It’s not just the pitiful lack of availability in the west – a mere 11 of 67 extant features have been released on DVD – that marks the great Japanese filmmaker, Mikio Naruse as something of an invisible auteur. “Movies are ephemeral,” the dedicated, self-effacing company man said of his films, “they disappear in one or two weeks”. Yet anyone familiar with even a handful of his 1950s masterpieces can attest to a body of work every bit as captivating as that of his better-known peers.
This invisibility extends to a visual style more fluid than the rigorous formal motifs of Yasujiro Ozu, with whom he’s often compared. Both directors are known as proponents of the Shoshimin-eiga (films about ordinary people) genre, but the marriage in Naruse’s “women’s films” of realist and melodramatic modes to contemporary examinations of an explicitly gendered society evince a more striking immediacy – of a specific time and place – than Ozu’s nostalgic timelessness.
Naruse’s formal physicalisation of psychological interiors was peerless, perhaps best exemplified in this quote from Akira Kurosawa, with whom he would often share the lower half of a double-bill; the feminine yin to Kurosawa’s heroic-male yang:
“Naruse’s method consists of building one very brief shot on top of the other, but when you look at them all spliced together in the final film, they give the impression of a single long take. The flow is so magnificent that the splices are invisible. This flow of short shots looks calm and ordinary at first glance then reveals itself to be like a deep river with a quiet surface disguising a fast-raging current underneath. The sureness of his hand in this was without comparison.”
It’s almost impossible to pick a mere 10 essential titles from Naruse’s extraordinary filmography – so much so that we couldn’t resist listing a further dozen underneath – but these represent a good place to start…
Every Night Dreams (1933)
Only five of Naruse’s silent pictures have survived (handily collected in a single DVD edition by Criterion’s Eclipse imprint in the US), all much more stylistically dynamic than his better known later works. Every Night Dreams features the earliest embodiment of a fully-fledged female protagonist in bar girl Omitsu (Sumiko Kurishima); its narrative drama hinging on what would become a familiar Narusian trope: the car accident. Just as public and private spaces serve as counterpoints to each other, so is the dazzling montage – not least in a stunningly orchestrated finale – juxtaposed in a realist social milieu.
Wife! Be like a Rose! (1935)
One of the earliest Japanese films to achieve critical attention in the west (it had a short run at New York’s Filmarte Theatre in 1937), Wife! Be like a Rose! makes it easy to see why Naruse is so often labelled a progressive filmmaker. Such labels may take little cultural or historical context into account, but its depiction of western-dressed protagonist Kimiko (Chiba Sachiko) still feels bracingly modern, not least in the family dynamics she seeks to resolve. As they would be throughout his career, financial concerns are explicitly foregrounded, as a more acute sense of female subjectivity takes precedence over earlier stylistic flamboyance.
Late Chrysanthemums (1954)
One of the most exquisitely realised of all Naruse’s ‘women’s pictures’, Late Chrysanthemums eschews any driving narrative force for a stunningly nuanced study of emotional and economic complexities, rooted firmly in the quotidian dynamics of the present. Naruse’s gaze is of a piece with his four female protagonists, the older women (and former geisha) symbolically represented by the film’s title. But these are no wilting flowers, more survivors (not least Haruko Sugimura’s Kin) whose steely reserve insists upon an ironic reading of the eponymous fading blooms.
Floating Clouds (1955)
Despite being his most acclaimed and well-known film in Japan – it’s ranked by Kinema Junpo as the third greatest Japanese film of all time, behind Tokyo Story (1953) and Seven Samurai (1954) – Naruse’s gut-wrenching masterpiece is something of an anomaly in his filmography. With its integrated use of flashbacks and an explicitly postwar setting, it’s a story of a compulsive, soured love-affair that eschews the director’s tendency for openly ambiguous, ‘life goes on’ endings in favour of a tragic finality. The editing here feels far more pronounced than elsewhere in his 50s output – a meditation on memory and loss of staggering emotional power.
Sudden Rain (1956)
The ambiguous, unresolved ending common to Naruse’s cinema is exemplified in the impromptu, passive-aggressive game of volleyball that erupts between the married couple at the close of Sudden Rain. It’s one of Naruse’s bleakest portraits of a marriage in decline, the irruptive nature of the film’s title – meteorological disturbances a regular theme in his work – symbolic of a rupture in the daily domestic grind. Setsuko Hara gives one of her finest performances as Fumiko – a far cry from the dreamy Noriko she played for Ozu – but it’s Naruse’s typically non-judgemental stance that elevates the film into the top tier of his work.
Naruse’s run of masterpieces in the 1950s continued with Flowing (after another, Wife, in 1953). A Chekhovian portrait (tipping its hat to The Cherry Orchard) of a ‘family’ of geishas trying to keep hold of their business in the face of encroaching modernity, it’s one of Naruse’s greatest films, and in many ways his most quintessential – the title alone could serve for any number of his works. Financial and material concerns are front-and-centre – can the geisha house survive without patronage? – as an architecturally-inclined mise-en-scène charts the public and private spaces to which the incredible ensemble cast are (with the exception of Kinuyo Tanaka’s Rika) indelibly fused.
When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960)
Naruse made 17 films with actor Hideko Takamine, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs being the most celebrated and widely-seen (in the west) of their collaborations. Takamine plays Keiko, a bar-hostess with dreams of opening her own establishment, dragged down by financial and romantic woes. The film builds slowly and steadily to its piercing climax, a compounding of disillusionments played out in a tour-de-force exchange with a would-be suitor. The final shots, of Keiko walking to the bar (“I suffered an ordeal as fierce as the north wind. But trees sprout, no matter how hard the wind blows. I must become strong, to stand up to the wind.”), pausing at the stairs before ascending into a resiliently masked close-up, prove as haunting as anything in the director’s work.
Autumn Has Already Started (1960)
Released on the lower half of a double-bill with Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well (1960), Autumn Has Already Started (aka The Approach of Autumn) sees Naruse lower his gaze to tell a slice-of-childhood in miniature. Hideo (Kenzaburo Osawa) is dumped with relatives in the big city by his mother, who vanishes to find work, leaving him to fend for himself. Forming a friendship with a neighbour, Junko, the two explore Tokyo – beautifully captured by Naruse’s 60s cinematographer, Jun Yasumoto. Questions of sentimentality sometimes levelled at the film are undermined by Hideo’s surmounting of a pervasive hostility, while another great final shot lends the title its chill, life’s hardships making no exceptions for age.
One of Naruse’s most stunning achievements. It’s difficult to talk about Yearning without discussing its breathtaking final shot, one of the greatest in all cinema. Yet to do so risks ruining its heart-wrenching power for the uninitiated. Suffice to say that as essential titles go, this sits at the top of the pile. What begins as a typically Narusian examination of contemporary fiscal woes – a new supermarket threatens to put local shops out of business – soon develops into a romantic tug-of-war steeped in exquisite melodrama. A robust, three-act structure soars as the would-be lovers flee to the countryside – she to escape, he in pursuit – a fleeting glimpse of a chance at love hounded by the past and the inexorable cruelty of fate.
Scattered Clouds (1967)
Naruse’s last film draws on a career’s worth of narrative and thematic tropes for a final melancholy sigh. Two car accidents bookend Scattered Clouds, the first joining company-man, Mishima (Yuzo Kayama) to Yumiko (Yoko Tsukasa) in financial responsibility, after he knocks down and kills her husband. The second shatters a burgeoning romance between the pair at the film’s climax, a totemic reminder of its impossibility. A storm at the film’s centre threatens – as ever – to unbalance a delicately negotiated status quo, but there are no easy resolutions here, just all the complexities and disappointments of lives moving forward.