A Fond Face From the Past

A patriotic short subject (34 minutes), shown theatrically – but a lovely pastoral evocation of rural Japan, sharply scripted by Naruse, with a streak of devilish absurdism that doesn’t undercut the affection with which the characters are depicted. The leisurely opening, set in the fields around the town of Kameoka in Kyoto Prefecture, showing a group of boys playing and watching soldiers in training, is one of Naruse’s most visually striking interludes, recalling Ford in its diagonal-based compositions of quiet landscapes infused with gentle nostalgia.

The first indication that the patriotic theme will not inhibit Naruse’s narrative tomfoolery comes with the report of an accident involving ten-year-old Koichi (Takashi Kotaka). Naruse unnervingly fades out on Koichi’s sister-in-law, war wife Sumi (Ranko Hanai, later the hard-bitten bar girl Shizue in GINZA COSMETICS), lost in the fields trying to find the accident site. Despite the suggestion of fatality in the film grammar, Koichi turns out to be merely laid up with a leg injury, though the inconvenience to him is magnified by the news that his soldier brother Yoichi can be spotted in a war newsreel playing in town. Yoichi’s mother (Tsuruko Mano, in the first of many Naruse roles) and his wife Sumi must make separate journeys on successive days to see the newsreel – but, for different reasons, neither sees Yoichi on screen, and each constructs an awkward cover-up out of embarrassment when she returns home. In danger of scuppering the film’s propagandistic mission with this absurdist plot structure, Naruse clears up the mystery of Sumi’s non-attendance with the film’s one concession to overt patriotic cliche. The climax is a damaging place for this military affirmation to land, but at least Naruse dispatches the moment quickly and quietly.

The highlight of the film is the mother’s expedition to town, an evocative depiction of her working-class habits and mentality: she saves bus fare by setting out on foot, then hitches a ride in the back of a neighbor’s cart. At her destination, she eats a sweet potato unceremoniously on a mat in the theater before showtime, Naruse’s slightly low-angle composition perfectly composed to feature the mother and detail her environment simultaneously. When the film begins, she looks distractedly at the side of the room during the irrelevant parts of the newsreel, then begins dabbing tears from her eyes during the war footage, with the narrator droning on in the background. She does not see her son in the newsreel, but Naruse does not indicate the exact point where her vigilance lapses: only the absence of dramatic punctuation, and her asking her neighbors when the lights go up if the newsreel is over, indicate her slip-up.

Sumi’s less closely observed voyage gets off to a surprising start with an anomalous, startling tracking shot of soldiers in combat, revealed to be Sumi’s point of view as she looks at war maneuvers from her bus. This bit of surrealist humor comes close to subversion, but one senses that Toho or the government or both trusted Naruse not to upset the apple cart of national policy: he gets away with quite a few unorthodox moves during the war years.

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