Flunky, Work Hard! is the first surviving work of director Mikio Naruse, his eighth film chronologically and available only as a 38-minute digest version created for the Japanese home market. Even at its truncated length the film is a near-masterpiece, succumbing only in its final moments to a dishonest sentimentality that we might attribute to misplaced youthful idealism. The film contrasts a day-in-the-life of a working class insurance salesman (Isamu Yamaguchi) with that of his temperamental young son Susumu. While the salesman tries desperately to sell a policy to the rich woman up the street, Susumu defends himself (in a quite hilarious succession of physical brawls) against the taunts of some peers. The salesman insists his son be more peaceful and acquiescent, though he fails to take his own advice when plying his trade, engaging in childish displays of one-upsmanship with an egregious rival agent. All to a purpose: The salesman is trying to land the deal so that he can pay off his creditors and buy Susumu a model airplane, yet the too explicit differences between father and son compel the boy to run away. During his getaway Susumu is hit by a train and hospitalized. Upon hearing what has happened the salesman runs to Susumu’s bedside and contemplates his own responsibility for the situation.
Flunky, Work Hard! contains an intriguing mix of elements from both early and later Naruse. In addition to the director’s omnipresent theme of the frustrations of money, the film is composed primarily of static shots, though these are frequently intruded on by hectic superimpositions that create a powerfully implied impression of movement. These layered stylistic juxtapositions anticipate the frenetic camera tracks of many of Naruse’s 30s movies (where he quite literally seems to be digging for his characters’ souls), though it should be noted that Flunky, Work Hard! is a much more penetrating and psychologically acute work as compared to films like Not Blood Relations and Apart from You, both of which devolve into dissonant melodramatic bathos. Flunky, Work Hard! is a film at a crossroads, its most resonant image that of a fly trapped under a dripping faucet and flailing around the waterlogged sink. It’s almost as if Naruse caught a glimpse, in this one visual, of the artist he would become, possessed of a necessity to depict life in all its harsh and horrifying reality (as he does in this image’s complementary bookend: the devastating Hideko Takamine close-up that closes out his cumulative masterpiece Yearning.) Yet Flunky, Work Hard! is finally a young man’s film and so the story’s necessary final punch is pulled to make way for an inorganic and fraudulent sense of hope—in this we can see where many of the flaws of Naruse’s subsequent films are birthed, though the misstep seems somewhat less officious in the retrospect of a career that ultimately does end up on the side of vicious and undeniable Truth.