Made immediately before Naruse’s career-transforming success with REPAST, DANCING GIRL is adapted from a novel by Yasunari Kawabata, and resembles Naruse’s 1954 Kawabata adaptation SOUND OF THE MOUNTAIN in its depiction of quivering drama lying just below the surface of family life. The marriage between writer Yagi (So Yamamura) and ballet instructor Namiko (Mieko Takamine), which began twenty years ago under the cloud of Namiko’s love for Takehara (Hiroshi Nihon’yanagi), has deteriorated into avoidance and barely veiled enmity. The family’s children, dancer Shinako (Mariko Okada, in her screen debut) and Takao (Akihiko Katayama, later the ailing son in MOTHER), have grown to maturity in this increasingly poisonous atmosphere, making temporary alliances with one combatant or another and waiting for the long-deferred big bang.
Unlike most of Naruse’s domestic dramas, DANCING GIRL does not build from a foundation of quotidian detail. The film starts in high gear, with Namiko overtaken by anxiety in the raked seats of a ballet house where she and Takehara have met, and sustains its tone of crisis through the climactic dinner-time explosion at the one-hour mark, in which Yagi reveals a malevolence bred by years of bitterness, and both children break silence to castigate their father. Matching the pervasive high drama of the adaptation by Kaneto Shindo (whose own lengthy directorial career began the year of DANCING GIRL’s release), Naruse adopts a more fluid and pictorial visual style than usual, with theme often implicit in images, in keeping with the melodramatic tradition. The Yagi’s Western-style family house, with a wing that serves as Namiko’s dance studio, set amid concealing foliage, is a stunning central location, and Naruse takes advantage of the dance studio’s many windows to shoot interior actions from outside via angled long shots and crane shots. Indoors, Naruse delves into the visual syntax of melodrama by exploiting the multiple focal planes of mirrored rehearsal rooms and the diagonals of staircases; in exteriors, he shoots a number of scenes on beaches against a turbulent ocean background, and even uses images of breaking waves as scene transitions. The film’s most effective melodramatic coup follows the death of Shinako’s dance teacher Koyama (Heihachiro Okawa, returning to the Naruse stock company after his yeoman service in the 30s), with Shinako reaffirming her commitment to dance as she and her boyfriend Nozu (Isao Kimura) sit high above the rapids of a river.
Still, one questions the concept behind Shindo’s adaptation, which appears to be a condensation of a complex novel. In addition to omitting the mundane texture that is key to Naruse’s usual approach to drama, the script leans heavily on abstractions: when the characters come down from dramatic peaks, they tend to fill idle time by observing how life was better during the war, or discussing societal notions of freedom, or proclaiming that Japan has lost its spiritual beauty. This abstracting impulse characterizes the plot development as well: a surprising number of scenes, and even entire important subplots, are conveyed via major characters talking about what happened to minor characters offscreen, with no further dramatic integration. The subplot of Namiko’s student Tomoko (Reiko Otani), who chooses to become a stripper to help raise the child of a friend, is entirely presented through conversation, much of it after Tomoko has departed the film; the same is largely true of the story of teacher Koyama’s decline after a war injury, though Koyama does finally makes a vivid deathbed appearance. Naruse’s unsurpassed skill in anchoring his characterizations in the details of everyday life and in the web of dramatic development seems for once oddly stifled. Even the nuts and bolts of the film’s construction make me suspect other fingers in the pie. A number of scenes end on second-hand reports of events, creating a oddly static rhythm; others, like the interlude of Tomoko’s overnight stay with the Yagi family, abut upon each other with no particular dramatic or physical progression. Strangest of all, Naruse’s generally impeccable cuts on action are in a number of cases replaced with awkward edits from a static shot to a shot of the same character in motion.
The film’s ending, in which Namiko returns to the repentant Yagi, is beautifully filmed, with Naruse using the visual openness of Namiko’s studio to dissolve the distinction between interior and exterior shots. But, unlike other Naruse films about destructive marriages, DANCING GIRL never truly acknowledges the sorrow of remaining with an incompatible partner: from the moment Noriko leaves Yagi’s house, the forces of fiction align to redress the imbalance and restore the couple. Despite his successful assimilation of visual melodramatic forms, Naruse was unable, or was not permitted, to make this project fully his own.