Conduct Report on Professor Ishinaka

At first glance, this episodic film about the comical interactions of the residents of rural Aomori Prefecture seems as if it would be up Naruse’s alley. But one soon suspects that Naruse didn’t control the script, and the film’s comedy of foibles has so little depth that the director rarely gets any traction on the material. Based on a collection of short stories by popular novelist Yojiro Ishizaka (who provided source material for Naruse’s 1939 SINCERITY and 1955 “Women’s Ways”) and adapted by Yasutaro Yagi (writer of Naruse’s A DESCENDANT OF URASHIMA TARO and a number of Tomu Uchida’s films, credited here as Ryuichiro Yagi), the film seems to be trading on the audience’s familiarity with Ishizaka: the titular character Ishinaka (Miyata Shigeo, looking a lot like photos of the real-life Ishizaka), plays a famous writer who intrudes on the lives of locals to solve their problems or to gather material for his books. Not only does this detached character give Naruse little emotional life to work with, but most of the principals of the film’s three vignettes also possess just enough character traits to pit them against each other in familiar comic configurations. When the final episode, “Story of a Haywagon,” gives Naruse a bit more to play with in the way of hidden emotions and motivations, he makes the most of the unspoken attraction between an accidental visitor to the countryside (Setsuko Wakayama) and a taciturn farmer’s son (Toshiro Mifune, a little before the international success of RASHOMON), at least until Ishinaka’s arrival downgrades the story to “rural drollery,” to borrow from the title of Ishizaka’s short story collection.

If Naruse’s dramatic instincts are blocked, his visual flair is unimpeded, and the film is replete with lovely afternoon light and beautiful photography of groups against landscapes. There’s even a bit of the surrealist editing that Naruse enjoys on occasion: the sudden irruption of fireworks into a naturalistic scene is revealed to be part of a movie that the characters attend; while another amusingly rushed scene transition is triggered by an unprepared cutaway to a clock, anticipating the characters’ revelation that they need to get to the next location.

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