According to film scholar Audie Bock, Ginza Cosmetics is based less on its credited source material—a novel by Tomoichiro Igami—and more on screenwriter Matsuo Kishi and director Mikio Naruse’s personal knowledge of Tokyo’s Ginza district. Primarily a showcase for the great Japanese actress Kinuyo Tanaka, the film also marks an important turning point in its director’s career. I part company with those who regard Ginza Cosmetics and Repast as works heralding Naruse’s emergence from a supposed creative slump. Neither film holds a candle to the director’s lush, experimental, and mythic ‘40s triptych (Traveling Actors, The Song Lantern, and A Tale of Archery at the Sanjusangendo), nor do they surpass the often flawed stylistic and emotional flamboyance of his early-‘30s melodramas (Not Blood Relations, Apart From You, and Street Without End.) Ginza Cosmetics, in particular, seems a reiteration (at worst a rehash) of the latter group of films, though what sets it apart is a very clear sense of purpose amid the mesh of varying artistic intentions.
In other words, Ginza Cosmetics is rough-draft Naruse: he is here working through the stylings and observations he will more confidently articulate in such later masterpieces as Late Chrysanthemums, Flowing, and Yearning. Naruse’s camera glides sensually through the club Bel Ami, workplace of Ginza‘s protagonist Yukiko (Tanaka). Reminiscent of the expressive, often over-the-top visualizations that litter his youthful output, the imagery here possesses a steely and mature grace to the point that it feels like a knowing apotheosis. Indeed, from this point on I can’t recall another tracking shot in the Naruse films I’ve seen, which is not to say he didn’t use any—they might merely have become invisible, absorbed into the observational stasis that typifies the director’s subsequent mise-en-scène.
Ginza Cosmetics is both fascinatingly and frustratingly dogged by its creator’s self-awareness. The quietly tragic arc of Yukiko’s life (working as a Ginza hostess to support her young son while simultaneously entertaining the deceptive promises of numerous gentlemen callers) is so subdued that it barely registers and the surfeit of soaring camerawork seems in part designed to disguise the film’s general dearth of consequence. Ginza‘s occasional digressions into comedy (particularly an alcohol-fueled musical number tinged with embarrassment and discomfort) show more evidence of Naruse’s penetrating psychological insight, as does a wonderful nighttime sequence where Yukiko and a potential suitor observe and discuss the constellations.