FILM NOTES INDEX
NYS WRITERS INSTITUTE
(Japan, 1952, 98 minutes, b&w 35mm)
(in Japanese with English subtitles)
Directed by Mikio Naruse
Kinuyo Tanaka . . . . . . . . . . Masako
Masao Mishima . . . . . . . . . . Ryosuke
Kyôko Kagawa . . . . . . . . . .Toshiko
Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu. The pantheon of the Japanese film? Without Mikio Naruse, director of dozens of film between 1931 and 1967, that pantheon is less than complete. And yet, even attentive students of the cinema don’t know his films. If film history has been unkind to Naruse, it is a perfect irony, for Naruse’s own early life was a struggle against an unkind fate.
Mikio Naruse was born in 1905, the child of a poor embroiderer who died when Naruse was in his teens; his father’s death cut short Naruse’s schooling, and forced him into a succession of low-paying jobs. One of these was as a prop man at the Kamat studios of the Shojiku company, one of Japan’s largest film producers. He rose through the ranks with remarkable swiftness, for the fledgling film industry was one of the few realms in the Japanese economy not dominated by an inherited class structure. Naruse’s films depicted life as he had known it. His characters are often barren of hope, poor, and obsessed with economic survival. His first films were a blend of comedy and melodrama, their worldviews often grim and ironic. Some titles are evocative: 1931’s Flunky! Work Hard! Or 1932’s Motheaten Spring…. But by the 1950’s, Naruse’s approach had evolved into a clear-eyed melodrama, never self-pitying in tone, but profoundly sensitive to the thousand daily injuries to the spirit which life held for the ordinary Japanese.
His more well-known peers, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and Ozu, each contributed major works to the tradition of Japanese postwar neorealism – films about the life of the poor, set on the mean streets of Tokyo or other large Japanese cities – but Naruse was most closely identified with the suffering of the anonymous Japanese citizen. 1952’s Mother is perhaps his most characteristic later work, and, as one of the first of Naruse’s films to received international distribution, was seen in its own time as a major contribution to the language of cinematic neorealism around the world.
The Fukuhara family is scraping out a meager existence; one is a candy seller, another is a security guard. Death visits the family, and the matriarch "Masako" (played by Kinuyo Tanaka), must choose between her own happiness and the family’s one chance at something like economic stability. The film is a distant cousin of the American "woman’s film" of the same time period, but it finally offers far more sympathy for its heroine than did the films of Bette Davis or Joan Crawford. Here, Naruse uses melodrama to offer biting criticism of a society which straightjackets women in economic and social roles from which they cannot escape, and in which they cannot prosper. Mother was based on the winning entry in a national essay contest among elementary school children, and the film is told, uniquely, from a child’s perspective. Even in a moment when stories of ordinary people were the glory of the cinema in Italy, India, and England, Naruse’s work of lower- middle-class neighborhood life was a towering achievement. Perhaps this was because, as much as any director, Naruse had lived the life he brought to the screen; he’d felt the same emptiness of stomach and the same ache of the soul. When the film was honored overseas and at home, his response was as unassuming and direct: "This is the type of project I understand best," he said simply.
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
The following is taken from an article by Acquarello that appears on the website, StrictlyFilmSchool.com:
Okasan opens to the voice of a reflective young woman named Toshiko (Kyôko Kagawa) who amusedly comments on her assiduous and determined mother Masako's (Kinuyo Tanaka) idiosyncratic preference for short brooms as she observes her mother meticulously sweeping the floors of their modest family home. In a poor, working class Tokyo suburb in 1950, the proud and uncomplaining Fukuharas persevere in the hopes of making a better life for their children (and extended family) and their future. Every morning, after finishing the housework, Masako wheels an awkward, portable cart down the street to sell candy at a sidewalk makeshift concession stand.
Her husband, the gentle and hardworking Ryosuke (Masao Mishima), has found temporary employment as a security guard at a factory, patiently waiting for the government reappropriation laws to be enacted so that the family may reclaim their property seized during the war and reopen their laundry and clothes dyeing shop….
Mikio Naruse presents a compassionate, resigned, and poignant examination of human struggle, perseverance, and sacrifice in Okasan. Juxtaposing the innocence and optimism of youth with the austerity of life in postwar Japan, Naruse reflects the gradual erosion of hope in the face of change and uncertainty…. From the opening shot of Toshiko's affectionate voice-over against the image of the resourceful Masako, arched forward, cleaning the house, Naruse conveys the understated and bittersweet image of his archetypal, resilient heroine-an unsentimental, yet graceful and reverent portrait of a tenacious, aging woman struggling-and literally yielding-against the interminable burden of poverty, heartache, disillusionment, and unrealized dreams.
The following is taken from an article by J. Hoberman that appeared in The Village Voice in 1986:
Can a Japanese director who has been dead for 16 years be truly avant? After a decade of intermittent screenings at the Japan Society and a Museum of Modern Art retro so unexpectedly popular it was brought back for an encore, Mikio Naruse broke through to the wider audience enjoyed by his contemporaries Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu.
Like Mizoguchi, Naruse was drawn to portrayals of unhappy and exploited women; like Ozu, he despised period films and set his own movies in a modern, lower middle-class milieu. But the self-effacing, solitary, profoundly pessimistic Naruse was less sentimental than either. His settings are more tawdry and marginal than Ozu's, his style less obviously rigorous, and his domestic dramas less mystically affirmative.
Naruse is avant because, in a time when Hollywood movies have become increasingly impersonal, overblown, and manipulative, the virtues of his unpretentious studio-nurtured filmmaking are all the more apparent.
The following is taken from an article by Freda Freiberg that appears in the e-zine SensesOfCinema.com:
When writing about the oeuvre of Mikio Naruse (1905-1969), critics invariably lapse into invidious comparisons and a list of negatives. A late addition to the pantheon of Japanese auteurs, he has always been rated below Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi. There is a common chorus of complaints. He made intimate domestic dramas but his work isn't as playful or charming as Ozu's. He served his apprenticeship at Shochiku's Kamata studios, alongside Ozu, but couldn't or wouldn't master the lightly entertaining house style. They were glad to dispense with his services because he persisted in being heavy, sombre and depressing…. The American male critics have always treated him as second-rate. They were entranced by the boyish playfulness of Ozu and the macho histrionics of Kurosawa. They could locate Zen Buddhist aesthetics in late Ozu and Mizoguchi, Zen and samurai ethics in Kurosawa. In search of spiritual elevation or showy displays of stylishness, they found Naruse too bleak in philosophy, too austere in style.
It is time to debunk some of the pieties of Western criticism of Japanese cinema. Nearly 20 years ago, Japanese academic critic Shigehiko Hasumi deplored its omissions and biases; and, in his recent attack on the American academy and Western criticism of Japanese film, US-based academic critic Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto argues that American academics and critics retain a vested interest in culturalist and formalist approaches to Japanese film. In America, Japan has been seen through the prism of wartime Washington intelligence lenses as the home of the chrysanthemum and the sword, the dichotomy of aestheticism and militarism, of ritual refinement and brutal social practices. Naruse refuses to service these readings; he exposes their inadequacy, not his inadequacy.
Naruse is a materialist par excellence. There is no escape from the world as it is. Life is a school of hard knocks. We all have to face up to disappointments, betrayals and loneliness, and yet keep on going on. His is a world of disillusion, not illusions. Of survival, not suicide or other more comforting forms of self-transcendence-such as religion, aesthetics, or poetics. In Naruse's world, there is no transcendence, only daily bodily existence subject to social and economic conditions.
His characters battle to satisfy basic physical, social and economic needs. They seek comfort and security in relationships with family, friends and partners, but try to extricate themselves from oppressive relationships. Their bodies need food and clothing, housing and sex. They need money to buy food and clothing, to pay the rent and the doctor's bills. Money changing hands, being counted-these are the recurring images of Naruse films. His central characters are single women coping with the problems of making a living, supporting a sick parent or child, finding companionship and sexual partners, seeking ways of reducing their burdens and improving the quality of their lives….
Naruse was a studio director, working initially for Shochiku, where he underwent a decade-long apprenticeship, and then for Toho, where he remained until the end of his working life. He spent 47 years in total in the industry and produced 88 films over his 37 years as a director (between 1930 and 1967). A glum, taciturn man, he did not endear himself to his superiors, his crews or his actors, but he doggedly persisted in turning out quality films efficiently and economically.
The unusual insight into feminine experience, the acute understanding and detailed elaboration of women's feelings that mark Naruse's films are also due in part to the collaboration of women as scriptwriters, often adapting women's novels. [French film critic] Max Tessier noted an "elective affinity" between Naruse and the popular woman novelist, Fumiko Hayashi…. Many of his masterpieces are adaptations of her stories: Floating Clouds (1955), Repast (1951), Lightning (1952), Late Chrysanthemums (1954) and Her Lonely Lane (1962). [Female scriptwriter] Sumie Tanaka wrote the screenplays for most of these and another woman, Yoko Mizuki, was responsible for the scripts of other masterworks: Mother (1952), Husband and Wife, (1953), Older Brother, Younger Sister (1953) and Sound of the Mountain (1954), as well as Floating Clouds…
. Many commentators have drawn attention to Naruse's skill in non-verbal communication, in using subtle changes in body language, the look, the glance and the averted gaze to convey crucial information about his characters and their relationships. It is also generally agreed that he mainly followed standard international codes of editing, editing on action and eye-line matching. He learnt his trade in the silent era, working on both comedy and melodrama, and he knew how to use abrupt or jolting cuts to reinforce the melodramatic impact and deepen the irony and pathos of the situation. As [French film critic] Alain Masson astutely observes, his style is complex and rent with oppositions-Masson calls them antagonisms-between the calm surface of everyday routine and the base blackness of the world; between fracture and composure; between delicacy and brutality.
"From the youngest age, I have thought that the world we live in betrays us; this thought remains with me." — Mikio Naruse
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