Two Shochiku silent tragicomedies

In his 1974 Ozu Yasuji book, Donald Richie began that Ozu “had but one major subject, the Japanese family, and but one major theme, its dissolution.” Ozu’s prewar films look more at the effects on the family of the hierarchical social structure.

The earliest one I’ve seen (the surviving fragments of), “I Graduated But…” (Umarete wa mita keredo, 1929) seems to be about a college graduate who moved to Tokyo and couldn’t find a job, though pretending as first his mother and then his fiancée come to live with him. The pretending of going to work would also be the launching pad of “Departures,” the first Japanese move to win the best foreign-language film Oscar many decades later

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Audie Bock (Japanese Film Directors) asserts that the 1932 “I Was Born But…” is “Ozu’s first great film.” It centers on two young boys, Keiji (Aoki Tomio) and Ryoichi (Sugawara Hideo) who are reluctantly realizing that their father (Saitô Tatsuo) is a lackey, not at all a hero or a potentate.

The family has just moved into a Tokyo neighborhood where the father’s boss also lives. The boss’s son, Taro (Katô Seichi), is a leader (second-ranked) of a gang of miscreants who bully the new boys. Through some movie contrivances, the boys outfight the gang-members and keep Taro as their ranking subordinate in the reconstituted gang.

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Their father explains the way things are: “He who has the gold makes the rules.” And he doesn’t have it. “You tell us to become somebody, but you’re nobody! “ they scream at him. Though initially they are bullied, the boys are not especially engaging (they don’t mug like their Hollywood contemporaries in Our Gang/Little Rascals shorts.).

 

Not anticipating Ozu’s later work, the mother has no character, is entirely subservient to her husband and her role as a housewife.

Way back then, Ozu allowed camera movement to follow the boys (DP Mohara Hideo also edited the movie).

 

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The year before (1931) Naruse Mikio shot a similar story of disappointment in a father (Yamaguchi Isamu) who was the title character, “Flunky, Work Hard!” (Koshiben Gambara). In it the father was an unsuccessful insurance salesman. His own, uninsured, son, Susumu (Katô Seichi), who is preoccupied with obtaining a model airplane, is hit by a train as he sells insurance to a difficult but well-off mother of five.

 

Focused on the humiliation(s) of an adult male, “Flunk” does not prefigure the beaten-down women who became Naruse’s specialty. The cruel slapstick of the first part (with the salesman kneeling on the ground for his potential clients’ children to, plus evading the rent collector) turns to anguished expressionism in the hospital where his son is taken.

 

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The running time of Naruse’s film was only 28 minutes; Ozu’s ran 90. Though “Flunky” was the ninth film Naruse directed, it is the oldest one still extant (three more later ones have been lost, too).

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

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Naruse’s last movie

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Naruse’s last movie, “Midaregumo” (1967, “Two in the Shadow” in its IMDB listing, “Scattered Clouds” in the Criterion Edition title) show yet another struggling widow, this one, Yumiko (Tsukasa Yoko) going to work as a maid/geisha at the northern (Lake Towada) resort inn inherited by her sister-in-law Katsuko (Mori Mitsuko).

Rather than be fixed up with a business associate of Katsuko’s married lover, she overcomes her aversion to the man who was driving the car that killed her husband, Mishima Shiro, played by the very good-looking Kayama Yûzô (who played the arrogant younger doctor counterpoised to Mifune in “Red Beard” and the brother seeking revenge against Nakadai in “The Sword of Doom”). Mr. Mishima was exonerated by the court but very conscientious in making monthly payments to the widow, before falling in love with her.

Romance shyly blooms, but after Yumiko asks him to transfer, he is being sent to Lahore (viewed by the Japanese as the birthplace of cholera). Plus they see the wreckage of another automtive crash and a man hauled away with the same bandaging as Yumiko’s husband. Not that I expected a happy ending from Naruse. (I did wonder what happened to the child she was three months pregnant with when her husband was killed, though!)

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There are many scenes with interlocutors in the frame rather than his usual alternation of shots of alternating speakers. And color is well used (the other Naruse films I’ve seen were shot in black and white). The Takemitsu score is very conventional “movie music,” not sounding distinctively like Takemitsu.

(Yumiko was preparing to accompany her husband to the Japanese embassy in D.C. at the outset, and Mr. Mishima’s look seems western, as does Yumiko’s hairdo. Catherine Russell’s book on Naruse suggests she desires a western gentleman. Lord knows, Kayama looks like a Japanese version of Hollywood movie star with a tan and gleaming white teeth.

Naruse ground out a lot of movies for Shochiku, overshadowed by Ozu (and for the grinding indignities visited on women without prosperous husbands, Mizoguchi).

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs

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Nearly at the end of it (Nakadai’s big scene), I felt that I had seen Naruse’s 1960 “Onna ga kaidan o noboru toki?”/“When a Woman Ascends the Stairs” (to a Ginza bar over which she presides) before. I found the movie slow, though not excruciatingly slow, and not because I remembered the plot. I shared the frustrations of the woman, the widow Yashiro Keiko (Takamine Hideko), who dreaded having to go up those stairs and make men happy and drunk. “But once I was up, I would take each day as it came,” she resignedly said.— even with fresh obstacles to surmount in order to get by, affronts from clients and kin, and younger women striking out on their own after she trained them.

Takamine was great, nearly impassive though not opaque to viewers (whether that is due to her acting, Naruse’s direction, or Kikushima Ryuzo’s writing). Nakadai Tatsuya plays Komatsu Kenichi, a manager who admires her and, in particular, her not selling her body over the course of five years in the business. He is pretty bland until his penultimate scene. I don’t know why the client whom Yashiro loves is the chilly Fujisaki (Mori Masayuki), but making good decisions is incompatible with the soap-opera genre (and Naruse refused to provide a romantic happy ending).

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Pudgy Katô Daisuku delivers a performance to Yashiro that doesn’t quite break her heart, but breaks the heart of the viewer on her behalf. In showing the impossible lot of women without husbands, the film brings Mizoguchi (Street of Shame in particular) to mind, though Yashiro is not ground to dust like a Mizoguchi victim (surviving with a mouthful of ashes more like a Douglas Sirk protagonist, though the visuals are very different). With splendid b&w cinematography by Tamai Masao albeit with few camera movement (though more variety of camera placement than in Ozu movies).

The Japanese re-release trailer gives away far too much plot. The Criterion Collection bonus feature interview with Nakadai is excellent. He says that he learned a lot about screen-acting from Takamine, though he was scared of her. He says she was kind but not at all warm. And that he received very little direction from Naruse (Takamine, who was in 17 of his movies, said the same thing).

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

Naruse’s Midareru/Yearning

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I know that Naruse Mikio was trying to show the devaluation and exploitation of women in Japanese culture, but sometimes, watching Takamine Hideko absorb negligence or outright nastiness over and over and over in his films, I begin to wonder if he had a sadistic streak rather than sympathy or empathy for the plight of women in postwar Japan. In the 1964 instance of “Midareru” (“Yearning” is the English translation; “Turmoil” would be a better translation of the word), only her eyes wince at the unkindness of her “sisters” (sisters-in-law) Takako (Shirakawa Yumi) and Hisako (Kusabue Mitsuko), as they talk about marrying Reiko (Takamine) off or demoting her to being a servant.

Reiko was married to their brother for only six months before dying in combat in the Pacific War (WWII) and has been selflessly running the family store (her father-in-law is long dead, though I don’t think when, how, or where was specified in the movie), first rebuilding the business after the store was destroyed by US bombs. She has been running it for eighteen years as Koji (Kayama Yûzô {Red Beard], handsome son of Uehara Ken, who was often cast as a cad), who is now 25, refused to take on responsibility to run the family store. It is beleaguered by the opening nearby of a supermarket that is undercutting its prices to drive it (and other mom and pop stores) out of business.

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Koji stays out late pretty much every night, drinking and gambling (at mahjong). Though none of the characters suspects it, to me it was obvious from early on that he is in love with his brother’s widow, who is twelve years his senior and has been around the house most of his life. I want to offer him the advise to stop calling her “sister” if he wants to stimulate her thinking of him as a sexual possibility. She still loves her long dead husband and marrying a brother’s widow is not a Japanese custom, though constantly calling her “sister” tends to build an incest taboo.

The pressures of the wicked sisters-in law (more than a little reminiscent of Cinderella’s step-sisters or the very insensitive children of widows in Douglas Sirk movies of the 1950s), the supermarket competition, and some inkling that her presence is keeping Koji from getting married and running the store with a new wife make Reiko feel she must leave. “Mother”(-in-law) Mimasu Aiko frets about what is fair to her devoted daughter-in-law, but Reiko pre-empts her family by opting out on her own. All this is painfully (for her and at least for this viewer) and slowly built up through the first hour of the running time.

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The part of the movie I like best is the next half hour or so as she flees by night on a long-haul passenger train. (It is only then that Koji and the audience find out that Reiko and her mother-in-law met doing volunteer work in the war effort, so that Reiko met her husband through his mother.)

Love does not conquer all in Japanese movies… except in death, often (as here) a death that seem senseless to this alien observer. I guess I have a lower tolerance for noble suffering than many fans of “women’s pictures”; I think she should do something and grab a chance at happiness (as I do in Sirk movies).

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Naruse’s “Floating Clouds”/”Ukigumo”

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Though not shown, adultery was clearly going on in “Late Chrysanthemums,” and was even more central to Naruse’s plodding 1955 “Floating Clouds” (Ukigumo) in which Takime Hideko suffers through more than two hours as the would-be/sometimes lover of Tomioka (Mori Masayuki [the husband in “Rashômon“]). He had left his wife in Japan and was receptive to Yukiko (Takime) in wartime Indochina (stationed with the forestry service at Dala), but returned to (and did not divorce) his wife after they were repatriated in 1946.

While they are dallying (some time, I think some years) later at a resort hotel, he takes up (arguably, he is seduced by) a younger married woman (Okada Mariko), who is eventually slain by her outraged husband (Yamagata Isao, a familiar face if not name).

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Shot by Masai Tamai (who also shot “Floating Chrysanthemums” and “When a Woman Ascends the Stairs” for Naruse, but is better known for shooting Godzilla movies), the melodrama ends on Yakashima, a remote island south of Kyushu, where Tomioka takes up a job back with the Forestry Ministry. The gravely ill Yukiko insists on going along and dies alone while Tomioka is out in (up in) the forest.

I think that Yukiko and Tomioka are buffeted by the politico-economic gales of Japan of the 1940s and 50s, rather than “floating.” She is kicked around, surviving in postwar Tokyo by having an affair with a GI bound to go home (Roy James). She nearly dies from an abortion and is unable to move on from her wartime romance. She spends some time with a religious charlatan, Iba, whose money she eventually steals and offers Tomioka (whose wife has died).

Takime is much whinier than she was in Mizoguchi and Kinoshita movies in which she also suffered, but more in stoic silence. Her character does not fight as such Hollywood contemporaries as Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, or Bette Davis would (more Jane Wyman?). “Floating Clouds” is very pessimistic about moving on from Japan’s defeat (in contrast with Kurosawa’s “l”). Some see “Floating Clouds” as languid; I see it as droopy. It was Naruse’s best box office movie in Japan, according to Audie Bock. Many sympathize with the beautiful, suffering Takime; I just want to shake her.

The musical score is annoyingly driven and “Auld Lang Syne” recurs (instrumental rather than with its Japanese lyrics) in a protracted scene of the ferry leaving Kagoshima.

The novel on which “Floating Clouds’ was based was written by Hayashi Fumiko, whose work had also been the source of Naruse’s “Late Chrysanthemums” the year before, Naruse’s 1951 “Repast”/”Meshi,” 1952”Inazuma”,” 1953 “Wife”/”Tsuma,” and 1962 (Hôrô-ki”/”A Wanderer’s Notebook” (with Takime playing the author; she had starred in two of the earlier Hayashi/Naruse movies and her sister starred in another of them). (At least the titles are short!)

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

Naruse’s 1952 “Mother”/”Okasan”

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Life was hard for the widowed, self-sacrificing titular mother in Naruse’s 1952 film (Okasan), though the commemoration through an affectionate daughter’s voiceover verges on sentimentality (in contrast to Kinoshita’s (1953) “A Japanese Tragedy”). Tanaka Kinuyo (Sansho the Bailiff, The Life of Oharu) is the somewhat sentimentalized mother, Fukuhara Masako, seen from the perspective of her older daughter Toshiko (Kagawa Kyôko who played Mifune’s wife in “High and Low” and the second female lead in “Sansho, the Bailiff”). The patient husband/father Ryosuke (Mishima Masao) waited for the property (laundry/dyeing establishment) on a main street that the wartime government expropriated to be returned, but dies before that happens. Their adult son, Susumu (Katayama Akihiko) has to go off to a sanitarium (presumably tuberculosis, though some work-related lung condition may be the reason). The Fukuharas’ life is no picnic, though a picnic relieves the struggle for survival shown in most of the movie. (There’s also a carnival interlude.)

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I find it hard to understand why Masako allows her younger daughter (Chako) to be adopted while continuing to raise the younger boy child (Tetsuo) of her sister Noriko (Nakakita Chieko) who is studying hairdressing, then beginning work as a beautician. I was interested to see the young Okada Eiji (Hiroshima, Mon Amour) as Shinjiro, a baker hoping to marry Toshiko. He provides much of the comedy, romantic and other, including singing and coping with a date for which Toshiko shows up with her younger sister and de facto younger brother.

©2015, Stephen O. Murray

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Money is everything”: Naruse’s “Bangiku”

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The “Late Chrysanthemums” of the title of Naruse Mikio’s 1954 movie (“Bangiku” in Japanese, based on three 1948 stories by Hayashi Fumiko [whose fiction was also the source of Naruse’s 1955 “Floating Clouds”]) are four middle-aged former geishas, who had made it through the (Pacific) war. The one with the most screen time, the miserly Kin (Kinoshita and Ozu regular Sugimura Haruko), is a property speculator and money-lender. She goes around collecting rent. She retained some nostalgia for a married patron, Tabe (Uehara Ken, typecast as a seductive cad), who was also in the army in Manchuria and primps for his visit, only to find that he is there hoping to borrow money. As is her one-time lover, Seki (Miaka Bontaro), who tried to kill her in a failed “double suicide” (he cut his throat and stabbed her, for which he was rightly convicted of “attempted murder,” since Kin had not wanted to die then). Kin does not drink or gamble or go out except to collect rent (she has a deaf-mute serving girl (Sawamura Sonosuke) to buy groceries).

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Two of her former peers are widows, each with one feckless child. Tomi’s impudent daughter, Sachiko is marrying without consulting letting alone gaining approval of the match to an older, affluent man from her mother. Tamae’s son Kiyoshi (Koizumi Hiroshi) has never held down a long-run job (I think he has been a gigolo), is sponging on a woman old enough to be his mother, and is going off to Hokkaido for a new job. Both the alcoholic Tomi (Arima Ineko) and the sickly Tamae Hoskoawa Chikako) are in debt to Kin, and the fourth, Nobu (Sawaura Sonosuke), is running a small bar in property owned by Kin. Nobu (a character not the focus of any of the three Hayashi stories) lives with a husband and seems more content with her lot than the other three

Children, thus, are as unreliable as geisha patrons. None of the four women is happy, though the one making some money betting on bicycle races and playing Pachinko (I don’t know how anyone can turn a profit from the latter and the movie provides no enlightenment or any portrayal of playing it.) Tame works as a chambermaid, but is frequently incapacitated with migraines.

Though not holding any shot for very long, the camera never moves within a shot, interior or exterios (in contrast to the fluid camerawork of Mizoguchi and early Kurosawa). Saitô Ichirô’s music is innocuous, minimalist Japanese.

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Though the movie has its admirers (Dennis Schwartz considers it “emotionally gripping” and Keith Uhlich lauded it as “a film of unbridled riches.” I find it drab and boring and not showing much of interest about Japanese attempts to deal with either the war crimes or the devastation of firebombing (and nuclear weapon bombing) visited on Japan. Nor is there much in the way of female solidarity to celebrate. The movie was made after the end of US Occupation and censorship of the Japanese movie industry.

©2016, Stephen O. Muray