The most successful of Naruse’s extant silent works, a slow-building film that pays off with a powerful ending. Scripted by Ozu regular Tadao Ikeda from Naruse’s story, EVERY NIGHT DREAMS has an elegant narrative strategy that is not far removed from the complexity of Naruse’s better-known 50s period. There’s a surface subject which, if not hackneyed, is at least familiar: the flawed protagonist with a record of failure who makes an attempt to change but is stymied by his or her own character defects, which lead to an inability to function in society. This narrative template comes with certain expectations, such as an essentially sympathetic protagonist who, in the case of failure, will evoke our sorrow and the sorrow of the characters who represent the audience’s position.
In opposition to this narrative, Naruse unobtrusively sketches in a shadow narrative that progresses alongside the main narrative and shares most of its turning points. Here the shadow narrative is about the justified hatred that the bar girl Omitsu (Sumiko Kurishima) feels for her charming but destructive husband Mizuhara (Tatsuo Saito, a favorite Ozu actor), who she knows will hurt her and her child every time she takes pity on him. The shadow narrative tussles with the main narrative for control in the early scenes: Omitsu reacts with outsized violence to her husband’s return (“He’s our enemy!”), and tells the sympathetic neighbor couple (Atsushi Arai and Mitsuko Yoshikawa) exactly how the story will unfold. But the couple, who represent the audience’s comfort with the surface narrative, are shocked at the depth of Omitsu’s bitterness, and preach to her the case for forgiveness. Omitsu’s heart eventually softens, she ignores her own wisdom, and the shadow narrative goes undercover. For a while, only small inflections indicate that the shadow narrative is lurking. For instance, when Mizuhara mentions the effect of Omitsu’s career on their child, her harsh reaction is so contemptuous and withering that it threatens the audience’s ability to maintain sympathy for both parties.
The film’s dramatic climax is synchronized with the eruption of the shadow narrative. Surely the surface narrative could not be expected to end in such a fashion, with the audience’s natural desire to mourn frustrated by the dramatic weakness of Mizuhara’s final gesture, and strongly opposed by the only character left with which to identify. The last scene sees Omitsu’s complete rejection of the surface narrative and her re-dedication to the path of hatred that she had been lulled into abandoning – followed by a chilling and memorable final montage of the docks and harbor.
Throughout the film, Naruse’s hyperkinetic camera style pumps up the melodrama of the surface narrative, which centers on the rejected husband trying to make good on his second chance with his estranged wife and daughter. But the lurking presence of the shadow narrative weakens the melodrama: the characterization of Mizuhara remains balanced between his alternate functions, with his terminal weakness and fickleness presented as clearly as his childlike gentleness and sincerity. And the climax is definitively anti-dramatic, in that it empties the dramatic space instead of charging it.
The shadow narrative doesn’t destroy the surface narrative. We experience a formal shock at the end when we realize that the entire film can be seen as an illustration and a justification of why Omitsu hates. But, though Naruse has shown that the pathos generated by the sad-sack Mizuhara is a dangerous trap, I don’t believe that he wants us to forget that pathos, or to acknowledge that it was wrong. The shadow narrative is a surprise because the surface narrative is so natural for the characters and for us to embrace. We end up with two coextensive but opposing emotional responses — both sad ones.
The beginning of EVERY NIGHT DREAMS is as striking and effective as its bleak ending. Our introduction to Omitsu, relaxed yet jaded as she smokes with the sailors in the harbor, is remarkable and provocative. And then the harbor vistas yield suddenly to a superb shantytown set with all manner of impoverished bric-a-brac overhead, and brisk editing immerses Omitsu in the environment with three deft cuts, without orthodox establishing shots.