Avalanche (雪崩, Mikio Naruse, 1937)

Naruse Avalanche title cardDespite his broadly progressive outlook, it would perhaps be unfair to describe Mikio Naruse as a political filmmaker. Yet filmmaking in the late 1930s was an inherently political act if only by omission. 1937’s Avalanche (雪崩, Nadare), adapted in collaboration with left-wing intellectual Tomoyoshi Murayama from a serialised novel by the quietly anti-authoritarian Jiro Osaragi, seems to be almost in dialogue with its times as its hyper-individualist “hero” engages in a series of discussions with his humanist father about the new philosophies which for him at least spell the future.

Naruse opens, however, with the heroine – sweet and innocent bride Fukiko (Noboru Kiritachi ), dressed in kimono and sporting a traditional married woman’s haircut as she gazes lovingly on her wedding photo sighing softly that a year has gone by already. Flashing back, we realise that Fukiko eloped with wealthy scion of the Kusaka family, Goro (Hideo Saeki), who apparently forced the disapproving parents to accept the union by persuading Fukiko to accompany him to a hotel in Nagoya from which they were collected by Goro’s kindly father (Yo Shiomi). Though Fukiko remains deeply in love with Goro, it is obvious to everyone else that the marriage is not happy. Having reconnected with childhood sweetheart Yayoi (Ranko Edogawa), Goro wants a divorce, justifying his actions with the rationale that it will be better for Fukiko to end things now rather allow her to suffer years of a loveless marriage that is destined to end in separation.

Goro’s father, a little fed up with his wayward, increasingly psychopathic son, feels differently. He thinks that Goro has made his bed and must now accept his responsibility, committing to caring for Fukiko as a husband should regardless of whether or not he has romantic love for her. Goro, however, insists that this is a matter which only concerns himself and rejects any responsibility towards Fukiko, insisting that would be cowardly and dishonest to go on living with a woman he doesn’t love under the pretence that he does. Exasperatedly pointing out that one lives as a member of a society and cannot always be free to do as one pleases, Goro’s father tries to awaken him to social responsibility by reminding him that he only thinks he has the luxury of choice because he is the heir to the wealthy Kusaka family and would likely feel differently if he were just a regular salaryman. Goro doesn’t quite deny it, but (ironically) also condemns the hypocrisy of social propriety, avowing that he will not live a life of lies like those respectable married couples with lovers on the side.

Goro’s father asks if he’s not being overly literal, seeing as life is rarely as black and white as he’s painting it for the purposes of his argument but Goro counters that his father is “bound by old morality” of which he believes himself to be free. Later, trying to win back the heart of Yayoi, he reveals himself to be a hyper-individualist who believes that the only true path to happiness lies in indifference to the suffering of others. It seems that Goro’s decision to elope with Fukiko was part rebound, his ego bruised by a minor rejection by Yayoi who is also in love with him and had always believed that they would marry only to find herself disillusioned with the institution of marriage. Her sickly brother Keisuke (Akira Ubukata) worries that she turned down Goro because of him, knowing that should he die she would need to find someone to marry into their family and continue its name – something impossible for the oldest son of a noble family like the Kusakas.

That was not, however the reason. Yayoi resents her lack of options, that when a woman’s marriage is arranged people say “it’s settled” as if an unmarried woman is a problem in need of a solution. She resents that she is obliged to entrust her future to a stranger, wondering how it is she is supposed to trust one man for the rest of her life. It is this feeling that created distance between herself and Goro despite her obvious love for him. He accuses her of being “condescending” and hiding her true feelings, blaming her for the predicament they now find themselves in despite the fact that it appears to be entirely his own fault. Yayoi thinks it’s now too late for them, immediately sympathising with Fukiko who has been unfairly dragged into an awkward situation, but Goro scalds her again by insisting that she thinks too much about others when they need to be “strong” and think only of themselves.

Yayoi is half won over by Goro’s frighteningly fascist world view, but finds herself conflicted. She recognises her privilege and originally feels nothing but guilt because of it, that lack of purpose has left her with nothing but emptiness. Goro has her wondering if she’s got things backwards, that she ought to embrace the fact that she is allowed the luxury of life without worry. Putting it to Keisuke he partially agrees, affirming that happiness is only possible when one wilfully ignores the suffering of others. Yet Yayoi is dragged back towards humanism, remembering the “people left behind in the darkness” but fearful that Goro’s philosophy may win her over in the end.

Goro seems to be a perfect encapsulation of the growing evils of the age in his hyper-individualist desire to disregard the thoughts and feelings of others. The opening text, taken from Jiro Osaragi’s novel, paints Goro as the “hero” as it over-explains the film’s title by insisting that the “avalanche” we are talking about is “some sudden unknown force” present in this “precarious world” which can knock even the strong willed off their feet. The “hero” of Naruse’s film, by contrast, is clearly Goro’s kind hearted father who finds an unexpected fan in Fukiko’s dad (Sadao Maruyama) who claims to hate rich people and had no intention of marrying his daughter to one but thinks Goro’s father is one of the good ones and proves that there were some good things in the old feudal system.

Strangely reactionary as it may be, he has a point. Goro’s father is the soul of benevolent paternalism. He worries for his “desperate” son, and laments that the misfortune of the younger generation is “knowing things without understanding them”. He baits Goro, making him a mild ultimatum that if he wants to go on with his “immoral” philosophy then he’ll have to do it on someone else’s dime. Cowardly, Goro relents and chooses his wealth over his freedom but his psychopathy only deepens. To get back at his dad, he decides on a double suicide with Fukiko, before realising that there is no need for him to actually die so long as it looks like he meant to and he makes sure Fukiko goes first. This is the avalanche the film has been building to, but it’s not the one the titles teased in that it drags Goro back from an abyss towards something more human. He gives up on his plan when Fukiko, innocent as she is, is overcome with emotion on realising that she has been “wrong” about his feelings for Yayoi seeing as he has chosen to die with her. Is it love, or perhaps innocence, or just pure communication that is that “sudden unexplained force” which knocks Goro off his feet and drowns him in human feeling?

It’s a strangely “upbeat” ending for a Naruse film considering Avalanche’s overriding darkness, providing an awkward resolution as Yayoi, in an abrupt closing scene, claims something like independence in stating that she intends to remain with her brother rather than waiting for Goro or looking for a marriage. As such it reads as a rebuke of the fascistic ideology which played into, if not quite aligning with, militarist austerity as its various heroes find themselves once more returned to more responsible philosophies and authentic human connections. Cutting against the grain of the times, Avalanche is nevertheless a strange piece which seems entirely at odds with the opening statement, allowing the hero to find salvation rather than destruction in the sudden onrush of emotion.


The Actress and the Poet (女優と詩人, Mikio Naruse, 1935)

Actress and the Poet title cardAmong the directors most closely associated with the golden age of Japanese cinema, Mikio Naruse is not usually remembered for his sense of humour but his pre-war work often saw him making uncomfortable forays into the shomin-geki comedy. The Actress and the Poet (女優と詩人, Joyu to shijin), Naruse’s second film after leaving Shochiku for P.C.L, is among the more successful but also tinged with characteristic irony that says this is funny because it’s not funny at all.

The generic shomin-geki setup finds us in a small community of suburban houses where mild-mannered poet Geppu (Hiroshi Uruki) lives with his successful actress wife Chieko (Sachiko Chiba). Amusingly enough, and in a motif which will be repeated, the film opens with an high impact scene of a woman screaming after being threatened with a knife, but thankfully it turns out that Chieko and her friends are simply rehearsing for a play. The actors dispatch Geppu to fetch them some cigarettes, which brings him into contact with his no good “friend” Nose (Kamatari Fujiwara), a struggling writer who is absolutely sure his latest work is going to win a big prize which is why it’s not a big problem that he’s so behind on his rent that he’s been coming and going through the upstairs window so he doesn’t attract the attention of his landlady.

When we first meet Geppu he’s wearing a pinny and cheerfully hanging up the washing. A young man passes by on a bicycle and seems surprised, asking if he himself really did all that laundry to which Geppu somewhat improbably replies that it’s all second nature when you’ve been in the army. Even though this is obviously a very “normal” day for Geppu, the questions keep coming. Ohama (Haruko Toda), the nosy woman from next-door, remarks that everyone in the neighbourhood loves Geppu because he’s just so nice but he’s also become a hot topic with the ladies at the bathhouse because no one’s quite sure what it is he “does”. In the modern parlance, Geppu is a basically househusband who dabbles in “poetry”, or as Ohama later explains “songs for children”.

In this fiercely modern environment, it’s Chieko who wields the financial power while her husband appears not to mind trailing behind. She wears kimono but often with luxurious furs which might lead to us ask why they live in this modest suburban house rather than in the bright lights of the city, but even so the marriage appears to be a happy and progressively equal one. In fact, as we later discover, there’s never been a cross word between Geppu and his wife, which is a problem because Chieko’s latest role involves a marital tiff and she’s struggling to get to grips with it because she doesn’t know what it’s like to fall out with your spouse. To figure it out she gets Geppu to read lines with her in a situation which eventually repeats in their real life when Nose bamboozles Geppu into letting him stay in the upstairs room rent free, leading to an almost identical fight watched calmly by Nose and Ohama who think they’ve got ringside seats to a play they could never afford to see.

Nose’s intervention unbalances the couple’s relationship in that it forces Geppu to reassert his masculinity. “A promise between men is a serious thing”, Geppu affirms “I can’t just go back on it because my wife says no”. Chieko reminds him, however, that this is technically her house – she pays all the bills, while his “writing” career is good only for the odd box of sponge cake. She doesn’t like it, perhaps understandably, that he’s “invited” a ne’er do well to come and live with them without even bothering to talk to her about it. She tries to put her foot down, but Geppu remains as irritatingly passive as ever only slightly putout to have his subjugated status suddenly used against him.

Naruse ends the picture with a comic sequence in which Chieko sees the light. Thanks to her real life argument with her husband, she’s figured out how to perfect her performance but she’s apparently so method that she also begins to embrace her role as a conventional wife off stage too. Rather than Geppu letting her sleep in and cooking the breakfast himself, this time it’s Geppu wrapped up in a futon while Chieko chops veg downstairs. Nevertheless, there is a minor irony in this moment of domestic bliss in that it directly follows the news that the nice young couple who just moved in across the road have committed double suicide because of his embezzlement and subsequent debts. Neatly underlining the consumerist trends of the age, the couple wanted to die in their own home even if it was only “theirs” for a few moments. Meanwhile, Ohama and her insurance salesman husband are busy having a blazing row next-door which just goes to show that old-fashioned marriages aren’t so happy either.

Chieko superficially plays the conventional wife, engaging in a little role-play with her husband while Nose listens on from the stairwell, but theirs remains a very modern marriage in which she is free to fulfil herself outside the home and her husband is seemingly unbothered (to a point at least) by the mild censure of the local ladies who both love him for his niceness and perhaps dislike him for it too. Naruse undercuts the conventionally “happy” ending in which traditional gender roles are restored and the family rebalanced by ending on a note of irony as the home of Ohama, a traditional wife dominating her henpecked husband in a comic yet socially accepted fashion, is thrown into violent discord while all is peaceful in the decidedly modern house of Geppu.