The Western world’s understanding of the work of Mikio Naruse has evolved as trends in cinephilia and in technology have exposed new layers of his long and varied career. During Naruse’s life (1905-1969), very few of his films – WIFE! BE LIKE A ROSE in the 30s, MOTHER in the 50s – were distributed in the West. Even after Western cinephiles turned their attention to Japan in the 60s and 70s, their well-thumbed copies of Anderson and Richie’s The Japanese Film: Art and Industry in hand, Naruse was represented on Western repertory screens by only a handful of his most prestigious works: REPAST, SOUND OF THE MOUNTAIN, LATE CHRYSANTHEMUMS, FLOATING CLOUDS, WHEN A WOMAN ASCENDS THE STAIRS, perhaps a few others. The breakthrough for American audiences occurred in 1984-85 when Audie Bock organized a traveling 25-film Naruse retrospective for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2005, James Quandt of Cinematheque Ontario upped the ante with a second touring retrospective, 35 films strong.
Naruse made approximately 90 films in his lengthy (1930-67) directing career, 68 of which have survived intact. When the last Naruse season ended in 2005-06, the most ambitious Anglophone cinephile might have seen subtitled versions of a little more than half of Naruse’s existing films, hand-picked by experts. Naruse’s contemporaries Mizoguchi and Ozu managed to establish enough of a beachhead with cinephiles that their extant work is periodically collected and shown in the West, but the Naruse revival failed to broker for him an equivalent status. His retrospectives were curated in accordance with the prevailing, and not entirely inaccurate, critical narrative of his career: early acclaim, capped by the success of WIFE! BE LIKE A ROSE in 1935; sixteen years of fading prestige and artistic struggle, first with the edicts of the wartime Japanese government, then with the even more intrusive demands of the Allied post-war occupation; and finally a return to glory with 1951’s REPAST, followed by a string of celebrated works in the early to mid-50s that allowed him to ride out the rest of his career as a prestige filmmaker.
The Naruse films that the West knows best present a more consistent and governed career than was the case. In particular, a selection of the films Naruse made with maximum creative freedom would highlight his skill at constructing multi-leveled narratives that resolve parallel but divergent perspectives, often with a single emotional upheaval. (The section on 1933’s EVERY NIGHT DREAMS goes into detail on Naruse’s deployment of what I term the “shadow narrative,” and on how he develops the shadow narrative in parallel with a more conventional story.) Naruse’s precise manipulation of narrative outcomes is allied to, and dependent on, his exacting command of framing and rhythmic emphasis, which Naruse safeguarded by refusing to share with anyone the shot lists and cutting continuities of his films. Back in 2007, in the ancient days when many of Naruse’s extant films had no English subtitles, I watched an unsubtitled DVD of 1947’s SPRING AWAKENING at the home of Naruse enthusiast Michael Kerpan: I had very little sense of what the story might be, but even so it was easy to spot the film’s nodal scene, the point at which Naruse uses dramaturgy to force a reappraisal of the narrative, solely by observing the changes in the actors’ distance from the camera and the resort to extreme closeups that had until then been avoided.
Within a few years of this home screening, the Internet had accomplished what eighty years of conventional distribution models could not, and Naruse’s entire extant career was fan-subtitled. Those of us who had formulated ideas about Naruse’s methods on the basis of the works selected for the retrospectives were forced to revise them in the face of a wider range of projects, generated under circumstances that were on the whole less favorable to artistic expression than those of the canonical films. Happily, exposure to this previously hidden work does not diminish the high regard in which Naruse deserves to be held. The undistributed sector includes a number of films that I would recommend without reservation: MORNING’S TREE-LINED STREET, SPRING’S AWAKENING, EVENING STREAM, THE STRANGER WITHIN A WOMAN, and, most notably, THE GIRL IN THE RUMOR, which is to my mind one of Naruse’s two or three greatest works. Even with less promising projects, it’s heartening to see Naruse deploy his considerable resources in behalf of undistinguished or even recalcitrant material, and often emerge the victor. Foremost among Naruse’s many cinematic virtues is his mastery of narrative strategies, and adverse conditions reveal the full range of his imagination, as he pulls from his quiver whatever arrow is required to attack each particular project. A surprising number of Naruse films make use of a narrative tone, a style device, or a genre unlike any of his other work: the music-cued swathes of mood that dominate WIFE! BE LIKE A ROSE; the dramatic shot-length dolly-ins of TSURUHACHI AND TSURUJIRO; the mystical crane shots of A SONG BY LANTERN LIGHT; the musical comedy of THIS HAPPY LIFE; the documentary-style realism of THE ANGRY STREET; the hyperdrive narrative of THE BATTLE OF ROSES; the comedy-to-drama transformation of WIFE; the slapstick of UNTAMED, not to mention its rather un-Japanese indomitable heroine; the crazy barrage of style devices in HIT AND RUN; the minimalist abstraction of the image in THE STRANGER WITHIN A WOMAN. This unusual flexibility bespeaks a generalist sensibility that, despite forceful artistic preferences, feels capable of ranging over an array of cinematic ideas in search of solutions. And when his material or production circumstances dictate a straightforward story development – as in the climaxes of THE ACTRESS AND THE POET, THE WHOLE FAMILY WORKS, and AS A WIFE, AS A WOMAN – Naruse is able to fall back on his command of craft and elucidate the denouements with meticulous, old-fashioned modulation of dramatic rise and fall.
A modernist taste for fragmentation announces itself in Naruse’s earliest extant work: for instance, the expressionist shattering of the image near the end of FLUNKY, WORK HARD!, or the shaggy-dog comic confusion of the opening of APART FROM YOU. This impulse is driven deeper into his films’ structure after the coming of sound, finding new and subtler expression in the tonal gear shifts of WIFE! BE LIKE A ROSE and the kaleidoscopic compression of THE GIRL IN THE RUMOR. During the wilderness years following his early-30s successes, Naruse found increasing use for his career-long taste for surrealist, reflexive pranks and fissures – the best-known instance of which is the startling “The End” that occurs two-thirds of the way through MOTHER – and for narrative ploys that infuse seemingly straightforward projects with a cyclical absurdism. The outrageous climax of MORNING’S TREE-LINED STREET was perhaps the first indication that Naruse was willing to go full surrealist given the opportunity; and in the early 40s Naruse seemed to have found a shelter from “national policy” with a provocative run of absurdist subjects: TRAVELLING ACTORS, A FOND FACE FROM THE PAST, and HIDEKO THE BUS CONDUCTOR. One could make the case that some of Naruse’s films – HIDEKO THE BUS CONDUCTOR, the hopeless A DESCENDANT OF URASHIMA TARO, WHITE BEAST, even MOTHER – push absurdist or surrealist agendas to the point of subversion; but as a rule Naruse does not seem jaded or cynical in his capacity as a studio employee. Despite the many artistically hopeless projects handed to Japanese filmmakers during wartime and the post-war occupation, and despite Naruse’s allegedly morose personality, it’s remarkable how rarely one senses him content to collect a paycheck and accept artistic defeat.
Though Naruse is increasingly regarded in the West as one of the greatest of Japanese directors, it seems to me that we still fail to apprehend the full scope of his artistic powers. Naruse himself has said that he eventually realized that he should not be writing his own films, and his prestigious post-1951 output was characterized by ongoing collaborations with a number of acclaimed screenwriters: Yoko Mizuki, Sumie Tanaka, Toshiro Ide, and Zenzo Matsuyama most often. Furthermore, Naruse’s artistic peaks are frequently identified with the novelist Fumiko Hayashi, who died just before her posthumous six-film collaboration with Naruse. And yet, despite this circumstantial evidence for Naruse as an interpretive artist, he was a superb and distinctive writer of dialogue: wry, intelligent, indirect in his expression of emotion, with a rather Westernized tendency to push characters toward quiet expressions of dissatisfaction instead of polite restraint. His writing tends to deprecate the story function of characters in favor of observational verisimilitude; perhaps in compensation, he has never been averse to thematically overt and even repetitive dialogue in the margins of his films, often from supporting characters, as if he wanted to separate the job of creating narrative clarity from the work of rendering behavior. (Such plot-related overstatement is equally prominent in films where Naruse took a writing credit and in later work scripted by others; sometimes, as in TSURUHACHI AND TSURUJIRO, it is pushed so far that it comes across as a wink at the audience.) As for narrative construction, one notes that the sophistication and subtlety of Naruse’s work with other writers in the 50s is fully present in the design of such early works as EVERY NIGHT DREAMS (from Naruse’s story) and THE GIRL IN THE RUMOR (from Naruse’s original script). It is hard to think of any other filmmaker who can match Naruse’s comprehensive fluency with narrative forms, whether within established dramatic structures or in the modernist, reflexive modes that he favored temperamentally.
Naruse is as neglected as a director of performances as he is as a writer. The commonly held belief that Naruse did not direct his actors is supported by a number of unimpeachable sources, including his favorite performer Hideko Takemine, who has said that Naruse never gave her any acting instructions. The literature of film history contains a number of other such claims about celebrated directors, equally corroborated by multiple collaborators: checking these claims against the bodies of work in question suggests, not that the testimony is untrustworthy, but that the process of direction is more indirect and ineffable than we imagine. In any case, Naruse has overseen many performances of the first water, and somehow managed to skew a great number of them toward emotional containment, a focus on mundane activity, and a quality of undemonstrative discontent. EVENING STREAM, on which Naruse and Yuzo Kawashima split directorial duties, is instructive in this regard: as one acclimates to the directors’ different styles and begins to mark the transitions from one to the other, one can generally use shifts in the tone of the acting as an indicator of who is behind the camera. And if one takes into account the detailing of behavior and the instinct for staging dialogue in counterpoint to mundane routines – think of the low-intensity household tedium of REPAST, the physicality of the class portraits of LIGHTNING, the integration of domestic labor and characterization in HUSBAND AND WIFE – then one can reckon Naruse an innovative director of actors and not just a powerful one. In the end, it seems to me that few artists in the history of cinema have displayed as much command of every component of the filmmaking process as Naruse. As a writer of dialogue, a builder of narrative structure, an overseer of performance and behavior, a composer of images, an architect of editing continuity – Naruse can be described in each category as a master.
This mastery is in the service of a vision of life that some might find limiting. Certainly Naruse has a marked tendency to inflect human behavior in the direction of base emotions: self-centeredness, acquisitiveness, pettiness. Because his preferred stage is the realm of the mundane, these unpleasant qualities generally do not take on the melodramatic grandeur required for villainy, though they often accumulate power by being shown to permeate groups or societies. The life-sized scale of Naruse’s dark view of human nature is perfectly suited to the depiction of marital and familial enmity, and one would be hard pressed to find any marriages in the cinema as subtly horrifying as the ones in REPAST, WIFE, SUDDEN RAIN, and ANZUKKO; or any families as convincingly inhospitable to human life as the ones in THE WHOLE FAMILY WORKS, LIGHTNING, and A WIFE’S HEART. The mundane perspective on these social institutions is exactly the quality that forces the viewer to register these depictions as a metaphysic: the drama-powered trajectories of the lethal conflicts in, say, Bergman’s films gives them a theatricality that is also a covert source of pleasure. Naruse’s inclination to portray base behavior might on occasion create imbalance: I think of A WOMAN’S SORROWS and even the acclaimed LATE CHRYSANTHEMUMS as cases where the depiction of unpleasantness casts too long a shadow on the work as a whole. Amazingly, however, this inclination of Naruse’s never feels like a cover for a vicarious savoring of the power of malevolence, or a way of assuming a self-righteous posture, or a voluptuous identification with victimhood, or a love of the grotesque. Whatever deep motives prompt Naruse to devote so much of his energy to showing aspects of human nature that many of us might prefer to avoid, it’s remarkable that the end result of his artistic process is purged of all indications that cruelty might be a private source of enjoyment to him. Ozu, the other great philosophical presence in Japanese cinema, will always benefit from comparisons between his world view and Naruse’s. The range of human nature that Ozu shows is more moderate; the balance that he attains between joy and sorrow, event and reflection, makes it possible for us to see him as the representative of the wisdom of a social system, as “the most Japanese of directors.” I intend no slight toward Ozu by citing this cliche: it’s certainly no defect to arrive at an equilibrium that societies may wish to emulate. For his part, Naruse cannot show us how to live: he despairs of living well, and he won’t hide it. I love him for this, for finding the energy to look so deeply for so many years into the complexities of people and societies while lacking the motivation of hope.
 Bock, Mikio Naruse, 5.
 Bock, Japanese Film Directors, 126.
 Bock, Mikio Naruse, 9.