1951 was an exciting year for Mikio Naruse. Months after Ginza Cosmetics, he would also complete Repast, ushering in a new chapter in his career. With these two films, he started making a different kind of film, not one ideologically divorced from his work in the 1930s, but one that took a different direction stylistically. I hesitate to use the terms observant or intimate because, although they have a positive connotation, their overuse and misuse have implications of a film that is visually flat, or crudely stitched together. Naruse’s style at the final part of his career showed the director at his confident and concise. While many called him stylistically “invisible” (including Akira Kurosawa in one sort of overused quote) I find this to be a mistake. Sure, it’s not as noticeable as his peers, but Naruse’s aesthetic was so deeply in tune with his ideas that it seems impossible for him to express them in this context without this so called “invisible” style.
Yukiko Tsuji is an aging barmaid, but despite her age she’s still called upon to take care of her younger sister as well as her son. She tells her younger sister, with some sad acceptance in her face, of the way her heart was broken. “Most men are beasts” she adds. Later on, we see evidence to back up this claim. Around the bar, men endlessly make advances towards Yukiko who, yes, as a sex worker does have sex for money at times, but the environment in which she works is one that is constantly challenging her comfort. Her age and lack of money leaves Yukiko in a tough spot, her work is tied to her youth and physical appearance while that work itself is still not enough to pay for the expenses that are necessary for something as simple as staying alive.
It’s not the most unique idea to suggest that Naruse’s films about ultimately about money. His protagonists, almost all of whom are women, are sandwiched by being women and being poor. That sounds like these are two separate forces, but in Naruse’s world and the one we actually live in, these two oppressed status actually work together, influence each other, and ultimately have a relationship that makes one inseparable from the other. Some might call Naruse’s work superficial because it is about money, but most of life is superficial then. It’s not “materialistic” to be concerned about money when surviving is at stake. Perhaps then, it would be more accurate to describe his films as not being about money, but self-preservation.
Yukiko is played by Kinuyo Tanaka, who is most famous for her collaborations with Kenji Mizoguchi. She’s always wonderful in a Mizoguchi film (or anybody’s film for that matter) but I honestly prefer her here. There’s a quiet resignation in her performance, though I think Yukiko is not one who has given up. Instead, she’s accepted reality, an admittedly harsh one that seems set to both scrutinize her behavior and want to benefit from it. The men in the film joke about the “standards” of the women they interact with, yet have no problem in continuing in hanging around them. They seem oblivious to their moral dishonesty, but it has the dynamic in sexwork changed much? Naruse (like Ozu) hasn’t made a film critiquing Japan’s old-fashioned morals (which is how so many western critics frame it) but instead the racist, patriarchal society that we inhabit today.
After seeing Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin a few months ago, I remarked on twitter that it beyond all of its modern stylization, it actually came from the same place as most of Naruse’s work. To be short, I think Glazer’s “science-fiction” film is actually obviously about the horror of being a woman in a public space. It’s scifi context gives some justification for a male audience that weirdly enough, might have a better time understanding the discomfort of an alien over an actual living woman. Naruse’s work doesn’t have this context, of course, but it does give us the same experience. One that supports Yukiko’s claim that all men are beast. While trying to pay back a fine, she asks for help from a wealthy businessmen. The overwhelmingly polite man slowly becomes more and more forward and aggressive until he finally gets Yukiko alone in an abandoned garage. He’s only considered her status as a sex worker and not her status as a human being, which is why he seems genuinely upset and confused when she runs away.
There’s an IMDB review of Ginza Cosmetics that mentions, in passing, that the men in Naruse’s films are generally weak. I wouldn’t disagree, though I would add that they are indicative of the reality. “Weak” not in the sense that they’re under-written but instead that in Naruse’s world they are indeed the peripheral, which is seldom the case in most films, arthouse or not. In Naruse’s Flowing (1956) the men seem to only arrive when they’re imposing on the geisha house that the film revolves around. There’s a similar sensation here that the men, when they are present, are imposing on the lives of women. Humanism is overused in describing film and usually applied to filmmakers who try to make all of their characters equal but by making the marginalized individuals the center, I’d argue that he’s more humanist. Not that it’s a contest.