Naruse’s fourth release of 1935 isn’t one of his best, but considering the role he was, this one doesn’t suffer a noticeable drop in quality. If anything, it’s just too unassuming and simple to really make a noteworthy impression. It’s essentially plotless, which is fine, but the episodic nature of the film usually works for the silly and upbeat tone for which Naruse is striving. Like all of his films from this year, it barely reaches an hour so it’s probably a worthwhile investment either way considering how short it is, but on the other hand, it’s probably only of passing interest to anyone who isn’t a Naruse superfan.
The story concerns a travelling jinta (brass band) that find their way to a quiet community at the same time as the circus. The male performers in the circus are on strike because one of them has asked to marry the circus owner’s daughter, but has been rejected. The travelling band is asked to fill in for them, and well, nothing resembling a narrative story line manages to emerge. Things happen (including a predictable accident towards the film’s end) and hijinx ensues, but the film’s structure never begins to develop an interest in conventional storytelling.
This is not a problem, though. Naruse hasn’t made a rich character study to make up for this, if anything the travelling band is sort of flat and boring, but he has established a community that is so rich that the underdeveloped characters don’t seem to matter much. Their dramas and romances unfold in the middle of a isolated community that has enough vitality to carry the film to its short finish line. This seems like a pretty tough criticism, but it’s actually not. Naruse’s construction of the village is impressive in how he breathes life into it with virtuoso cinematic moments. This might be Naruse’s most technically accomplished film of 1935, and that actually is a pretty big claim.
The most inherent comparison here would be John Ford, his Judge Priest particularly came to mind. It is also a fairly unstructured film (though there is more of something resembling a plot) in which the biggest strength is the impressive atmosphere. It’s a weird, perhaps even corny thing to say, but both worlds (despite the harsh, real historical context of Ford’s setting) are full enough to make it feel like you’re spending time there. There’s the obvious difference in that Ford is dealing with a small town during America’s reconstruction period and Naruse is dealing with a small town that isn’t especially tied to reality, but they’re both very effective portraits.
This might be one of Naruse’s more experimental films, but it might be the lack of general storytelling principles that makes his usual pre-war era tricks seem more frequent and more impressive. There are several impressive quick panning shots that work like lengthy tracking shots. This was pretty typical in Japan at the time (though it was generally used to simulate zooming into a medium shot) but in this particular case, it seems like Naruse’s way of evoking a filmmaking equivalent of a trapeze performance, which is fitting considering the film’s content. It’s a nice technical exercise for a filmmaker who isn’t known for such formally driven moments, and the film itself is an enjoyable way to spend an hour.