Where to begin with Mikio Naruse

As one of his greatest films, Floating Clouds, debuts on Blu-ray, we chart a course through Japanese master Mikio Naruse’s exquisite dramas of human life and disappointment.

Scattered Clouds (1967)

Why this might not be so easy

For a time, at least, Mikio Naruse was regarded as one of the four most prominent directors of the golden age of Japanese cinema, alongside Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, but in recent years his star seems to have fallen from the pantheon. 

In comparison to those other three, his work remains hugely underrepresented in terms of English-friendly home video releases and consequently difficult to see. The situation is only slightly improved with the wider selection on offer via the Criterion Channel in the US and Canada, but even this disproportionately focuses on two distinct phases of his career and mainly the post-war melodramas starring some the greatest actresses of the age, such as Hideko Takamine and Setsuko Hara.

However unlikely it seems for cinema’s greatest pessimist, Naruse actually began his career in comedy at the studio Shochiku in 1930 before jumping ship to PCL which eventually became Toho, where he spent the bulk of his working life. Though not well remembered for his sense of humour, his films are never quite as bleak as one might assume and are often imbued with a down-to-earth sensibility and a tendency to find small moments of cheerfulness amid the crushing despair of living in a world that constantly betrays. 

What they each share is a copious sense of Chekhovian irony. Naruse’s films generally end without resolution, offering only a sense of resignation to life’s disappointments and the impossibility of happiness. Yet they are rarely unkind to those who seek it and usually forgiving of human flaws, which are often themselves born of a desire for the love and comfort the world has not seen fit to grant his melancholy protagonists.

The best place to start – Flowing

In his autobiography, Akira Kurosawa, who was an assistant director on Naruse’s 1937 film Avalanche, described Naruse’s films as being like a deep river with a quiet surface disguising a fast-raging current underneath. He remarked that the flow of his shots was so magnificent that the splices seemed almost invisible. The deceptive ‘invisibility’ of Naruse’s presence as a director has sometimes been given as a reason why he did not catch the eye of western critics in the way some of his contemporaries did, and this seamlessness is very much in evidence in Flowing (1956), from the opening shot of the river to the comings and goings of a moribund geisha house holding out against the increasing modernisation of the post-war society.

Flowing (1956)

This straddling of eras extends to the film’s casting of stars of the 1930s – Isuzu Yamada as the ageing madam Otsuta whose foolishness in love has cost her financial security, and Kinuyo Tanaka as the all-seeing, empathetic maid – alongside the new faces of the post-war era in Hideko Takamine as the daughter rejecting her mother’s business, and Mariko Okada as the modern woman who is also a geisha. 

The geisha house itself is on the brink of eclipse, but Otsuta’s problem has been relying on unreliable patrons for financial support. Finally accepting her days of expecting favours from men as a geisha are over, she brokers a way for herself to find a new kind of independence founded on female solidarity. But in a typically Narusean touch, she remains unaware until the closing moments that the rug will shortly be pulled from under her, and by another woman no less. 

What to watch next

Hideko Takamine, who plays the daughter in Flowing, is often regarded as a kind of muse for Naruse and became a frequent collaborator, starring in some of his best-known films. The most essential include Floating Clouds (1955) in which she plays a woman unable to escape the wartime era and her toxic romance with a married man that began in Vietnam; When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960) in which she’s an ageing bar hostess trapped by the economic and social realities of post-war Japan; and Yearning (1964), which ends on a closeup of her face in a horrifying moment of despair.

Floating Clouds (1955)

She first worked with the director in 1941 on the comparatively cheerful wartime film Hideko, the Bus Conductor in which a young woman attempts to save a moribund bus company by offering guided tours – only no one can think of any local landmarks in their otherwise idyllic rural village that somehow remains largely untouched by the war’s corruption.

Takamine also starred in A Wanderer’s Notebook (1962), a biopic of author Fumiko Hayashi whose novels inspired many of Naruse’s films including both Floating Clouds and Late Chrysanthemums (1954), another film revolving around struggling former geisha, starring Haruko Sugimura as a merciless business woman. Hayashi also provided the source material for one of the director’s best-known films with Setsuko Hara, Repast (1951), in which an unhappily married woman longs for escape from an unsatisfying marriage but is ultimately unable to find It.

Divorce would become a real possibility in 1954’s Sound of the Mountain, adapted from a Yasunari Kawabata novel in which a compassionate father-in-law recognises his paternal failures and urges his son’s wife to leave her unsatisfying marriage to an adulterous husband. The film reflects the changing social status of women in the post-war era in that the heroine’s mother-in-law may also have suspected her husband had affairs with other women, but would have pretended not to, given the social stigma and difficulty of supporting oneself after divorce. 

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960)

Even so, many of Naruse’s films from this era revolve around unhappy marriages and the women trapped inside them by social convention and patriarchal ideals. Take, for example, the heroine of 1953’s Wife, who never entertains the idea of leaving her husband to whom she is unsuited because she cannot perceive any other identity for herself that is not bound up with being a married woman.

Where not to start

Though a very fine and quite moving film, 1952’s Mother may not be the best place to start given its relative cheerfulness and what comes closest in the Naruse canon to a happy ending, which is to say you won’t find much else like it. Similarly, 1966’s Hit and Run is a thematic and stylistic departure making good use of handheld camera work and dazzling angles in a lurid tale of maternal revenge. 1959’s Whistling in Kotan too is something of an outlier in its focus on the indigenous Ainu community of northern Japan and the prejudice they continue to face even in modern society, while the film is otherwise hampered by a stiff and didactic screenplay.

It would also be misleading to begin with any of the director’s early comedies though Travelling Actors certainly has its moments, where the humour can sometimes seem obscure. Naruse disliked most of his films from the 1940s and felt he only began to recover from a lengthy artistic slump with the release of Ginza Cosmetics in 1951, thereafter producing a series of masterpieces culminating in his final film, Scattered Clouds (1967). Many of his films from this era are influenced by Occupation-era censorship demands, while there was also a labour dispute at his home studio Toho in the later part of the decade that saw him working outside his usual environment in a film industry that was otherwise in disarray. 

While many of them, such as The Song Lantern (1943) which has some surprisingly ghostly imagery, are better than they are given credit for, they also reflect the chaotic circumstances of their creation. Nevertheless, even the most imperfect of Naruse’s films have something to offer to the seasoned viewer in the director’s all pervading empathy for those betrayed by the world in which they live and who are resigned only to the endurance of their unhappiness.

Floating Clouds is out on BFI Blu-ray from 1 July.

Further reading