In the early years of his filmmaking career, Mikio Naruse’s peers bestowed on him a rather cruel nickname (“Dr. Disconsolate”) that finds its physicalized expression, via the eternally slouching character of Mizuhara (Tatsuo Saito), in the director’s 1933 silent Every Night Dreams. Tall and thin, possessed of a sickly pale constitution, and cursed by perpetual bad luck, Mizuhara treads lightly through life, a melancholy, anonymous shell of a man inured to an unbounded, fatalistic defeatism. When he pays a visit to his ex-wife Mitsu (Sumiko Kurishima), hoping to reassert himself into the life of their young son Fumio (Teruko Kojima), he meets with an expected harsh rejection. “Because of you I’ve become too tough to be sentimental,” says Mitsu, who works as a Ginza bar hostess to make ends meet and continually fends off the wanton attentions of numerous male admirers. She eventually softens, in particular because of Mizuhara’s atypically confident pronouncements that he will find work and support the family, though this turns out to be—par for the Narusian course—a tragedy-laden false hope.
Like many Naruse films of the ‘30s, Every Night Dreams is somewhat stylistically unhinged, yet the constant rapid push-ins and frenetic cutting (particularly during a striking montage of running legs) feel more to the psychological point than in comparatively showier works like Not Blood Relations and Street without End. Naruse brilliantly navigates the space of Mitsu and Mizuhara’s marriage—their apartment, which even infinitely reflective mirrors seem to shrink and constrict, is a simmering emotional hothouse that the characters traverse like opposing chess pieces, forever avoiding each other’s pained gazes and masking their feelings in a culturally-sanctioned aura of politeness. When Fumio is hit by a car (one of the director’s career-constant motifs), it becomes clear that even home isn’t safe from Mizuhara’s afflictive bad luck and so he sinks to thieving before finally drowning himself in shame. What follows is perhaps Naruse’s most indelible sequence: confronted with Mizuhara’s suicide note, Mitsu rips it violently with her teeth and screams, “Weakling!” Cursing her husband, she falls to her knees before a convalescing Fumio and pleads with him to be a strong man, though the final composition and fade-out (at once empathetic and clinical) suggests that, much like Mizuhara, Naruse recognizes the futility of prayers in the face of a harsh, perhaps genetically predisposed reality.