Wife! Be Like a Rose, 1935. In Nippon Modern: Japanese Cinema of the 1920s and 1930s, Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano cites the contradictory delineation between urban and provincial life in Mikio Naruse’s Wife! Be Like a Rose! as an example of interwar Japan’s amorphously defined domestic and social spaces that arose from society’s ambivalence towards the rapid pace of modernization in the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake. In Naruse’s film, this nostalgia for a distant, idealized hometown is embodied by Hirao Village, where the estranged father, Shunsaku (Sadao Maruyama) has gone to prospect for gold in the mountains (a paradoxical emigration from Tokyo that is antithetical to the idea of moving to the city to seek one’s fortune). Having settled into a new life with a former geisha named Oyuki (Yuriko Hanabusa) and their children, Shizuko (Setsuko Horikoshi) and Kenichi (Kaoru Ito), Shunsaku’s new life reflects a return to a more traditional way of life even as it represents a rejection of another tradition – his marriage to Etsuko (Tomoko Ito) who, along with his now grown daughter, Kimiko (Sachiko Chiba), were left behind.
In turn, the seeming modernity of Tokyo with its Western-dressed workers and bustling streets (made all the more kinetic by the establishing shot of offices closing at the end of the work day) is contradicted by Etsuko’s anxiety over being asked to act as a go-between for a former student in Shunsaku’s absence. Channeling her loneliness and heartbreak through poetry, Etsuko ostensibly plays the role of the devoted, long suffering wife waiting for her husband to return – a reunion that seems at hand when Kimiko decides to go to Hirao village to fetch her father in order to attend to family obligations. However, inasmuch as Shunsaku’s trips between Tokyo and Hirao Village reflects what Wada-Marciano describes as the cultural negotiation of space, the separation also reinforces Naruse’s familiar themes of perpetual disappointment, stubbornness, and perseverance that would resurface throughout his body of work. For Etsuko, the poems express a romanticized longing for the absent Shunsaku, an image that evaporates when the idealization converges with the reality. For Oyuki, a life of sacrifice and shame are the price of her devotion to the feckless Shunsaku. For Kimiko, the desire to reunite her family is undermined by her parents’ self-absorption. In this respect, Naruse’s social observation transcends the contemporaneity of interwar society and converges towards a broader commentary on the human condition, where the quest is elusive and grace lies in the longing.
Okasan, 1952. The 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. Overworked and plagued with ill health, Ryosuke has enlisted the aid of an affable and trustworthy family friend returning from a Soviet internment camp named Kimura (Daisuke Katô), whom the children affectionately call Mr. POW, to help him run the business. The Fukuharas’ grown son, Susumu (Akihiko Katayama), has been sent to a sanitarium after developing a recurrent ailment from working at an upholstery shop. Their youngest child, Chako (Keiko Enonami), is reluctantly adjusting to life with the shared attention of her parents after the Fukuharas take in her cousin, Tetsuo, whose widowed mother, Masako’s sister Noriko (Chieko Nakakita), has been repatriated from Manchuria and is preoccupied with examinations for her vocational training, and is unable to provide for her young son. However, despite the family’s diligence and tenacity in rebuilding their lives in the wake of a devastating national turmoil, the Fukuwaras inevitably encounter greater disappointment, hopelessness, and personal tragedy.
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: the town festivals that coincide with episodes of illness and death in the family; the Fukuharas’ fond reminiscence of their hectic life as young parents with a newly opened business, as Ryosuke looks forward to the laundry shop reopening despite his debilitating illness; Chako’s picnic at an amusement park that exacerbates Masako’s motion sickness. 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.
Late Chrysanthemums, 1954. Late Chrysanthemums is a fascinating character study on the lives of four retired geishas in postwar Tokyo. The film opens to the rhythmic sound of tapping, as the camera focuses on the image of a clock. It is a gentle reminder of the passage of time. A cheerful, mild mannered financial adviser, Itaya (Daisuke Kato), arrives late to the house of a retired geisha, the proud, determined Kin (Haruko Sugimura). Kin has remained unmarried after her days as a geisha, leading a modest life as a moneylender and investor. After completing their transaction, Kin instructs Itaya to evict a widow who has not paid rent, and cautions him against showing sympathy to the debtors. After their meeting, Kin leaves the house to personally collect debts from her former colleagues. The first visit is to Nobu (Sadako Sawamura) and her husband who run a small bar, entering through the back door in order to prevent the couple from sneaking out. Having married late and burdened with financial difficulties, Nobu continues to hold out hope of, one day, becoming a mother. Kin then visits Tomi (Yuko Mochizuki) in order to inquire about the validity of Tamae’s (Chikako Hosokawa) claim of ill health. Both widowed, Tomi and Tamae share the rental of a tenement house, struggling to make ends meet, and lamenting the increasing detachment of their adult children from their own lives. Tomi is insulted by Kin’s arrogance but, faced with increasing gambling debts, cannot afford to antagonize her. However, Kin is far from the heartless, calculating woman that people perceive her to be. As a geisha, Kin’s love affair with an obsessed client named Seki (Bontaro Miake) led to an ill-fated suicide pact. Now, years later, the doleful, dejected Seki combs the Tokyo streets in search of her. One day, a former suitor named Tabe (Ken Uehara) writes an unexpected letter wishing to see her. Despite her casual tone and feigned disaffection for Tabe’s impending visit, it is clear that she continues to have feelings for him as she retrieves his military photograph from her keepsake box. But is Tabe’s visit the long-awaited reunion that she had hoped for?
Mikio Naruse creates a poignant, insightful portrait of aging, love, and loneliness in Late Chrysanthemums. Similar to Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, Naruse uses static interior shots and minimal camera movement throughout the film to reflect the passage of time and slowness of age. In contrast, the exterior shots show activity and vitality: the children running through the streets; a parade of street performers; a woman cleaning the front porch; a passerby imitating the walk of Marilyn Monroe. Naruse presents the dichotomy of the images as the paradox of middle-age – the daunting crossroads between promise and regret, tradition and modernity, homeostasis and change. As in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, the final shots show these resilient women against the backdrop of a staircase – a reminder of the ambiguity of life – and the courage of the soul.
Floating Clouds, 1955. On a bleak and cold morning in November 1946, a group of weary and destitute repatriates from Indochina, insufficiently dressed for the brisk northern weather, disembarks from a Japanese port with their meager belongings for an ill-planned and unassisted government resettlement after the war. Among the returning nationals is Yukiko (Hideko Takamine), a young woman who had traveled abroad to work as a typist for an expedition team stationed in Indochina by the Forest Ministry. Having initially left the country in order to escape the inappropriate conduct and violation of a morally reprehensible and opportunistic relative named Iba (Isao Yamagata), Yukiko is reluctant to return home and instead, visits the residence of an agricultural surveyor named Kengo Tomioka (Masayuki Mori), a former colleague from Indochina with whom she had a love affair. However, Yukiko’s longed for reunion with her lover is marked by disillusionment as the emotionally inscrutable Kengo is reluctant to rekindle their romantic relationship, explaining that his wife is ill and cannot leave her. Once ambitious and idealistic, Kengo now seems resigned and embittered, working in a string of odd jobs and a marginal enterprise on the sale of firewood. Nevertheless, Yukiko continues to persevere in the relationship despite Kengo’s half-hearted commitment, settling in a modest residence near the red-light district where she scrapes a meager existence as a euphemistic “hostess” for American servicemen, one of the few proliferating commerces under occupied Japan. But as Yukiko continues her pattern of self-sacrifice for her fickle and ungrateful lover, the prospect for rebuilding a life together in postwar Japan proves ever-increasingly untenable.
Based on a novel by Showa-era novelist and prose writer Fumiko Hayashi, Floating Clouds is a spare and understated, yet affecting portrait of melancholia, spiritual resignation, and unrequited longing. Mikio Naruse incorporates temporal nonlinearity through narrative ellipses and interwoven episodic flashbacks to create a sense of discontinuity that reflects Yukiko’s inconstant and moribund relationship with the callous and mercurial Kengo. Similarly, the film’s intrinsic visual economy and pervasive musical soundtrack – a languid, elegiac composition by Ichiro Saito – serve as a solemn accompaniment to, and innate reflections of, the couple’s transitory, emotionally detached, and aimless walks that further instill a somber, reinforcing leitmotif for Yukiko’s irredeemably doomed love affair: Yukiko’s initial visit to the Tomioka home, Kengo’s unannounced visit to Iba’s residence to borrow money, Kengo’s reluctant reunion with Yukiko at a seaside resort town. In the end, the sad and dispirited melody provides the funereal tempo to a reluctant, but inevitable ceremonial march: the unalterable course of a soul’s passage through the disillusionment and heartbreak of a cruel, hopeless, and unforgiving world in its elusive search for happiness.
Flowing, 1956. Adapted from the novel by postwar author Aya Koda (the daughter of Meiji-era novelist Koda Rohan) and filmed in the same year as the banning of prostitution in Japan, Mikio Naruse’s Flowing is something of a corollary to Kenji Mizoguchi’s Street of Shame, a complex and richly textured panorama capturing a transforming way of life within a community of women whose increasingly uncertain livelihood depended on the patronage of men. This idea of place as transitional station is suggested in the establishing shots of a river, then a pedestrian bridge that is subsequently reinforced in the intersecting image of disgruntled junior geisha, Namie leaving her place of employment, the Tsuta House in Tokyo’s geisha district (for what would turn out to be a permanent departure), as a middle-aged widow, Rika (Kinuyo Tanaka) arrives at the same location to apply for the job as a housemaid – the sense of a changing, but steady dynamic created by their coincidental role reversal as resident and outsider. Despite running a highly respected establishment, owner and senior geisha Otsuta (Isuzu Yamada) is facing hard times, having fallen into debt to her older sister, Otoyo (Natsuko Kahara), a money lender who took on the mortgage of the house in order to settle the debt of Otsuta’s wayward lover. With fewer and fewer geishas under her management (including a fellow middle-aged geisha and neighbor, Someka (Haruko Sugimura) who has turned to her to arrange bookings), her daughter Katsuyo (Hideko Takamine) choosing not to follow in her mother’s footstep in favor of finding employment outside of the industry, her younger sister Yoneko (Chieko Nakakita) moving back home with her daughter Fujiko after being spurned by her lover (Daisuke Katô), Namie’s boorish uncle (Seiji Miyaguchi) threatening to sully the house’s reputation when she refuses to pay him Namie’s disputed back wages, and Otoya increasingly interfering in her affairs by arranging meetings with prospective clients without her consent, Otoyo is forced to turn to her former colleague, now a society matron, Mizuno, for assistance in restructuring the business that would allow Tsuta House to continue its operation (and perhaps, leave a legacy for young Fujiko) – an alliance that would also have wide-reaching consequences for the household. Similar to Late Chrysanthemums, transactions serve as a surrogate for the women’s emotional interdependency: Mizuno’s brokered financial assistance from Otsuta’s former patron; the medical expense money offered by Yoneko’s former lover when Fujiko falls ill; Someka’s dispute over earnings that surfaces after separating from her younger lover. Like the assorted treats that Rika buys on a whim for her surrogate family, the enduring parting image of Otsuta and Someka’s shamisen performance before their respectful apprentices – and the entire household – becomes a delicate savoring of the present, a bittersweet taste of transitory bliss.
When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, 1960. Every afternoon, a young widow named Keiko (Hideko Takamine) walks from her modest apartment to her job as a senior hostess in a Ginza bar. Compassionate and courteous, she is affectionately called “mama” by the younger hostesses who see her graciousness and charm as an unattainable ideal. At a glance, the beautiful and demure Keiko, impeccably dressed in a traditional kimono, seems unsuited for her profession. The bar manager, Kenichi (Tatsuya Nakadai) further supports her virtuous reputation by recounting an episode, revealed in confidence, of Keiko’s pleas to the burial priest to have her love letter placed with the body of her late husband. Kenichi is devoted to Keiko, but keeps his respectful distance and instead, has a meaningless affair with a brash, ambitious young barmaid named Junko (Reiko Dan). The times are rapidly changing, and although other bars have resorted to unpalatable tactics in order to attract business in the increasingly competitive market, Keiko refuses to succumb to the trend of resorting to modern attire or welcoming the unwanted advances of patrons. As Keiko narrates with dispassionate reflection the daily routine of a bar hostess, it is clear that her dignity and perseverance separate her from the other hostesses in the Ginza district: “Around midnight, Tokyo’s 16,000 bar women go home. The best go home by car. Second-rate ones by streetcar. The worst go home with their customers.” However, at the relative “old age” of thirty and burdened with increasing financial responsibilities for her aging mother and hapless brother, Keiko is at a personal and professional crossroads. To open her own bar requires financial assistance from clients who, in turn, undoubtedly expect reprehensible favors in return. To remarry is to break her solemn vow to her beloved husband.
Mikio Naruse creates an exquisitely realized, somber, and deeply affecting portrait of dignity and perseverance in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. Using the recurring image of Keiko ascending the stairs that lead to the bar, Naruse reflects Keiko’s symbolic transcendence from her increasingly disreputable profession. It is a strength of character that is reflected in her early narrative: “After it gets dark, I have to climb the stairs, and that’s what I hate. But once I’m up, I can take whatever happens.” Inevitably, the daunting stairs provide a reassuring ritual from crushing disillusionment and personal tragedy – a validation of courage and resilience in facing the unknown – a quiet triumph of the human spirit.
Acquarello 2000-2009 [reprinted]