Like many Japanese films of the same era, many Mikio Naruse’s pre-WWII films have been destroyed by Allied bombings during the war. Only five of his seventeen silent films survive, and they have been released as a box set by Eclipse, a subdivision of The Criterion Collection that focuses on making forgotten gems available. Naruse was one of the four filmmaking titans in pre-New-Wave Japanese cinema, alongside his peers Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi. Yet his works are still relatively underappreciated— especially outside of Japan—with Criterion’s When a Woman Who Ascends The Stairs as the only legitimate North American DVD release of a Naruse film (Two 3-film box sets of his later films have been released in the U.K.).
Flunky, Work Hard (1931), the oldest of Naruse’s surviving films, is a 28-minute short with a plot typical of the shomin-geki (working class drama) of that time. The protagonist, Okabe, is an insurance agent who is struggling to find business to support his family. Though Naruse’s career is mostly characterized by his pessimistic take on the merciless world, this salaryman dramedy is more comedy than drama. In his pursuit to land a wealthy housewife with multiple children as his new client, the burly Okabe competes with his sneaky rival for the family’s trust as slapstick chaos ensues. The film’s basic structure is typical of its genre, which is also evident in the Ozu’s comedies (I Was Born, But… and Tokyo Chorus) of the same period. But unlike his colleague at Shochiku Studio, Naruse displays an interest in experimenting with camera movement and editing. Superimpositions, wipes and negative images are few tricks Naruse uses in the film’s most memorable sequence— flashes of Okabe’s memories are blended into a collage of images after he receives bad news about his son. Narsue also toys with lighting in the hospital scenes and creates dramatic results that resemble that of German Expressionism.
The choice of materials was quite limited at Shochiku, but the burgeoning director’s uninhibited tryouts of different visual and narrative techniques were essential to the development of his mature and restrained style in his post-1950s classics. Indeed, Narsue was never comfortable at Shochiku. In the traditional apprenticeship system in the Japanese studio, Naruse had to work as an assistant for ten years (far more than his peers) before he got his first chance at the helm. After his promotion, the studio heads became frustrated with Naruse because his films are difficult to sell due to their often bleak and pessimistic nature (albeit its realist tendencies).
Women are often front and center of Naruse’s best films, but his feminist inclination is evident since his early films. In contrast to Mizoguchi’s female martyrs, Naruse’s heroines are realists who recognize the disadvantaged hand that life has dealt them. Naruse never judges his characters and his approach is often empathetic. No Blood Relation (1932) is a fascinating example in that the film starts off with a Hollywood star coming back to Japan to reconnect with the daughter she abandoned, yet Naruse soon introduces the kind and sympathetic stepmother who lives happily with the child and father. Without demonizing the two opposing women, Naruse’s film seemingly refuses to take sides as he presents the pains of both mothers. The film avoids a protagonist-versus-antagonist kind of straightforward dramatic ploy but the melodrama is still relatively heavy-handed when compared to his better films. Although melodrama is the basis of most of his films, traffic accident— a dramatic ploy so masterfully employed by King Vidor in The Crowd— is a staple in Naruse’s silent films. When the overall story is strong it is easy for viewers to suspend their disbelief and accept it as part of the plot. But in No Blood Relation, the overuse of accidents gives an impression that the screenwriter had run out of ideas. The excessive use of closing-in and pulling-out shots by cinematographer, Suketaro Inokai, also makes for a tiresome viewing.
With a script penned by Naruse himself, Apart From You (1933) tells the story of an ageing geisha whose teenaged son is ashamed of her profession, while her young colleague resents her family for pushing her into the profession. Both women are bounded to this undignified profession for their family, yet their motivations are very different. By following the defiant son, Yukio, Apart From You smoothly transitions the story from the mother, Kikue, to her co-worker, Terugiku, who invited Yukio to accompany her in visiting her family at the seaside. The underlying subplot concerning the mutual yet unspoken attraction between the two young people, though simpler and more innocent in comparison, foretells the many aching romances in the later Naruse films.
Doomed relationships between men and women only get more scathing and complicated in Naruse’s next two films, Every-Night Dreams (1933) and Street Without End (1934). In the earlier film, Omitsu, a single mother who works as a bar hostess, endures the demeaning advances of her drunken patrons in hopes for a better life for her young son. Her world is turned upside down when her child’s father returns and begs for a second chance. All this has the making of a modern day baby daddy drama, but Naruse’s astute handling of his melodramatic material separates him from the pack. The long-lost lover, who abandoned his family years ago, is a penniless man without a job. But instead of writing him off as the classic loser-husband, Naruse paints a sympathetic picture of a downtrodden man who tries his amend his past. Despite how selfish and worthless the men in his movies are, they are never one-dimensional. The women, though independent and strong-willed, are nonetheless plagued by their yearning for love. Naruse’s characters are not noble saints, but humans of flesh and blood, fallible to the pitfalls of desires.
Sugiko, the protagonist of Street Without End, seems to have a bright future ahead after being proposed to by her loving boyfriend and scouted by a talent agent as a potential movie star. But things turn from great to bad after she gets hit by a car (I’ve lost count at this point)— her relationship sours and the movie agent moves on. Sugiko eventually gets married to a wealthy heir but life does not get easier for the former waitress. Naruse has never been a proponent of tradition family values and his criticism of marriage is rather radical for his time, as exemplified by Sugiko’s brother when he questions his sister’s complacency to be a doting wife in an aristocratic family as a resignation to her unfavorable circumstances. For Naruse’s heroines, life is never quite all-or-nothing even though dreams are often dashed and hearts are always broken. His films do not shy away from life’s most disappointing moments. His commitment to such emotional honesty and realism is the key to the great character-driven dramas in the 1950s. Naruse, whose parents died in his formative years, once said, “From the youngest age, I have thought that the world we live in betrays us; this thought still remains with me.”
Silent Naruse is available as a three-DVD box set.