A few words on Mikio Naruse

13 01 2008

In the last year, Mikio Naruse has become labeled as Japan’s best kept secret. The truth is there’s plenty of other Japanese directors (from his period or otherwise) that are even more neglected. This isn’t meant to discredit Naruse, I believe he’s one of his best, but it’s unfortunate that Asia cinema in general is so underrepresented on R1 DVD. Last year, Criterion released When a Woman Ascends the Stairs and since then nothing has become available to those living in the US. In the UK, BFI has released a three-disc boxset which also includes When a Woman Ascends the Stairs as well as Late Chrysanthemums and Floating Clouds. In Japan, Toho has released two “masterworks” boxsets but both are extremely expensive and both lack English subtitles. I doubt that the problem is a lack of interest in Naruse, as he has developed somewhat of a following in the past year. Just in case, I decided to provide some thoughts on some of my favorite films from the man.

Flowing (1956)

Probably my very favorite Naruse. Of course, it’s hard to simply pick one but it’s the scene where Mariko Okada and Haruko Sugimura come back to the geisha house intoxicated that makes this one of the best. Add Hideko Takamine, Isuzu Yamada, and Sumiko Kurishima and you have one of the best ensemble casts ever assembled. A great example of how underrated Naruse is as a humorist.

Floating Clouds (1955)

Quite possibly Naruse’s most melodramatic effort, but still a very affecting film. Hadeko Takamine and Masayuki Mori reunite after a love affair that occurred ten years earlier, during the war. Both are leading unhappy lives; Takamine broken down in poverty and obsessed over her ex-lover. Mori confining himself to a ideal Japanese family and not being able to live up to his promises. Mariko Okada once again provides a comic spark, albeit a much smaller one. The ending is too tragic for me, but it’s still a great study of a dysfunctional relationship. This actually feels a bit like what Wong Kar-Wai does, at least from a thematically standpoint. An elliptical story told over a long period of time with a heavy focus on memories. Mori perfectly fits the “quiet poet” role that Tony Leung often plays in Wong’s films. This is really a stretch but the head resting on a soldier motif that Wong uses in both Happy Together and In the Mood for Love can be found here. Unfortunately, I have yet to hear Wong acknowledge Naruse as a influence so I guess this is all just a coincidence.

Daughter, Wives, and a Mother (1960)

Another great ensemble cast – this one includes Takamine, Mori, Sugimura, Tatsuya Nakadai, and Reiko Dan. Setsuko Hara is the central figure. Her husband has recently died so she returns back to her family. She insists on “being professional” by paying rent and living in the maid’s old room. This is where the rest of the family is introduced but not in an expository fashion. This does result in some confusion since there is so many characters. A lot of the dramatic events that make up the film seem melodramatic on paper but they’re paced slowly enough to never feel intrusive. This is most likely because of the film’s almost two-hour running time, which is very unusual for Naruse.

Late Chrysanthemums (1954)

An acting showcase for the great Haruko Sugimura and as a result, a great film as well. She’s not really the main character, per se, but she is the connection between three separate stories. Thankfully, this is the only connection. Unlike a lot of recent efforts from Hollywood (Babel, Crash, and so on) Naruse does not focus on connecting his stories through dramatic coincidences but instead observes them in a very real way. Sugimura is essentially viewed by the supporting cast as soulless, a claim that seems to be supported by some of the roles Ozu gave her, at least superficially. However, later in the film we’re able to see all the complexities that are present in her life. One of the best acted films I’ve ever seen.

Maborosi (1995)

13 01 2008

In recent years, a small group of Japanese directors have emerged, all of whom, seem to be making a conscious effort to contest a lot of the “extreme” J-horror stuff that has become popular in the United States. This group, taking it’s cues from the dying film movement in Taiwan, generally focuses on real, undramatic occurrences. Long static takes seem to be popular as well. Unlike the movement in Taiwan, these directors also seem to incorporate lush cinematography with a very poetic sensibility, not unlike the films of Terrence Malick. This movement, that doesn’t actually exists outside of my head is made up of Jun Ichikawa, Hiroshi Ishikawa, and Nobuhiro Yamashita (yes the guy who made Linda Linda Linda) among many others. If this ever becomes a cohesive movement then Hirokazu Koreeda’s Maborosi may be considered the start of it all.

Of course, like any film movement (real or otherwise) the starting point will be very rough as is the case here. My viewing of this film adds some negative bias since the New Yorker DVD is completely detestable. The “rough” spots, in comparison to the future films of the psuedo-movement, is the lack of poetic stylization. Of course, this is not a fault of the film because it’s intentions are not in providing flowery voice-overs but instead on examining life neutrally. I do mention this as the start of the movement (reminder: the one that does not exist) because I can see some dream-like imagery that a director like Hiroshi Ishikawa could have expanded on.  I’ll get into that later.

The main character is Yumiko, played by the gorgeous Makiko Esumi. Living with her husband and her three month old son, she is plagued by nightmares of her grandmother’s departure. Her husband is killed not soon after in a very similar situation. She remarries and finds herself living by the Sea of Japan, a major departure from the gritty streets of Osaka.

Despite the near-VHS quality of New Yorker’s DVD, you can still see what a carefully lit film this is. The most obvious example of this is the sequence the naturally lit discussions that Yumiko has with both husbands. Sequences that start out pitch black, and by simply turning on a lamp, obtain a very odd beauty. A visual motif that can also be found in Fu sheng and Dust in the Wind, both absolute favorites of mine. I can’t say this had quite as strong emotional impact on me, but it is very good film, none the less. Perhaps a viewing with a better DVD source will change things. Until then, this is just a really nice, downbeat, slice of life film.