A gesture and a pose: the cinema of Mikio Naruse.
THE SIDELONG GLANCE
The brilliant Japanese actress Hideko Takamine, star of Lightning (1952), Floating Clouds (1955), When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960), A Wanderer's Notebook (1962), and Yearning (1964), among other Naruse films, recounted her last conversation with the director as he lay in a hospital bed in 1969. "He wanted to make a movie with no sets at all," she recalled, "just two actors in front of a white curtain backdrop." Even facing death, Naruse's thoughts were caught up in his metier. He was crafting a drama he believed he could still realize. At the end of a long career, he had reached a point where he could conceptualize a film in which scenery was totally superfluous. All that mattered was two people's chemistry bubbling up on the screen.
For Naruse that chemical reaction barely required any dialogue. Those who worked with him over the years, both actors and crew, adjusted with difficulty. Tatsuya Nakadai, known for numerous samurai roles and as the young villain with a gun in Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961), remembered with frustration how he, a Shakespearean actor, saw line after line of his dialogue disappear under Naruse's murderous pencil. Each deletion made him feel less worthy. He described Naruse as a taciturn and thoroughly intimidating presence.
What remained after all the deletions was a language of gesture, slight shifts of body weight and sidelong glances. Watch the eyes of Takamine (as Yukiko Koda), her costar Masayuki Mori (as Kengo Tomioka), and the young woman playing the Annamese servant in the opening flashback scenes in Dalat, Indochina, in Floating Clouds. Over a tray of cocktails, the servant girl lets Yukiko know with a long look after the departing Tomioka that he is her man. Tomioka, trying his best to appear gruff and critical over dinner, stares at her hard enough, while insulting her, to reveal that he is attracted to the fresh-faced Yukiko. It is the eye movement, not the dialogue, that lays out the characters of the players who will react to one another in an intense emotional cauldron.
Tomioka, while writing to his wife with faithful regularity, can't keep his hands off any young woman. Yukiko the survivor, running away from the brother-in-law who raped her, will run again--this time from the advances of a forester who claims he replaces the thoughts of women with the scent of perfumed trees--directly into the arms of the feckless Tomioka. The signs are all there in the opening glances. What is maddeningly obvious to the viewer escapes the judgment of the wide-eyed Yukiko, and this is how Naruse introduces the theme of Floating Clouds: We are about to watch a young woman grow up painfully in the moral chaos of wartime and postwar Japan.
Later in the film Yukiko will cry over Tomioka's lies and unfaithfulness. But what we see in the sidelong glances of the flashback fully reveals his character. He is a man superficially devoted to his work and his wife but capable of carrying on affairs with various women. If Yukiko had gained any worldly wisdom from her suffering prior to arriving in Dalat, she too would see it and avoid him; but she is twenty-two and still optimistic, seeing only what she wants to see: an attractive and authoritative older man. She will pay dearly for trusting him.
While watching the sidelong glances, we must also listen for the expressive silences. When Yukiko stands in the entryway of Tomioka's house back in Tokyo, the flute-and-drum music associated with the exotic happy memories of Dalat ceases. Tomioka's wife comes to the door and quickly looks her up and down. The look makes Yukiko lower her eyes ashamedly, then blurt out that she has come as a messenger from the Agriculture and Forestry Department. This little white lie elicits a welcoming, cap-toothed smile from the wife--a complete change of attitude. This exchange is offered in neutral medium shots without any rise in tone of voice or any abrupt movements. It's all very matter of fact: Have an extramarital affair, go looking for your man, instinctually lie to his wife because you can't withstand the suspicion in her look.
Japan is a culture of reticence. Naruse's use of the sidelong glance and small gesture, and blue pencil on the script, creates an economy of cinematic style unparalleled East or West.
THE RELENTLESS EDITOR
Naruse's most frequent producer at the Toho Studios, Sanezumi Fujimoto, told me he found the director's pacing extremely irritating. He complained bitterly that there were no peaks and valleys in Naruse's style, no moments of relaxation between the battles the way Kurosawa fashioned his films. In a Naruse film, there could never be a dance like the fire festival in Hidden Fortress (1958) or the rice planting at the end of Seven Samurai (1954). Naruse's characters never get relief or release, even if they are watching a festive performance. The pace of their rush toward destruction never lets up, pile upon pile of medium shots, thousands of fast cuts pushing the protagonist toward a life of loneliness or self-sacrifice or oblivion and death.
Like life, Naruse's films are composed of thousands of short shots of mundane activities and objects. If Ozu can imbue a film with transcendance by holding a shot of a vase in the corner of a dark room while the soft murmur of a father's snoring continues on the sound track (Late Spring ), Naruse will use a cutaway to an inanimate object for a completely different purpose. Both Floating Clouds and Repast (1951), among other Naruse films, offer cutaways to pairs of men's shoes (Japanese, as is well known, remove their shoes on entry into the home). In Floating Clouds the shoes are Tomioka's worn-out footwear, and their condition reveals his failure in life. He has lost everything trying to start a lumber business to supply the postwar housing boom, and now he has sought out Yukiko to borrow money. It is her maid who grasps and straightens the broken-down shoes; Yukiko notices only that Tomioka is wearing an eye patch. Again the viewer is given information that the protagonist ignores. Housed and clothed in luxury by her brother-in-law, Yukiko is only too thrilled to see her old lover.
In Repast the shoes again reveal something about the characters. We see a shot of a husband's brand-new two-tone shoes as he walks into the office; they draw the criticism of a colleague. Though Okamoto (Ken Uehara) claims they are cheap and that he saved up for them by cutting down on cigarettes, his colleague says he would do better to buy something for his pretty wife, Michiyo (Setsuko Hara). Later, when his shoes are stolen from the entryway of his home while he is tending to his niece's nosebleed, his wife remarks that the loss of his shoes is a "punishment." After devoting his attention, money, and time to his uninvited runaway niece instead of his wife, he fails to grasp why he might be being punished.
Naruse's cutaways, whether they are of shoes in the entryway or neatly folded and wrapped clothes in a basket outside the bath, are integral to the storytelling. He does not let them breathe or distract like the clotheslines and chimneys in an Ozu film. He does not let them stand for something outside of the human interaction. His concentration weighs evenly on the verbal and the nonverbal, the establishing shot and the close-up. Nothing appears that does not serve the human story. The stolen shoes in Repast, which require Okamoto to get an advance on his salary to replace them, show the precariousness of these characters' place in the middle class, as well as the fragility of their intimate relationships. It is difficult to imagine an American film where a pair of shoes could be so loaded with the affects of society and intimacy.
Fujimoto's complaints notwithstanding, and screen credits to an editor notwithstanding, we must recognize that Japanese directors of the midcentury era all did their own editing, much of it in camera. I never had the opportunity to see Naruse work in postproduction, but I did watch Kurosawa pull yards of footage through his old Moviola and do the cutting himself, listening to an inner rhythm in his head. Naruse's personal rhythm is that annoying relentlessness of daily life, the rhythm that will not let go. If his characters try to break that rhythm by grasping at something that looks more like happiness, they are quickly recaptured: The family disapproves, the lover betrays, economic necessity interferes. In one of his earliest films, Three Sisters with Maiden Hearts (1935), the young heroine struggling to make her way in the big city as a cafe musician is delighted to be asked to pose for the camera by a passing photographer. When she takes out her compact afterward to look in the mirror, she sees a large cake crumb stuck to her cheek. She frowns a moment and then goes about her business. Something as trivial as a cake crumb can prevent a poor girl from getting a big break like a magazine cover.
ICONS OF THE URBAN POOR
Although Naruse's characters moved up the socioeconomic ladder, as did Ozu's, in the course of his nearly four decades of filmmaking, there is a recurrent symbol of a folksier time that lingers in most of his films. This is the chindonya, a group of street musicians in traditional costume with drums, flutes, and shamisen strings who parade around neighborhoods advertising the opening of new businesses, usually on the local shopping street.
Nobody knows why Naruse had such affection for these almost comical folks. In Repast the young wife and her school friend laugh at them because they can see from the rhythm two chindonya share that they are husband and wife. In this case, calling attention to the marital relationship makes Michiyo think about how much worse her situation could be. Her war-widow school friend with a young child appears later passing out leaflets to commuters, her economic situation clearly deteriorated. The contemplative look on Michiyo's face conveys her realization that her marriage--childless and suffering from poor communication--is still far easier than life as a single mother.
The chindonya image belongs to the Tokyo neighborhoods that Tomioka ridicules in Floating Clouds--Katsushika and Yotsuya, places where country people with thick dialects and few possessions gathered to make their way in the big city. Naruse knew these neighborhoods from his own orphaned and impoverished childhood. He was one of those who did make his way in the big city, through years of apprenticeship for low pay and self-education in poetry, philosophy, and cinema, finally reaching a place where he could pay his own artistic homage to the industriousness of the human race. His characters are seldom happy with the place fate sets for them. They have a yearning for something better, and even if they go back to a dull life, like the young wife in Repast, their awareness of a better reality does not dim. The perfume of the trees in the jungles of Dalat--a place where society does not condemn and love is totally available--always returns, with the haunting beat of the drums accompanied by flute song and strings.
Naruse may have annoyed producers like Fujimoto with the sameness of his rhythms, but he always came in on time and under budget. His films celebrate, without extravagance, the lives of ordinary people struggling for something better than the hand fate has dealt them. Performed with quiet certainty by superb actors, shot and edited with a sure and relentless hand, they raise the ordinary and even the sordid to a quality near sublime. They never succumb to the triteness of a Hollywood happy ending but show instead a noble and stubborn fortitude, proud individuals bumping into one dead end after another, twisting elegantly in the wind.
Audie Bock is the author of Japanese Film Directors (Kodansha, 1978) and Mikio Naruse: A Master of Japanese Cinema (1983) and the translator of Akira Kurosawa's Something Like an Autobiography (Knopf, 1982). (See Contributors.)
A retrospective of the films of Mikio Naruse, organized by the Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto, is currently playing at Film-Forum in New York and at art houses in Madison, WI; Sante Fe, NM; Los Angeles; and Berkeley, CA.
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|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2005|
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