It makes sense that Naruse’s first feature filmed in color and in Tohoscope would take place away from the city center. It wasn’t the first time he went “rural” so to speak (nor would it be his last) but the new technology offered his technique something that didn’t immediately click with the aesthetic of his “city films.” This seems like a preposterous statement to make when one considers the Tohoscope beauty of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, which finds the filmmaker back in the urban realm. Here, though, the technology seems especially compatible with the way he opens up space. Of course, Summer Clouds is still about the city, but its conversation on “the city” uses the vocabulary of rural peasants.
Yae is a single mother who, when not attending to her family’s rice field, works as a freelance journalist for nearby Yokohama. Her connection to the world of journalism is Ogawa, a younger man with whom she enjoys a sly, sexual relationship. Yae is realistic, she wants something more with Ogawa, who is married, but realizes that they aren’t going to run away together anytime soon. In the midst of this, a family drama is brewing between Yae’s brother, Wasuke and his three sons. He criticizes them for their interest in escaping the rural life for one in the city, be it in Yokohama or in Tokyo. He tries to solve these complications by marrying off his sons, but things don’t go so smoothly.
The relationship between the rural and urban is a discursive thread running throughout Naruse’s work, but it is seldom as pointed and obvious as it is made here. Ogawa’s two youngest sons, Jun and Shinji, want to separate themselves from the traditions of farm life and relocate to the city. The concept of “tradition” is a dangerous one, especially in the loose, reductive, and Orientalist way western critics carelessly yield it around Japanese films. Both Naruse and Ozu have had the term applied to their work. It’s not an incorrect application, but the inability to expound on the idea of tradition is one that flattens and simplifies their work. The descriptions of tradition are so often viewed with an understood distant, both temporally and geographically. The patriarchy present in 1950s Japan is, at least according to western critics (everyone from Donald Richie to Noel Burch) is nowhere close to the western world in the present day. I’m not suggesting the situations depicted in a film like Summer Clouds could easily be transplanted to North America or the United Kingdom without any editing, that is just as simplistic. Instead, I am suggesting that evoking “traditions” in describing a film such as this is an Othering practice.
The traditions that Wasuke holds close to him are so difficult to break because they can be held up by logic. It doesn’t make sense, economically speaking, for his sons to transition into city folk or for relatives who are women to attend school. He repeatedly refers to a hope that his family remains a peasant family, and that his sons do not become employees. Peasant can evoke, to many, an image of the rural poor one that doesn’t match with the family depicted here. There are classes of peasantry, and the milieu here is that of the “middle peasant” (a term I encountered through Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, but has origins in the writings of Lenin and Mao) or the peasant with a comfortable amount of space and agrarian equipment. Wasuke could let go to this status, but it would lead to the end of the family’s middle peasant lifestyle.
The work of the peasant seems to slip through the ideas of labor and value expressed through capitalism. Marx’s lumpen-proletariat (or those too disadvantaged to gain class consciousness) can be imagined as peasants, because they are, by definition, not directly exposed to capitalism’s exploitation and abusiveness. Yet, Naruse’s camera manages to render both capitalist labor and peasant labor as similarly harmful. Wasuke holds to traditions, which pressures some in his family to stay in this system. Naruse films the few scenes of labor as mechanical, not literally (though, Yae does use a mechanical plowing tool at some point, a sign of her modernity) but in how the bodies themselves respond in machine-like unison. By extension, Wasuke’s rationale for holding on to traditions are formed by the logic and reasoning of capitalism, even as the labor itself works outside of it.
While Naruse was able to provide a fruitable and intriguing conversation on labor, the appeal of Summer Clouds is in the character of Yae, who is portrayed by Chikage Awashima. She takes charge in every situation, be it in her sexual relationship with Ogawa or her dealings with Wasuke’s stubborn old-fashionedness. In one of Naruse’s most subtly sensual scenes, Yae closes two sets of doors. Ogawa opens one, but Yae quickly shuts it. The image fades, and it’s the morning after. Though she dreams of a life with Ogawa and even vocalizes such desires, she’s still pragmatic. The films ends with her plowing the rice fields. Her frustration is palpable, but she does not call on us to pity her, instead her laboring suggests she’ll survive. She deserves a man who is devoted to her entirely.