APART FROM YOU is a jump forward from NOT BLOOD RELATIONS, which was released only three months earlier. My guess is that the plots of both films were prescribed by Shochiku, but it’s easy to tell that Naruse wrote the script for the later film. The brilliant opening of APART FROM YOU jumps from one crazy event to another, even if the plot eventually connects all the disparate elements: we start in the middle of a wild chase scene (literally in the middle, in terms of camera placement); segue to two geisha on the street jostled by the action; are surprised by a weird 1917-style gag in which a crook scares the geisha by emerging from a covered garbage can; wind up in a geisha house where we switch rapidly among bizarre, uncouth comedy routines by unknown characters; fly off into full-blown (and hilarious) surrealism as an anonymous geisha’s dream of spilling a bowl of noodles is visualized; and finally receive an introduction to a major character, though we are by now so disoriented that we aren’t sure who the stars are for several more scenes. The story that emerges centers on young geisha Terugiku (Sumiko Mizukubo, “the Japanese Sylvia Sidney,” whose short career included three other Naruse films, all lost) and her efforts to save teenage Yoshio (Akio Isono, looking about twice his character’s age in a schoolboy outfit and Ish Kabibble haircut) from juvenile delinquency spurred by shame at the profession of his mother, Terugiku’s aging colleague Kikue (Mitsuko Yoshikawa, quite good – later one of the neighbors in EVERY NIGHT DREAMS).
Naruse’s busy silent-period camera style is here refined into a systematized reliance on dollies in and out at dramatic moments, though the effect is approximately the same: a way to distribute emphasis that is not beholden to story. The life of the geisha is depicted harshly, filled with exaggerated decadence (geisha ride on their clientele a la LA DOLCE VITA) and outright malevolence. (Ureo Egawa, of Ozu’s WHERE ARE THE DREAMS OF YOUTH? and WOMAN OF TOKYO, has a small role as an overheated customer.) Naruse’s striking imagery is often thematically overt: Kikue looks down off the little bridge where she and Terugiku are talking, and sees garbage floating in the water; Yoshio contemplates throwing a knife through his mother’s shamisen, then thinks better of it. The paraphernalia of geisha life that fills Kikue’s apartment is the basis for a witty, sharp-edged digression when one of Yoshio’s schoolmates comes to the apartment, and both he and the geisha size each other up through information gathered in point-of view shots.
Naruse breaks up the film’s dense urban atmosphere with a lovely train ride (a precursor of the memorable journey in YEARNING) to a scenic port village, where Yoshio witnesses Terugiku’s bitter confrontation with her unpleasant parents. After this psychologically and pictorially striking interlude, which serves something of the same function as the transition to the snowy countryside in Ray’s ON DANGEROUS GROUND, the film’s dramatic defects come to the fore in its final third. Yoshio’s return to filiality after his earlier deep-seated hostility is accomplished too easily and without involving his mother at all. Instead, the story’s focus shifts to the never-to-be-consummated love between the schoolboy and the young geisha, and takes a turn into disconnected melodrama. Terugiku taking a knife for Yoshio seems an unnecessary development even before her unrelated decision to sell herself into the sex trade to save her sister; the lurid arbitrariness of the plot undercuts the effectiveness of the stark ending. These structural problems are especially painful because APART FROM YOU feels like a major Naruse work for much of its running time.