I’ll be watching a lot of films by Japanese director Mikio Naruse over the next few weeks, gearing up for another episode of the They Shot Pictures podcast. Unlike the other directors covered in the episodes I’ve been on (Von Sternberg, Ozu and Hou), I know next to nothing about Naruse, so I’m starting at the beginning, with the set of his five extant silent films released by Criterion’s Eclipse label a couple of years ago.
The first, 1931’s Flunky, Work Hard! is a salaryman short in much the same vein as Yasujiro Ozu’s films from around the same time. During the Depression, a working man tries to make money to support his family. The film’s an interesting blend of comedy and drama, as the first half involves some slapstick hijinks between the father and a rival insurance salesman and the second finds the family in the hospital after the son is hit by a train. It’s a weird tonal mix that I’m not sure is entirely successful. Unlike his late film When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (before this project the only Naruse film I’d seen), the film is visually pretty wild, with quick editing and push-ins at especially dramatic and comedic moments used to emphasize and underline the on-screen emotions. When a Woman, by contrast, is very restrained, almost invisible in style as far as I remember (I’ll be rewatching it eventually).
No Blood Relation, Naruse’s next oldest surviving film (and his 16th in three years) is even more of a stylistic explosion. It starts with the opening shots: we get a title card “Purse snatcher!” followed by short whip pans quickly cutting through and following a crowd as a thief is being chased. The thief runs toward the camera and dissolves into a reverse angle of him running away, as if he’d run right through us. In less than 30 seconds, Naruse shows a mastery of action filmmaking, and he’s done so in the introduction to what will turn out to be not a crime film, but a maternal melodrama. The scene ends with what will become the coolest stylistic trick in the film, a match-cut.
The thief will talk his way out of trouble and walk away as a man in a nice suit (who’d been interrogating him) pulls out a cigarette.
And as he puts it in his mouth, we cut to:
The thief striking a match and lighting his own cigarette. The two men are actually in cahoots (the man in the suit has pocketed the stolen purse, thus allowing the thief to show he didn’t have it). Naruse throughout the film uses these kind of match-cuts to link characters, not only across space but also emotionally.
As the story proper starts, we learn that the man in the suit is the brother of a famous actress, who has just returned from America. She’s a divorcée with a seven year old daughter she hasn’t seen for six years. The daughter lives happily with her father and step-mother. The actress wants to get the daughter back, but the kid prefers the step-mom. The film thus somewhat inverts the traditional maternal melodrama story, wherein the birth mother lives a wretched life of sacrifice so the child can grow up in material comfort, usually with a fancy, maybe even snobbish, step-mother (see for example King Vidor’s Stella Dallas). Here the step-mother is the poor one who sacrifices much for the child while the mother tempts her with riches the child rejects in favor of true (step-)maternal love.
The daughter, Shigeko, is introduced in cutting from the actress’ arrival in Japan to this shot of a doll, complete with super-imposed titles, followed by a pan along the ground to the girl herself:
Already, Naruse has established the artificiality of the birth mother’s relationship to her daughter. Not only is it implied that she views the girl as an object (to be acquired) but that her idea of the kid is generic: she doesn’t know her, she could be any girl, not the specific Shigeko that Masako, her step-mother knows.
The father (Atsumi) arrives home and the family, complete with Masako and Atsumi’s mother is assembled. Atsumi has bad business news revealed in this sequence of shots:
A kind of associational montage I don’t think I’ve ever seen before in a Japanese film of this period (you can see it a lot nowadays, though not often reputably: Gus van Sant’s Psycho and Django Unchained are the first that come to mind). His mother asks if he’s bankrupt, he nods, then a quick push in to a close up of her, followed by shots of wind through trees, rustling leaves and cigarette smoke: their wealth blowing away in the Depression. We’ll see the same kind of thing later in the film when Atsumi is taken away by the police (something to do with his bankruptcy, it’s not important) and then again when he’s in prison.
The prison scene opens with this series of increasingly close shots:
We see Atsumi being led to his wife, Masako, but then the camera begins to pull away all the way outside the prison, as if it cannot bear to watch her explain the breakup of their family, their dual humiliations (his as breadwinner, her’s at keeping their daughter safe) and then is sucked back in, the final shot being a push into Masako in close-up, a kind of literalization of the push-pull effect melodrama has on us in the audience: we don’t want to watch such misery, but we get sucked in and can’t look away:
Before this scene is over, we’ll get another sequence of pillow shots like those during the bankruptcy announcement and arrest, ending with a lovely close shot of husband and wife touching hands through the prison screen.
But I’ve gotten ahead of the plot. After the bankruptcy announcement, before the arrest, Shigeko is out playing with her doll and almost gets hit by a car but the step-mother saves her, getting hit herself (sacrificing herself for the child). There’s a short scene at Atsumi’s office when he explains to his employees that he can’t afford to pay them marked by long lateral tracks through the windows of the office building and along the rows of the assembled employees. Naruse’s tracks are faster and the camera is closer to the action, but the graphical effect is similar to Jean-Luc Godard’s memorable tracks in Tout va bien. When he returns to the house, all their furniture is being repossessed, his mother harangues him because she’ll now have to live in a smaller house and he gets taken away by the police. Then we cut to some time later, with the daughter and step-mother in the smaller house when Naruse makes the first of two match cuts on clocks:
From the small house to the actress’ house. Throughout the second half of the film, as the family unit is increasingly split up geographically, Naruse will use match cuts to link the various characters and elide time (notice the 20 minutes difference in a single cut). Here’s another one that starts with the step-mother, now working in a department store looks up at the clock, leading to a shot of the clock at her home, but this time with a pillow shot inserted between the match:
An hour and a half has elapsed, which might account for the pillow shot (it gives a greater sense of time passing), but there’s more. When Masako arrives home, she finds her mother-in-law, unable to deal with their financial insecurity, has taken Shigeko to live with the actress. The empty shot (a landscape with a lake, a blankness, in the center) in-between the match-cuts presages the emptiness in Masako’s home.
A neat match-cut occurs a bit later, as Masako’s friend Kusakabe (played by Joji Oka, who looks familiar but I can’t place him, he was in Ozu’s Dragnet Girl but I haven’t seen that) finds the actresses brother and his thief friend and accosts them outside a bar. Kusakabe is a big man who carries a stick and has a pretty beard, so he throws the thief down easily, leading to this cut from the thief to the little girl in her apartment playing with a toy tiger:
Another nifty cut comes late in the film, as Kusakabe is heading upstairs to the actress’ apartment. He stubs his cigarette out on the ground outside, then Naruse cuts to an ashtray upstairs, where Kusakabe has arrived and is lighting another cigarette:
This is just pure joy of making cinema, craft for the sake of craft cutting virtuosity, the kind of show-offy thing not uncommon among young filmmakers.
The most poignant series of edits come a few scenes earlier, as Masako and Shigeko, lying in bed in their separate homes seems to communicate across space via the medium of the match cut (with only a lamp between them):
Shigeko runs away but is quickly found by the brother and the thief. After a short struggle, she drops her doll and is hit by a passing bicyclist (Masako isn’t there to save her from traffic this time). Now this sweetest match-cut is followed by the saddest, in turn followed by the coldest line in the film:
From the doll in the dirt to the wounded little girl who looks at her birth mother and says:
In addition to this flashy edit, Naruse also uses the push-in more extensively and more creatively than I’ve seen before. When Shigeko first meets her birth mother, she shouts at her and the words, in titles, zoom forward followed quickly by rapid push-ins on the mother, as if the girl is hurling the insults at her.
Near the end of the film, Masako sneaks into the actress’ apartment where she and Shigeko are reunited. They hug in a nice graphical match that seems to sum up the emotional content of the film’s match-cuts:
Followed by the actress bursting in and we have the four women for the first time in the same room at the same time. Close-ups of each are followed by two-shots, of the actress and the mother-in-law and the step-mother and daughter, four people into two factions.
The actress looks at the little girl who in response pulls her step-mother’s hand to her chest. The woman looks down and the camera pulls-out:
For the first time, she’s realized she can’t win, that her daughter is lost to her. Unable to look at them, she turns and walks out the door:
Just then, the brother and thief return and try to forcibly take back the little girl. As the men and the step-mother struggle (and Masako is dragged out of the apartment), the camera repeatedly pushes in on the birth mother, imploring her to take action and give up the girl for the sake of her own happiness, pleading with her to sacrifice for her child the way mothers are expected to act in melodramas (and the way we’ve already seen Masako act when she saved Shigeko from the car).
Four times the camera pushes in on her. We pan with her as she paces. We watch her in close up as she thinks and comes to a realization on the nature of motherhood and finally she moves. She gets up and runs out the door after Masako to bring her back to her step-daughter. In the end, it’s her motion and not the camera’s that brings the dramatic climax.
None of what Naruse does in this film is particularly new or innovative, but what it does show is that early on in his career (he was 27 years old here and had been a director for only three years) he had a masterful command of the film techniques of his time, as well as a willingness to experiment both with visual style and with story structure (though perhaps more of the credit there should go to writer Kogo Noda, Ozu’s frequent collaborator who adapted a contemporary play for this film). The push-ins in particular are an interesting attempt at building an aesthetic out of a stylistic quirk that in the end didn’t work out (not every experiment leads to a coherent system the way Eisenstein’s or Ozu’s did). I’m excited to see his style evolve from this youthful jubilance into the spare beauty of his more mature films of the 50s and 60s as I watch as much Naruse as I can over the next few weeks.