Tuesday, November 15


Naruse, what?

The first thing almost everybody does when writing on Japanese director Mikio Naruse is talk about how difficult it has been for years to see his films. It may be true, but when repeated over and over again (and here I am doing nothing to counter the tradition) it begins to sound like some sort of apology. One starts to wonder if Naruse's films are considered great simply because they are rare. Surely they're not rare simply because they're great, right?

Still, ever since hearing about the reported master for the first time four or five years ago, I have dutifully treaded out to every single screening (in reasonable striking distance) of a Naruse film I've been aware of. Which means that, until this past Sunday, I'd seen a grand total of one of his films in a cinema, the charming short Flunky, Work Hard!, which prefigures by one year Ozu's I Was Born, But... in its depiction of a son's chagrin at realizing his father's lowly position in the wider society. I also have watched two of the three out-of-print videotapes of his films available at the better rental stores in town (I still haven't gotten around to the most highly-lauded of the three, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs).

Whatever dam was holding them back, the centennial of Naruse's birth is opening the gates to allow prints of his films to flow into the view of Frisco cinephiles, now at a trickle and soon a healthy stream. The stream will take the form of a touring Naruse retrospective coming to the Pacific Film Archive January 12 through February 18, 2006. While we wait, the Taisho Chic on Screen series there includes three early Naruse features fitting with the series theme of examining images of the "modern girl" in pre-war Japan. A pair of films from 1935, Three Sisters With Maiden Hearts and Wife! Be Like a Rose! (the latter among the first Japanese films ever to land a commercial release in the United States), play November 26th. And I went there to see his first feature film Apart From You on Sunday evening.

Though it is saddled with one of the blandest English-language titles I've encountered (the occasional alternate title After Our Separation is only marginally better) Apart From You really is quite an impressive film, the first I've seen to really make me start to agree that Naruse might worthy of his critical reputation as the most underrated Japanese master. The story shifts focus between characters so that it's hard to think of one as the protagonist, though Sumiko Mizokubo's luminous beauty and key role in the drama makes her the leading candidate. She plays a Terukiku, a geisha who falls in love with Yoshio (Akio Isono), the young, rebellious son of Kikue (Mitsuko Yoshikawa), her mentor at the geisha house. Observing how Yoshio feels humiliated by his mother's profession, she brings him to her seaside hometown to meet the family that sold her into service, hoping the experience will lend him more understanding of his mother's fate. However, the trip home impresses on her the impending likelihood of her sister being obliged to follow in her footsteps. Thus, Terukiku becomes determined to work all the harder to bear the family burden and shield her sister's baby son from the kind of shame Yoshio feels, even if it means separating from him. This may read like unremarkable plotting typical of Japanese dramas of the time, but Naruse commands a wide variety of camera movements (including some rapidly tracking close-ups at particularly tense moments) and lighting configurations to squeeze the maximum emotional control over each instant.

Apart From You was preceded by a fragment of Rising Sun, a film commissioned by an Osaka newspaper for its 50th year in print and co-directed by Seiichi Ina and Kenji Mizoguchi. Perhaps warming up with a promotional fragment caused me to notice in the feature quite a few particularly prominent shots of consumer products used by the geisha and their clients, from a cigarette pack to a Meiji chocolate bar. Not reading Japanese, it's hard for me to guess whether these might have been paid product placements, though some of the products had perfectly legible English words or recognizable logos (in a shot of a record player it was easy to read the Victor company's name on the label, and even make out the picture of Nipper). Whether or not these shots were originally an expression of the shrewd commercial sense of Shochiku studio's suits, they seem to function for Naruse as a kind of commentary on the deceivingly luxurious lifestyle geishas live in. And anyway, after 70+ years, product placements seem more quaint than crass. I certainly didn't feel the urge to go out and buy a Union Beer after seeing a bottle of it spilled at the end of a poignant scene.

Oh yeah, he is all that and a bag of chips! I just wish that that Film Forum hadn't started the series right after NYFF. I'm up to ten Naruse films seen with Every Night's Dream and each time, I see another aspect of his filmmaking that's quite remarkable, like using tango-like music in Floating Clouds to express the couple's entrapment in their relationship or the disembodied feet in Every Night's Dream that really plays with your sense of time. I'm hoping NGA picks up at least a portion of the series for DC next year.
Alas, I'm the squarest of squares who has seen just one of his movies, his best-known: The Woman Who Ascends The Stairs, but boy it was a delicious 'un.
I hope to be able to delve as deep into the upcoming series as I can; it's scope is still uncertain, though it looks like I'm going to have to miss When a Woman Ascends the Stairs on February 11 due to a prior commitment on that evening. Drat!

I just found my way to a google discussion group consisting of East Coast Naruse-heads posting about the series at the Film Forum in New York that completed earlier this evening. Here's the link:

When A Woman Ascends The Stairs.
Then, repeating three times.
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