Wedged between two of his most successful works, FIVE MEN IN THE CIRCUS seems, though not Naruse’s worst film, perhaps the one in which his art is most tampered with. Based on a book by Roppa Furukawa (later the star of Naruse’s THE WAY OF DRAMA) and adapted by Ryuji Nagami and Kohei Ima, the film describes the interactions of a five-piece jinta (an itinerant brass band) and a traveling circus (whose performers include the owner’s two daughters) when both troupes occupy a small town at the same time. The slight project relies on the appeal of circus documentary footage, and perhaps also on the performance of real-life exotic dancer Ryuko Umezono, who plays Sumiko, one of the daughters. The story elements are pretty rote: one of the musicians, Kokichi (Heihachiro Okawa), longs to play violin on concert stages; another (Ko Mihashi) suspects that a young ne’er-do-well is the ten-year-old daughter he abandoned; the circus owner’s daughters are caught between duty to their tyrannical father and the pursuit of romance. The band of musicians is divided into “high” and “low” story functions, with three of them tasked with as much background womanizing (which looks more like rape to modern audiences) and crude rooster-in-the-henhouse humor as is necessary to pad the running time.
Naruse is never helpless with bad material, but the flow of FIVE MEN IN THE CIRCUS is so awkward that, without external evidence, one must assume that the film was edited by other hands. Weird pockets of silence surround cuts between lines of dialogue; long shots and closeups are alternated in conversation scenes to deadening effect. Despite the unusually oppressive rhythms, appealing effects crop up from time to time. I liked the sudden cut from a quarrel between Sumiko and her father to a performance scene in which the father shoots knick-knacks out of Sumiko’s hands, with Umezono projecting a Sternberg-like impenetrability as she slowly strikes poses between gunshots. In a maudlin bar conversation, one musician says to another, “None of us do jinta because we like it,” followed by a cut to a heretofore inconspicuous bar girl who says “None of us are hostesses because we like it,” never breaking character as she pours sake with a smile. Naruse uses a tracking shot to bring the conversation back to the musicians from this minor character: they pay little attention to her, but the film is not guilty of the same oversight.
Near the end, one of the subplots takes center stage and inspires Naruse to a display of pure pessimism that may well have reversed the intentions of the script. Kokichi leaps at the opportunity to play violin as a circus variety act, though he is warned that the rural audience may not be receptive. As staged by Naruse, the audience’s brutal reaction is so ego-shattering for Kokichi that the enthusiastic response of the circus owner’s daughter Chiyoko (Masako Tsutsumi) has no power to alter his devastated mood. And yet the dialogue in these scenes accentuates the positive: reading it gives no hint of the void that Naruse opens up beneath Kokichi. Naruse uses this painful event to transform a traditional ending – the farewell on the road, with Chiyoko waving goodbye to the departing musicians – into a standoff between the pleasure promised by genre expectations and the grim logic of the director’s vision.