Having attended the Mikio Naruse retrospective held here at Seoul Cinematheque in January, I can say with great passion that I am a recent convert to this grossly underappreicated Japanese master. The understated, and perhaps characteristically Japanese portrayal of disenchanted existence in Naruse’s films always grips me with its staggering beauty and pathos, and his impeccable craftsmanship is a cinematic talent of the first order. So, this is my part testimony, part tribute, part sloppy criticism devoted to Naruse. And given his unjustifiably humble reputation both in and outside Japan, I hope to contribute—however minuscule effect that a blog no one has heard of may have—to invigorating the discourse concerning him and his films on the web.

Before anything, I think it only appropriate that I first acknowledge certain biases and limitations in my reflection on Naruse’s oeuvre. Of the ninety films he directed, I have checked out twenty thus far: so, not even a quarter of his filmography. The retrospective in Seoul included twenty-six titles, two of which I had previously seen—Floating Clouds and A Couple, which are amongst his best-known work. It’s worth noting that Naruse started out in the Silent Era, then transitioned into talkies, and eventually adapted to colour and ‘Scope. All of the films I saw had sound, twelve come from the 50’s, five were shot in ‘Scope, and only one was in colour. Therefore, my knowledge and critical opinions/assumptions about Naruse are disproportionately derived from his monochrome, academy ratio films made in the 50’s, widely hailed as his richest period. In short, this is an exploration still in progress, possibly for the rest of my life.

Critics often cite Naruse’s unostentatious filmmaking style and lack of screenwriting credit as major obstructions to establishing him as an auteur. It’s quite true, the name Naruse does not immediately conjure up any trademark stylistic device like the names of his contemporaries do: Kurosawa and the use of telephoto lens, Mizoguchi and the one-scene-one-shot approach, Ozu and the low angle camera position. That before the Second World War he directed films of varying genres (presumably due to the demands from the studio) exacerbates the trouble even further. However, the aforementioned disproportion and incompleteness of my knowledge of his work, for better or worse, helped reducing this elusiveness, and illuminating a handful of recurrent characteristics in his artistry. For it is in the 50’s did he begin to specialise in shōshimin-eiga that exhibit somewhat consistent, if not very self-evident, style and thematic concerns.

Shigehiko Hasumi, one of the foremost film critics from Japan, said of auteur Naruse, “[his] films consist of a man and a woman, and every conceivable story that can unfold in their relationship.” I would add to his statement: often told from the perspectives of women in action. One of the more noticeable attributes of Naruse’s filmography is that his protagonists are predominantly female. But of course, this is a generic enough trait that can be said also of Mizoguchi, Sirk, and Fassbinder among many others.

Late Chrysanthemums (1954)

Let’s take Mizoguchi, one of Naruse’s contemporaries, for the purpose of a comparative study. Are Naruse’s women and Mizoguchi’s the same kind? Far from the same; in fact fundamentally different. Whereas Mizoguchi’s world seems to abide by Benjamin’s observation on the nature of fate—”Happiness and bliss are […] no more part of the sphere of fate than innocence.”—Naruse’s seems to assume the Nietzschean attitude towards misfortune: valiant acceptance of pessimism and willingness to confront life’s adversities. In other words, Mizoguchi’s women suggest tragedy, and Naruse’s women suggest pathos.

Women in Mizoguchi’s films tend to be vulnerable women (geishas, in many cases) barely keeping up at the bottom of the social ladder. Once the film begins, they are to be mercilessly crushed by the overwhelming surge of cruel fate. The director’s best-known work, Ugetsu Monogatari, Sansho the Bailiff, and The Life of Oharu, all operates within this genesis. Somewhat similarly, fate plays a major role in Naruse’s world too; every action and its consequences seem predetermined, and every tragedy inevitable. But Naruse’s women rarely just sit and watch how their leviathan-like fate swallows up their precarious existence. Even though in his films life disappoints and even destroys these women in the end, they never turn blind eye to their misfortune, but instead seek it out to come face to face with it.

Every time a heroine in a Naruse movie is given the choice between marching into a predicament head on and resorting to denial in order to maintain that diminutive comfort she has, she always opts for the former: hence, women in action. The title of one of his best films, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, speaks for its creator’s entire oeuvre—these women ascend the stairs to confront the unforgiving reality they inhabit. And thus, the doomed attempt to run away from fate and its consequent downfall in Mizoguchi’s films often result in profound tragedy, but the willingness to accept life’s hardships as they are and to persevere in Naruse’s, on the other hand, creates deeply moving pathos. 

However, there is something peculiar about this pathos typically rendered in Naruse’s films. The success of a melodrama is often measured by the gallons of tears it has caused its audience to shed; it’s no secret that the unashamed maximisation of tearjerking is generally regarded as the virtue of melodramas. However, in the case of Naruse, the pathos is not the direct product of a cathartic climax, but rather the reverberation of subdued emotion, felt from an irreducible distance. In other words, he hardly relied on sappy sentiments and irresponsible romanticism to squeeze every drop of tears out of the audience’s eyes, but instead tried his best to set his viewers apart from the emotionally violent moments in the movies. And given that the most frequent genre in his filmography is shōshimin-eiga, which is a distinctly Japanese variant of melodrama, such firm refusal to rely on the usual melodramatic strategies hints that Naruse did indeed have a unique take on the genre by way of subversion.

Lightning (1952)

One instance of such subversion is the blazing argument exchanged between Kiyoko (beautifully played by one of Naruse regulars Hideko Takamine) and her mother towards the end of Lightening. Exasperated by her suffocating circumstances, Kiyoko blames her mother for all of her misfortunes, and even goes on to snap at her: “I wish I had never been born!” Her mother angrily responses to Kiyoko by calling her a terrible daughter, and bursts into tears. Right then, a shot of lightning in a night sky seen from the second floor window intrudes the scene, thus creating a sudden break in our emotional engagement with this intense moment. A typical melodramatist would milk this scene to force the audience into a soap-ridden climax of the drama, but Naruse instead prevents us from being too caught up in the heat of the moment.

But, what does he achieve with this strange, un-melodramatic approach that tears the audience off of what’s happening on screen? By providing a distance between the audience and the film, Naruse successfully suppresses the manipulative side that is inherent in the melodrama genre. He grants the audience an independence, and thereby allowing a moment of intellectual reflection. Like Bresson, Naruse understood that detachment, if done right, results in a far greater emotional power than immediacy. The claustrophobic atmosphere created in that small room where Kiyoko and her mother fire ugly statements at one another reaches its dramatic peak precisely when the camera shies away from the action, and abruptly cuts to the shot of the sudden lightening. It feels as though we the audience have been struck by that lightening.

A more literal example of detachment in Naruse’s work is the ending of Yearning, one of my personal favourites. In this climactic scene, Reiko, the film’s heroine (again played by Takamine), witnesses from her hotel room window a dead body being carried on a stretcher, and knows by intuition that the corpse is that of her brother-in-law Koji whose romantic advance she has understandably rejected. She storms out of the room, trying desperately to reach for him. Though Reiko gets near enough to have her worst presentiment confirmed, the distance remains irreducible; alas, she is prevented from embracing Koji for one last time. The film ends with a frontal shot of her face with blank expression, on which the terrible truth is just about to dawn. And it is this irreducible physical distance that gives the experience of watching Yearning a heightened emotional impact and subliminal beauty.

Yearning (1964)

Like I already cited Bresson earlier, the use of detachment or more noticeable Brechtian distanciation in cinematic storytelling is not wholly unique. However, where Naruse differs from directors like Bresson, Godard, and Fassbinder who frequently made use of distancing as a formal device is his dedication to being a plot-driven storyteller. His seamless découpage and absolute mastery of naturalistic lighting that makes it extremely difficult for the audience to discern location shooting and studio shoots are thoroughly optimised for the kind of filmmaking the Golden Age of Hollywood sought after. He was not interested in inventing radically new forms or changing the face of cinema altogether, but in giving assigned screenplays the best possible celluloid treatments.

I would like to return to the point that at least in the last fifteen years of his career, Naruse was kind of a melodrama specialist—a label more fitting in the Japanese context would be “master craftsman.” And we know from film history that the true masters of any given genre are those who pioneer and violently topple down genre-defining conventions. Try compiling a thriller conventions checklist, and see how Hitchcock’s oeuvre complies to it. You will be astonished by the number of boxes that remain unchecked for each movie: most likely different boxes every time. The same could be said of Ford and Western. These two filmmakers arguably shaped their respective specialty genres in their careers, yet they are the ones who made no scruple of betraying those established rules of the game. I believe this is also true of Naruse and his brand of shōshimin-eiga. He was a master (anti-)melodramatist with a heart dedicated to no-nonsense storytelling, a genetic intolerance to sentimentalism, and a knack for riveting defeatism.

As part of the retrospective, the cinematheque invited few film critics and scholars to give lectures on Naruse. One of the lecturers happened to be a Yasuzo Masumura scholar, and she brought up a very illuminating story concerning Masumura’s (lack of) relation with the master. Masumura, in his years as a professional film critic, became notorious for his scathing criticisms targeted against the previous generation of Japanese filmmakers. Not even Mizoguchi for whose Princess Yang Kwei-Fei and Street of Shame he served as an assistant director was free from his irreverent critical judgement. Reportedly, he was especially unforgiving to domestic dramas, for he thought that they encompassed all the maladies of the Japanese society: such as restraint, defeat, resignation, and escape. And it is more than telling that the name Naruse never once pops up in Masumura’s writings. Such omission could only be deliberate, as Naruse was a household name in the genre at the time. My guess is that Masumura secretly admired certain aspects of Naruse’s films—particularly his completely unsentimental editing.—but, in keeping up with his firm refusal of the Old Wave of Japanese cinema, couldn’t bring himself to publicly express this admiration.

Perhaps, had Naruse been attacked for his tearjerkers in Masumura’s criticisms, he might have become as prominent as Mizoguchi, Ozu, and Kurosawa much sooner. His position in the cinema history bears some resemblance to that of Howard Hawks in this respect; Hawks’s artistic merits were too belatedly recognised  while his contemporaries Ford and Hitchcock were established as serious auteurs in their lifetimes. But don’t let Naruse’s defeatism get the better of us: after all, his work is now discussed alongside Ozu’s and Mizoguchi’s. And hell, six of his films have received the Criterion treatment! (Unfortunately, and at the same time very interestingly, Masumura has since fallen into relative obscurity and none of his films is featured in the Criterion back catalogue.) I have no doubt that for the future generation of cinephiles, Yearning and When a Woman Ascends the Stairs will carry the same weight that Tokyo Story, Ikiru, and Ugetsu Monogatari do today.