At first the music is romantic and sexy, then it’s maddening, much like their relationship. There are sensual cuts on movement: one shot of Takamine as she hesitates near a staircase burns into your memory, as it has burned into Mori’s. A kiss from the past blends into a kiss from the present, a lovely moment.

But Floating Clouds is a film about lack of feeling. As Takamine slurps noodles with her brother-in-law, who wants some things back that she took from him, she casually mentions how he raped her. “I think I have every right to sell your things,” she says, simply. “You’ve learned a lot in Indochina,” he says (an utterly bewildering response). When the brother-in-law comes to her place for the things she took, Takamine can’t even work up outrage at him: she just throws him his bedding and weakly orders him out. This is a listless, broken woman. Confronting a man who raped her only seems to make her mildly cranky.

Crankiness is Takamine’s dominant, alienating mode in Floating Clouds, and it kills any conventional sympathy we might have for her lovestruck heroine. She carps at Mori constantly as they walk and walk; she keeps saying, “You let me down!” and variations thereof, and he looks at her with a fascinating mixture of indifference, pity, and wistful recognition of his own lack of honor and character. When he idly talks about methods of suicide, she says, “If you want to kill yourself, you just kill yourself, you don’t care how!” Takamine is terrific at expressing irritation and contempt, and she was the ideal Naruse actress. She made 17 films with him and he never gave her any direction. If she asked for help, he’d say, “It’ll all be over before you know it!” This defines Naruse’s distinctive (very funny) attitude towards life.

In Floating Clouds, Mori looks at a liquor bottle and says, “My one true love,” and he means it. (Ozu characters are fond of alcohol, especially the older men, but liquor in a Naruse movie is an essential part of life.) Mori wants Takamine to be a coquette, to be like a man, but she stays miserably devoted to him, in a woeful, Fassbinder-style master/slave dynamic that views romantic love as a repulsive, dreary disease. Takamine clings to Mori to the end. As she lays dying, they bitch at each other and list each other’s flaws in punishing detail: this is the way Naruse characters express their love for each other.

Takamine dies trying to close a window during a storm (she doesn’t get it closed, which is typical). Mori puts lipstick on her corpse and remembers her beauty in Indochina; he can’t feel anything for her while she’s alive, but when she’s dead, he can love her memory to his heart’s content and weep crocodile tears over his role in her death. Floating Clouds is a difficult, demanding, personal film that feels like a lacerating statement on a seminal event in Naruse’s life: years before, a waitress who was in love with him killed herself. Naruse’s guilt over her suicide colors all of his films, but this one in particular.

Another potent slice of life, Flowing (1956), takes place in a failing geisha house. Kinuyo Tanaka is the cheerful, even groveling widow who becomes the house’s new maid and observes the women. A sinister child watches them, a hungry cat stalks around, and nothing momentous happens. Hideko Takamine is a rebellious, hardened daughter, while Haruko Sugimara is a fifty-year-old geisha who likes her sake. She gets roaringly drunk and starts to sing a song, then stops for a moment, as if she’s going to throw up. Defiantly, she resumes her singing, but sickness finally overtakes her. Naruse sees the glory in the fact that she gets up and keeps singing, but he doesn’t give her a triumph by letting the sickness go away. He knows the sickness will eventually come back, but he celebrates her impulse to go down fighting. In the silent ending, Tanaka’s expressive face takes in these women and signals their dignity in the face of middle age.

With When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960), Naruse created a kind of urban, carefully calibrated version of Mizoguchi’s Life of Oharu (1952). Hideko Takamine is a thirty year-old bar hostess, devoted to the memory of her late husband, staunchly virtuous, a woman who loathes walking up the stairs to a bar where she is paid to be friendly to drunks. The film observes her as she half-heartedly weighs her options: she can either try to get money for her own bar or marry one of her customers. The hopelessness of her life drives her to drink and she gets an ulcer.

Disappointments for Takamine rack up, and this actress’ talent for playing petulant annoyance is stretched to its limit, especially in a horrible little squabble with her mother. She is duped by a fat suitor who promises marriage but then runs off; he already has a wife. “Don’t tell me you’re his victim?” asks the fat man’s tired-looking wife. “A beautiful lady like you?” As Takamine absorbs this insult, we absorb the man’s dreadful little children riding around on a tricycle with tin cans tied to it (a visual insult to match the aural one) and the image of his factory stacks belching smoke in the background behind her head. Takamine is caught in the middle of money and family in a purgatorial nowheresville.

This betrayal leads to more drinking, and a rich man takes advantage of her (when he forces himself on her in bed, Naruse cuts to a water glass rolling on the floor and coming to a halt, a powerfully resonant image). Her manager, who has silently loved her, finds out about the rich man and calls her a whore, whereupon Takamine primly clutches the collar of her robe (gestures like this prove Takamine’s piercing talent). In the last scene, she hesitates before walking up the stairs to her hated job, but she finds the strength to live this life she hates, because she has no alternative, because she must (because we all must).

The last film I saw was Yearning (1964), Naruse’s final statement on his guilt over the waitress’ suicide, and a subtle conclusion to an aspect of Takamine’s character in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. Here, Takamine plays another widow in love with her dead husband. Her inflexible nobility eventually destroys a man who loves her, her dead husband’s brother. Takamine’s avoidance of feeling here causes this man’s death. After she learns of this death, probably a suicide and certainly her fault, the final harrowed close-up of Takamine’s blank face is the climax of all the director’s searing non-endings.

Audiences lucky enough to see Naruse’s cutting, comic, valiant defeatism in action have recognized his body of work as an essential film experience. When his movies are made more available, he will take his rightful place with the masters of the medium.