Comings and Goings of Mikio Naruse
There is a cinema of walking – just as surely as there is a cinema of driving, or flying. Whether framed statically – in order to emphasise the distances and weight of the surrounding world – or shot with the camera travelling behind, in front of or alongside the human figure, such walking literally ‘paces out’ the mood, rhythm, meaning and method of certain films.
Directors as different as Chantal Akerman, Béla Tarr and Quentin Tarantino construct their material from the step-by-step motion of their characters – the action turning (for example) the metropolitan city into a space of personalised reverie or dread-filled anticipation. Idyllic stroll or manic stomp: narratives can either find or lose their way in the paths and detours traced out by walking.
Mikio Naruse built up, second by second, across all of his films, the cinema’s finest monument to walking. The French filmmaker-critic Bertrand Tavernier, in paying homage to Sound of the Mountain (1954), said of Naruse that he ‘minutely describes each journey’ that arises in the narrated lives of his characters, and that ‘such comings and goings represent uncertain yet reassuring transitions: they are a way of taking stock, of defining a feeling.’
Comings and goings are indeed rendered with an almost fanatical or obsessive attention to detail in these films: the setting out, the route that is taken, the approach to a dwelling or workplace ... With, very often, an element of repetition figured in, across scenes and across the imaginary months or years that the story conjures: the same camera angle, the same frame, the same gesture – but with a difference in the bodies as they age, as the wear and tear of bittersweet experience sets into them. That is what we see, for example, in the tracks of Yukiko (Hideko Takamine) in Floating Clouds (1955).
But it is most often the viewer alone who is permitted to take stock of these movements and their inexorable repetition; walking for the figures in these films, as an embodiment of resilience, registers far more truly as a way of surviving, hanging on to a thin thread. The thousand and one small transitions they make, from one little zone of social-emotional space to the next, are indeed ‘uncertain yet reassuring’.
Naruse as a filmmaker was fascinated with the narrative and cinematic forms offered by the device of a journey – a short story he wrote in the mid ‘30s already sketched what would become a typical plot for him, a young girl setting out to visit her faraway mother – and yet we remain very far, at every point of his career, from the type of strenuous, action-packed Heroic Journey preached by contemporary Hollywood blockbusters. Journeying in Naruse is intermittent, paths are broken off and picked up again, sidetracks occur … And, most importantly, these journeys do not need to occur on the scale of thousands of miles, from country to country (although they sometimes do, especially due to the displacements wrought by war); a journey can be a walk down a street, as in Floating Clouds; through the doors, rooms and zones of an apartment, as in Late Chrysanthemums (1954); or up and down a staircase, as in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960). Journeys of the everyday, where time is measured out in footfalls, ticking clocks, spoonfuls … and where even the most melodramatic blow or the most ecstatic moment of pleasure (and his cinema is not devoid of these intense dramatic highpoints) cannot truly take the characters out of the unromantic, unsentimental forward progression of the times and places that constitute their existences.
The walking-journey motif also works on another level in Naruse’s films. The French critic Jean Douchet put it well: we advance, as spectators, alongside his characters, neither knowing more or less than they do ahead of the actions and interactions we see unfolding. The very antithesis, therefore, of the cinema of Hitchcock, Fritz Lang or Brian De Palma. We must read the gestures, the glances, the living situations of others as we encounter them, as if we (with a character) had just stepped through the front door: again, Yukiko’s path, initiating the story of Floating Clouds as she enters the household of the obviously married Kengo (Masayuki Mori), is exemplary.
Western arthouse audiences with a mainly canonical, heavily pre-filtered acquaintance with Japanese cinema tend to locate the great auteurs – Ozu, Mizoguchi, Kurosawa and more recently Naruse – in a vacuum outside of time and history, invoking various fuzzy Ancient Hallowed Traditions of storytelling and pictorial style. This kind of casual operation of abstraction robs Naruse’s work of much of its interest and depth.
Let us consider, for example, Naruse’s films of the 1950s within the pre-New Wave stirrings of that decade – not just the European New Wave(s), but the Asian ones as well. Douchet is right to propose the comparison between Naruse in this period and contemporaries such as Roberto Rossellini and Ingmar Bergman: here, in the post World War II era, we witness the flowering of a mode of filmmaking devoted to the ‘eternal present moment’, something that both liberates the cinema and ignites a struggle with historic memory – precisely the social traumas that must be obliterated from consciousness (always unsuccessfully, of course) in order for ‘the present’ to prosper, unfettered. Such history is never far away, lurking in the off-spaces of Naruse’s films – and the occasional devastating flashback is there, like near the start of Floating Clouds, to poke a hole in the eternal present of his fool-for-love characters’ consciousness, and take stock of the distance and difference between the then and the now.
When a Woman Ascends the Stairs offers the most visible marker of Naruse’s negotiation of social modernity. The modern world – and modern cinema – enter everywhere here, in the meticulous set design of the nightclubs as in the cool jazz score. The relations of bodies to architectural forms and shapes evokes Antonioni, as does a new atmosphere of urban alienation and ennui. But on that central staircase – so artfully constructed and shot to Naruse’s scenographic specifications – we meet again the daily, material weight of this cinema of humble, unspectacular, and yet still somehow momentous walking movements: those comings and goings which are (as Tavernier attests) the ‘gestures repeated a thousand times’ that create the filmmaker’s ‘chronicles of flux and doubt’.
© Adrian Martin August 2007