Hard to understand how GINZA COSMETICS can play so perfectly into Naruse’s skill with characterization and sociological observation, while confining him so severely on the level of plot. Traditionally considered the beginning of the end of a long creative dry spell in Naruse’s career, the film (based on a story by Tomoichiro Inoue and written by former film critic Matsuo Kishi, who shared a writing credit with Naruse on Eisuke Takizawa’s 1943 film THE SECRET DECISION) bears a family resemblance to WHEN A WOMAN ASCENDS THE STAIRS, although its educated bar-girl protagonist Yukiko (Kinuyo Tanaka) is lower on the social ladder than Hideko Takamine’s Mama in the later film. For much of its length, GINZA COSMETICS is almost plotless, the better to showcase Naruse and the writers’ evocative depiction of Yukiko’s arduous life as second-in-command at the none-too-exclusive Ginza bar Bel Ami. Tanaka’s exceptional performance is key to the film’s impact: she conveys the competence and self-abnegation that makes Yukiko valuable to friends and colleagues, and at the same time a hint of slovenliness and self-abandonment that is either the result or the cause of her mysteriously low status. Yukiko’s early conversation with her former patron Fujimura (Masao Mishima, a regular in Naruse’s 30s films, later the father in MOTHER) is precisely balanced between sympathy and weary indifference; the moment in which Yukiko deflects Fujimura’s gesture of affection with only a slight sideways glance simultaneously conveys both past intimacy and estrangement. Her hardened detachment as she stands guard over a deadbeat customer, and her messy drunk act as she returns home from that financially costly evening, are so convincingly déclassé that they inflect our identification, but are understandable enough not to alienate it. There’s an especially funny scene where the Bel Ami’s hostesses provoke a silly-ass customer (Haruo Tanaka) into singing in public, and then titter at his performance sotto voce. Yukiko, who will not permit herself to mock anyone openly, busies herself lighting and smoking a cigarette, adding as much business as possible to keep herself from cracking up, lowering her eyes to block out stimuli that might defeat her resolve. In the middle of the song, Naruse ups the ante deliciously by cutting from a wide shot to a two-shot of Yukiko and the singer.
The plot doesn’t kick in until the last quarter of the film, when Yukiko develops a crush on the ingenuous male friend (Yuji Hori, Yoshiko Kuga’s feckless boyfriend in OLDER BROTHER, YOUNGER SISTER) of her cynical former colleague Shinue (Ranko Hanai, the wife in A FOND FACE FROM THE PAST). The development of this romance is too narrow to allow room for ambiguity or multiple perspectives, and it also simplifies the film as a whole by revealing that various prior events had been engineered to serve the denouement.
The camera style of GINZA COSMETICS is surprisingly eclectic, with a number of effects that rarely occur in other Naruse films. A Gregg Toland-like deep focus shot in Shinue’s apartment, with Yukiko in the foreground, comes as a surprise; later in the same scene, the camera breaks a placid two-shot to pan back and forth with Shinue as she retrieves some dramatically unimportant object from a drawer; the predatory executive Kano walks from a two-shot into a big closeup just before he tries to force himself on Yukiko, and Yukiko does the same a few scenes later as she tries to get away from an awkward confrontation with the deadbeat customer. Naruse isn’t doctrinaire in his visual ideas, but these effects seem more emphatic than is usual for him at such moments. Cinematographer Akira Mimura (HUMANITY AND PAPER BALLOONS) worked with Naruse only one other time, on the partially lost SHANGHAI MOON: one wonders whether his collaboration was forceful enough to override Naruse’s visual predilections.