Naruse’s career ends with one of his finest films. Like FLOATING CLOUDS, it’s a love story parsed into a reiteration of meetings and partings, set in different locations and shaped with ellipses to emphasize cyclical stasis instead of forward motion. (Sole writing credit goes to Nobuo Yamada, who worked twice with Shinoda and many times with Koreyoshi Kurahara.) The story’s irresolvable dilemma – Mishima (Yuzo Kayama) accidentally kills the husband of Yumiko (Yoko Tsukasa) in a car accident, and the two slowly become attached during their subsequent years in emotional limbo – is tailored just for the characters’ personalities: one senses that many of the supporting characters would be able to cope adequately with this particular obstacle to love. This hero and heroine are perhaps too well matched: a good little boy and girl who are simultaneously strengthened and hemmed in by a sense of guilt and duty. In this view, the emotional center of the film is the scene with Mishima and his mother (still Kumeko Urabe, playing mothers for Naruse since REPAST in 1951), where he comes into the house drunk, vents his anger and frustration, rolls on his side, takes a breath, and reassures his mom, “I’ll be alright.”
As Yumiko and Mishima ricochet through their damaged lives, they sing and dance occasionally, drink a lot, play games, bear up under morally compromising jobs, and generally try to have fun, though their next unexpected meeting always wipes the smiles off their faces. Much of the film’s force comes from the spectacle of strong people maintaining their dignity through an unending trial. One might say that FLOATING CLOUDS is a love story in the guise of a story about endurance, and SCATTERED CLOUDS is the other way around.
Though an inner purity is the keynote of SCATTERED CLOUDS, everyday life in the film is shot through with signs of corruption. Mishima’s job involves pandering, in a matter-of-fact way; Yumiko’s comes close to prostitution. There’s a moving scene in which Yumiko finally makes a social overture to Mishima after years of shunning him, and finds him playing pachinko: not a heroic posture. The common source material of THE STRANGER WITHIN A WOMAN and JUSTE AVANT LA NUIT suggested a connection between Naruse and Chabrol, and the duality of purity and corruption at the heart of SCATTERED CLOUDS makes the link between these two great filmmakers seem less circumstantial.
The film’s ending is overstated in the melodramatic tradition, as the lovers come near to fulfilling our forbidden desire for them to unite. Multiple illustrations of the need for Mishima and Yumiko to separate are forcefully presented: the frightening train roaring past the lovers’ taxi, with its implication of catastrophe; the taxi passing a car wreck; an ambulance arriving at the hotel for a wounded man, whose head bandages look like those on the corpse of Yumiko’s husband. This almost surrealist overstatement seems odd after the delicate handling of the couple’s years of purgatory – but Naruse’s penchant for the strategic deployment of excess spans his filmography, and finds its most dramatic outlet in his late work.
If SCATTERED CLOUDS seems like a summation of Naruse’s career, it’s because its story delves into the ontology of unhappiness. On a metaphorical level, the film suggests that we all live with the protagonists’ discomfort: that we are all barred from happiness by some accidental blood on our hands, or by the bad luck of falling in love with the killer of our family.