I don’t mind it when someone asks me “what’s the best Naruse” because I can at least admire the fact that the person asking it, is willing to engage in a conversation about the filmmaker. It’s not a question I like answering though because people change, the power certain films have over us can dissolve and rot away as we grow older and get attached to different things. Case in point, I watched Lightning around five years ago and while I enjoyed it, I comfortably placed it outside of his pantheon. Now, though, as I bring different concerns into the viewing, I find that Lightning might be the perfect synthesis of a career that should be explored fully. I don’t like to pick one Naruse film, as I prefer to survey the nourishment his career provided. If I did have to pick one, though, it might be Lightning.
Kiyoko Komori works as a bus conductress in the Ginza district, but comes home to cramped corridors she shares with three half-siblings. They all share a mother, Osei, who seems too bruised by reality to step in and confront the tensions that are palpable between her children. Kiyoko is disgusted by her unemployed half-brother and irked by the manipulative and luscivious nature of Nuiko. She strikes up something of a friendship with Mitsuko, who is lined up for some insurance money following the death of her husband. While the rest of the family try to convince Mitsuko that they need this money (which never comes), Kiyoko helps Mitsuko deal with the debt that has been left behind.
All of Naruse’s films are about the city, even the ones (such as Summer Clouds) that take place far away from it. Lightning is a film that travels through Tokyo and by doing so, it shows us not the Far East Metropolis consisting solely of awe-inspiring skyscrapers and neon lights. Jules Dassin’s The Naked City captured all of New York City’s Five Boroughs and by doing so, it claimed to offer a multitude of voices in a city that, especially in cinema, is often framed as only meaning one thing. Dassin’s film, which I admit is not fresh in my mind, plays all five boroughs as cut from the same noir fabric. Lightning offers a similarly wide view of Tokyo, and the scope of Naruse’s view seems very pointed. After all the film opens with Kiyoko (played by Hideko Takamine) giving a tour of the Ginza, the site of glamorous and vibrant nightlife that would provide a nice hook to the opening of another film. It is a part of Tokyo, but it is not all of Tokyo.
Kiyoko and Mitsuko visit Koto-ku, that has few visual similarities to the Ginza of the film’s opening. It is also part of Tokyo. Naruse’s accomplishment is not just that he offers different kinds of spaces within a city, but instead his implications of the story untold and voices ignored within it. Kiyoko and Mitsuko travel to this ward to Ritsu, a single mother who claims to have been a mistress to Mitsuko’s husband before his death. Ritsu’s plight is one that we can easily sympathize with, even as she coldly attempts to squeeze money from Mitsuko’s non-existent insurance money. Her Tokyo is not the viewer’s Tokyo, it’s not even Kiyoko’s Tokyo, and “knowing the city” is quite literally her job.
Eventually, Kiyoko has to escape the city. In one of the many moving moments that Naruse playfully punctuates with Chopin’s, she longingly stares at a quaint portrait of the suburbs. She moves there, and is greeted by a pair of siblings that act as opposites to her and her half-siblings. Great importance is placed on Kiyoko’s unmarried status in the city, but the men around are so fervently disgusting that the idea irritates her, and provides an added incentive to move away from her family. The brother and sister in suburbs, Shuzo and Tsubomi, provide a place for her to feel something. They’re both extremely attractive and talented (they play Chopin on piano, making the non-diegetic motif of his music from earlier in the film diegetic) and have no attachment to their parents. This isn’t to say that Kiyoko has to act on this attraction and she doesn’t, but their heavenly appearance restores the faith lost in her interactions with her family.
Lightning concludes with Kiyoko’s reunion with her mother, Osei. At first, she lashes out, blames her mother’s lack of responsibility on the chaotic homelife that it spawned for her children. There’s an inflection in her voice that suggests that she feels bitterness towards her mother for attaching herself to multiple men. Her mother cries, rather pathetically, as the titular lightning strikes outside. Kiyoko, now in her preferred suburbs, has a beautiful view of the phenomenon and casually accepts her mother’s bargaining. Kiyoko is a cynic throughout the film, perhaps aspiring to be snobbishly bourgeois. Once again, the promise of progress and modernity made by the American occupation is present, even if it is technically invisible. Kiyoko has bought in to it, and fashioned herself as the sophisticated young woman separate from the urban poor that is her (half) family. Yet the independence she seeks in this “modernity” is incompatible, it does not encourage her retreat into the suburbs without a family, and it grinds against her ideas of marriage. The end gives us a temporary answer, a nice moment between a daughter and a mother, but it provides us no explanation to how Kiyoko can conduct herself in a world that anticipates the corrosion of her idealism.
Kiyoko’s manifestation of independence privileges friendship above labor and heteronormative romance. Before she becomes fast friends with Shuzo and Tsubomi, she bonds with a student who is renting a room in the family house. In one especially brilliant sequence, the student lies for Kiyoko as a potential suitor tries to gain access to the family space. The student is behind on the rent and Osei intends to throw her out, but in this scene her body guards the family space from the intruder. Naruse often frames men as literally on the sides, trying to enter the house, but denied access. The one time multiple men make into the space, a violent fight breaks out. This leads to Kiyoko leaving the city. Her suburban house is so appealing because she can control those who enter, it is an extension of her independence, which includes her refusal to submit to marriage. This struggle, as often is with Naruse, is not a triumphant one. The film ends not with the heroine overcoming and transforming her pain as something positive and heroic. Instead, the struggle continues, but at least Kiyoko has acquired some control of the situation.