Writing back in 1982, critic Dave Kehr reasoned, “I’ve only seen three films by Mikio Naruse…but with the personality, assurance and range of styles those three films show, it’s enough to convince me that Naruse belongs with the greatest Japanese directors—with Mizoguchi and Ozu.” An astonishing statement to be sure, but one that gets at both the continued difficulty in actually being able to view more than a handful of the director’s 67 surviving films—no less so now than 29 years ago—and the immense hold works such as Yearning and When a Woman Ascends the Staircase have on those who’ve managed to see them.
In fact, until Criterion’s recent release of the “Silent Naruse” box set through their Eclipse imprint, When a Woman Ascends the Staircase, a late masterpiece about a Tokyo barmaid’s dwindling prospects for a satisfying life, was the only of the director’s films issued on American DVD. With the availability of the Eclipse set, which contains all five of his surviving silents (out of 24!), the picture widens considerably. For those used to the unruffled, graceful aesthetic of his later films, these early pictures reveal an artist trying on a range of styles, much as his colleagues Mizoguchi and Ozu, similarly influenced by the American cinema, were doing at the same time. What we learn from “Silent Naruse,” is that between 1931 and 1934, the director was mixing fixed-camera setups with a whole playbook of alternative visual strategies, had already started moving toward the subject matter (the josei-eiga or woman’s film) that would represent his career-long turf even while bringing in elements of other genres, and had begun mapping out a range of repeated narrative and visual motifs (people getting hit by cars and trains, holes in shoes and socks) that appear in nearly all the surviving silents.
This mixture of styles and subjects is already readily apparent in Naruse’s oldest surviving film, the 28-minute Flunky, Work Hard. That 1931 effort somewhat clumsily, if nonetheless affectingly, juxtaposes bitter comedy and somber near-tragedy, wild avant-garde outbursts with a more restrained, if far from Ozu-esque, aesthetic. A tale of economic deprivation and male humiliation, the film is atypically centered away from its female characters. Introduced repairing a hole in his shoe with a newspaper insert, insurance agent Okabe (Isamu Yamaguchi) is able neither to provide his wife with the standard of living she demands nor his son with the toy airplane he longs for and whose want leads him to fights with the other neighborhood kids.
A large, ungainly man with comically boyish face, Okabe is subject to frequent humiliation, generally played for semi-cruel laughter. In the central set piece, the agent woos the five kids of a wealthy family he hopes to sell to by kneeling down and letting them leapfrog over him, trying not to take offense as they laugh at his hole-filled shoes or his watchless-chain, all the while vying with a shady looking competitor who wedges his way in by flirting with the family maid. Later, Okabe takes out his humiliation on his son, repeatedly hitting him for getting in a fight with one of boys of his potential client. After tragedy strikes, the tone shifts away from the comic, triggered by an impossibly fast-cut sequence exploding with every French Impressionist trick in the book, before giving way to the somber, shadowy expressionism of a vaguely sinister hospital in which flies lie dead in the sink pools created by perennially leaky faucets.
No less than Flunky, Work Hard, the following year’s No Blood Relation is a mixture of modes and styles. Shifting largely toward the female-oriented setting that would define the majority of Naruse’s subsequent work, the movie mixes the woman’s film with elements of the urban crime drama. Aesthetically, scenes built on a riot of track-ins (both on faces and intertitles!), back-and-forth pans, and odd angles share time with sequences given a more classical construction, the mélange of styles initially creating an exhilarating sense of disjunction, one that must rival the sense of disorientation felt by the hapless child at the film’s center.
Caught between the contesting claims of her adoptive mother and her birth mother, young Shigeko (Hisako Kojima) is nearly run over by a car in an early scene, is injured by a bicycle in a later one, and in between, gets abducted by the woman that gave birth to her, a person of whom she has no prior memory. Returning to Japan after leaving her husband and child six years earlier to become a wildly successful movie star in America, Tamae Kiyooka (Yoshika Okada) returns to seek her daughter’s affections, even though the girl was an infant when she departed and she was raised in the interim by her stepmother, Masako (Yukiko Tsukuba).
No matter. With Masako’s corporate exec husband in prison after bankrupting his company, Tamae kidnaps her daughter with the help of her money-hungry mother-in-law, her petty criminal brother and his stumbling, comic-relief-providing sidekick. Tamae just can’t figure out why her daughter won’t love her and why she should want to return to her now-impoverished stepmother, but her lack of maternal understanding isn’t mirrored by Naruse. With extraordinary sensitivity built principally out of an unparalleled attention to faces (a focus that begins in the frenetic opening scene where a fast-cut succession of visages call out to stop a purse thief), the filmmaker forces us to acknowledge the yearning in the birth mother’s countenance. She may put her own needs above those of her daughter, but thanks to Naruse’s endless track-ins, the viewer must acknowledge, if not the validity, than at least the legitimate existence of the older women’s needs.
The filmmaker’s next two extant works, both from 1933, similarly focus on the mother-child relationship. The pathetic melodrama Apart from You feels like a transitional work for Naruse, though given the extreme gaps in his filmography, it’s really impossible to say with any certainty. What can be said is that the filmmaker has begun to pare down his films to their essentials, reducing both the number of characters and situations found in No Blood Relation, as well as the visual flourishes. Yet, in telling the story of an aging geisha whose embarrassed teenage son has taken to cutting school and hanging out with a gang of juvenile delinquents, Naruse still clings to a crime-film subplot and spends at least as much time focusing on the disloyal offspring’s relationship with a younger geisha determined to keep her little sister from following in her footsteps as he does on the central filial relationship.
Similarly, even as the film is marked by a less frenetic, largely fixed-take aesthetic, Naruse calls on his track-ins when a scene requires special emphasis, as in a series of dizzying forward-moving shot/reverse shots of mother and son following a round of mutual recrimination, which movingly ends on a pair of extreme close-ups of the teary-eyed duo. Instead, Naruse spends his time picking out small, but telling details (repeated shots of the son’s hole-filled socks) or registering the film’s variety of settings (the bustling streets of the red light district, the waves lapping the rocks in a seaside town) in vivid aspect. Only in the film’s final sequences does he give in fully to the track/pan/quick-cut/superimposition tricks of his earlier movies—here employed with varying degrees of success.
Every-Night Dreams might similarly be termed a transitional work, though it uses camera movement a bit more selectively than Apart from You while telling an even more piteous tale than the earlier film. Centered on another single mother taking a disreputable job to support her son, Every-Night Dreams is as much a tale about male emasculation as it is about female sacrifice. Set in a crisply evoked dockside town, the film finds Omitsu (Sumiko Kurishima) working as a bar hostess and living alone with her preteen boy until her estranged husband returns and she reluctantly takes him back. Suffering the humiliation of being unable to find a job, watching through the windows as men make crude advances on his wife, the de-manned Mizuhara (Tatsuo Saito) ends up turning petty thief after his son is severely injured, a pursuit that leads inevitably to disaster. This hapless male’s misadventures stand as the tragic flipside to Okabe’s comic humiliations in Flunky, Work Hard.
Naruse’s is a pitiless vision and it’s in Every-Night Dreams that its full bleakness is first felt—at least among his surviving works. A devastating film, it makes pointed use of the director’s signature track-ins, employed judiciously to emphasize the expressions of the character’s faces as the import of the film’s tragedies register in their consciousnesses. Similarly, Naruse maps out a world of scrubby lots where kids play baseball as smokestacks spew their venom in the background, of the choppy waves that promise little redemption, and, above all, of the bar where Omitsu works. Nearly as vivid a creation as the raucous sailor’s haunt in Sternberg’s The Docks of New York from five years earlier, this seaside ale-house is a repository of graffitied walls (what’s that hammer and sickle doing there!?), nautical décor and quirky regulars, this last group taken in through a series of lateral tracking shots illustrative of the purpose with which Naruse has, by this point, learned to move his camera.
The director’s final silent, made before jumping ship from Shochiku to the sound-equipped Photo-Chemical Studios, Street Without End is a richly ambiguous melodrama whose sense of tragedy is balanced by the lead character’s ambivalent self-assertion during the movie’s climax. The director’s most fully realized film of the silent era and a true forerunner of his later josei-eiga despite his initial reluctance to tackle the project, Street finds its protagonist, Sugiko (Setsuko Shinobu) subject to oppression not at the hands of a man, but via a pair of women, specifically her mother- and sister-in-law. As much concerned with class as gender, and offering a scathing critique of the Japanese “feudal” family structure that still held sway in Tokyo’s upper crust clans in 1934, the film traces the consequences of waitress Sugiko marrying far above her station. When her ineffectual husband is unable to stand up to his overbearing mother and sadistic sister as they torment his bride with reminders of her shortcomings and her humble beginnings, he turns to drink while she stops bowing in acquiescence and takes flight.
Rich in thematically reinforcing subplot, which never threatens to overwhelm the main storyline, this last silent finds Naruse further refining his aesthetic, limiting his track-ins to two slow movements toward the heroine’s face. Not that his camera remains perfectly still, but the filmmaker saves his flourishes for privileged moments: a round of ultra rapid panning and cutting during the film’s two (!) auto accidents; alternating shots of Sugiko’s face, pointed in opposite directions as she debates her final course of action.
But mostly Naruse is interested once again in foregrounding the action in a firm sense of place, especially important in a film dealing with class where the characters can only be understood when framed against their social environment. Opening and closing his film with montages of street scenes in the Ginza neighborhood where Sugiko works, Naruse contrasts the vibrancy and variety of Tokyo middle- and working-class life with the bland, hermetically-sealed mansion owned by Sugiko’s in-laws whose only flourishes are a painting of birds nesting in a tree and an imposing portrait of a general, presumably a family forebear, coldly greeting all visitors, a stand-in for the sort of patriarchal authority passed down instead to the female head-of-household and sorely lacking from the latest in Naruse’s set of ineffectual men.
Given the archival nature of much of the material, visual imperfections inevitably abound. The sound—consisting of original scores by Robin Holcomb and Wayne Horvitz—rings out crisp and clear, however.
As in all Eclipse sets, the only extras are typically thoughtful liner notes by Michael Koresky.
With Eclipse's latest, the amount of region 1-available Naruse increases sixfold, but it's still just the tip of the iceberg.