Naruse’s critical breakthrough came in 1933 with the intriguingly titled Apart From You (君と別れて, Kimi to Wakarete) which made it into the top ten list of the prestigious film magazine Kinema Junpo at the end of the year. The themes are undoubtedly familiar and would come dominate much of Naruse’s later output as he sets out to detail the lives of two ordinary geisha and their struggles with their often unpleasant line of work, society at large, and with their own families.
The older woman, Kikue, begins the film by asking her much younger friend and almost daughter figure, Terugiku, to pluck a grey hair from her head. Kikue also has a teenage son, Yoshio, who is becoming progressively rebellious, filled with anger and resentment over his mother’s line of work. Ignoring Kikue’s many sacrifices for him, Yoshio drinks, skips school and messes around with a gang of delinquents.
Feeling sorry for her mentor, Terugiku makes use of her good relationship with Yoshio to convince him that he should be more grateful for the kindness his mother shows him. Taking him on a trip to visit her impoverished family, Terugiku shows him the oppressive environment in which she grew up. Resenting having been sold to a geisha house to finance her drunken father’s violent outbursts, she is even more outraged that they now want to force her sister to undergo the same treatment. Terugiku is not prepared to allow this to happen and has decided to do whatever it takes to save her sister from suffering in the same way as she has had to.
Naruse highlights both the problems of the ageing geisha who sees her ability to support herself declining in conjunction with her looks, and the young one who only looks ahead to the same fate she knows will come to be her own. Both women are subjected to the humiliating treatment of their drunken clients who horse around and occasionally pull violent stunts with little to no regard for those who may even have been their wives, sisters, or daughters with a different twist of fate.
Kikue does at least have Yoshio, though their relationship is currently strained, but Terugiku has no one else to rely on. Her greatest fear is that her sister will also be sold off and have to endure the same kind of suffering as she has. In order to avoid this turn of events she agrees to undergo something far worse than even the unpleasantness of the geisha house to earn double the money in her sister’s place. She faces a future even bleaker than Kikue’s, yet in some sense it is a choice that she herself has made, actively, in sacrificing herself to save her sister.
Apart from You is much less formally experimental than either Flunky, Work Hard or No Blood Relation with its elegant, beautifully composed mise en scène. That said Naruse frames with a symbolist’s eye such as in a late scene where he shoots through the cast iron footboard of a sick bed to show the two women divided yet each imprisoned. This is a world filled with subtle violence, flashes of knives from clients and delinquents alike, raining blows from drunken fathers, and innocents wounded by misdirected arrows. Maternal love is both a force for salvation and of endless suffering but romantic love is always frustrated, ruined by practical concerns. Naruse rejects the kind of fairytale ending he succumbed to in No Blood Relation for something altogether more complex and ambiguous where there is both hope and no hope at the same time as a train departs in an atmosphere of permanent anxiety.
Apart From You is the third of five films included in Criterion’s Eclipse Series 26: Silent Naruse box set.
Clip featuring Terugiku’s visit to her family (with English subtitles)