A few words on Mikio Naruse

13 01 2008

In the last year, Mikio Naruse has become labeled as Japan’s best kept secret. The truth is there’s plenty of other Japanese directors (from his period or otherwise) that are even more neglected. This isn’t meant to discredit Naruse, I believe he’s one of his best, but it’s unfortunate that Asia cinema in general is so underrepresented on R1 DVD. Last year, Criterion released When a Woman Ascends the Stairs and since then nothing has become available to those living in the US. In the UK, BFI has released a three-disc boxset which also includes When a Woman Ascends the Stairs as well as Late Chrysanthemums and Floating Clouds. In Japan, Toho has released two “masterworks” boxsets but both are extremely expensive and both lack English subtitles. I doubt that the problem is a lack of interest in Naruse, as he has developed somewhat of a following in the past year. Just in case, I decided to provide some thoughts on some of my favorite films from the man.

Flowing (1956)

Probably my very favorite Naruse. Of course, it’s hard to simply pick one but it’s the scene where Mariko Okada and Haruko Sugimura come back to the geisha house intoxicated that makes this one of the best. Add Hideko Takamine, Isuzu Yamada, and Sumiko Kurishima and you have one of the best ensemble casts ever assembled. A great example of how underrated Naruse is as a humorist.

Floating Clouds (1955)

Quite possibly Naruse’s most melodramatic effort, but still a very affecting film. Hadeko Takamine and Masayuki Mori reunite after a love affair that occurred ten years earlier, during the war. Both are leading unhappy lives; Takamine broken down in poverty and obsessed over her ex-lover. Mori confining himself to a ideal Japanese family and not being able to live up to his promises. Mariko Okada once again provides a comic spark, albeit a much smaller one. The ending is too tragic for me, but it’s still a great study of a dysfunctional relationship. This actually feels a bit like what Wong Kar-Wai does, at least from a thematically standpoint. An elliptical story told over a long period of time with a heavy focus on memories. Mori perfectly fits the “quiet poet” role that Tony Leung often plays in Wong’s films. This is really a stretch but the head resting on a soldier motif that Wong uses in both Happy Together and In the Mood for Love can be found here. Unfortunately, I have yet to hear Wong acknowledge Naruse as a influence so I guess this is all just a coincidence.

Daughter, Wives, and a Mother (1960)

Another great ensemble cast – this one includes Takamine, Mori, Sugimura, Tatsuya Nakadai, and Reiko Dan. Setsuko Hara is the central figure. Her husband has recently died so she returns back to her family. She insists on “being professional” by paying rent and living in the maid’s old room. This is where the rest of the family is introduced but not in an expository fashion. This does result in some confusion since there is so many characters. A lot of the dramatic events that make up the film seem melodramatic on paper but they’re paced slowly enough to never feel intrusive. This is most likely because of the film’s almost two-hour running time, which is very unusual for Naruse.

Late Chrysanthemums (1954)

An acting showcase for the great Haruko Sugimura and as a result, a great film as well. She’s not really the main character, per se, but she is the connection between three separate stories. Thankfully, this is the only connection. Unlike a lot of recent efforts from Hollywood (Babel, Crash, and so on) Naruse does not focus on connecting his stories through dramatic coincidences but instead observes them in a very real way. Sugimura is essentially viewed by the supporting cast as soulless, a claim that seems to be supported by some of the roles Ozu gave her, at least superficially. However, later in the film we’re able to see all the complexities that are present in her life. One of the best acted films I’ve ever seen.

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10 responses

14 01 2008
Michael Kerpan

Glad to see you have discovered Naruse. He is a remarkably fine director — and even his minor films usually have a lot to offer. Of the 59 films I’ve seen so far, at least 30 demand DVD release (and I’ve liked all but a couple)

“Flowing” is certainly one of my top favorites. Really virtually perfect. “Floating Clouds” is a lot more complex (with some really savage black humor) and a lot less conventionally melodramatic than it looks on first meeting. Hayashi’s book (available in translation) is also a must-read.

“Daughter, Wife, Mother” is amiable and Hara is lovely in it (channeling Audrey Hepoburn, perhaps?). But it has blander than average cinematography — and the plot is probably a bit too diffuse. The equally sprawling “Herringbone Clouds” is more successful overall (no Hara here, but her occasional sidekick Chikage Awashima gets a starring role).

“Late Chrysanthemums” is one of the Naruse films that took a couple of re-viewings for me to truly appreciate it. Haruko Sugimura is wonderful in this — but, if one focuses too much on her character, one can’t adequately appreciate the equally fine contributions of her ex-geisha colleagues (Chikako Hosokawa and Yuko Mochizuki). I haven’t yet found a translation of the Hayashi stories that formed the core of this film.

14 01 2008
sidehacker

“Floating Clouds” is a lot more complex (with some really savage black humor) and a lot less conventionally melodramatic than it looks on first meeting. Hayashi’s book (available in translation) is also a must-read.

I really ought to start reading some of Hayashi’s books. I’ve become to admire her so much through Naruse’s films that I have yet to actually experience some of her work directly. I really should give Floating Clouds another try. It has been awhile since I’ve seen it. The same goes for all of these except for Late Chrysanthemums.

The equally sprawling “Herringbone Clouds” is more successful overall (no Hara here, but her occasional sidekick Chikage Awashima gets a starring role).

Now you’re just showing off. I kid, of course, but I would love to see that film in any form. This is only the second color Naruse I’ve seen, the other being Scattered Clouds. It was also great, of course, but not quite as engaging, among other things. I’ll have to reserve the right to take back that statement, though. The fan made English subtitles were pretty bad. I’ve always believed that Naruse is at the very top when it comes to people who can write realistic dialogue.

After Lightening, they’ll be no more English subbed Naruse films for me to watch. I’ve been planning on giving Older Brother, Younger Sister and Her Lonely Lane a chance without subtitles.

but, if one focuses too much on her character, one can’t adequately appreciate the equally fine contributions of her ex-geisha colleagues (Chikako Hosokawa and Yuko Mochizuki)

Haven’t seen much of Hosokawa, but I remember Mochizuki from Ozu’s Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice, assuming I’m putting the right name on the right face. Anyone can be good under the direction of Naruse and Ozu, it seems. I wonder how much of an impact they actually had on their reoccurring “players.” On that note, I’m hoping Setsuko Hara will be her amazing self in The Idiot which is what I plan to watch tomorrow.

Thanks for the comments!

15 01 2008
Gloria

I was treated to a Naruse Season in the San Sebastian Film festival a few years ago. I didn’t know a thing about him, nor about Hideko Takamine, so both were very pleasing discoveries.

“Herringbone clouds” was the first film I saw. I was awed. The photography was incredible, and the cast, magnificent. I recall overall Ganjiro Nakamura as the very frustrated patriarch, and I quite enjoyed the mix of comedy and drama.

Luckily, there have been a few DVD releases in R2, so I’ve been able to watch again some of the films (and others for the first time).

I saw “the Idiot”, and I must say that, being used to Setsuko Hara as a quintessential Japanese daughter and wife (as in Tokyo Monogatari” or “Yama no Oto”) I was surprised to see her in a bitchier role there.

15 01 2008
Michael Kerpan

Scattered Clouds is a lovely swan song. I think good subtitles would probably important for this. I can’t recall if I’ve ever seen this with any sort of English subtitles, however…

Herringbone Clouds is sort of the inverse of Takahata’s Only Yesterday — in that it deals with a city woman in the country (due to marriage, but her husband has died) who wants to escape, and go back to urban living. The cast is indeed great. The film almost feels like it should be a mini-series, however. ;~} (I’ve seen this with French subtitles, and Spanish ones, but never English)

Naruse did write many scripts during his career — but was happiest when using good scripts written by others. He was unusually reliant on women script writers during the 50s and early 60s — especially Yoko Mizuki and Sumie Tanaka.

Wanderer’s Notebook (Lonely Lane) really benefits from good subtitles (or understanding Japanese well) — as it is, after all, the autobiography of a writer. Older Brother, Younger Sister might work better unsubbed. (Warning, Mori’s performance doesn’t work too well here).

Naruse apparently gave almost no directions in terms of emotions and motivation (etc.), his instructions typically involved physical actions and movement.

Not sure what part Mochizuki played in Green Tea (IMDB says Shige, who was Shige — I have the UK DVD in my stack of things to watch soon). IMDB provides a very incomplete listing of her roles (24 compared to 61 in in the JMDB). Some of her most important ones are as the lead in Kinsohita’s Tragedy of Japan and as Takamine’s sister in Kinoshita’s two Carmen; she also plays a major role in Imai’s Rice.

Hara is quite amazing in Kurosawa’s Idiot. Earlier, she played another complex bad girl in Oba’s 1948 Typhoon Woman. She is more likeable, but still has a pretty sharp tongue, in Naruse’s Sudden Rain.

16 01 2008
Gloria

Can you believe that I was thinking on “Only yesterday” while writing about “Herringbone Clouds”? You’re absolutely right! they explore the Country/city dynamic with different conclusions (and “Only yesterday” is such a wonderful movie!)

I recall I read a book about Naruse and Miss Takamine told that she would go mad at Naruse’s lack of direction… I bet that made her feel disoriented but who would have said it!

“Wanderer’s notebook” I recall as very enjoyable, too… You know what? I liked Daisuke Katô in a sympathetic role… so far I had only seen him as comic relief character

16 01 2008
Michael Kerpan

I read that Takamine interview too — but I suspect one needed to actually _hear_ her talking. It sounds to me like she absolutely loved Naruse, for all that he could be frustrating. I read elsewhere — but can’t find it again — that Naruse _did_ involve her in the final script review process, inviting her comments as to the parts involving her characters.

Daisuke Kato is probably the best character actor of the Japanese 1950s golden age. He rarely fails to delight. He gets a rare tragic role in “Floating Clouds” and is virtually a lead (with a bittersweet role) in “Mother”. Of course, supporting actress Chieko Nakakita was even more essential to Naruse’s late period — appearing in over 20 of his films.

17 01 2008
Gloria

I imagine Miss Takamine wouldn’t dislike Naruse at all: he was, after all a director who provided her with some of her finer roles… yet, on the other hand, it can be very distressing for many actor to lack specific directions, other than your place in the soundstage, etc… Though, on the other hand, this means that Naruse must have been very confident about the actors in the cast being able to do their work properly.

Oh, How could I forget Kato in “Mother”? I missed the film in the Film Festival, but luckily, it’s been released in DVD. I cry myself silly at the end “O-kaa-san, watashi no dai suki na Okaa san…” I suppose there’s something universal in that film about what we love in mothers.

Off topic: I just got a book by Phillys Birnbaum “5 japanese women. Modern Girls. Shining Stars. The skies of Tokio”, one of the women profiled is miss Takamine, so I’m jumping to read it right now!

17 01 2008
Michael Kerpan

I will be happy to hear about the Birnbaum book.

If your country has a DVD of “Mother”, you must be Spanish. ;~}

Criterion is releasing three silent films by Ozu, in its Eclipse series (Tokyo Chorus, Passing Fancy, I Was Born But). Tokyo Chorus features Hideko Takamine at age 6 (or just barely turned 7), with NO front teeth at all (and a dishbowl haircut). Now if only someone would release Shimizu’s Seven Seas (with Takamine’s first truly remarkable performance).

21 01 2008
Gloria

Oh, yeah… I’m Spanish ;D

Re the birnbaum look: the profile on Miss Takamine was quite nice, though it left me wanting for more. I’ll write a post about it and tell you of it when I do.

Thanks for the criterion News. I have still to catch up qith the Japanese film DVDs being published in my country, but it is good to know about other films being available… Someday my budget will allow to get them, too.

Incidentally, “I was born but” has been released here, along with its later remake “Good Morning”, I quite liked the child performers on both.

25 01 2008
Michael Kerpan

If you ever get a chance to see the recent film “Not Forgotten” (Shinozaki), it stars Tomio Aoki (the younger brother from “I Was Born But”). Aoki also appears in a cameo role in Shinozaki’s earlier “Okaeri” (Welcome Home).

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