Not Blood Relations

My least favorite of Naruse’s extant silent films, mostly because of the single-note prolong-the-agony plot. But neither does the direction give us an unusual perspective on the goings-on: the characters remain close to their archetypes. Adapted by Ozu’s preferred scenarist Kogo Noda from a 1913 novel by Shunyo Yanagawa, the melodrama hinges on the kidnapping of six-year-old Shigeko (Toshiko Kojima) by her biological mother Tamae (Yoshiko Okada, later in Ozu’s WOMAN OF TOKYO and AN INN IN TOKYO), a famous actress who has returned to Japan from abroad, and by the actress’s gangster brother. The only obstacle to Tamae’s plan is Shigeko’s fierce loyalty to her stepmother Masako (Yukiko Tsukuba), who is agonizingly left without legal or practical recourse. (Shigeko’s father is conveniently jailed for bankruptcy near the film’s beginning.) The story is designed to work directly on the audience’s anxiety via our identification with the victimized Masako, and such a manipulative relationship to the audience does not seem to inspire Naruse, who is generally more indirect.  His energy flows toward the characters who have internal conflict: Tamae, who is gradually thrown into uncertainty by her child’s refusal to acknowledge her, and Shigeko’s venal grandmother (Fumiko Katsuragi), who abets the kidnapping.  It’s hard to foresee which of these two is going to crack first and solve the narrative problem for us: they both get an unusual number of reaction shots. (Okada is a more mannered and less appealing actress than Tsukuba, who has the less interesting role.)

Naruse’s very busy camera style of this period gives the film a pleasing, lively feel. The principal effect of his visual exertions is not to create spatial perspectives but to give him more control of emphasis. Many directors of the time felt the need to combat the tyranny of the diegesis in silent films, and then calmed their style in the more contrapuntal environment of the talkies.

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