A prestige project, free of wartime propaganda, that feels like Toho’s attempt to make a Mizoguchi film. The 1910 source novella, by Kyoka Izumi, who provided material for several earlier Mizoguchis (THE WATER MAGICIAN, THE DOWNFALL OF OSEN), is a parable-like story of headstrong young Noh artist Kitahachi (Shotaro Hanayagi, of THE STORY OF THE LAST CHRYSANTHEMUMS) whose father banishes him to the life of a street singer after the son shames an old blind masseur, a musical rival, into suicide. In keeping with the mournful Mizoguchian music cues by Shiro Fukai, Naruse adopts a more commentative camera style than usual, even opting for the occasional Mizoguchi-patented slow dolly-in to mark the end of scenes. The camera goes especially wild during the scenes in which Kitahachi instructs his victim’s daughter Osode (Isuzu Yamada) in Noh dance in a forest clearing, with disorienting crane shots above and around Osode that demarcate a mystical space more congruent with the material than with Naruse’s filmography.
The film is visually appealing throughout, and the drama comes off reasonably well on its own terms, but the characters necessarily remain more or less archetypes; neither can Naruse play much with the emotive, simple story. Though the adaptation is credited solely to the celebrated novelist and playwright Mantaro Kubota, a few odd plot developments suggest Naruse’s mischievous surrealism poking through the hardened casing of the period film. Kitahachi undertakes to teach Osode the shamisen because her lack of musical ability is life-threatening in her role as an indentured geisha; but for some unannounced reason he opts instead to teach her Noh dance, a rarefied skill which comes in handy at the film’s climax but does nothing to alleviate her continued misery. (Everyone in the film identifies Osode as the geisha who is “really bad at the shamisen”: Yamada’s apparent skill on the instrument, demonstrated in TSURUHACHI AND TSURUJIRO and FLOWING, is not required in this role.) In an even stranger development, Kitahachi finds himself in the midst of a convention of blind masseurs near film’s end, and the climactic scene of Osode’s encounter with Kitahachi’s father and uncle is intercut with a comically masochistic massage scene, with Kitahachi urging his masseur, “Take revenge!” Naruse and the writers bring out a Hitchcockian ambiguity in the keynote of guilt that drives the plot: the rival whom Kitahachi humiliates is so notoriously unpleasant that nearly every character in the film is suspended between condemning Kitahachi’s hubris and sympathizing with his desire for revenge. Unfortunately, the rigid plan leaves Naruse no room to exploit this opportunity to create a shadow narrative.
As usual, Naruse does his level best with the intransigent material, and the abstract characters often come alive with pleasing details – as in the opening Noh performance, which ends on a lovely shot of Kitahachi accompanying the final drum beat with a participatory nod of his head; or in Kitahachi’s optimistic conversation with a new business partner, closing on an unexpected shot of Kitahachi lowering his head in pain, good fortune unable to assuage his guilt. The film’s title (it has been exhibited in America as THE SONG LANTERN, but Izumi’s novella goes by the more appropriate translation A SONG BY LANTERN LIGHT) inspires its most beautiful imagery: repeated shots of Kitahachi plying his trade on summer nights on narrow city streets, crowded with passers-by and suffused from foreground to background with the glow of street lamps. (Cinematographer Asakazu Nakai would work periodically with Naruse again, but is best known for shooting many of Kurosawa’s most celebrated films.) The most powerful moment in the film begins with Kitahachi being pursued on dark streets by the ghost of the dead masseur; no sooner do we realize that Kitahachi is having a nightmare than a shock cut locates Kitahachi and his business partner at an idyllic mountainous beachside location, with tourists strolling by the water and the summer wind rustling the leaves.