Ani imoto / Older Brother, Younger Sister (1953)

20 08 2015

A year after the success of Lightning, Mikio Naruse was loaned out to Daiei from Toho again. The Daiei connection tempts us to compare the two films, and I find no reason to resist this impulse. Lightning and Older Brother, Younger Sister are both films about the city (and the “other” landscapes that supposedly clash with it) and the family. Both films, to speak broadly on them, depict characters who find solace and some sense of peace by escaping their family life. The familial discord of Lightning unwraps itself in a typical Narusian way, but Older Brother, Younger Sister is bursting with such great tension that it explodes in physical violence. This is a rarity for Naruse, and while it could be easy to write this film off as lesser just because the melodrama is exaggerated, I think doing so would discount much of it. It is a unique entry in Naruse’s filmography, and we should be thrilled by the opportunity to digest this is in a slightly off kilter fashion.

1

San commutes to Tokyo from her family’s isolated village for nursing school. Her father, Akaza, was once the proud overseer of a damning operation. Now, he only works part time as a clerk for his wife, Riki. It is Riki’s ice cream business that manages to keep the family afloat financially. San’s brother, Ino, performs physical labor. He enjoys a somewhat cheerful relationship with his boss, which enables him to disappear from work for large periods of time. San’s younger sister is Mon, who, like her sister, also splits her time between Tokyo and her parent’s small village. Mon’s labor is never disclosed, but one can deduce, through her flamboyantly flirtatious dress and speech, that she is a bar hostess. Her presence embarrasses the rest of the town, who frame her as ungrateful and loose. This sentiment is shared by Ino, who is prone to fits of violence.

2

Labor has always played a part in Naruse’s film, particularly the labor of women. Men, especially towards the end of his career, seem to exclusively work non-descript office jobs that sucks the life out of them, usually leading to them to follow their suppressed sexual desires. Ino and Akaza’s labor is, by comparison, elaborated on to greater detail but he shows us that they are unreliable individuals. Indeed, the family hasn’t completely fallen apart because of Riki’s ice cream stand. Additionally, the “dirty money” earned by Mon in the city goes to help finance San’s tuition. The women of the family are the only ones with any drive, yet it is this drive (at least for Mon and San) that earns them the derision of their peers.

3

Early in the film, San is infatuated with a neighborhood noodle maker. Her feelings are reciprocated, but the parents of the noodle maker forbid the relationship on the grounds of Mon’s personality. The noodle maker is married off, and later confronts San with the promise to runaway to Tokyo with her, just as she had wished for earlier in the film. The whim is tempting for her, but she’s changed her tune and in the passion of their would-be romantic getaway, she buys one train ticket to Tokyo. For herself, to return to school. This romantic gesture has to remind her of something, perhaps the violent swings displayed by her brother, Ino. It seems less charming and more indicative of abusive behavior in the future.

4

While Naruse has always poked holes in the construction of masculinity and revealed it to be both silly and toxic, he seems to go another step here, perhaps encroaching on the ground of his rival, Kenji Mizoguchi. Late in the film, San and Mon have returned to Tokyo. A peaceful lunch with their mother is interrupted by Ido, who goes on a violent spree that is entirely unlike anything else in Naruse’s oeuvre. It is difficult to watch, and feels clunky (it is being handled by someone who was otherwise uninterested in capturing physical violence) but it does unravel Ido’s hypocrisy and the violence implicit in the condescending stares of the townspeople. Their scorn contributed to the situation where Ido feels justified in slapping his own sister. This does not absolve him of any guilt, but does suggest that his violence would not be condemned by those who similarly degraded Mon’s human worth because of her personal life.

5

Ido’s violence is underscored by his incestuous feelings towards Mon. When he confronts the father of Mon’s would-be child, he reveals quite explicitly that he and Mon “were closer than brother and sister.” Then, he suggests that the man is entirely responsible for the decline of their relationship. Sexual tension tends to guide most of Naruse’s work, but it seldom manifests in a way such as this. White Beast from 1950 might be the only other time when desire became so physically violent in Naruse. It feels awkward, of course, but it does give us a satisfying conclusion. To jump ahead, the film ends with Mon and San walking away from the village towards the train that will take them back to Tokyo. The story is punctuated by the fact that the sisters have grown closer in this unfortunate environment. It’s not some mushy life-affirming humanist triumph of emotions, but instead a confirmation, a validation of their worth as humans. Mon spends a great deal of the film laying down indoors. Here, she is walking and her mobility registers as liberating, as it is for San. There’s no way to be a “good girl” and considering who impose those rules, who wants to be one anyway? Mon and San get to be human together, at least for a moment. Of course, Naruse warns us that we can’t take too much joy from this moment. Mon says she’ll probably return to visit her family again, despite the abuse she’ll likely have to endure again.

6

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Tsuma / Wife (1953)

12 08 2015

In the early 1950s, Mikio Naruse made a handful of films in which Ken Uehara plays a variation of a bad husband. He’s not a villainous husband, but he is aloof and indifferent in RepastSound of the Mountain, and this film. Despite its title, Wife actually provides the most sympathy for Uehara’s husband, which led some critics at the time to say it defends his infidelity. Only Naruse could be so gentle and understanding with such character and yet, refuse to condone his actions. Wife might bother us because Uehara’s affair feels justified, but the balance is a ruse, the men in this film are not left off the hook. Instead, the responsibility of choice weighs heavier because “escaping” – something that both Uehara and Mineko (the film’s titular wife, portrayed by Mineko Takamine) aspire towards, is impossible.

1

Mineko and Juichi wake up to a morning routine. As Juichi goes off to work, Mineko tells us (via voiceover) about her dilemma: she expects something more not just from her marriage, but from life. The camera eventually catches up to Juichi as he approaches a train station, he is similarly dissatisfied with the relationship. He doesn’t express any ill will towards his wife, but he believes his marriage to be nothing more than a performance. At work, he enjoys a friendly relationship with a typist, Sawara, who later invites him to out on a date to the art exhibit. Juichi and Sawara continue to see each other, but Sawara has to move back to Osaka. Meanwhile, frustrated with her husband’s inability to get a raise, Mineko tries to keep the family’s head above water by acting as landlord for the boarding-house they inhabit.

2

Space is at a premium throughout all of Naruse’s work, but Wife makes this battle literal. Mineko rents part of the couple’s suburban home out to another couple, whose relationship quickly crumbles and serves as one of many parallels for Mineko and Juichi’s own dissolving. Another room belongs to a struggling art student, who unintentionally spies of Juichi during his date with Sawara at the art museum. Later on, another room becomes occupied by a bar hostess, who is frequently visited by one of her patrons. Eventually, the spurned wife of this patron visits Mineko, providing yet another failed marriage for us to view alongside Mineko’s.

3

On the surface, space plays a minimal role for Mineko. As the housewife, she’s relegated to her decidedly non-urban (its not quite suburban and its not quite country) house. However, Naruse’s attention to space is not simply public v private (though that conversation is indeed happening throughout Wife, as well as throughout his entire career) but instead in how we relate to private space around us. Naruse’s precise compositions, along with the design of a typical 1950s Japanese home, enable the camera to cut and divide space in a way that turns it into something new. Towards the end of the film, Mineko has returned to her parent’s home. She sits empty in a room, staring in the mirror. This moment is deeply personal, a woman losing faith in her ability to “be a wife” (which is, of course, something Naruse pokes hole in) is studying her face for signs that could perhaps explain Juichi’s indifference. Naruse cuts, and the room opens up. Her sister was always in the room, but the framing created a new meaning for us and possibly, her.

4

The boarding house that is run by Mineko is not unique for Naruse. These quarters are cramped, often occupied by more people then they were designed for, signaling that private space in never really private. In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard stresses the importance of a truly private space and the impact it has on our ability to daydream. Separate conversations figuratively and literally smash together at a visual intersection that lies straight beyond the house’s entrance. Mineko herself tries to daydream, yet she never really succeeds. Towards the film’s conclusion, she isolates her choices to forcing her husband to keep up the charade that is their marriage or for her to commit suicide. Later on, she reads a newspaper whose headline tells of a woman’s suicide. “She didn’t have to do that” she responds, forgetting the threat/promise she had made earlier. This inability to daydream is frustrating, both for Mineko and for us. It grounds the film, and it does so harshly.

5

Mineko’s daydreaming is stifled, never given a chance to breathe but Juichi, through his relationship with Sawara is given the opportunity to dabble in the act. Interestingly, he never does this in his own home. The daydreaming occurs at a French bar he meets Sawara at in the Ginza. Or, it occurs in Sawara’s quaint home in Osaka. Of course, the lascivious elements of their relationship are subdued by Naruse, and the most “daydream” moment for Juichi is when he plays with Sawara’s son. Juichi’s affair could be described as more “wholesome” than the one Uehara character has in Sound of the Mountain. Juichi really does love Sawara, and maybe this is noble, but it is also remarkably selfish to pursue such a relationship when your wife is dissatisfied as it is. Here, one could say that Juichi and Sawara’s would-be romance is the critique of the patriarchal society and the way marriage fits inside that structure. That would be too convenient considering that Juichi benefits from the former. Instead, the most vital critique comes at the end when everything returns to normal. Mineko has won her husband back, but she is back to square one, if not worse off. When she finally confronts Sawara, she insists that Juichi needs to come back because of society. Society has restored the family structure, but Mineko is still miserable and unloved. Maybe it is just a more comfortable type of miserably.

6





Yama no oto / Sound of the Mountain (1954)

28 07 2015

Sound of the Mountain opens with an image of white collar workers leaving their urban space of labor. It would seem ominous if its placement wasn’t so forgetful. The context of the sequence is explained. We discover we’re at the office of Shingo and his son, Shuichi. Shingo is headed back to their home in Kamakura, while Shuichi has stayed behind and discreetly asked his secretary if she wants to join him for a night out. Shingo provides the perspective in Yasunari Kawabata’s source novel of the same name, but of course, in Naruse’s world, we discover the ripples of his behavior and the people it hurts. Sound of the Mountain is a film about a man, but the concern is not in his troubles, but instead in the women he, rather obliviously, harms. The pain and suffering is quiet, almost muffled, but Naruse in his unique brilliance, reveals not only this pain but the processes that allow it to occur.

1

Shingo and his son, Shuichi are joined at home by their respective wives. Kikuko, presumably still in her 20s, is dutiful to her father-in-law but reciprocates the cold indifference she faces from her husband, Shuichi. Quickly, we learn that Shuichi’s sexual concerns are elsewhere, first we see him keep up a casually flirtatious relationship with his secretary and later, we learn that he’s having an affair with a dancer named Kinu. He grows increasingly frigid to Kikuko, who greatly enjoys (and prefers) the company of her father-in-law. Meanwhile, her sister-in-law, Fusako moves in with her children as her husband has once again abused her trust.

2

Late in the film, Shingo’s own wife, Yasuko remarks, “The sadness of a woman is very different from the sadness of a man.” In context, the quote reads as a critique of Shingo’s attempts to “understand” the women around him. Shingo is the main protagonist in both Kawabata’s novel and this adaptation. Yet, he serves a very different purpose here. His thoughts are privileged in the Kawabata novel, programmed as the filter with which we experience the events of the story. Naruse’s film, which many describe as literary, cannot be described as literary benefiting their source. In a way, Naruse has compiled a critique of Kawabata’s novel, one that gracefully creates holes in Shingo’s perspective. Shingo is a noble character, sure, but it is here (not the novel) that he’s not the peacemaker he makes himself out to be. He’s displeased with his son, but their shared apathy has been to the benefit of their guarded, perhaps subconscious sexist ideas.

3

 

Shuichi hurts many women throughout the film, though our attention to initially directed towards his actions (or lack thereof) regarding Kikuko. Our sympathies are established with her at the start. Because of this, a sick feeling in our stomachs develops when we see Shuichi flirting with his secretary, Hideko. A less observant film would point our outrage to Hideko for participating in this act, we would be just as angry with her as we are with Shuichi. Naruse sets Hideko and later, Shuichi’s mistress, Kinu as obstacles to a happy marriage. This is convenient and it happens a lot in narratives such as this, but Naruse peels back from this limited  framing and gives us the lives of these women. In Lightning, Mitsuko and Kiyoko visit the home belonging to the mistress of the former’s deceased husband. Here, Naruse doesn’t shift our sympathies as much as he expands them. We can feel Mitsuko’s pain as she mourns the loss of her husband and struggles financially as we feel for her husband’s mistress who might be even worse off. This expansion of sympathy happens throughout Sound of the Mountain, as we uncover the pain Shuichi is responsible for in Kikuko, Hideko, and Kinu.

4

Notably, these three women never appear on screen together and there is evidence to suggest that they’ve felt Shuichi’s wrath on different levels. Kikuko is ignored, Hideko is yelled at, but Kinu is physically beaten. All three are violence, but only one act is visible to us on screen. That’s Shuichi’s lack of action to Kikuko. His tantrums and outbursts aren’t shown to us, which might question some to ask if Shuichi, so quietly portrayed by a stone faced Ken Uehara can really be responsible for these acts? The answer, of course, is yes and these forms of violence often are never visible in public. Acting aloof, which is how he conducts himself around Kikuko, doesn’t suggest to many violence, but sometimes not doing anything creates the situation where suffering persists.

5

As Shuichi obliviously perpetuates and excuses the violence he inflicts on the women around him, his father struggles to fix the situation. Many have written about Shingo’s quasi-incestuous relationship with Kikuko, but there’s a balance in sexual curiosity (which manifests most brilliantly in the scene with the noh mask) and mutual respect.  Shingo’s quest to save his son’s marriage has more to do with this sensation he feels for Kikuko, but a passive misogyny (one that has carried over to his son) stunts his ability. Quite early on, a lecture to his son about family is given a sufficient retort: “how many mistresses did you have, dad?”

6

 

Shingo’s presence is crucial to Sound of the Mountain but his existence, his struggles, his anguish is not Naruse’s concern. Shingo, almost like a detective, uncovers the suffering his son has inflicted on Kikuko, Hideko, and Kinu. The film is not a moral moment, and its poignant finale is not a moment where he is redeemed for his son’s behavior. Instead, Naruse, in one of his most moving sequences, allows Shingo and Kikuko, a goodbye. Kikuko makes an observation about the vista in the park, and it is the first moment in the film where she asserts herself socially. Nothing has been overcome, though, Naruse has just given us a small victory. Kikuko has left Shuichi, leaving the family (or at least the father-in-law) that she cared about so much. It’s trite to say that who knows what the future holds, but in Naruse’s case, that isn’t exactly an exciting prospect. The abusive living conditions has been escaped, but resiliency doesn’t guarantee that Kikuko only has happiness awaiting her. Still, there is something rewarding in knowing she doesn’t have to deal with Shuichi.

7





Inazuma / Lightning (1952)

10 07 2015

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.

1

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.

2

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.

3

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.

4

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.

5

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.

6

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.

7





Onna no naka ni iru tanin / The Stranger Within a Woman (1966)

9 07 2015

The runaway success of Kurosawa’s High and Low in 1964 must have been enough to convince Toho that neo-noir was a viable route for their filmmakers. Two of Naruse’s last three films could be organized by the genre, even if they do manage to downplay the more thrilling elements that made Kurosawa’s film such a smash. The first of these two is A Stranger Within a Woman. Noir seems especially uncharacteristic for Naruse, but this wasn’t his first attempt at such a film, 1950 saw the release of both The Angry Street and White Beast, two films which are definitely noir-tinged. Those two films came before Naruse cultivated his mature 1950s style, the one that informed his legacy. They contain a pulpy energy, where as A Stranger Within a Woman is an airtight thriller, it seems to approach plot points with melancholy, as opposed to excitement.

1

Sugimoto runs into his long time friend, Toshiro, as the two are walking home from work. They decide to have a drink together, and then split. Arriving home, Toshiro is greeted by his wife, Masako. He tells her that he’s expecting a call from Sugimoto. The call never comes. The following day’s newspaper explains why: following a drink with Toshiro, Sugimoto returned to his home to find his wife, Sayuri, dead by way of strangulation. Soon after, Toshiro confesses to Masako that he was having an affair with Sayuri before her death. Later, he confesses that he was the one responsible for her death and that he intends to turn himself in.

2

Although Naruse provides us a great deal of information through flashback, his concern here is not for the mystery to unravel slowly. In fact, we have no reason to think that Toshiro isn’t the culprit immediately and when he confesses to infidelity thirty minutes in, most would be confident in his guilt. The flashbacks show that Naruse, although working with the mold of a thriller, was not concerned with “who did it?” or “why” either. These sequences are narrated to us with observations, ones that go attack Sayuri’s character. The first flashback, initiated by the musings of Toshiro’s mother, is a passive critique of Sayuri’s flirty nature. The flashback’s most crucial detail does not uncover itself as a clue, but rather suggests the inevitability of her death.

3

It would be a mistake to credit Sayuri as the film’s main character here, but she is the most interesting. She’s on screen for less than a minute, but the film is built on conversations around her. When Toshiro’s younger coworkers at a printing press discuss her death the first question asked is “was she good looking?” Even Sayuri’s husband, Sugimoto seems rather unmoved by her death, and he immediately rationalizes her demise as inevitable because of her “many male friends.” Here, I could suggest that Sayuri was functionally dead before she was even killed. Certainly, her death is not given any value beyond her relationship to men. Conversations frame her only as a bourgeois “slut” whose sexually transgressive nature ruined an otherwise humble man like Sugimoto. This is often how the femme fatale operates, but Naruse never gives her time to properly seduce us, suggesting that any attempt to defend Toshiro is ridiculous. Then again, Toshiro doesn’t feel like he’s been wronged like an American film noir protagonist would, he basically embraces the punishment he feels he deserves. In Naruse’s world, the hormone-driven chaos that makes noir exciting is flattened, reduced to something banal.

4

Although the film opens in Akasuka, an ideal urban setting for a noir, most of it takes place in the suburban comfort of Kamakura. Kozaburo Yoshimura’s Temptation also shows us Kamakura, but it seems that much has changed in a short eighteen years. Yoshimura’s Kamakura is represented by a beach house, one where the interiors seem to exist in a liminal space between what we conceive as indoors and outdoors. Naruse’s Kamakura should be more familiar to American audiences, we seldom go outside (it is almost always raining in the film) and so we’re left to consider a Westernized suburban home. Suburbs existed in Japan before Levittown and America’s process of suburbanization. The hybrid nature of the house represents a post-occupation structure, it is the sort of thing that Isoya Yoshida would have fought violently against in the 30s. Whether he liked it or not, gender played a huge role in Yoshida’s vision of architecture, and he spoke of “purity” both in structures and in women. The film concludes with Masako poisoning Toshiro before he can turn himself in. As she explains via voiceover, “As he tries to go out the front door with his head held high, I’ll have to sneak him out the back.” The front lawn of the American suburban house is the masculine space. The back, the garden, is feminine. Masako, just like her house, has forsaken Yoshida’s idea of “purity” in Japan. Her and the house have transitioned in American suburbia, American patriarchy, both of which maintain a similar control over her body. The revolutionary moment is not that she kills her husband and gets away with it. After all, she does so to main the respectability of the family. Instead, it comes from the realization that all the “modernity” and “progress” that American imperialism (or in this specific case, occupation) advertises to women has changed very little. Basically, the patriarchy upgraded the master’s house, but Masako must still live in it.

5





Iwashigumo / Summer Clouds (1958)

1 07 2015

It makes sense that Naruse’s first feature filmed in color and in Tohoscope would take place away from the city center. It wasn’t the first time he went “rural” so to speak (nor would it be his last) but the new technology offered his technique something that didn’t immediately click with the aesthetic of his “city films.” This seems like a preposterous statement to make when one considers the Tohoscope beauty of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, which finds the filmmaker back in the urban realm. Here, though, the technology seems especially compatible with the way he opens up space. Of course, Summer Clouds is still about the city, but its conversation on “the city” uses the vocabulary of rural peasants.

1

Yae is a single mother who, when not attending to her family’s rice field, works as a freelance journalist for nearby Yokohama. Her connection to the world of journalism is Ogawa, a younger man with whom she enjoys a sly, sexual relationship. Yae is realistic, she wants something more with Ogawa, who is married, but realizes that they aren’t going to run away together anytime soon. In the midst of this, a family drama is brewing between Yae’s brother, Wasuke and his three sons. He criticizes them for their interest in escaping the rural life for one in the city, be it in Yokohama or in Tokyo. He tries to solve these complications by marrying off his sons, but things don’t go so smoothly.

2

The relationship between the rural and urban is a discursive thread running throughout Naruse’s work, but it is seldom as pointed and obvious as it is made here. Ogawa’s two youngest sons, Jun and Shinji, want to separate themselves from the traditions of farm life and relocate to the city. The concept of “tradition” is a dangerous one, especially in the loose, reductive, and Orientalist way western critics carelessly yield it around Japanese films. Both Naruse and Ozu have had the term applied to their work. It’s not an incorrect application, but the inability to expound on the idea of tradition is one that flattens and simplifies their work. The descriptions of tradition are so often viewed with an understood distant, both temporally and geographically. The patriarchy present in 1950s Japan is, at least according to western critics (everyone from Donald Richie to Noel Burch) is nowhere close to the western world in the present day. I’m not suggesting the situations depicted in a film like Summer Clouds could easily be transplanted to North America or the United Kingdom without any editing, that is just as simplistic. Instead, I am suggesting that evoking “traditions” in describing a film such as this is an Othering practice.

3

The traditions that Wasuke holds close to him are so difficult to break because they can be held up by logic. It doesn’t make sense, economically speaking, for his sons to transition into city folk or for relatives who are women to attend school. He repeatedly refers to a hope that his family remains a peasant family, and that his sons do not become employees. Peasant can evoke, to many, an image of the rural poor one that doesn’t match with the family depicted here. There are classes of peasantry, and the milieu here is that of the “middle peasant” (a term I encountered through Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, but has origins in the writings of Lenin and Mao) or the peasant with a comfortable amount of space and agrarian equipment. Wasuke could let go to this status, but it would lead to the end of the family’s middle peasant lifestyle.

4

The work of the peasant seems to slip through the ideas of labor and value expressed through capitalism. Marx’s lumpen-proletariat (or those too disadvantaged to gain class consciousness) can be imagined as peasants, because they are, by definition, not directly exposed to capitalism’s exploitation and abusiveness. Yet, Naruse’s camera manages to render both capitalist labor and peasant labor as similarly harmful. Wasuke holds to traditions, which pressures some in his family to stay in this system. Naruse films the few scenes of labor as mechanical, not literally (though, Yae does use a mechanical plowing tool at some point, a sign of her modernity) but in how the bodies  themselves respond in machine-like unison. By extension, Wasuke’s rationale for holding on to traditions are formed by the logic and reasoning of capitalism, even as the labor itself works outside of it.

5

While Naruse was able to provide a fruitable and intriguing conversation on labor, the appeal of Summer Clouds is in the character of Yae, who is portrayed by Chikage Awashima. She takes charge in every situation, be it in her sexual relationship with Ogawa or her dealings with Wasuke’s stubborn old-fashionedness. In one of Naruse’s most subtly sensual scenes, Yae closes two sets of doors. Ogawa opens one, but Yae quickly shuts it. The image fades, and it’s the morning after. Though she dreams of a life with Ogawa and even vocalizes such desires, she’s still pragmatic. The films ends with her plowing the rice fields. Her frustration is palpable, but she does not call on us to pity her, instead her laboring suggests she’ll survive. She deserves a man who is devoted to her entirely.

6





Kimi to wakarete / Apart From You (1933)

7 06 2015

Despite some critical success, Mikio Naruse was in a tough position by 1933. His peers admired his work but his studio boss, Shiro Kido, was unimpressed. We now know that the friction between these two lead to Naruse’s transfer to PCL, which later become Toho. However, in 1933, the pressure was on for him to deliver a film that doesn’t immediately echo Yasujiro Ozu’s work. Kido would remain skeptical of him, but it is hard to watch a film like Apart From You, and think that it owes any particular debt to Ozu. They do overlap in that they capture the reconfiguration of rural spaces, which would be transformed to suburbs. Ozu (literally) moved up within Tokyo to more middle class families. Naruse moved outward to the margins that so many of his characters had already called home.

1

Kikue is an aging geisha struggling to keep her most devoted client interested. Her son, Yoshio, contributes to this frustration by his truancy at school. He’s fallen into a young gang, and when asked about his disobedience, he lashes out at Kikue and says that he’s embarrassed by her profession. Kikue’s best friend, Terukiku, is also a geisha and around the same age as Yoshio. She tries to convince him that his mother is indeed very devoted to him, and that his agitation with her is misplaced. Terukiku invites Yoshio to join her on a visit to her hometown, which appears idyllic, but is revealed to be a site of abuse and anger. Seeing the familial discord has an impact on Yoshio, but he’s not quite prepared to straighten up immediately on the trip back.

2

My earlier review of this film, published in 2008, is pretty generic. I don’t want to turn this into a complete overview of my writing at the time, but while it is not a particularly offensive piece, it is not a very interesting one either. Apart From You is at its heart, a melodramatic film. One that seems to be missing the necessary dramatic syntax to make such a film work. It’s only an hour long, and so there’s little time to capture the anxiety rising up on Kikue, Terukiku, and Yoshio. While I still love this film, it might be for completely new reasons now. Perhaps it is an unintentional side effect, but Naruse’s camera does capture the liminal part of Tokyo’s transition. Other filmmakers situated their “urban dramas” in sexier, more fully developed spaces. But, in fitting with the economic plight of his characters, Naruse captures a neighborhood that still has rural residue. The trip to Terukiku’s home town sets up a narrative contrast, between the city and country, but Naruse’s camera suggests that describe the spaces in such a binary is incorrect.

3

Terukiku’s hometown remains unnamed, but we do now that she and Yoshio are able to easily access it via railroad. One might deduce that it is a present-day suburb, transitioning from its rural past, not unlike the suburb occupied by the family in I Was Born But… There is plenty of visual evidence to describe the space as “less sophisticated” but Suketaro Inokai’s camera captures a richness in the street life. Less developed and less commercial than the Tokyo the film opens with, but not reduced to the condescendingly rural. The two primary spaces of the film can’t be positioned as a binary, which works with Naruse’s handling of the characters. The plot could be described as trite, but the dramatization of their emotions is complicated. In fact, words seem especially inefficient to describe the film’s finale.

4

Terukiku and Yoshio return to Tokyo, where Kikue contemplates suicide. In one particularly impressive sequence, Kikue’s violent confrontation with her patron is paired next to a more jovial encounter between younger geishas with younger patrons. Kikue is, in the end, saved but violence is unrelenting here. Yoshio’s attempt to quit his gang leads to ridicule, which then ends with Terukiku being injured. The film’s conclusion is unclear, but we know that Terukiku, because of her selfish father’s economic wants, must leave Tokyo for a profession even less desirable than that of a geisha. Sex, of course, is not explicit in a film from 1933 Japan, but Terukiku is presumably shipped off to a brothel. I would suggest that Naruse’s entire career shows compassion to sex workers, as opposed to the anxiety evident in other such films. Terukiku and Yoshio’s farewells to each other are bittersweet but she’s already told us that “she’ll keep fighting.” The film ends with her departing, potentially, for a life of more abuse. Visually, we understand that hope is still there. For others, this would be the conclusion to the tragedy, but Naruse is more pragmatic. Terukiku leaves the frame, but her agency feels firmly intact.

5