After multiple viewings, I’m still unable to find an angle on this weird little item. Its immoderation and overheated tone make it an outlier even by Naruse’s eclectic standards, and yet one senses that Naruse made exactly the movie he wanted to make. Based on a script by Zenzo Matsuyama, HIT AND RUN seems inspired by pulp fiction, and builds more on genre conventions than on naturalistic behavior. Its working-class widowed protagonist, family name Bannai (Hideko Takamine), is deprived of her five-year-old son by wealthy hit-and-run driver Kinuko Kakinuma (Yoko Tsukasa); maddened by grief and blocked by the law, she takes a job as a maid to infiltrate Kinuko’s home and kill Kinuko’s son Kenichi (Ikuto Hirata) in retribution.
The lurid plot is matched in its extremity by Takamine’s histrionic performance and by the effect-ridden style, crammed with scrims, white infusions, and seasick pans and tilts. It all seems to add up to full-throttle melodrama, but the film is not that easy to peg. On the one hand, Naruse depicts the horror of the human condition too directly and brutally to stay within the pleasurable conventions of genre. A number of moments are hard to bear: the sight of the critically injured child in a rear-view mirror, struggling to stand up; a nurse’s calm observation that the devastated Mrs. Bannai has been trying to strangle herself with her own hands. Even in more genre-coded scenes, the threat of violence to children is deployed with intent to unnerve.
And on the other hand, one wishes to call the film a comedy. Naruse narrates the implementation of Mrs. Bannai’s wacky plan at such a breakneck pace, shortening expository shots into snippets and using crude wipes on scene transitions, that he comes close to duplicating the rhythm of 60s TV sitcoms. Beyond this, he takes a pleasure in exaggeration that pushes the film toward absurdism. Mrs. Bannai’s broad emoting and the fiction-based logic of her mission, which does not quite support a psychological interpretation, give her dogged pursuit a cartoonish aspect; and her yakuza brother Koji (Toshio Kurosawa), who assists her undercover activities, signals his class and profession continuously with outsized gestures and speech. Mrs. Bannai reads bedtime stories to Kenichi in a hilarious monotone that broadcasts her disengagement; when the script calls for her to lead Kenichi into heavy traffic, Naruse fills the little street with so many whizzing automobiles that the shot seems directed by Chuck Jones.
Often enough, and certainly at the unexpected conclusion, all these disparate levels are present simultaneously, depending on where one’s eyes focus. In its crazy way the film feels coherent.