Ashita no namikimichi (1936)

28 10 2012

The 60 minute running time would suggest that this is one of Naruse’s breeziest films and it definitely is, but I don’t think the length is the only contributor. This is one of the last instances we’d ever see of Naruse attempting anything extremely stylized but it never manages to seem clunky or garish. There’s not really enough there to put it in the upper-tier of Naruse’s work, but it is such a delightful, little film that could work wonderfully as a introduction to Naruse’s work from the 1930s.

Chiyo moves from the country to Tokyo with the hopes of starting a career. She meets a friend there, but is greeted with nothing but bad news. Her friend is a “hostess” and warns her that work is hard to find for country women in Tokyo. She stays with the hostesses in their isolated community and casually entertains ideas of joining them, but is hesitant because she has a crush on Ogawa, a frequent patron of the bar. He shows an interest in her as well, but says the hostesses at the bar are not a pleasant group. She entertains a fantasy of running away with Ogawa, but her dreams are dashed when he announces that he has to leave for another city.

The film’s opening in the mountainous country definitely reminds one of Hiroshi Shimizu’s work, as does the unusual jaunty tone of what is ultimately an impoverished group of women. It wonderfully underscores the naive Chiyo, who may or may not have been familiar with the work of her friend before coming to Tokyo. She never really grasps the possible limitations that are facing her if she wants to continue living in the city. In her defense, it’s probably because Naruse never plays up the “seriousness” of the drama. There is a sole moment of extreme dramatic tension involving two arguing hostesses, but Naruse, almost like the anti-Mizoguchi doesn’t fall into the melodramatic trappings of a situation. This could easily go the route of the country girl moving to the city and being harshly struck by reality.

This isn’t to say Chiyo falls into a perfect situation. As she finally accepts a position as a hostess, she nervously drinks too much in the presence of Ogawa. The other hostesses warn her about the job, how miserable it will make her, but they tell her that happiness is possible within the arrangement. It’s a reoccurring motif of Naruse that the women oppressed or mistreated in his films still manage to find some glimmer of hope, perhaps a sense of inner peace is a far remarkable statement than again, what Mizoguchi often did. In Mizoguchi’s work, the heartache comes from the women ultimately being beaten out of the system, in the sense that they die. It’s a tragic scenario that resonates on paper, but Naruse’s route doesn’t resonate on paper. Instead, it works on a deeper level (to me anyway) because the true pain comes from the daily struggle of his protagonists.

I was struck by the connection this film shares with an American film of the same year, Lloyd Bacon’s A Marked Woman, which also depicts the plight of women working as hostesses but perhaps because it was based on real life events, is a much more sensational story. Even as this film can be grouped somewhat as a “fantasy” it seems much more grounded in reality, and it still manages to hold up as a communal portrait of sexworkers, where as Bacon’s film, which is a more self-conscious “social problems” feel seems more disjointed from reality through some unfortunate handling of the drama. It’s probably not a huge thing to say Naruse was better than Bacon, but it’s amazing how much better the Japanese workman was than the Hollywood workman, especially after Naruse’s Wife! Be Like a Rose! had been neglected by American critics when it was shown there. It’s food for though, I guess, but the most important thing is, this an absolutely wonderful film and a completely enjoyable viewing. 

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