Film Commentary: The Cinema of Japanese Mikio Naruse — Pitfalls of Desire

By Betsy Sherman

The films of the neglected Japanese master Mikio Naruse spotlight the plight of women on the margins of society.

“Mikio Naruse: A Centennial Tribute” will be screened from Sept. 28 through Oct. 30, 2005 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, MA and from Sept. 30 through Oct. 10, 2005 at the Harvard Film Archive in Cambridge, MA.

My first Naruse experience came during one of two Japanese film series curated by the late Susan Sontag at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. The film was the 1955 “Floating Clouds.” In it, a typist working for the Japanese Forestry Administration in Indochina during the war has an affair with a married colleague. After the war, the man returns to his wife and rebuffs the typist, but she remains obsessed with him. Letting her career fall to pieces, she becomes the kept woman of an American GI. Her health goes to ruins, but when she learns that her ex-lover has been transferred to a remote island, she follows him there, and meets an awful end.

Summarized, “Floating Clouds” sounds like a soap opera. In the hands of Naruse, it’s anything but. It is powerful stuff, handled with such a disciplined psychological realism that it reduced me to a little puddle on the floor. I was eager to see more Naruse films, and to know more about him. Was he a precursor to Lars Von Trier, who seems to take sadistic delight in putting his female protagonists through the wringer? Or was Naruse an artist of rare courage, who could depict the pitfalls of desire while retaining a respect for those who fall prey to it?

Having seen a few more Naruse films, I now believe the latter. Boston-area filmgoers will have a rare opportunity to get to know his often audacious work with the series “Mikio Naruse: A Centennial Tribute,” an exhilarating retrospective that includes 18 films, many in new 35mm prints.

Mikio Naruse (1905-1969) was a contemporary of Japanese cinema masters Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu. He began directing films during the silent era (some of his silents will be shown at the Museum of Fine Arts with piano accompaniment by Bob Winter). Naruse was born in Tokyo to a poor family. Without funds to attend university, he left school at 15 and got a job as a prop man at Shochiku film studio. It was ten years before he joined the group of directors pioneering a distinctive Japanese film style.

Biographical accounts peg Naruse as a loner, the type of a guy who would sit at the end of the bar and observe the behavior of others. He gained success during the ’30s, often making films about geishas and performers, had a long creative slump during and after World War II, and then came back to prominence in the ’50s. He made a total of 88 films, but few prints of his prewar works survive. “Floating Clouds” is said to be his most popular film in Japan, because as depressing as his heroine’s plight is, audiences respond to it as reflecting the truth about the postwar struggle to survive.

The tribute kicks off with the perfect introduction to Naruse, the wonderful 1960 “When a Woman Ascends the Stairs.” In a way, it’s as dark as “Floating Clouds,” but it’s accessible in the mold of director Douglas Sirk’s delicious, complex melodramas from the ’50s. With its widescreen, black-and-white look at Tokyo’s bar scene, the film qualifies as retro chic, but it also fits in with Naruse’s practice of spotlighting the plight of women on the margins of polite society.

The amazing actress Hideko Takamine, who starred in 17 Naruse films over 25 years, plays Keiko, nicknamed Mama. Mama supervises a gaggle of winsome hostesses at The Carton, a second-story bar in the swingin’ Ginza district. The thirty-ish widow is at a crossroads: it’s time for her to open her own bar, but to do so she’d need a rich patron, to whom she’d be beholden sexually. In voice-over, she explains the code whereby she must treat her customers like lovers, but never succumb to their advances, or else she’d be perceived as cheap. We become riveted by Mama’s increasingly precarious high-wire act, watching her present different faces to the different people in her life, listening to her often self-delusional voice-overs, and gleaning from her behavior to what degree she has broken her carefully worked-out moral precepts.

Naruse sums up the nature of Mama’s life by arranging a still life of a faux-fur purse and an abacus. Day by day, as Mama’s youth and beauty fade so does her ability to wield power in the cutthroat bar business. A rival, who used to be one of Mama’s girls, is now deep in debt. She tells Mama that she’ll attempt suicide in order to buy herself some time with her creditors. She takes a few pills too many and dies. Hiding a myriad of stresses beneath her gay exterior — such as having broken her number one no-no by falling in love with a customer — Mama suffers a fate that seems uniquely Naruse-an: she develops a stomach ulcer. It’s hard to imagine an Ozu or Kurosawa character — endowed with the ability to accept fate, or to rage against the machine, respectively — ending up with such a nagging reminder of her daily humiliation.

Naruse’s 1958 “Summer Clouds,” his first film in color, also centers on a working widow, but expands to become a portrait of her extended family. Yae comes from a long line of rice farmers. Naruse takes advantage of the rural setting to shoot picturesque vistas of the crop fields. But through the eyes of Yae, who’s stuck taking care of her ungrateful mother-in-law as well as tilling the soil, the land isn’t a bountiful mother. It’s more like a greedy baby demanding to be suckled. Yae finds some release from her loneliness through an affair with a married reporter. As some counterbalance to the characters who long to flee to the city, there’s Yae’s nephew Hatsu and his fiancée Michiko. These two are so gung-ho about farming, they’re like refugees from a Soviet film.

The director’s two principal screenwriters during his postwar period were women, and he found a kindred spirit in the novelist Fumiko Hayashi. He adapted six of Hayashi’s works to the screen, including her autobiography “A Wanderer’s Notebook,” a.k.a. “Her Lonely Lane.” For Hayashi’s “Repast,” a.k.a. “A Married Life” (1951), Naruse cast as a housewife taken for granted by her white-collar-drone husband, whose salary barely pays the bills. The strength of the five-year-old marriage is tested by a visit from her husband’s nubile niece from Tokyo , who chooses the couple’s cramped Osaka digs as a refuge from her parents and prospective groom. The husband does little to rebuff his niece’s flirtations, prompting the wife to run back home to mother, where she reflects on the dreams of her youth.

Hara’s laugh, familiar from her many films with Ozu, here functions like steam spurting out of a pressure cooker. Everywhere, she’s reminded of her shabby existence. In Ozu, a shot of a clothesline may serve as a reassuring example of the backdrop of everyday life. In Naruse, a clothesline is a clothesline, on which our underthings are hung, exposed for all to see.

Betsy Sherman has written about movies, old and new, for The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, and The Improper Bostonian, among others. She holds a degree in archives management from Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science. When she grows up, she wants to be Barbara Stanwyck.

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