Evening Stream

An anomalous project that at first seems of interest primarily as an auteurist guessing game, but that emerges against the odds as one of the most affecting dramas of Naruse’s late period. Co-directed by Naruse and Yuzo Kawashima, who is best known for 1957’s SUN IN THE LAST DAYS OF THE SHOGUNATE, the film begins with swirling color TohoScope credits and a bluesy orchestral arrangement in the style of American melodrama, and is keyed to the 60s luxury zeitgeist of soft jazz, brightly colored cars, and product placement. The multithreaded story, centered on a boisterous geisha establishment and a restaurant where the geisha ply much of their trade, gradually homes in on an uncomfortable love triangle: the manager of the restaurant (Isuzu Yamada) and her daughter Miyako (Yoko Tsukasa) are in love with the same man, the brooding restaurant cook Ita (Tatsuya Mihashi).

The credits give no indication of how Naruse and Kawashima collaborated. But the goal clearly wasn’t to make a seamless film: the styles of the two very different directors collide instead of blend, and the effect isn’t as disruptive as one would expect. Audie Bock writes, “Naruse filmed all of the older generation scenes and the Japanese restaurant scenes, while Kawashima did the younger generation and the geisha house scenes.”[1] This breakdown looks right to me in its broad outline, and with a little acclimation I felt able to spot most of the directorial transitions. My sense is that Naruse did most or all of the scenes with the participants in the central love triangle, and also the significant subplot with Nozaki (Kazuo Kitamura), the mentally unstable ex-husband of the geisha Masae (Mitsuko Kusabue). It looks as if the directors divided their work along the aforementioned lines even within scenes and locations. For instance, a traveling shot of geishas walking down a hospital corridor to visit Ita looks like Kawashima in its proximity to the actors and wide-angle distortion; but when the geishas enter Ita’s hospital room, Naruse seems to take over. Likewise, the nearly choreographed opening pool scene is dominated by Kawashima’s exaggerated comic style; but I’m guessing that Naruse did the poolside shots with the restaurant owner Sonoda (Takashi Shimura) and his cohort, and with Miyako and her friend Shinobu (Yumi Shirakawa), Sonoda’s daughter. This schema gives more than half the film to Naruse; and, as Jean Narboni observed, EVENING STREAM “gives the strange impression of becoming a Naruse film little by little.”[2] The effect is obtained not only by the preponderance of Naruse scenes, but also because the desolate dramatic progression of the script by Toshiro Ide and Zenzo Matsuyama is characteristic of Naruse’s best-known work. One ultimately senses that Naruse owns the project and merely rented out parts of it.

The easiest way to tell when Naruse takes over the film is that everyone starts to seem a little discontent! I’m exaggerating a bit, but the effect of subdued inwardness is conspicuous. It depends not only on acting, but also on the way Naruse tends to neutralize active, happy behavior by containing it in a wide and static frame, sometimes including more restrained performances in the same composition. By contrast, Kawashima has an essentially exuberant directorial temperament. He enjoys bending space to accommodate the demonstrative performances he likes, using shorter lenses than Naruse, habitually crowding the foreground, and often reframing to accommodate the actors’ brio. And he is happy to give the audience direct pleasure in color, movement and rhythm, whereas Naruse generally sacrifices sensory impact for less direct pleasures. At first Kawashima’s direction seems broad and unnuanced compared with Naruse’s, but his style has its charms: his exaggeration has a droll, knowing edge, and the uncomfortable subplots of one geisha’s date rape and another’s repeated suicide attempts show that Kawashima has sufficient control over tone to absorb serious material without breaking his comic stride. Surprisingly, the division of directorial labor does not diminish the film’s cumulative emotional power. The concept of subcontracting out a film’s comic relief is certainly peculiar, and yet perhaps no more disruptive than the idea of having comic relief in the first place.

The eventual mother-daughter confrontation causes the love triangle to collapse rather than detonate, as Naruse undermines the appeal of the male love object (who began the film as a romantic figure) and embarks on an anticlimax of uncomfortable but inevitable reconciliation and compromise. (Yamada, in her last role for Naruse, gives a pleasingly gentle and vulnerable performance as the mother, in a role that could have been played for melodramatic threat.) In a skillful narrative ploy, the energy of the central story is transferred to the parallel plot thread with the unstable Nozaki, which culminates in what may be the most terrifying and accomplished action scene in any Naruse film. But the filmmakers top themselves with a somber existentialist ending – not exactly a surprise, but the culmination of a shadow narrative that is constructed in opposition to the movie convention of self-sacrificing motherhood. Despite its immersion in contemporary youth culture, EVENING STREAM concludes by looking back into the past, enacting the traditional, already anachronistic ceremony of the new geisha’s introduction to her neighborhood.

Previous          Next

[1] Bock, Japanese Film Directors, 134-135.

[2] Narboni, “Naruse Series,” Cahiers du Cinema.