The Song Lantern is an intoxicating work from director Mikio Naruse that follows the exploits of cocky young Noh performer Onchi Kitahachi (Shôtarô Hanayagi), expelled from his family theater troupe after driving Sozan, a blind masseur and boastful amateur Noh singer, to suicide. Kitahachi vows never to perform Noh again and for several guilt-stricken years he wanders the roads of Meiji-era Japan as a lantern singer, living off the tips and backhanded compliments of others. Then Kitahachi hears from his friend Jirozou (Eijirô Yanagi) that Sozan’s daughter O-Sode (Isuzu Yamada) is still alive, forced to make her way as a geisha, though she lacks the necessary samisen-playing skills. He takes it upon himself to train her in one of the finest, most difficult Noh dances and soon after O-Sode becomes the redemptive instrument by which Kitahachi is reunited with his family and his art. The Song Lantern is, scene for scene, a visual marvel, comparable—most explicitly during a training montage set in an ethereal woodland—to the regal sweep of a Mizoguchi film. Naruse’s atypically swooping camera moves have a profound majesty, but his customary sense of stasis and observance is here as well via the film’s languorous Noh sequences, which envisage a primarily theatrical art as sublime, rhythmic cinema. The Song Lantern is probably something of a challenge for Western audiences as one is dropped into this culturally specific milieu with little explanation of its nuances and meanings. It is best approached by the viewer bearing some familiarity with Naruse and his obsessions, and/or with the tenets of Noh stylization.
This is not to say that the film is entirely inaccessible to the neophyte; much like two of Naruse’s other 40s works (Traveling Actors and A Tale of Archery at the Sanjusangendo), The Song Lantern can and should be viewed through the universal prisms of myth and parable. There’s much reliance on coincidence in the narrative, which might play as contrivance were Naruse not so attuned to his characters’ surroundings. Nature is, in many ways, the film’s background protagonist, a spiritual connector that makes certain each character is where they need to be at any given moment. This unspoken sense of fatalism (intertwining the tragic and the ecstatic) permeates The Song Lantern‘s every scene and it certainly fits with Naruse’s generally pessimistic outlook on life, especially in a fog-shrouded sequence where Kitahachi, despondent and drunk, is literally haunted by Sozan’s ghost. Yet the film’s spiritual substance (illustrated when Kitahachi reunites with his father and O-Sode against a radiant full moon backdrop) also speaks to a powerful sense of certainty in divine recompense, a kind of egotistical entitlement befitting the confident, nationalist mood Japan’s wartime powers-that-be wished to portray and cultivate. Though it’s clear that Naruse has little interest in the film’s propagandistic elements, one wonders if they were among the reasons the director, in his later years, reportedly said that he made no movies of worth between 1935’s Wife! Be Like a Rose! and 1951’s Repast, all evidence (The Song Lantern in particular) to the contrary.