The cinema of Mikio Naruse is one of heartbreak but also one of indomitable poise. Melodrama is the director’s stock-in-trade. His stories are inhabited by people, generally women, imprisoned in their domestic and professional circumstances by the status quo, and hinge on tragic accidents and other twists of fate. But despite these dramatic trappings, his films are infused with a remarkable realism and pragmatism—they are not simply portraits of ordinary folks in extraordinary emotional situations but reflections of everyday life, with vivid material presence and indelible figures who remain outwardly serene even as battles rage within. Naruse’s characters’ acquiescence to the way things are exemplifies the Japanese term mono no aware, which describes a resignation to life’s sadness. Akira Kurosawa once characterized Naruse’s style as “like a great river with a calm surface and a raging current in its depths.”
For much of his career, which lasted from the early thirties to the late sixties, Naruse was a popular filmmaker—yet today, his work isn’t as widely seen internationally as that of Japan’s “big three”: Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, and Kenji Mizoguchi. This surely has much to do with the fact that so many of Naruse’s films are now lost (he made eighty-nine, and only sixty-seven survive), but also something to do with how long it took for his films to be exported, and thus appreciated abroad for their artistic achievements. At Toho, where Naruse was under contract for thirty years, “women’s pictures” like his, known as josei-eiga, were profitable but second in standing to the more masculine samurai epics, detective stories, and gangster sagas in which the studio specialized. And they had a unique, delicate sensibility that studio executives considered “too Japanese” for foreign consumption. When Western audiences finally got their first real taste of Naruse’s oeuvre, thanks to traveling retrospectives in the eighties, more than a decade after his death, his films’ high level of craft and emotional vibrancy were a shock to established thinking, leading scholars and critics to reassess the century in Japanese cinema.
The complex sentiment and subtle visual dynamism that make Naruse’s work so remarkable are already clearly on view in his earliest, silent films. This era has the highest ratio of lost to existing titles: nineteen of the twenty-four silent films Naruse made between 1930 and 1934 are gone. The five that remain, however—Flunky, Work Hard (1931); No Blood Relation (1932); Apart from You (1933); Every-Night Dreams (1933); and Street Without End (1934)—are brilliantly shaped and dramatized, marked by not only an electrifying youthful experimentation but also a stunningly mature world-weariness; the young Naruse was already honing his no-nonsense fatalism. The silent films were all made at Shochiku Studios, then based in the Kamata section of Tokyo. This was the only major studio in the city from 1923 to 1934, and thus the training ground for a profoundly influential generation of Japanese filmmakers; Naruse’s contemporaries included Ozu as well as Hiroshi Shimizu and Heinosuke Gosho. At the time, Shochiku head Shiro Kido was intent on fostering a house style, the “Kamata style,” characterized by a hopeful, positive outlook and often showcased in comedies and light family dramas. Naruse, possessed of a less than cheerful view of life (“From the earliest age, I have thought that the world we live in betrays us,” he once said), was clearly something of an odd man out in this respect, and he and Kido would have a contentious relationship during Naruse’s tenure at Shochiku.
Naruse’s earliest surviving film, and the only one that remains from his first two years at Shochiku, is the short Flunky, Work Hard, which shows the director operating in what may, in retrospect, seem an uncharacteristically comic, and masculine, mode. Yet it’s a dazzling example of his boundless empathy and technical resourcefulness. (Naruse’s true debut, scripted by Kido, was also a domestic comedy, the 1930 short Mr. and Mrs. Swordplay.) Flunky, Work Hard fits into the categories of nansensu comedy, a Shochiku specialty, and shoshimin-eiga, dramas about common people. And it’s a movie that, aficionados of early Japanese cinema will undoubtedly note, anticipates the classic silent Ozu film I Was Born, But . . . (1932) in its depiction of the mishaps of a working-class father and son, as well as in its deft balance of pathos and slapstick; the two films also share a setting, the Kamata suburbs, though the family in Naruse’s film is of lower socioeconomic standing. In Flunky, Work Hard (flunky is a loose translation of koshiben, which denotes a low-wage earner who brings his lunch to work), Naruse contrasts the increasingly infantile one-upmanship between our hero, the bespectacled insurance agent Okabe, and his nemesis from another agency with the bullying neighborhood shenanigans of Okabe’s young son, Susumu. Though essentially comic in tone, the film avoids condescension in its portrait of Okabe, whose desperation to be an adequate breadwinner for his impoverished family drives him to humiliation. (This, along with Naruse’s other early films, was made during the depression of the thirties and reflects the struggles of contemporary families.)
Flunky, Work Hard’s most memorable sequence is a climactic montage triggered by the shocking news that Susumu has been hit by a train; when Okabe finds out, a kaleidoscopic psychological collage commences, featuring prismatic effects, split screens, and superimpositions. The twenty-second sequence contains more than twenty shots. This sort of formal experimentation is less common in Naruse’s later work, and it still carries a charge here. It can also be found in his next extant film, the feature-length No Blood Relation, which shows Naruse moving decisively into the realm of female-driven melodrama after working on several lighter, more humorous films. No Blood Relation does, however, begin on a disarmingly comic note, making it something of an evolutionary step, and enabling Naruse to indulge in some fleet, free-form filmmaking; after a furious swish pan on a crowded Tokyo street, someone yells, “Purse snatcher!” and we’re thrust into the middle of a contentious, kinetic scene in which a scrawny young man must take off his clothes in front of a crowd to prove he hasn’t absconded with the item in question (he has, in fact, handed it off to a cohort, as we soon learn).
In this prelude, a deft, Shakespearean sleight of hand, Naruse introduces us to only humorous minor characters: one of the thieves is the brother of one of our protagonists, a Hollywood actress, Tamae, who has returned to Tokyo for the first time in six years, determined to reclaim the daughter she abandoned. The joyous reunion Tamae envisions will not materialize, however, as the child, Shigeko, lives contentedly with Tamae’s ex-husband, Atsumi, the president of a fishing company, and his compassionate new wife, Masako, whom she believes to be her real mother. Adding to the drama, Atsumi and Masako have gone bankrupt in the financial crisis the nation is experiencing, making Tamae’s offer of money for Shigeko’s return all the more tempting. The result is a battle of wills between mothers.
There’s a gripping urgency to No Blood Relation, which was adapted by Kogo Noda (Ozu’s longtime screenwriting collaborator) from a shinpa play, a then relatively recent form of melodrama that utilizes contemporary settings and realistic stories, as opposed to the more stylized traditions of kabuki theater. Shinpa normally focus on victimized heroines, and though this is the vein in which Naruse would continue to work for the remainder of his career, he brought his own spin to the genre, ensuring that his female characters were never merely victims but rather complex beings haplessly fighting an entrenched system, one that he defined visually with paralyzing, constrictive domestic spaces.
Naruse found ways to make those tight interiors sing with cinematic eloquence, however: No Blood Relation is replete with graceful tracking shots, the camera gliding through the rooms of houses and offices; strikingly expressive dollies in to characters’ anguished faces; and the adroit, elegant cutting for which he would become known. Naruse wasn’t merely adept at working within limited spaces; those restrictions defined his work spiritually. In one of his most famous quotes, he describes his characters thusly: “If they move even a little, they quickly hit the wall.” Naruse, who lost his parents at an early age and lived for a long time—between two marriages—as a bar-frequenting bachelor, was no great defender of family values, and his films, social critiques more than overtly political statements, reflect this. His characters struggle against the bonds of tradition and domesticity but rarely win, doomed to live in man-made boxes from which they cannot escape.
Mikio Naruse’s critical breakthrough, Apart from You (1933) is perhaps his earliest film to fully lay out what would become motifs of his: lonely women in dire situations exhibiting calm in the midst of their misery; domestic unease; open-ended conclusions that leave characters’ futures hazy. For this exquisite melodrama, both a portrait of a difficult mother-son relationship and a story of ill-fated love, Naruse was given his first citation from the influential magazine Kinema junpo, which named the film one of its top ten of the year (an honor crucial to the temporary resuscitation of Shochiku head Shiro Kido’s faith in Naruse, whose work he had begun to view as not commercial enough).
Apart from You also gives us our first glimpse of Naruse’s careful way of dramatizing geisha life. The film concerns two melancholy working women: the long-suffering Kikue (seen in an early shot plucking out telltale gray hairs) and the younger Terugiku, whose beauty and seeming optimism mask growing disillusionment. Their internal wounds slowly become apparent: Kikue is having difficulty with her teenage son, Yoshio, who, bitterly embarrassed by his mother’s profession, has stopped attending school and fallen in with a pack of delinquents. Terugiku harbors deep resentment toward her family, especially her alcoholic father, for forcing her to become a geisha to help support them. An attraction develops between Terugiku and Yoshio—in the film’s most moving segment, she takes him on a trip to her family’s impoverished village; there, she instructs him that it’s wrong to be ashamed of and mistreat his mother, who works in her profession only to provide for him and his education. The verisimilitude with which Naruse depicts the geisha existence reaches its apex in the film’s frenetic party scenes, startlingly physical, decadent displays based on the director’s observations of a geisha house near Shochiku Studios.
In Every-Night Dreams, also from 1933, an evocative, shadowy film set in Tokyo’s working-class waterfront quarters, Naruse again concentrates on the desperation of a young woman laboring to give her son a better life. In this case, she is a young Ginza bar hostess, Omitsu, who, after traveling in search of a more respectable job, has come back to her young son, Fumio, who is being looked after by a sweet older couple. Soon, her husband, the child’s father, who abandoned them three years before, also returns, hoping to reestablish their domestic life together, although he is unable to find work.
The setup is similar to that of No Blood Relation, but the drama plays out far less sensationally, more in tune with the natural rhythms of daily life than with the mechanics of melodrama (though there is a vivid incident involving robbery, and a child being hit by a moving vehicle, an oddly recurring event in Naruse’s early films). As in much of the director’s later work, the female protagonist is immeasurably stronger than the male—a fact that is never clearer than when Omitsu chastises her disconsolate, finally suicidal husband, saying “You’ll never survive in this world with such a faint heart.” Naruse’s main characters are survivors, and they are made of stronger stuff. Every-Night Dreams ends on a pitiless note—one that would continue to sound throughout Naruse’s career.
By 1934, Mikio Naruse was clearly chafing at the limitations he was operating under at Shochiku. His relationship with Shiro Kido hadn’t improved. One of the least traditional, and certainly the least malleable, of the studio’s stable of directors, Naruse was the last to be promoted; Kido was vocal in his dislike of Naruse’s films, which he felt lacked the dramatic punch of the work of Yasujiro Ozu, Heinosuke Gosho, and Hiroshi Shimizu. Street Without End would be a turning point in Naruse’s career, concluding his stay at Shochiku.
Like the other directors at the studio, Naruse was resistant to directing this film—it was based on a popular newspaper serial about the adventures of a tea hostess and was considered a poor-quality property. So the studio promised him that if he took up the project, he could film whatever he wanted afterward. However, despite Naruse’s initial apathy toward the material and uneasiness about the screenplay’s occasionally broad depiction of class, the result speaks to his brilliance: Street Without End is finely rendered, multilayered melodrama. With the story of Sugiko, a hostess who forgoes the possibility of fame and fortune as a movie star only to end up in a dismal marriage to a well-to-do but feeble man living at the mercy of a domineering mother and sister, Naruse lays bare the chaos that can lead to major decisions about life and love. And he makes room for some of his most forthright commentary on the restrictiveness of conventional Japanese family life: when Sugiko’s rational younger brother tries to dissuade her from marrying, he asks, “Think you’ll be happy as a bourgeois housewife?” There’s even an uncommonly direct intertitle in the film that declares, “Even today, feudalistic notions of ‘family’ crush the pure love of young people in Japan.”
The film isn’t all gloom and doom, however. Sugiko and her husband start out happily in love (their courtship includes taking in a movie, Ernst Lubitsch’s Maurice Chevalier–starring musical comedy The Smiling Lieutenant—an indication of the great influence Hollywood cinema had on Japanese directors of the period). Its perfectly practical take on modern life is sobering, but its indomitable go-it-alone spirit is inspiring, and it culminates in an extraordinary melancholy slow fade on its heroine, unsure where happiness lies.
The outline of Naruse’s future was more clearly drawn: when Shochiku didn’t grant him the artistic freedom it had promised, he left (the first of the studio’s directors to do so), ending up at Photo-Chemical Laboratories, which would later become Toho Studios, his professional home for three decades. “At Shochiku, I was allowed to direct; at PCL, I was asked to direct. A significant difference,” Naruse would one day say. His rise from that point was rapid: his 1935 talkie Wife, Be Like a Rose! not only won first prize from Kinema junpo, it also played theatrically in the United States, a rare occurrence. Naruse continued to make the films he wanted to make, honing his craft through the 1950s—a golden age for Japanese cinema and for him. His camera would move less, his cuts become less severe, but the emotional core of his work would remain constant. The roiling river beneath the calm surface raged on.
Michael Koresky is staff writer at the Criterion Collection.
Special thanks to Audie Bock for her invaluable assistance.