A Descendant of Urashima Taro

A depressingly bad movie, seemingly made to order for Japan’s Allied occupiers, and more thoroughly proof against artistic expression than anything Naruse had imposed upon him during the war. Imagine the story of Capra/Riskin’s MEET JOHN DOE, with all its behavioral flair removed – in fact, with all behavior removed, and no time at all devoted to characterization – and the gap filled with endless repetition of Capra/Riskin’s empty political sloganeering. The title character, a bearded veteran named Urashima (Susumu Fujita, star of Kurosawa’s SANSHIRO SUGATA) recently returned from 16 months on a Pacific island, draws public attention with his Howard Beale-like agitation on a radio show, and is in quick succession made famous by rookie reporter Akako (Hideko Takamine) and expropriated by a political party intent on covering up its shady intentions. Urashima himself is seduced by the cult surrounding his personality and by an unwholesome businessman’s daughter named Otoko (Hisako Yamane, the lord’s wife in THE LIFE OF OHARU), but finally recovers his lost integrity via public self-abasement. (Haruko Sugimura makes her first appearance for Naruse as the political leader who recalls Urashima to righteousness.) It’s not easy to tell the difference between Urashima’s pre-corruption and post-corruption selves, both reliant on the same scrupulously vague pro-democracy sloganeering. Hard to believe that the hopeless script was the work of Yasutaro Yagi, writer of many of Tomu Uchida’s most celebrated films, including the subtle 1955 A HOLE OF ONE’S OWN MAKING. But Naruse doesn’t acquit himself much better. He can’t do anything with the blustery non-characterizations; and, though he manages an occasional pleasing composition, even his usual visual facility is submerged by a shadow-heavy, Soviet-looking lighting scheme and bare cavernous sets. Mostly he seems to be playing along with the project, cross-cutting and changing shot length without inspiration; at times he retreats to remote long shots and seems unmotivated to alter them in reaction to story events. (The production had at its disposal a crude zoom lens, and Naruse experiments with it a little, especially at the climax, with no particular benefit or harm.) Strangely, the film’s most interesting scene is a derisive one, of a weird solo dance performance at a plutocrats’ party, with the guests wearing fish-head masks. Naruse cuts away from the dance at random times to show partygoers walking around (or out), or to extreme long shots that are held to the point of lethargy. Whether Naruse is working with the film’s satirical agenda or indulging in a bit of sabotage, the scene is reminiscent of Gerd Oswald in its spooky, desolate campiness.

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