The Mikio Naruse series, playing at the Museum of Fine Arts and the Harvard Film Archive, has begun. I am going to try to post something here about every film - probably catchall posts like this one, though I might post these as I go, like I started doing with this post. [This is updated from a coiuple days ago.] Probably depends on time and all that. I'd bet on catchalls.
One more thing - I am not going to be a stickler about not revealing plot details. I don't know how much play these films are going to get in the general public, but it probably won't be a lot. So - it's a bitter truth that there won't be enough people to spoil them for... And I'd rather move on to make the case for their importance, which kind of requires some plot details sometimes.... I will try not to give away too much, but no promises.
1) When A Woman Ascends the Stairs: might be his masterpiece, certainly the best known Naruse film. A bar hostess approaches 30, struggling for money, steering among a group of men who lust for her or long for her. She will not turn tricks - she swore fidelity to her dead husband and uses it as an excuse to stay away from the men around her. But she is beset by a string of disasters - a friend/rival kills herself over her debts (a caution for Mama-san, if she owned a bar); she becomes ill; she gets involved with a man who turns out to be a fraud; she gets drunk and lets herself be seduced by another married man she loves who won't leave his wife. Through it all, her family mooches off her, her bar manager hovers over her, only to turn preachy at the end, though he can't maintain the pose of superiority... All this is conveyed in quiet, balanced compositions, deep and complex. Hideko Takamine, probably the most beautiful of the great Japanese actresses, Naruse's frequent star, is outstanding - the rest of the cast strong.... Naruse's style is as austere as Ozu's - where Ozu cuts, Mizoguchi moves the camera, and Naruse works mostly through the shot - the composition, the arrangement of people and objects on the screen. Very few camera movements, and the editing is never abrasive as it is in Ozu: it's all depth and composition. Some shots as deep and textured as Imamura - others simple and pure - always precise. There is a quiet accumulation of detail and emotion. This is a brilliant, stunning film, comparable to anything from the other greats.
2) Mother: Kinuyo Tanaka as the mother, living in some poverty in post-war Japan. She loses most of her family in the film - first her son dies, then her husband, then her brother adopts her daughter and her sister takes her son back... I had seen this film before, but forgot all but the basic set up (everyone leaves her, the money troubles), and it's general characteristics, the handsome, fairly quiet style, etc. It's set in an old-fashioned looking neighborhood, and Naruse spends a lot of time in the street, shooting people moving around, festivals, shops, and so on, all the while keeping the family's story embedded in the life of the neighborhood. The story telling is elliptical - scenes fade without showing their resolution, transitions often leave out the big events happening between. Most of the cinematic work is done by composition and staging, the editing isn't as abrupt as in his early films - there are some neat jokes, like bringing up a "The End" title halfway through the film - then showing the characters at a movie.... Finally, Tanaka is, as always, wonderful - here, Naruse develops a kind of characteristic shot of her - holding the shot of her face, as a look of happiness or strength fades to aching sadness.
3) Flunky! Work Hard! - The Museum of Fine Arts tried to bill this as "Little Man, Try Hard!"- I gotta go with the older title.... This is a short comedy made in 1931 about a poor insurance salesman, trying to sell policies to a wealthy family so he can take care of his own family. Slapstick at first, with business involving the man's son hiding from the neighborhood mothers (after he beat up the other kids) - then joined by the father, hiding from the rent collector. Then more slapstick involving the Flunky and a rival insurance agent. But this is Shochiko - sooner or late, a kid is going to suffer, and sure enough, someone gets hit by a train - the insurance agent, trying to make up for his son beating up one of the rich kids (3 of the rich kids, actually) takes the boy home, and wins their business... But we can guess who was really hit by the train. When the father learns his son's fate - the film explodes - Naruse launches into a barrage of flashbacks, images of planes and trains - then cuts to the hospital, all shadows and fast cuts and the mother pacing in and out of the frame (an image that comes up repeatedly in his early films), and dripping faucets and the works....
4) Every Night's Dream - 1933, Shochiko comic melodrama, featuring appearances by a couple of Ozu's regulars, Takeshi Sakamoto and Tatsuo Saito. Saito plays the rather useless husband of a bar hostess (played by Sumiko Kurishima) with a son. Saito looks for work, but there aren't any jobs, and he's not all that energetic about getting one. Meanwhile, Sakamoto is hanging around, smoking a pipe and leering over the barmaid. Will she turn tricks? Will he find a job? Or - this being Shochiko - will the boy be hit by a car?
The plot is a kind of hash of Shochiko themes - poverty, sick kids, moral dilemmas - several contemporary Ozu films (That Night's Wife, Women of Tokyo, An Inn in Tokyo) use similar themes - this seems less sharp than the similar Ozu films, maybe because Ozu had a couple years start on Naruse, and was more established and sure of his techniques. It is a good deal more pessimistic than Ozu's films - crime is punished in Ozu's, but not before it pays the bills. Here, crime does not pay, is not really punished (someone jumps in a river - Naruse fans should be able to guess whether it's the weakling husband or the tough wife) - though the utter darkness descends very late, and doesn't seem all that much more convincing than Ozu's modest self-sacrificers.
The most notable element of this film is the style - Naruse, in the 30s, seems heavily influenced by the Russians - you see it in Flunky - you see it here. Metaphoric editing, flashbacks and visions, lots of strong manipulation of space; repeated shots, fast cuts, intrusive tracks, usually into a character, though sometimes away from a character. I wouldn't say that any of these devices have clear, given meanings - they tend to function by startling us, by making us notice a character's inner turmoil. The tracks, for instance, function largely through contrast - the tracks in feel like the story demanding a decision - then a track away from someone signals a change in their attitude, their decision to act. The contrast between different kinds of camera moves is what creates meaning - it’s almost a Kuleshov effect: the tracks in may have some intrinsic meaning, but mostly they serve to startle us - and take on meaning mostly through contrast with the final track out from the character. Overall, these early films are flashier than the later ones - and very “expressionistic” - though usually using Russian techniques (montage, some camera movement) instead of German ones (mise-en-scene, lighting, manipulation of space.) The difference I'm getting at (between "Russia" and "German" styles) can be seen in the use of cameras movement - they don’t manipulate space the way they do in Mizoguchi (or Murnau) - they work more by shocking us - they make you notice them - they are formalist, in their “making strange” - or “presentationalist” - a major element in formalism, since the point of presentational filmmaking is to startle to audience. That is not to say Naruse does not use lighting and manipulation of space to great effect - these films are full of technique of this sort.
5) Wife! Be Like A Rose! - another better known Naruse, the first Japanese sound film released in the United States. Story of modern girl who decides to retrieve her father, who has deserted her and her mother, from the ex-geisha he's livig with. But when she arrives, things are not as they seem... The sound is, in fact, pretty well done - clear, and not hindering Naruse's camera style. (This isn't as flashy as the 2 silent films, but he still moves the camera plenty. His style has, however, solidified - he's moving toward the emphasis on the composition of the shots, the use of decor, lighting and so on - and it feels more organic than the earlier films.) He's also well in command of the use of sound as sound - he's particularly fond of using sound to bridge scenes - more than once he starts music in one scene that seems to be extra-diegetic, only to shift to another scene, where someone is playing the music. He does this with dialogue and diegetic sound - starting the sound from the following scene over the end of the previous - playing dialogue or sound from different scenes, etc. He plays foreground and background dialogue against one anote a couple times as well - the mother's poetry, the father's second family, talking around the girl. Those transitions, by the way, are a relic of his silent days - in Every Night’s Dream, he frequently cut into scenes on dialogue cards. The most extreme version going something like this: 1) shots of father and son, playing outside; 2) shot of intertitle, talking about work and money; 3) shots of the madam of the bar where the wife works; 4) shots of the room; 5) intertitle, continuing earlier dialogue; 6) shot of the wife, who has been speaking all along. That is only one example. He picks that up where he left off when sound comes - and seems even more adept at it.
6) Traveling Actors (or, more charmingly, though not so accurately, The Actors Who Play the Horse.) Not surprisingly, this is indeed about the actors who play the horse in a traveling Kabuki troupe. It's funny - the forelegs are played by a proud veteran, the hind legs by a newcomer - they brag, study horses, talk... Then, after a drunken oaf of a barber ruins their horse's head, they go on strike - and are replaced by, horror of horrors, a real horse! That won't stand - and in the end, they go on a rampage, in costume of course.... It's very entertaining - less biting than most Naruse, odd in not featuring women in any significant roles - though there might be some politics in the fate of the actors. Craftsmen replaced by the novelty of the real!
7) A Tale of Archery at the Sanjusangendo - the son of a former archery champion who killed himself after failing to surpass the record of his rival, sets out to reclaim the title of Japan's greatest archer.... the current champion's family hires thugs to stop him - but a mysterious stranger (played by Kazuo Hasegawa) protects him - but who could the mystery man be? If you can't guess, you don't know much about Samurai films. It's entertaining, but that's about all. It's stunningly beautiful, but you knew that too, I hope.
8) Song Lantern - (aka Lantern Singer) - in this, a Noh singer humiliates an old amateur who had been unwisely shooting off his mouth - the old man kills himself, and the Noh singer is disowned by his father. (I don't know exactly what it means that the singer is played by Shôtarô Hanayagi, star of Mizoguchi's Story of the Last Chrysanthemum, where - well, same idea - traditional arts, exile, redemption...) He (the singer) turns to singing under street lanterns (thus the title) - he makes friends with a rival, then he meets the daughter of the old man he killed, and teaches her Noh dance... Inevitably, she is called on to perform for the singer's father. It's a full moon. The story is no great shakes, but as always it's a lovely film, played with a certain amount of wry comedy, and given a few bursts of astonishment.