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FilmsAsia: Asian film reviews
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   Mikio Naruse  



Rediscovering an Asian master

by Toh Hai Leong

The late Mikio Naruse (1905-1969) is one of the finest film directors Japan has ever produced. It is only very recently that he is ranked in the league of masters like Yasujiro Ozu, Heinosuke Gosho, Kenji Mizuoguchi, and Akira Kurosawa. Previously he was never given such high prominence and he very seldom received accolades from the critics in his lifetime. He was the most underrated of them all.

It is only now, with retrospectives of the best films he made between the 1950s and 1960s in the international film festival circuits, that perceptive film audiences are rediscovering this Asian film master. The 11th Hong Kong International Film Festival (1987) featured 20 of his major films made between the early 1930s through the late 1960s.

Like Ozu and Gosho, Naruse is a master of the shomin geki or family drama of the common people, especially the lower middle class. The famous trio incidentally came from the Shochiku’s old Kamata studio. So it is not surprising that they all excelled in depicting the subtle psychological interweaving of complex and fragile family relationships.

A typical Naruse film is characterized by a simple screenplay, stripped of all superfluous dialogue, unobstructive camera work and an unflashy studio set. His films are slow and leisurely but honest. This austere method narrows down on the everyday drama of the ordinary Japanese in their agonizing struggle with life’s trials and tribulations with a maximum of psychological nuances in every glance, gesture and movement.

Naruse’s most famous accomplished and certainly bleakest film is Floating Clouds (1967) based on Fumiko Hayashi’s novel.

With this film, considered his greatest, Naruse has been suddenly hailed as a women’s film director, like Kenji Mizuoguchi. He shows an uncanny compassion and sympathy for the plight of the exploited Japanese women in an essentially male-dominated world. Naruse’s triumphant artistic creation of Yukiko, the symbol of the self-sacrificing and stoical Everywoman made him justly famous. Through her, Naruse celebrates spiritual tenacity against insurmountable odds in attaining the happiness which is her right.

Even the loose and the fallen woman in Naruse’s films are justifiably full-blooded heroines who do not indulge in self-pity. Though they may be handicapped by circumstances beyond their control, they confront life squarely with courageous determination and without delusion.

All of his films may be about people trapped in the vicious cycles of despair, poverty, disillusionment and self-deception. But at least the heroes and heroines exude a certain calm Ozu-like dignity in the face of life’s (and love’s) angst and aguish.

Audie Bock, an authority on Japanese films sums up Naruse’s great oeuvre of works with this tribute: ‘There are no happy endings for Naruse but there are incredibly enlightened defeats.’

It is now the time to pay homage, honor and recognition to a much neglected Asian master whose contribution of his great cinema is neither insubstantial nor in vain.

Despite the 11th Hong Kong International Film Festival retrospective, Naruse has yet to come to the attention of the rest of the world. Hopefully this will change.

1967 Scattered Clouds (Midaregumo)
1966 Hit and Run (Hikinige)
1966 A Stranger Within a Woman (Onna no naka ni iru tannin)
1964 Yearning (Midareru)
1963 A Woman’s Life (Onna no rekishi)
1962 Lonely Lane (Horoki)
1961 As a Wife, As a Woman (Tsuma to shite onna to shite)
1960 Approach of Autumn (Aki tachinu)
1960 When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Onna ga kaidan o agaru toki)
1960 Evening Stream (Yoru no nagare)
1960 Daughters, Wives, and a Mother (Musume tsuma haha)
1959 Whistle in My Heart (Kotan no kuchibue)
1958 Anzukko
1958 Herringbone Clouds (Iwashigumo)
1957 Untamed (Arakure)
1956 Flowing (Nagareru)
1956 Sudden Rain (Shu-u)
1956 Wife’s Heart (Tsuma no kokoro)
1955 Kiss Part III: Women’s Ways (Kuchizuke III: Onna doshi)
1955 Floating Clouds (Ukigumo)
1954 Late Chrysanthemums (Bangiku)
1954 Sound of the Mountain (Yama no oto)
1953 Older Brother, Younger Sister (Ani inoto)
1953 Wife (Tsuma)
1953 Husband and Wife (Fufu)
1952 Mother (Okasan)
1952 Okuni and Gohei (Okuni to Gohei)
1952 Lightning (Inazuma)
1951 Ginza Cosmetics (Ginza gesho)
1951 Dancing Girl (Maihime)
1951 Repast (Meshi)
1950 Battle of Roses (Bara gessen)
1950 Angry Street (Ikari no machi)
1950 White Beast (Shiroi yaju)
1949 Conduct Report on Professor Ishinaka (Ishinaka sensei gyojoki)
1949 Delinquent Girl (Furyi shojo)
1947 Spring Awakens (Haru no mezame)
1947 Four Love Stories (Yotsu no koi no monogatari)
1946 Both You and I (Ore mo omae mo)
1946 Descendents of Taro Urashima (Urashima Taro no koei)
1945 Tale of Archery at the Sanjusangendo (Sanjusangendo toshiya monogatari)
1945 Until Victory Day (Shori no hi made)
1944 The Way of Drama (Shibaido)
1944 This Happy Life (Tanoshiki kana jinsei)
1943 The Song Lantern (Uta andon)
1942 Mother Never Dies (Haha wa shinazu)
1941 A Face From the Past (Natsukashi no kao)
1941 Shanghai Moon (Shanhai no tsuki)
1940 Travelling Actors (Tabi yakusha)
1939 The Whole Family Works (Hataraku ikka)
1939 Sincerity (Magokoro)
1938 Tsuruhachi tsurujiro
1937 Learn from Experience Part I (Kafuku I)
1937 Learn from Experience Part II (Kafuku II)
1937 A Woman’s Sorrows (Nyonin aishu)
1937 Avalanche (Nadare)
1936 Morning’s Tree-Lined Street (Asa no namikimichi)
1936 The Road I Travel With You (Kimi to iku michi)
1936 Tochuken kumoemon
1935 The Actress and the Poet (Joyu to shijin)
1935 Three Sisters with Maiden Hearts (Otome-gokoro sannin shimai)
1935 Five Men in the Circus (Sakasu gonin-gumi)
1935 Wife! Be Like a Rose! (Tsuma yo bara no yo ni)
1935 The Girl in the Rumour (Uwasa no musume)
1934 Street Without End (Kagirinaki hodo)
1933 A Man with a Married Woman’s Hairdo (Boku no marumage)
1933 After Our Separation (Kimi to wakarete)
1933 Two Eyes (Sobo)
1933 Every Night Dreams (Yogoto no yume)
1932 Crying to the Blue Sky (Aozora ni naku)
1932 Chocolate Girl (Chokoreito garu)
1932 Be Great! (Eraku nare)
1932 Moth-eaten Spring (Mushibameru haru)
1932 Not Blood Relations (Nasanu naka)
1932 Ladies, Be Careful of Your Sleeves (Onna wa tamoto o goyojin)
1931 The Strength of a Moustache (Hige no chikara)
1931 Now Don’t Get Excited (Nee Kofun shicha iya yo)
1931 Screams from the Second Floor (Nikai no himei)
1931 Under the Neighbours’ Roof (Tonari no yane no shita)
1931 Flunky, Work Hard! (Koshiben gambare)
1930 Love Is Strength (Ai wa chikara da)
1930 Mr and Mrs Swordplay (Chambara fufu)
1930 Hard Times (Fukeiki jidai)
1930 Pure Love (Junjo)
1930 Musashi Miyamoto
1930 A Record of Shameless Newlyweds (Oshikiri shinkonki)