Floating Clouds (浮雲, Mikio Naruse, 1955)

(C) 1955 Toho

floating clouds poster“The past is our only reality” the melancholy Yukiko (Hideko Takamine) intones, only to be told that her past was but a dream and now she is awake. Adapted from a novel by Fumiko Hayashi – a writer whose work proved a frequent inspiration for director Mikio Naruse, Floating Clouds (浮雲, Ukigumo) is a story of the post-war era as its central pair of lovers find themselves caught in a moment of cultural confusion, unsure of how to move forward and unable to leave the traumatic past behind.

We begin with defeat. Shifting from stock footage featuring returnees from Indochina, Naruse’s camera picks out the weary figure of a young woman, Yukiko, drawing her government issue jacket around her. She eventually arrives in the city and at the home of an older man, Kengo (Masayuki Mori), whom we later find out had been her lover when they were both stationed overseas working for the forestry commission but has now returned “home” to his family. Kengo had promised to divorce his wife, Kuniko (Chieko Nakakita), in order to marry Yukiko but now declares their romance one of many casualties of war. With only the brother-in-law who once raped her left of her family, Yukiko has nowhere left to turn, eventually becoming the mistress of an American soldier but despite his earlier declarations the increasingly desperate Kengo cannot bear to let her go and their on again off again affair continues much to Yukiko’s constant suffering.

Floating Clouds is as much about the post-war world as it is about a doomed love affair (if indeed love is really what it is). Kengo and Yukiko are the floating clouds of the title, unable to settle in the chaos of defeat where there is no clear foothold to forge a path into the future, no clear direction in which to head, and no clear sign that the future itself is even a possibility. Naruse begins with the painful present marked by crushing defeat and hopelessness, flashing back to the brighter, warmer forests of Indochina to show us the lovers as they had been in a more “innocent” world. At 22, Yukiko smiles brightly and walks tall with a lightness in her step. She went to Indochina in the middle of a war to escape violence at home and, working in the peaceful environment of the forestry commission, begins to find a kind of serenity even whilst dragged into an ill-advised affair with a moody older man more out of loneliness than lust.

Yet, Yukiko’s troubles started long before the war. Assaulted by her brother-in-law she escapes Japan but falls straight into the arms of Kengo who is thought a good, trustworthy man but proves to be anything but. Kengo, frustrated and broken, attempts to lose himself through intense yet temporary relationships with younger women. Every woman he becomes involved with throughout the course of the film comes to a bad end – his wife, Kuniko, dies of tuberculosis while Kengo was unable to pay for treatment which might perhaps have saved her, an inn keeper’s wife he has a brief fling with is eventually murdered by a jealous husband (a guilty Kengo later attempts to raise money for a better lawyer to defend him), Yukiko’s life is more or less destroyed, and goodness only knows what will happen to a very young errand runner for the local bar whom he apparently kissed in a drunken moment of passion.

The lovers remain trapped by the past, even if Kengo repeatedly insists that one cannot live on memory and that their love died in Dalat where perhaps they should have remained. Yukiko’s tragedy is that she had nothing else than her love for Kengo to cling to, while Kengo’s is that he consistently tries to negate the past rather than accept it, craving the purity of memory over an attainable reality, chasing that same sense of possibility in new and younger lovers but once again squandering each opportunity for happiness through intense self obsession. “Things can’t be the same after a war”, intones Kengo as an excuse for his continued callousness, but they find themselves retreating into the past anyway, taking off for tropical, rainy Yakushima which might not be so different from the Indochina of their memories but the past is not somewhere one can easily return and there can be only tragedy for those who cannot let go of an idealised history in order to move forward into a new and uncertain world.


Whistling in Kotan (コタンの口笛, Mikio Naruse, 1959)

vlcsnap-2016-08-03-02h37m50s119The Ainu have not been a frequent feature of Japanese filmmaking though they have made sporadic appearances. Adapted from a novel by Nobuo Ishimori, Whistling in Kotan (コタンの口笛, Kotan no Kuchibue, AKA Whistle in My Heart) provides ample material for the generally bleak Naruse who manages to mine its melodramatic set up for all of its heartrending tragedy. Rather than his usual female focus, Naruse tells the story of two resilient Ainu siblings facing not only social discrimination and mistreatment but also a series of personal misfortunes.

Masa and Yutaka are a teenage brother and sister living with their alcoholic father who has been unable to get things together since their mother passed away. They also have their grandmother and cousin, but otherwise they’re pretty much fending for themselves. At school, both children are shunned and picked on by some of their classmates solely for being Ainu. When one girl reports that her purse has gone missing, she immediately points to Masa and though another girl defends her, the obvious racial overtones continue to get to her. Similarly, Yutaka finds himself getting into trouble with one of the other boys after he beats him on a test. Yutaka pays a heavier price (at least physically) but both children are left wondering about their place in the world and what the future might hold for them.

Masa’s bright hope revolves around her art teacher who draws a picture of her at a local watering hole which he intends to enter into a competition. The teacher has his sights firmly set on a career as an artist in Tokyo but like everyone else’s dreams, it proves harder to realise than he might have hoped. Perpetually left behind, Masa’s dreams crumble too as do those of her friend who has her romantic hopes crushed firstly by her well meaning grandmother and then secondly by an unexpectedly racist action by someone who had always been seen as a friend. If all of these difficulties weren’t enough, fate is about to deal Masa and Yutaka a very cruel blow indeed which leaves them at the mercy of an evil uncle worthy of any Dickens novel.

Like much of Naruse’s work, the outlook is extremely bleak. The children face such a hopeless future that the most they can do is affect a kind of false cheerfulness to try and raise their spirits. Masa and Yutaka are both mistreated by the general population, leaving them with a lingering sense of anger and resentment towards those that seem incapable of treating them like regular human beings. Their cousin, Koji, has apparently come to the conclusion that he has to stand up against such mistreatment, however, the ultimate harm that is done to the pair is done by a member of their own family acting with total disregard their feelings and wellbeing. At this point Koji reconsiders and says he understands now that it isn’t about Ainu or Japanese, there are just awful people everywhere. An odd, if depressingly stoic, late in the game plea for empathy and tolerance, this ironically positive statement sits very well with Naruse’s general feelings on human nature.

Whistling in Kotan is not one of Naruse’s more subtle efforts. The tone is relentlessly bleak as the children experience ever more degrading treatment solely because of their ethnic group. Even their supposed ally eventually turns on them exposing the last lingering threads of prejudice among even those who portray themselves as forthright liberals. The message is one of forbearance and patience, that times have changed and will change more but that one has to grin and bear it while they do. Pragmatic as that is, it does let society of the hook when it comes to the refusal to acknowledge and deal with consistent prejudice. Filled with Naruse’s sense of despair, Whistling in Kotan is an uneven yet interesting exploration of this sensitive subject though perhaps undoes much of its good work with its ambiguous and often blunt approach to the material.


 

A Woman’s Story (女の歴史, Mikio Naruse, 1963)

woman's storyMikio Naruse made the lives of everyday women the central focus of his entire body of work but his 1963 film, A Woman’s Story (女の歴史, Onna no Rekishi), proves one of his less subtle attempts to chart the trials and tribulations of post-war generation. Told largely through extended flashbacks and voice over from Naruse’s frequent leading actress, Hideko Takamine, the film paints a bleak vision of the endless suffering inherent in being a woman at this point in history but does at least offer a glimmer of hope and understanding as the curtains falls.

We meet Nobuko Shimizu (Hideko Takamine) in the contemporary era where she is a successful proprietor of a beauty salon in bustling ‘60s Tokyo. She has a grown up son who works as a car salesman though he’s often kept out late entertaining clients and has less and less time for the mother who gave up so much on his behalf. Her life is about to change when Kohei (Tsutomu Yamazaki) suddenly announces that he wants to get married – his lady love is a bar hostess to whom he’s become a knight in shining armour after saving her from a violent and persistent stalker. Needless to say, Nobuko does not approve both for the selfish reason that she isn’t ready to “lose” her son, and because of the social stigma of adding a woman who’s been employed in that line of work to the family.

All of this is about to become (almost) irrelevant as tragedy strikes leaving Nobuko to reflect on all the long years of suffering she’s endured up to this point only to have been struck by such a cruel and unexpected blow. An arranged marriage, her husband’s infidelity, the war which cost her home, possessions and also the entirely of her family, and finally the inescapable pain of lost love as the man who offers her salvation is quickly removed from her life only to resurface years later with the kind of pleasantries one might offer a casual acquaintance made at party some years ago. Life has dealt Nobuko a series of hard knocks and now she’s become hard too, but perhaps if she allows herself to soften there might be something worth living for after all.

Women of a similar age in 1963 would doubtless find a lot to identify with in Nobuko’s all too common set of personal tragedies. They too were expected to consent to an arranged marriage with its awkward wedding night and sudden plunge into an unfamiliar household. Nobuko has been lucky in that her husband is a nice enough man who actually had quite a crush on her though there is discord within the household and Nobuko also has to put up with the unwelcome attentions of her father-in-law. This familial tension later implodes though fails to resolve itself just as Japan’s military endeavours mount up and Nobuko gives birth to her little boy, Kohei. Husband Kouichi becomes increasingly cold towards her before being drafted into the army leaving her all alone with a young child.

All these troubles only get worse when the war ends. Though Kouichi’s former company had been paying his salary while he was at the front, they care little for his widow now. Left with nothing to do but traffic rice, Nobuko comes back into contact with her husband’s old friend, Akimoto (Tatsuya Nakadai), who wants to help her but is himself involved in a series of illegal enterprises. Nobuko is molested twice by a loud and drunken man who accosts her firstly on a crowded train (no one even tries to help her) and then again at a cafe where she is only saved by the intervention of Akimoto, arriving just in the nick of time. Nobuko sacrifices her chances at happiness to care for Kohei, caring about nothing else except his survival and eventual success.

Of course, Kohei isn’t particularly grateful and feels trapped by his mother’s overwhelming love for him. Nobuko’s sacrifices have also made her a little bit selfish and afraid of being eclipsed in the life of her son. It’s easy to understand the way that she later behaves towards Kohei’s new bride, but if she wants to maintain any kind of connection to the son that’s become her entire world, she will need to learn to allow another woman to share it with her.

Naruse is a master at capturing the deep seated, hidden longings that women of his era were often incapable of realising but A Woman’s Story flirts with melodrama whilst refusing to engage. The awkward flashback structure lends the film a degree of incoherence which frustrates any attempt to build investment in Nobuko’s mounting sorrows, and the voiceover also adds an additional layer of bitterness which makes it doubly hard to swallow. This is in no way helped by the frequently melodramatic music which conspires to ruin any attempts at subtlety in favour of maudlin sentimentality. The endless suffering of mid-twentieth century women is all too well drawn as grief gives way to heartbreak and self sacrifice, though Naruse does at least offer the chance to begin again with the hope of a brighter and warmer future of three women and a baby building the world of tomorrow free of bombs and war and sorrow.


 

Street Without End (限りなき舗道, Mikio Naruse, 1934)

Street Witout EndNaruse’s final silent movie coincided with his last film made at Shochiku where his down to earth artistry failed to earn him the kind of acclaim that the big hitters like Ozu found with studio head Shiro Kido. Street Without End (限りなき舗道, Kagirinaki Hodo) was a project no one wanted. Adapted from a popular newspaper serial about the life of a modern tea girl in contemporary Tokyo, it smacked a little of low rent melodrama but after being given the firm promise that after churning out this populist piece he could have free reign on his next project, Naruse accepted the compromise. Unfortunately, the agreement was not honoured and Naruse hightailed it to Photo Chemical Laboratories (later Toho) where he spent the next thirty years.

Although Street Without End is a conventional melodrama in many senses, it’s also quite a complex one playing with multilayered dualities and symbolic devices. After beginning with some brief pillow shots of the real city streets, we meet the stars of the show, Sugiko and Kesako, who are both waitresses in a local tea room. Whilst walking together, Sugiko is presented with an offer from a movie studio currently looking for new talent but isn’t really convinced, though the money would come in handy for her younger brother’s college tuition. A little while later she gets another offer from her boyfriend, Harada, who wants to get married as his parents are trying to pressure him into an arranged marriage at home. Sugiko agrees but is knocked over by a car on her way to meet him with the result that Harada thinks she’s changed her mind and goes home alone. Slowly she grows closer to the man who knocked her over, Yamanouchi, and eventually marries him instead but quickly finds herself out of place in his upperclass world.

Kesako, by contrast, ends up picking up on Sugiko’s job offer and joining the studio herself. She takes her unsuccessful artist boyfriend with her though their relationship suffers as she falls in with the studio crowd. Both women get what they thought they wanted, only to discover it to be not what they wanted at all.

Sugiko’s story is the main thrust of the narrative as she marries up through misfortune after Yamanouchi carelessly runs her over. He himself plays the part of the sensitive nobleman who’s bullied by his more conservative mother and sister who’ve picked out a girl exactly like them for him to marry. In a gesture that’s probably born out of rebellion rather than love, Yamanouchi brings Sugiko home as his wife but then leaves her to the mercy of the people he most feared himself. An ordinary working class woman, Sugiko quickly angers her mother in law by treating the servants like actual people and not having the poise expected of a Yamanouchi wife. Yamanouchi is too soft to defend himself, let alone his choice of wife, and so Sugiko’s life eventually becomes untenable sending Yamanouchi off the rails with it. Naruse includes a less than subtle intertitle here which states “EVEN TODAY, FEUDAL NOTIONS OF FAMILY CRUSH THE PURE LOVE OF YOUNG PEOPLE IN JAPAN”, which makes his position plain but seems a little strong for the anti-romantic nature of the relationship between the rebound Sugiko and the “getting back at mother” Yamanouchi.

Both Yamanouchi and Harada were interested in Sugiko as shield against an unwanted arranged marriage. Sugiko was unconvinced by both offers but her decision to marry Yamanouchi is one which ultimately went against her unconventional nature (as borne out by her unconventional decision to leave it). Sugiko and Kesako appear as mirrors of each other as Kesako nabs Sugiko’s job offer and starts to climb the studio ladder. Just as Sugiko finds the life of an upperclass housewife is not all she thought it would be, so Kesako begins to find the acting profession, which she’d previously dreamed of, equally unfulfilling. By the time we loop round the end, we arrive at the beginning again with both ladies in pretty much the same space they were in before though perhaps a little clearer about what it is they want from life. The final scene is one more of acceptance and self realisation than it is about moving forward, but then there’s a curious reappearance of a familiar face on a passing bus. It remains to be seen if this is hope leaving town or merely circling.


Street Without End is the fifth and final film included in Criterion’s Eclipse Series 26: Silent Naruse box set.

Every-Night Dreams (夜ごとの夢, Mikio Naruse, 1933)

Every Night DreamsFollowing on from Apart From You, Naruse returns to his exploration of working class women struggling to get by in a male dominated world in Every-Night Dreams (夜ごとの夢, Yogoto no Yume) also released in 1933. This time we meet weary bar hostess Omitsu who has a young son she’s raising alone after her deadbeat husband ran out on them a few years previously.

Omitsu doesn’t particularly like working in the bar, but as her mama-san grudgingly admits, she is quite good at it. She’s a modern woman who can drink and smoke and flirt to keep the guys buying drinks and wanting more though she’s finding it increasingly difficult to deflect some of the more intense interest such as that from a sleazy boat captain that her boss is eager to keep happy. Whilst at work, her son is looked after by a kindly older couple in her building who urge her to find a nicer line of business or get married again to a more reliable man.

The gentle rhythms of her life are disrupted when her long absent husband finally reappears. After first rejecting him outright, Omitsu eventually relents and lets him back into her life. However, despite his seemingly sincere pledges to change, get a proper job, start being a proper husband and father, Mizuhara fails to achieve any of his aims and also becomes increasingly jealous about Omitsu’s job at the bar. When their son, Fumio, is injured in an accident and requires expensive medical treatment, events reach a tragic climax.

Naruse would return to women alone facing a difficult economic future in many of his films but Omitsu’s situation is only made worse by the ongoing depression. Realistically speaking, there are few lines of work available to a woman in Omitu’s position and the more well regarded of them probably wouldn’t pay enough to allow her to keep both herself and her son, even as it stands she tries to borrow money from the bar to “reward” the older couple who watch Fumio while she’s working (though of course they wouldn’t take it). Omitsu herself feels there’s something degrading about her work and when her friend advises her to remarry, she exclaims any man worth a damn would run from a woman like her. Unfortunately, she may, in some senses, be right.

The man she ended up with, Mizuhara, is most definitely not worth a damn. It’s not entirely his fault he can’t find work – he does look for it and appears to want to find a job but in this difficult economic environment there’s not much going. Applying at factory, he’s turned down almost on sight because he’s a weedy sort of guy and doesn’t look like he’s cut out for physical labour. His inability to get ahead and provide for his wife and child sends him into a kind of depression and self esteem crisis which has him thinking about leaving again, especially as his increasing jealousy threatens his wife’s bar job which is their only form of income (whether he likes it or not). Fumio’s accident forces his hand into a series of bad decisions taken for a good reason but which again only cause more trouble for his family.

Naruse is a little flashier here than in Apart From You using canted angles, faster editing and even more zooms to hint at the panic felt by Omitsu in the increasingly distressing situations she finds herself in. Like the train accident in Flunky, Work Hard, the news that Fumio has been hit by a car is delivered in an expressionistic style beginning with his father putting down the boy’s toy car as a troupe of kids arrive and the screen is stabbed with a series of rapidly edited, alternating angle shots of intertitles mingled with the shocked reaction of the parents and the other children. If Naruse felt compelled to provide an ending with some sort of hint of far off promise in previous films, here he abandons that altogether as Omitsu laments her sad fate and instructs her son to grow up strong, not like his father, but like the mother who is doing everything she can to ensure his life won’t always be like this.


Every-Night Dreams is the fourth of five films included in Criterion’s Eclipse Series 26: Silent Naruse box set.

Apart From You (君と別れて, Mikio Naruse, 1933)

Apart From YouNaruse’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)

Flunky, Work Hard (腰弁頑張れ, Mikio Naruse, 1931)

flunky work hardMikio Naruse is often remembered for his female focussed stories of ordinary women trying to do they best they can in often difficult circumstances, but the earliest extant example of his work (actually his ninth film), Flunky, Work Hard (腰弁頑張れ, Koshiben Ganbare), is the sometimes comic but ultimately poignant tale of a lowly insurance salesman struggling to get ahead in depression era Japan.

Okabe is the lowly insurance agent of the title. He works hard for his money, but there are slim pickings round here to begin with and a lot of competition from rival agents so Okabe struggles to provide for his wife and his little boy, Susumu, in the way that he would like. Okabe subjects himself any sort of humiliating behaviour on offer to try and get a contract including engaging in leap frog with a well to do lady’s children to try and seem more “friendly” than his rival broker.

Susumu, by contrast is a rebellious little boy and is aways getting into scraps with the neighbourhood kids who tease him because of his parents’ money problems. This wouldn’t usually be too much of a problem and Okabe even tells him it’s OK to defend himself when the other kids start in on him. Only this time Susumu has been fighting with the well to do lady’s sons which is going to make Okabe look bad and make it more difficult to convince her to take out a policy with his firm over another.

Okabe loses his temper and scolds the boy who runs off in anger and confusion only to get into a serious accident. His father, not knowing it’s his son that’s been injured, uses the news of a little boy getting hurt to try and convince the other mothers to take out insurance policies on their children. Later he feels bad about shouting at Susumu and decides to buy him a present, only he might already be too late…

Flunky, Work Hard starts out like the nonsense comedies Shochiku were known for at the time with a little of their common man approach thrown in, but quickly heads into melodrama territory as Susumu meets with his unfortunate destiny. This sequence is the most notable in the film as it’s far more experimental in nature than anything found in Naruse’s later work. Dipping into a montage of kaleidoscopic images, diagonal splits and the awful momentum of a train hurtling along a predetermined track only to meet with a horrifying, unexpected obstacle, this extremely complex sequence is the perfect cinematic expression of the blood draining from a father’s face as he contemplates the fact that he might have just lost his son through having lost his temper over something as trivial as a few shiny coins. Okabe is not a bad man, or even a bad father, but just another ordinary guy trying to make it through the depression. Even so, he may be about to pay a terrible price for failing to side with his son in favour of businesses prospects.

Like many silent films from this era, almost all of Naruse’s early work appears to be lost. Flunky, Work Hard is somewhat atypical when considered alongside his later career which had a strong female focus and leant more towards social commentary than the slapstick humour seen here. However, its tale of a father desperately trying to find a way to support his son in difficult economic circumstances only to find that his efforts may cost him the very thing that he was trying to protect all along is one which is instantly recognisable in any era.


Flunky, Work Hard is the first and earliest of the five films included in Criterion’s Eclipse Series 26: Silent Naruse box set.