Of all the acknowledged masters of cinema, the Japanese director Mikio Naruse is perhaps the one least known in the West, as well as the one whose work is most difficult to see. Minimally represented on VHS and DVD (at this writing, none of his features are available in Region 1 format), the primary way to experience the director’s oeuvre is on film, though this in itself—barring the current 31-film traveling retrospective and its mid-’80s predecessor—is often easier said than done. For the most part, rights issues and the lack of subtitled prints have relegated Naruse to the realm of mystery. The upside of remaining out of sight for so long is that a substantial reputation can be built among the movie faithful, yet how can any filmmaker hope to live up to the cinephilic fervor that Naruse’s films, by their very absence, have cultivated? Rare that the newcomer to an artist’s work is immediately captured and unreservedly convinced of said artist’s supreme aesthetic mastery, yet that was exactly my experience upon viewing Naruse’s seminal 1960 melodrama When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. Several films into the current retrospective (now playing at New York City’s Film Forum) and the shock of that first impression, the sense that I had been completely absorbed into and was experiencing an utterly unique cinematic worldview, shows no signs of dissipating. With the relative dearth of English writing on Naruse, this Slant Magazine feature aims to collect, under one banner, as complete a summary and consideration of the director’s body of work as possible. Following the general theme of my initial encounter with When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, each review is a first impression, written from the inquisitive perspective of a neophyte coming to these films for the first time. Taken together I hope these pieces will act as inspiration and guide for our readers to seek out the work of an artist too long in neglect. A final note: Though created and published in conjunction with the current retrospective (which in toto represents little more than a third of Naruse’s 89-film output) this will eventually become a stand-alone database with extant titles added as they are seen.
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