A Wanderer’s Notebook (1962)

15 02 2008

This is quintessential Naruse here. All of the themes/topics that have defined the rest of his oeuvre — money, abused women, heartbreak, disappointment, etc. — are pushed to the forefront in his gentle retelling of Fumiko Hayashi’s autobiography. At times, the film borders on feeling like a Naruse parody and even becomes simply too bleak. My general reaction after finishing this was “great, but I know Naruse has done better, this seems a little melodramatic” but my thoughts have shifted since then. Considering the harsh events that Mrs. Hayashi endured, Naruse crafts the film with care. This is understandable considering that Mrs. Hayashi was a bit of a hero to him and it’s well-known that he adapted many of her stories. This is not a cinematic love letter to the author, but indeed a cinematic thank you note and it couldn’t be better.

The film opens with a young Hayashi running down an alley, screaming for her mother, played by the great Kinuyo Tanaka in a much smaller role. She informs her mother that father has been arrested and before the titles even set in, we have our first look at humiliation. It’s much lighter compared to what will appear later in the film. Hayashi’s father is forced, by the policemen, to sing “his” song. Embarrassed, she runs away but it is never made clear if she is upset with the policemen, her father, or just men in general. The voice overs that follow imply the last option and the film lends it’s time detailing how Hayashi was commonly mistreated in her “rise” (if you actually want to call it that) in becoming a poet.

Immediately, the audience understands why Fumiko thinks so negatively of men but this generalization is a flaw on her part. It’s important to know that Naruse does not want to make her out to be a martyr. Yes, she did go through a lot (and this film conveys that beautifully) but her perspective was bias. All the handsome men were the ones mistreating her. Time after time, she falls back, both emotionally and financially, on Daisuke Kato’s character. She sees nothing of him, though, at least not until their final meeting at the end of the film. It would be an exaggeration to say he is her ticket out of depression but the life he lived was probably not as saturated with injustice.

Explaining the story isn’t of much interest to me because the film is more about the many relationships that are made. Simply stated, there are not enough words in any language to accurately describe the depths of every character. This shouldn’t come as any surprise, though, this has always been a hallmark of Naruse’s films. It’s just worth mentioning in this case because a plot arc does sort of develop here, but it’s far from being a priority to Naruse. This is not a criticism of him, if anything it’s a compliment.

If the film has any drawbacks, then it might be that it’s simply too bleak. This is not the best place for someone to start with Naruse. Despite it showcasing many of his most popular themes, it would probably be better for a Naruse novice to get acquainted with his pessimistic outlook and post-war style before diving in with this film. As great as it is, and it is great, this is 127 minutes of suffering and that’s likely to turn a lot of people of. Much like Tsai Ming-Liang’s The Wayward Cloud, Hourou-ki is the climax to the director’s previous work. Labels like “melodrama” and “self-indulgent” will be thrown around by those experiencing Naruse for the first time with this film. However, this will resonate deeply for those that are at least vaguely familiar with his work.

On the objective side of things, this couldn’t be much more perfect, either. Takamine (and everyone else) is perfect as always. Kinuyo Tanaka has a very small role as her mother, and it’s very likely that Tanaka’s personality rubbed off on Takamine. That influence helps culminate in one of Takamine’s best performances, which is completely necessary considering how often this walks the lines of being too bleak even for a person like myself. Mr. Naruse’s work with space is excellent as always and, being shot in TohoScope, it couldn’t look much better. TThis is one of the greatest treasures in the history of Japanese cinema and it’s essential for anyone remotely interested in the history of the subject matter.

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2 responses

15 02 2008
Michael Kerpan

This was a “love at first sight” film for me. My only frustration was my inability to actually find any Fumiko Hayashi books (in translation) to read. It still is hard to find her work, but at least there is now a good translation of her “Floating Clouds” — a must-read for fans of Naruse’s (equally great) film adaptation.

17 02 2008
Gloria

I’ve only seen this film once, in a theater, and I hope to see it again sometime.

The way takamine ages is incredible. I’d say she’s some punds heavier by the end of the film, or might that be a fine work by the make-up department… She’s wonderfully droopy-eyed in this film (to, say, compare the spirited young girls she plays in Lightning). I liked Daisuke Kato here, too. I was used to see him in comedy relief characters, so it was nice to see him here as a straightforward nice guy (though, as michael commented some time earlier to me, he already have a similar role in Naruse’s Mother).

I liked the depiction of Hayashi’s though/hard worked way up to literary recognition: it was obvious that, as someone of poor origins, she couldn’t make the popular choice always

BTW, Michael, good to know there’s an English translation of “Floating clouds”. I have at home a Japanese copy of “Horouki” but don’t dare to start it (too many kanjis, I suppose)

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