One of the last things Susan Sontag did before she passed away last December was program a sequel to her last touring series of classic Japanese films. Of the nine titles in the new series now playing at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, I’ll remark on the Mikio Naruse selections here. (And I’ll catch up with The Story of the Last Chrysthanemums at the American Cinematheque’s upcoming Kenji Mizoguchi retrospective in the next couple weeks.)
Although he is considered a major filmmaker by any measure (critic Audie Bock includes him with Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu as “the third member of the [Japanese] triumvirate of early cinematic portraitists”), the films of Mikio Naruse are virtually unseen in the US; this film is considered to be the movie that brought him out of a fifteen-year creative slump and, according to Anderson and Richie’s The Japanese Film, inaugurated the shomin-geki (working class genre) revival of films of the 1950s typified by Ozu. Several commentators have suggested Naruse’s obscurity can be attributed both to the poor distribution of his work (only one or two of his films exist on video in this country) and his own self-deprecating, withdrawn personality.
But this personality is also undoubtedly what makes his films so emotionally compelling–stories of people (usually women) trapped and restrained in a society with no place to run, no hope of fulfilling their dreams, harboring the mere consolation of perseverance.
Repast is an adaptation of a novel by Fumiko Hayashi, Naruse’s favorite author, and stars Setsuko Hara as Michiyo, an unhappy housewife living in Osaka who fears that her stagnating marriage will eventually spell her doom. The film follows her as she slowly contemplates leaving her husband, taking an indefinite road trip to Tokyo to weigh her options. And that’s about it, plot-wise, but the movie is a tremendously nuanced portrait of emotional ambivalence, the struggle between free will and fate (the latter almost always triumphing for Naruse), and an admirably generous portrait of human disappointment without any villains to blame.
Setsuko Hara displays her usual capacity to convey an astonishing range of emotions through various degrees of smiles–happiness and warmth, but also awkwardness and sadness. Her subtle acting merges with Naruse’s unadorned, piercing stare, and Michiyo’s existential concerns and search for meaning slowly emerge with compelling clarity.
When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960)
This film is Naruse’s portrait of the life of a Ginza bar hostess named Keiko (or ‘Mama,’ wonderfully played by Hideko Takamine), who is approaching middle age and thinking about settling down with her own bar rather than simply entertaining men indefinitely. She faces several obstacles, all of them symbolized by the flight of stairs she dreads ascending to her workplace–her younger brother and his handicapped son are financially in need, her potential financiers are patrons at the bar who merely want her company, and most challengingly, her own integrity measured through a promise she made to her deceased husband. Though she physically ascends to her unhappy vocation, her emotional and economic weights threaten to ensure her diminishing options.
The film is beautifully shot in ‘Scope widescreen, but Naruse’s compositions are far from luxurious; the extended horizontal framing emphasizes the congested interiors and enclosed spaces of the film and Keiko is rarely alone as she constantly attempts to placate the romantic advances of potential lovers while remaining essentially aloof. As in Repast, Naruse represents the protagonist’s interior monologue through a spare voiceover that psychologically intensifies the viewer’s association. When Keiko muses on the women of Tokyo and mentions how in the evening most of them go home but her job is just beginning, Naruse presents some of the film’s few exterior shots of the city streets, with dusk settling, and the moment is both wistful and evocative.
It would probably be an interesting project to compare Naruse’s films to some of the roughly contemporaneous “women’s pictures” directed by Douglas Sirk in America. Their similarities and differences are intriguing: both focus on social pressures and domestic disillusionment yet Sirk’s famed Technicolor melodramas are the visual opposite of Naruse’s focused, black-and-white mood pieces.
Regardless, Naruse is clearly a filmmaker seriously in need of Western discovery.