Naruse has sole writing credit on his third film of 1936, which goes so conceptual in its final section that I couldn’t decide that I liked it until 15 minutes after it was over. But it’s by far the most confident of the 1936 crop, and possibly the earliest indication that Naruse’s surrealist tendencies could take over a project instead of merely providing contrapuntal humor.
The early scenes are wallpapered with lighthearted soundtrack music and directed to minimize emotionality and emphasize forward motion – early indications that Naruse plans something more tonally complex than a plot description might suggest. Level-headed country girl Chiyo (Sachiko Chiba, in her final role for Naruse; they would marry the next year) moves to Tokyo in search of a job, and finds her old friend Hisako (Ranko Akagi, who appeared years later in Imamura’s INTENTIONS OF MURDER and Kobayashi’s KWAIDAN) working in the seedy Shiba ward in a louche bar run by the benevolent yet business-like Mrs. Okada (Tamae Kiyokawa). The breezy introduction gradually yields to Naruse’s detailed, melancholy evocation of the texture of bar life, as seen by wary outsider and temporary guest Chiyo. It’s a sad business that takes its toll on the women caught in it, but Naruse presents it without melodrama or villains. The bar girls appear to have relinquished social restraints, spitting and scratching themselves in public or eating out of the cook’s rice pot; the occasional dramatic incident, like a glass-throwing fight or an employee drinking herself into a stupor, is deprived of story context and turned into ambience. Despite the prevailing tone of abandoned hope – the Okada bar is a notch lower in prestige than the geisha house of FLOWING, but anticipates it – Naruse throws some good comedy routines into the mix: a goofy scene in which a distracted hostess obliviously undoes in seconds Chiyo’s efforts to tidy up the hostess’s encroaching mess; a deftly established gag of Chiyo entering the bar as a drunken hostess is dragged out unconscious in long shot.
Chiyo wears herself out patrolling the city for scarce jobs, while the “Hostess Wanted” sign on the wall of the bar is never taken down for long. Despite the efforts of a friendly, romantically inclined customer named Ogawa (Heihachiro Okawa) to find a better position for her, Chiyo gradually resigns herself to accepting a hostess job – Naruse marks the decision with a foreboding, elegant ellipsis – and is assimilated into a life of men and alcohol. Suddenly the film shifts gears without warning, as Chiyo runs away with Ogawa, then learns he is a wanted embezzler. All aspects of the film instantly become coarser: Chiyo’s prudence is replaced by oblivious devotion, and Ogawa’s shifty behavior clearly signals his treachery. Just as the plot is about to expire in melodrama, the embezzler story, which takes up almost a quarter of the film, is revealed as Chiyo’s drunken dream! The outrageousness of this narrative curveball – there was even a daydream within the dream sequence, not to mention a movie-style cutaway to the bar – is compounded by the glimpse it gives us of desires that Chiyo does not permit herself to show otherwise. In retrospect, the script has ensured that Chiyo has plenty of material for her Traumwerk: she’d been horrified earlier by a newspaper article that described the events of her dream precisely; the source of Ogawa’s financing for his expensive bar evenings has been the subject of speculation; and she is warned repeatedly by Hisako of the danger of placing trust in seemingly nice bar patrons. And yet, from an aesthetic point of view, the dream sequence is quite disillusioning while it lasts: the film simply seems to have gone off the rails. Only afterwards can one take pleasure in how well the pieces of Naruse’s crafty conception come together. Was this surrealist plan Naruse’s way of coping with the studio’s insistence on an action climax?
Naruse wraps up the movie with the restraint we thought he had abandoned. Surprisingly, the film rejects the sympathetic love story that it had carefully set up: Ogawa is transferred to Sendai and says goodbye without the marriage proposal to Chiyo that we had been led to expect. He does leave Chiyo an address at which to write him – but she ultimately throws the address into the water as she prepares happily for a new round of job searching, to the accompaniment of the upbeat soundtrack, which has returned periodically throughout the film. Only at this point are we likely to realize that Naruse has constructed one of his subtlest shadow narratives, according to which Ogawa is not Chiyo’s romantic hope of escaping the trap of hostess life, but rather a part of the narrowly avoided trap itself. Though it doesn’t always feel like a comedy, MORNING’S TREE-LINED STREET ultimately checks off most of the criteria for inclusion in the genre.