Tag Archives: Naruse

Flowing (Nagareru, Japan 1956)

A music lesson in the geisha house. The maid standing in the background is played by the marvelous Tanaka Kinuyo

A music lesson in the geisha house. The maid standing in the background is played by the marvelous Tanaka Kinuyo

Flowing is a Naruse Mikio film – a Toho melodrama from the mid-1950s set in the world of the geisha houses of Tokyo. It’s an ensemble piece with many familiar faces amongst the women including Tanaka Kinuyo, Takamine Hideko and Sugimura Haruko. The title at first appears to refer to the river which flows through the Tokyo district in which the geisha house is located, but quickly we realise that the river shots are just one of Naruse’s equivalent of those cutaways to views of the city or the streets that Ozu was so fond of. Instead, ‘flowing’ probably refers to the ‘flow’ of daily life in the geisha house.

Although the narratives are different, this film has a similar setting to Mizoguchi’s Uwasa no onna (1954). I wondered in reviewing that film who the audience was for these ‘quality pictures’ that are in essence similar to modern soaps or drama series. I wish there had been a ‘Reception Studies’ culture in Japanese universities in the 1950s. I can only assume that a female and possibly middle-class and middle-aged audience was the target. Because this is Naruse rather than Mizoguchi, the story does not have the same melodrama overdrive and is much closer to that sense of “accepting the problems that life brings”. So, although there are small triumphs along the way, we leave the geisha house at the end much as we found it at the beginning – but in between we learn plenty about the daily life of the house, something about the lives of the women and their relationships and an awful lot about the economics of the business and why it is failing. 1956 saw changes in the laws on prostitution in Japan which changed the position of the geisha house profoundly. The likely fate of the house in the film is to become a ‘hotel’ or a restaurant – it is a respectable house, but perhaps it will eventually become a brothel.

In no way is this hard work as the direction is masterly and the performances are superb. This is a Masters of Cinema DVD so it includes is a useful separate discussion of the film by two American critic-fans.

Floating Clouds and Late Chrysanthemums

The second Naruse Mikio screening at the National Media Museum this week provided an interesting comparison with When A Woman Ascends the Stairs. The same two stars, Takamine Hideko and Masayuki Mori were the leads in Floating Clouds (Japan 1955) and the focus was again on a ‘suffering’ woman in a melodrama, but there were also some striking differences.

First Floating Clouds was shot in Academy ratio, 1.33:1. Naruse does not have a distinctive visual style and the change of screen size should not be too significant, but for me the ‘Scope film seemed much more coherent in its use of framing and composition. Floating Clouds was quite conventionally shot and perhaps it was the rather abrupt edits marking shifts in time periods (i.e. character’s memories) that made it feel less coherent. Many of the scenes in small houses and narrow alleys in Tokyo were reminiscent of Ozu’s Tokyo Story. However, where Ozu’s camera often stays at the eye level of a child or someone kneeling on a tatami mat, Naruse simply follows the characters — when they are in a traditional room, the camera is low level but at other times it rises with them.

Floating Clouds has the attention to social detail that I’m coming to realise is a Naruse trait. The story deals with a couple returning to Japan after the war has ended from their posting with a forestry team in Indo-China (presumably Vietnam). The misery of the Occupation and the struggle to survive economically and morally provides the context for an abortive romance. Unlike When A Woman Ascends The Stairs, written by Kikushima Ryuzo, responsible for many of Kurosawa’s scripts, Floating Clouds is an adaptation of a novel by the very popular Hayashi Fumiko. In fact, Floating Clouds was the fifth Naruse film based on Ms Hayashi’s novels. Perhaps then Floating Clouds is more like the norm for Naruse? When I got to see Late Chrysanthemums (Japan 1954) just a few days later, this naive assumption was soon discarded.

In the pub after the screening someone suggested that the film was ‘Bressonian’ and that seems like a good reference. Whereas Floating Clouds is a fairly conventional melodrama in terms of structure and presentation, Late Chrysanthemums, based on three short stories by Hayashi, is almost a pure character piece with little plot but a lot of opportunity to reflect on the lives of ageing geisha. Four women in early middle age, like four flowers whose bloom is fading, struggle to make ends meet. Or at least three of them do. The fourth has become a moneylender (and property speculator), but money can’t buy her happiness and she is disappointed to find that men only want to borrow money. This film seemed linked, thematically and structurally, more to When A Woman Ascends the Stairs. Once again, we get the detail of everyday life in Tokyo. If anything, there are even more scenes of money changing hands. Aesthetically, the film seems more fluent and coherent than Floating Clouds, which now seems much more of a genre piece.

The two earlier films did make me think about Ozu. They show ordinary families in ordinary settings (although Ozu’s families are perhaps more genteel). There are plenty of Ozu railway scenes. Neither Ozu or Naruse got commercial releases in the UK in the 1950s and in retrospect it’s not difficult to see why. Mizoguchi and Kurosawa offered films that were at once more ‘exotic’, more exciting, more expressionist and more obviously ‘humanist’. Naruse’s films do require an appreciation of the day to day nuances of Japanese cultural life. Late Chrysanthemums also refers to memories of Manchuria (and rather surprisingly, to the prospect of going to Korea) — some knowledge of Japanese imperialism is required to fully appreciate these references. I’m not sure I would have appreciated Naruse when I was younger and when i was even more ignorant of Japanese culture.

I’m glad I saw these films and I’ll look out for the DVD titles that are already published.

When A Woman Ascends The Stairs (Japan 1960)

Takamine Hideko as Keiko, the Mama-san in a Ginza bar.

When A Woman Ascends The Stairs (Japan 1960, dir. Naruse Mikio) has just about everything I could wish for in a movie – a beautiful heroine presented in a B+W ‘Scope melodrama in which she must make almost impossible decisions about how to gain her independence in patriarchal Japan. Whilst the story reminded me very much of Mizoguchi Kenji’s suffering women, the milieu of early 1960s Tokyo was reminiscent of Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well (also 1960) and Masumura Yasuzo’s A Wife Confesses (1962). However, Naruse’s mise en scène seems less expressionist – or perhaps just more subtle than that of the other three directors. The compositions are careful and usually quite simple and the story is carried by the acting and the use of locations, costume and set design. What impressed me most about the film was the wealth of social detail.

Tokyo in 1960 seems on the cusp of the great leap forward towards the Japanese economic resurgence. The cars on the street are still American and in the bars the brands are British, French or American. Keiko’s apartment is ‘modern’, but her family home in the suburbs by the river could still be part of 1930s Tokyo. The mixing of traditional and modern/Western costume, decor and food tells us a great deal about the characters. Keiko is always dressed traditionally (‘conservatively’, as she tells her mother).

The central premise of the narrative is that the 30 year-old widow Keiko is facing the reality of her situation as a popular hostess (in fact the senior hostess or Mama-san) of a bar in Ginza, Tokyo’s entertainment district. Her options appear to be to set up her own bar or to marry one of her rich clients. She can’t really afford to stand still. Everyone is struggling to make their way in the new world of potential prosperity, so whatever she chooses she will have to face the unpalatable consequences of her actions (e.g. other hostesses who have set up in their own bars have been driven to suicide by the economic pressure involved in borrowing money and repaying the interest). The social context is economically summed up in Keiko’s voiceover in which she tells that at 11.30 each night, 15,000 women in Ginza leave the bars and other places of entertainment. The first-class women take taxis, the second-class take the train to the suburbs and the others go home with their clients.

There are two more Naruse films in the short season in Bradford. I can’t wait.