The most perfect and moving of Naruse’s family dramas, adapted by Sumie Tanaka from a 1936 Fumiko Hayashi novel. The protagonist Kiyoko (Hideko Takamine), a bus tour conductor whose perky descriptions of tourist sites are delightfully presented in the style of non-diegetic narration, is immersed in one of Naruse’s most interestingly destructive families, shot through with masochistic self-abnegation as well as the usual reflexive predation. The film’s subtext is that this rather grotesque family is nonetheless an effective enforcer of conventional social roles, and that Kiyoko’s slow-burning rebellion is not simply against the vulgarity and cupidity of her family, but against the duties society prescribes for her: “A woman’s life is so boring,” she muses at one point. The most tolerable family member, Kiyoko’s sister Mitsuko (Mitsuko Miura, of WHITE BEAST), serves as an illustration of the fate that befalls a compliant temperament: unhappily married, then saddled in widowhood with demands for child-care money from her husband’s mistress (Chieko Nakakita – has anyone ever counted the Naruse films in which she’s dragging one or more children around after her? It’s almost a running joke), and finally financially dependent on Tsunakichi (Eitaro Ozawa, of UGETSU and WHEN A WOMAN ASCENDS THE STAIRS), the uncouth businessman whom the family has picked out as Kiyoko’s future husband.

Though Naruse’s rhythms in LIGHTNING are contemplative, with an unusual number of fades to black that divide the story into movements, the film’s content and performances evoke the family’s underclass status with a physicality verging on vulgarity. Asked to serve sake at Mitsuko’s house, a suspicious Kiyoko sniffs it for spoilage before pouring; her mother (Kumeko Urabe) tells her to wash a bunch of grapes before eating them. Kiyoko is slapped hard by her unpleasant older sister Nuiko (Chieko Murata) for refusing to meet with Tsunakichi (a memorable scene: Kiyoko bears the slap with a defiant smile, but sheds an angry tear of pain when Nuiko has left), and later draws blood when she bites Tsunakichi to fend off rape. LIGHTNING’s distinctive tone results from the paradox that Kiyoko’s energy is drawn from her underclass upbringing but harnessed to the mission of leaving it behind. In one of the film’s high points, Kiyoko, who has begun her self-liberation by secretly renting a flat, sits in her mother’s house, framed in closeup, and talks about the fait accompli in a friendly tone but without the least concern for her mother’s entreaties, all the while eating grapes and spitting the seeds into her cupped hand. “They’re so sour!” she exclaims at one point.

The ending, in which Kiyoko’s mother visits her daughter’s new apartment and nearly capsizes Kiyoko’s fragile happiness with the gravitational pull of her primal dependence, is one of Naruse’s greatest moments. Its first coup is to reveal the unexpected depths of Kiyoko’s despair as her mother grinds away her protective surface: “You shouldn’t have had me, right from the start,” she blurts out after a frustrating attempt to dislodge her mother’s intractable self-abnegation; “I shouldn’t have been born.” Then, unexpectedly, the world returns to Kiyoko a bit at a time: a piece of piano music heard across the way prompts her to turn the lights on in the darkening room; she sees two flashes of lightning in the distance. This mysterious birth of optimism is out of sync with the utter misery that the quarrel has inflicted on the mother; but the movie is now as impervious to despair as is Kiyoko, and gradually her new narrative carries her mother along, like the tide lifting flotsam. The final lines of dialogue[1], an unexpected gift to our intrepid heroine, send the audience out with a feeling of hope rare in Naruse’s work. (Audie Bock points out, most interestingly, that Hayashi’s novel ends on Kiyoko’s bleak expression of hopelessness, and that Naruse and Tanaka added everything afterwards.[2]) Like Dude’s “Didn’t spill a drop” scene in Hawks’ RIO BRAVO, this moving ending suggests that even the most earthbound filmmakers harbor a bit of transcendent yearning.

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[1] Some subtitles do not translate these lines accurately. Kiyoko: “Mother, I had the ruby ring checked.  It’s real.” Mother: “See, I told you. Your father never lied.”

[2] Bock, Japanese Film Directors, 115.