Monday, April 29, 2013

April Director - Mikio Naruse

Another month comes to a close, and so it's time for another director. I will continue in the direction I've been taking - counting down my favorite Japanese directors. If Oshima is 6 - and Kurosawa 5 - #4 is Mikio Naruse.

Naruse is probably the least discussed of these, of my favorites, if not of the acknowledged greats of Japanese cinema. He's not very well represented on DVD. Things were much worse in the past - when I started tracking down Japanese films, in the late 90s, it was possible to see a decent selection of Ozu or Mizoguchi - 6 or 8 films anyway - Kurosawa was very well represented, as always... Oshima and Imamura were not so easy to find - but Oshima stuff was around, and Imamura was alive and active, and his new films were being distributed, and he got (in 1998 or so) a full retrospective that toured the states... Naruse did not get that treatment for another decade or so, and even now, is the least available of these filmmakers on DVD, at least region 1. But - there was that retrospective a few years back - and seeing a sweeping selection of his work, in a short time, was, for me, as overwhelming as one could expect. I wrote up most of it at the time - so in place of the capsules here, I will point you to what I wrote then. Part 1 and part 2, and some overflow, here.

You will find most of my general thoughts about him scattered among those reviews - I could offer some generalities. Compared to his most canonical contemporaries - I think where Ozu works with simple setups, and uses editing to put together his stories, and subtly disrupt the surface (which he does - I think he is one of the most radical mainstream filmmakers imaginable), and Mizoguchi moves his camera to shape and exploit space (something Ozu does with editing), Naruse works with composition. That is - Ozu combines shots to create space and meaning; Mizoguchi moves the camer to do it; Naruse builds in in shots on screen. He uses depth, layers, symmetries, positioning characters in the middle of complicated backgrounds, complicated spatial arrangements caught in single shots, single set ups, etc. He uses static compositions to create complex images - a style that I think turns up in a few later directors, sometimes more than the moving camera or montage heavy styles of Ozu or Mizoguchi. Imamura, Ichikawa do this a lot as well - I don't know if they got it from Naruse, it's not exactly unique - but he is a master. Probably not THE master - check out that fish atop this blog! - but he'll do.

That'll do. And so? a more or less straight list - though you can find more, sometimes quite a bit more, at the links above. Finally - is there a filmmaker ever who paid closer attention to money?

1. Late Chrysanthemums
2. When a Woman Ascends the Stairs - worth noting that Hideko Takemine might well be the most beautiful woman ever put on screen, especially in front of Naruse's camera.
3. Wife! Be Like a Rose! - comedy! and masterfully handled, at that...
4. Mother
5. Floating Clouds - an interesting film, because, despite his reputation as a melodramatist, maybe something of a miserablist - this is one of the few films that don't end on at least a stubborn note - I have to quote myself: For good bad or indifferent, Naruse's heroines usually have to keep going at the end - their stories don't really end - some episode ends, the film can end, but they have to get up in the morning and go back to whatever it is they do.... His films usually end with the woman ascending the stairs... This is an exception.
6. Every Night's Dream
7. The Sound of the Mountain
8. Repast
9. Summer Clouds
10. Lightning - almost a comedy!

1 comment:

Sam Juliano said...

Wonderful post on one of the greatest of all Japanese directors, and the recipient of a 2005 Film Forum retrospective that I attended in force, well before I started collecting those BFI and MOC sets and the Criterion of WHEN A WOMAN ASCENDS THE STAIRS. My own two favorite Naruses are FLOATING CLOUDS and REPAST but who could argue with your order here, nor with your canonical listing of his most superlative works. Yes it is true that one must have an all-Region player to truly appreciate his available output, but I got over that hurdle around the time of the festival when I began collecting Region 2 DVDs. In any case I agree with you on just about every films on your list, and consider Naruse as one of the top masters.

Incidentally, I want to mention that Manhattan's Film Forum has just announced a comprehensive three week Ozu Festival that will run from July 7 till July 27 in honor of the 50th anniversary of his death and in dedication to Japanese film scholar Donald Richie, who passed away in February at the age of 88. Of course I do well know my friend that you are a huge Ozu fan as I am, and know Richie's work like the back of your hand (as you do Bordwell's) you can appreciate this double homage. In any case, though I have seen nearly all the films in the festival I am more than tempted to make a number of appearances. There was an IFC Film Center Festival two years ago, but not nearly as many films as what the Film Forum will be presenting.