The Naruse Blues


If you are a cinephile who discovered certain films on video or DVD before you ever had a chance to see them on a cinema screen, you may recognise the following experience.


There are several films in my life where, on the first viewing, I was affected so forcefully at a particular moment that I felt compelled to immediately stop the tape or disc and wind back several minutes to savour and understand what I had just seen and heard. One of the films that had this profound effect on me was Mikio Naruse’s Floating Clouds (Ukigumo, 1955).


It takes the first 18 minutes of the film to build up to this point. We begin in 1946; Japan has lost the war and its citizens working in other countries have been unceremoniously dumped back home. Yukiko (Hideko Takamine) dares to visit the family home of her former, married lover, Kengo (Masayuki Mori). As they walk and talk – their bodily postures, glances and gestures betraying their unease and uncertainty in the present – Naruse and screenwriter Yoko Mizuki flash back twice to the encounter of Yukiko and Kengo in occupied Indochina (today Vietnam). These economical scenes literally flash: where the present is rendered in dark, sombre tones, the past bursts forth in dazzling brightness. Perhaps it is only a few years previously – Naruse leaves the time-gap inexact – but this memory of erotic love seems to emerge from an entirely different galaxy.


Naruse concentrates all his art and craft on the transition points between present and past. The first return to another time is surprising and unannounced: Yukiko waits alone on a road for Kengo in the present, and then suddenly we see her arriving for work in Dalat. The second return may remind us of Orson WellesCitizen Kane (1941): it is based on a clever transitional hinge between the characters seated at a table to eat, both times in the same position.


But the ultimate wrench back to the present is the clincher: from the first kiss of the couple in the past, we match-cut to another kiss in the present: heavier, darker, more ominous, melancholic and probably doomed. That was when I had to rewind Floating Clouds to start over again …


In 1952, when Naruse began to be noticed beyond Japan in international film festivals for Mother (Okaasan), it might have been possible to consider his cinema, in the shadow of Yasujiro Ozu, as providing intimate stories of everyday, family life – perhaps closer than Ozu himself to the Italian neo-realism that André Bazin and many other critics of that time championed. Indeed, Bazin praised in Mother – and this is the germ of a keen insight to be explored – how wonderful it was to see “in the least gestures of the poor that same nobility, that same dignity as in Japan’s legendary heroes (cf. Kurosawa’s films)”. But Naruse – whose films had to wait another three decades before being truly discovered and valued in the West – was not, fundamentally, a realist. (Intriguingly, another Mother fan in the ‘50s, Alain Resnais, found Eiji Okada, his leading man for Hiroshima mon amour [1959], in it.)


The great Japanese film critic and teacher Shigehiko Hasumi stresses that, at the most crucial moments of his work, Naruse always “turned to the filmic” – to the expressive effects (of light, space, montage, movement) of which only cinema is capable. Sometimes Naruse underlines this recourse to the filmic explicitly – as in those transitions of Floating Clouds – and, at other times, it is extremely subtle, a matter of the smallest but most revealing details and variations between the shots and what they contain.


Let us explore, a little more closely, the infinitely deep and rich art of Mikio Naruse.


Naruse (born 1905) began to make his mark as a director within the Japanese film industry in the 1930s. Anyone who is familiar only with his work of the 1950s and 1960s (he died in 1969) may be shocked to discover, for instance, Every-Night Dreams (Yogoto No Yume, 1933). Like in Ozu’s early efforts, the cinematic style is brash, and the content borrows freely from Hollywood’s genres of action and comedy.


Already, Naruse is inventing breathtaking transitions – from a sad woman alone before her mirror to the same woman, made up in front of another bathroom mirror, about to enter a bustling night club. And the extraordinary camera movements – fast tracking shots into the reactions of characters, even within the smallest and most cramped interior spaces – predate Martin Scorsese by 40 years!


After the difficult period of the 1940s, Naruse fully re-emerged with what many critics take to be his mature, quieter style. He immersed himself in types of fiction (known as shomin-geki) that the West would consider to be soap opera, where the setting is often just a few nearby homes, offices and bars. People visit each other, eat and drink together (see Meshi, 1951), exchange often sarcastic pleasantries and discuss business transactions.


Sadness is the keynote: not the Zen-like sadness of Ozu that ultimately delivers transcendental wisdom and acceptance, a sense of moral and philosophical balance arrived at in a state resembling beatific solitude – but something pitiless, even cruel. Call it the Naruse blues. Jacques Lourcelles described Naruse as “an entomologist seized by a very discreet form of tenderness”; while Hasumi observes that he was “a very silent man, because he had the feeling that the world had betrayed him”. 


In the deliberately de-dramatised context of Naruse’s films, the simple act of people going for a stroll, walking alone or together, becomes an extraordinarily expressive motif. The French director Bertrand Tavernier paid a fine homage to these apparently ordinary motions: “Such comings and goings represent uncertain yet reassuring transitions: they are a way of taking stock, of defining a feeling”. Occasionally the journeying takes on a grander dimension: migration, working abroad, going elsewhere for an all-too-brief vacation. Views of the natural world are all the more precious and lyrical for being so rare in Naruse – just take a look at Sound of the Mountain (Yama no Oto, 1954).


Naruse had a remarkable sensitivity – and here is revealed his affinity with another revered Japanese master, Kenji Mizoguchi – toward the position and role of women within these everyday melodramas of Japanese life. Unlike Mizoguchi, however, he did not use the more allegorical form of lush, historical recreation. Naruse’s tales of wives, mothers, daughters and geishas are rooted in the early stirrings of modern, 20th century feminism – no wonder that he became an expert at adapting the novels and stories of an important female writer, Fumiko Hayashi (1903-1951).


Like Ozu, Naruse gravitated to themes of the family, different generations negotiating the difficult fact of having to live together, the problems of ageing, and the constantly changing times – changes both on the macro level (the war) and the micro-level (post-war consumerism). Even more keenly than Ozu, Naruse fills his films with sidelong tokens of a burgeoning youth culture: jazz music on the radio, tough-guy fashions, frivolous decadence, and women’s rebellious bid for independence – all of which we glimpse in the interstices of the plot of Late Chrysanthemums (1954).


In one special way, Naruse’s stories of everyday life were unique: the materialistic function accorded to money. Quite simply, money rules everything and changes everything in the world he portrays. It is what most fundamentally unites his characters, creating a dense web of debt, obligation, coercion (subtle or violent), regret and desperation. Former geishas become money lenders; parents and children borrow money from each other; anybody who suddenly receives money will swiftly lose it, give it away or gamble it down to zero. His final film, Scattered Clouds (Midaregumo, 1967), hinges on compensation payments after an accidental death.


Money is the water in which these characters swim, the air they breathe. One can take that as a sociological reflection of Japan’s difficulties to recover after the war (which it surely is); more significantly, however, it indicates how Naruse steadily abstracted and stylised his own world from observation of the real one.


In his 1979 book To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema, the celebrated American-French filmmaker-theorist Noël Burch is extremely critical of Naruse beyond the fireworks of his earliest 1930s experiments. In Burch’s eyes, by the 1950s Naruse had uncritically absorbed the “Western mode of representation”, thereby capitulating to America’s culturally imperialist power. His films became “laboriously academic, slightly over-edited”; they featured “a preponderance of medium close-ups, perfectly correct eyeline matching, and the actors have obviously been ordered to remain perfectly still” for the sake of a clean shot/reverse shot pattern of angles.


Burch is clearly mistaken if he believes that, if Naruse were more genuinely Japanese (!) in his character and aims, he would have ignored influences from elsewhere and made work strictly within a radical, non-Western mode. As Hasumi and others have demonstrated, Naruse was always open to the evolving trends and styles of world cinema, including Hollywood. How could he not be? In the brilliant When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960), we are treated to a display of modern trends in architecture and fashion that are reminiscent of Michelangelo Antonioni. Lifestyle jokes about movie stars like Marilyn Monroe are never far away, as at the end of Late Chrysanthemums. Naruse’s filmic envoi, Scattered Clouds, is particularly fascinating to study in this regard.


Naruse was open to the changing world, and often used it as a source of humour; he was far from being a rigid moralist, and the only nostalgia in his work is the wish of individuals for an easier life or a better, more satisfying and lasting love affair. Everyone, no matter their age or gender, is prodded by the flame of desire in Naruse’s portrayal – regardless of how dimly that flame flickers in a hard, often mean society.


When Burch described Naruse’s favoured shooting style, he was also defining the fundamentals of what we call découpage in cinema or television: the basic shot plan of a scene (which Naruse, indeed, always had very clear in his head) – in order, for instance, to cover a conversation and convey all the necessary plot information. By contrast, mise en scène is used by critics in a more elevated and noble way, to indicate a freewheeling and poetic form of cinematic expression. Burch was not altogether wrong when he noted the type of shots that Naruse favoured, and the smooth, entirely readable way he linked them together.


What Burch did not see, however, is that, in Naruse, découpage is everything – it truly is his secret form of mise en scène, and it allows for infinite variation and modulation. Once you, as a spectator, can see, hear and feel that in his films, they open up to reveal their richness, and their subterranean depths of emotion. Can a simple cut in a film make you cry? Naruse knew how to do it.


Alain Masson (“Idées du plan”, Positif, no. 557/558, July-August 2007) has enumerated the loose rules for shooting that Naruse evidently set himself. Once the characters have entered a space and the situation has been established, the film proceeds to frame each character in turn. The camera does not move. Nobody enters or exits the rectangle of the frame. Quite unusually, there is no voice that ever interrupts from off-screen (only in group-shots of two or more people is overlapping, back-and-forth dialogue permitted). Each image is, therefore, an autonomous unit or cell. It is a portrait-shot, in which we notice a particular posture or gesture of a person.


Filmed in this way, Naruse’s characters (and his actors) gain access to a certain freedom: the shot is theirs, and they can take the exact time they need to express what is on their mind – and also to withdraw or cover up whatever they might have just revealed. Cristina Álvarez López and I have made an audiovisual essay on this aspect of Naruse’s art: The Unbreakable Frame (2022).


As Masson suggests, the structure of a Naruse scene is at once extremely tight – no situation is ever artificially stretched out for dramatic purposes – and loose, open. It is a stunning artistic paradox. Since the shots are so autonomous, they could easily be arranged in another order. More importantly, each shot is, in a sense, its own world: it can be short or long, it can expand or contract. There is nothing predictable, at this level, about Naruse’s découpage. We learn to be sensitive to the suggestiveness of the slightest pause, or the most brutal, brusque ending of a gesture.


And as for what Burch construed as “correct eyeline matching”: nothing is more alive, more feverish in its constant activity, more sinuous or complicated than the eye-movements of Naruse’s characters! Hasumi remarks that the “editing technique enables the exchange of looks to continually build layers in the shot, narrating something of each character’s psychology while at the same time structuring the space”. It is truly virtuosic. The measure of this virtuosity has been judged well by Chris Fujiwara (Cineaste, Summer 2009):


Watching a film such as When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is a two-hour process of training and retraining the eye, through shifting tensions and parameters, all of them expressive: the distance between characters in a shot, the placement of actors in the frame, the use of corridors and doorways to emphasise perspective, the slight or pronounced discrepancy of the direction of a look. Each cut opens new “vistas” (a word that takes on such great prominence in Sound of the Mountain) and closes old ones. For every element that is lost, an element is discovered; for each absence, there is a presence. From this give-and-take arises the rhythmic excitement, the seemingly inexhaustible flow, and the feeling of inevitability and loss that accompany Naruse’s films.


I conclude on another Naruse trope that might, at first glance, look like an element from banal TV soap opera. Whenever he uses a shot to establish a room, a house, or a street corner, he sticks to the same angle and repeats it whenever that place returns into the story. Boring, huh? However, just like Víctor Erice, Naruse wrings wise epiphany and deep emotion from this simple technique – which, when you ponder it, can only be done in an audiovisual medium like cinema, for there is no way to reproduce exactly that trope in the media of literature or theatre.


Time moves on, lives change (mainly for the worse): but Naruse’s gaze registers steadfast in that repeated angle. Hasumi said it best: “More than subject matter or story, Naruse believes in film.”


© Adrian Martin January 2022

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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