Like Ford’s THE SEARCHERS, FLOATING CLOUDS is the film of its director that goes a little further than the others, that achieves a mysterious intensity of expression. Working from Fumiko Hayashi’s novel (one of her few works available in English translation), Naruse and adapter Yoko Mizuki inscribe the unsettling love story of Tomioka (Masayuki Mori) and Yukiko (Hideko Takamine), both repatriated from Indochina after Japan’s defeat in World War II, into the country’s painful progression from post-war devastation to precarious normality. The project is haunted by what Catherine Russell calls “the implicit memory of wartime as a kind of utopian paradise”; a similar theme flitted through Naruse’s film of Kawabata’s DANCING GIRL, but this time the integration of concept with drama and mise-en-scene is impeccable.
FLOATING CLOUDS uses the familiar, if not common, narrative format of protagonists meeting intermittently over many years, with time jumps between meetings. But Naruse and Mizuki immediately introduce dissonance that prevents us from locating the characters on a familiar arc. Starting the film with newsreel footage of the return of repatriated Japanese, Naruse plunges into an aggressively gray and unwelcoming recreation of 1946 Tokyo, complementing the neorealist-style desolate exteriors with high-contrast lighting, cluttered and decrepit art direction, and performances that suggest the characters are shrinking into their threadbare clothes to stave off the cold. Yukiko’s hopes of a postwar life with the still-married Tomioka are immediately and bitterly disappointed; a second encounter between the two, after an indeterminate period of struggle and degradation, shows Yukiko hardened in contempt for her former lover, and Tomioka cast upon a sea of poverty and self-pity. Yukiko’s prognosis for the relationship after 30 minutes of screen time – “It’s too late” – seems redundant given her acrimony and Tomioka’s detachment. But at their next meeting Yukiko agrees to go away with Tomioka to the mountain resort of Ikaho, and his rough banter about double suicide – “You’re not pretty enough to die with” – coaxes from her an appreciative smile. The stage is set for a lingering, episodic affair for which any movie convention that might indicate the current state of the union produces inaccurate results. All of Yukiko’s bitter last words and Tomioka’s retreats into the shadows gradually become part of a faintly absurd marathon dance, and the melodrama latent in the story is relocated to within the characters’ nature. As the lovers’ expressions of need and animosity turn into a deadpan ostinato, the film’s humorous intent comes to the fore, most hilariously when Tomioka, summoned to an inn by Yukiko after months or years, opens a new section of the film with “What did you mean, ‘Come or I’ll die’?” Even the couple’s final, moving exchange is couched in the language of marital strife.
The initial suggestion that the central relationship is a story of victim and victimizer feels less adequate as the years wear on. Undoubtedly the more romantically invested of the two, Yukiko’s continual petulance and recriminations come to seem like her comfort zone; and Tomioka is almost at ease in his role as the object of her tirades, briefly recovering the cocky equilibrium that the cares of postwar life too often strip away from him. Mori’s superb performance is surely the most complex male characterization in Naruse’s work: Tomioka is quietly arrogant and a little cruel, an egregious womanizer, poised in the face of Yukiko’s contempt, inclined to honesty, and subtly open and available to Yukiko even (or especially) when he has wronged her. As patterns gradually emerge from the couple’s acrimonious interactions, it becomes clear that FLOATING CLOUDS is more about the ties that bind people than about their abuses of each other. (When presenting the truly predatory character in the film – Yukiko’s in-law Iba [Isao Yamagata], who runs a spiritual con game called the Temple of the Sun God – Naruse minimizes his impact, keeping his major offenses off-screen or barely showing them.) The lives of most couples fall into an existential pattern: you’re in love, you fall out of love, and then what happens for the rest of your life? Naruse and Misumi manage to depict the aspect of human relationships that is most resistant to dramatic formulation by smuggling it in under cover of an evocation of Japan’s postwar agony.
 Russell, The Cinema of Naruse Mikio, 280