Spring’s Awakening

SPRING’S AWAKENING is an oasis in the difficult period of Naruse’s career that followed World War II. In concept, the film is a bit narrow, motivated as it seems to be by the desire of the Allied occupation forces to promote greater tolerance and openness among Japanese parents toward the sexual curiosity of adolescence. The protagonist, a cheerful girl named Kumiko (Yoshiko Kuga, later in OLDER BROTHER, YOUNGER SISTER), is part of a small-town cohort of three boys and three girls, all behaving erratically under the influence of hormones. Kumiko’s hard luck is that her parents (Sachiko Murase[1] and Tatsuya Ishiguro) are more repressed and uncommunicative about sex than those of her friends, so that a kiss stolen by a classmate leaves her in terror of becoming pregnant. Ogura (Takashi Shimizu), the enlightened father of Kumiko’s romantic interest Koji (Hiroyuki Sugi), summarizes the film’s exhortatory theme with a series of speeches to other parents.

Rather than work against this thematic directness, Naruse stylizes it with gentle exaggeration that emphasizes the collision of childhood and adult values. The prevailing tone, a Fordian sense of nostalgia for the carefree happiness of childhood, is first established as Kumiko and her friend Kyoko (Ayako Kunii) escape the confines of home and laze delightedly in a sunny field near a brook. The idyll is not at all threatened by the presence of a schoolboy who glances nervously as the girls hike up their skirts to jump the brook – an early sign that Naruse and co-writer Toshio Yasumi will cram this glorified world of adolescence with signs of sex rearing its head. The film had me at its first scene: after a rapid opening montage that picks Kumiko out of a flow of city activity, she returns home from school, playfully chases a stray cat, and spots the family maid Tomie (Tazuko Shigi) talking to a boy. The nervous Tomie tries to dodge Kumiko’s question about the illicit rendezvous, but the girl happily jumps to a new topic: “That cat was here!” Sex is knocking at the door but hasn’t yet taken possession of the premises. The girls of Kumiko’s group fret over the indignity of enduring a mass physical exam at school, but smile as they proclaim the exam disgusting. Aspiring artist Noshino (Kazumasa Hoshino) asks his friend Kunio (Hiroshi Kondo), “I look in just one place when I see a nude. What about you?” then shoves Kunio when he doesn’t get a response, though the violence fades into joshing horseplay. Discussing poetry, Kyoko says, “You know, if you decide a poem is about someone else, even in a very general way, it gets a lot more interesting!” Alone with Kyoko, faced with a pregnant pause in the conversation, Kunio flops on his back instead of making a move, then pops up again a few moments later, not out of the game yet. Naruse often frames these small-scale, mysterious fragments of behavior in static long shot tableaux that give the boys’ sudden spasms of motion a faintly threatening quality. But these recurrent outcroppings of teen sexuality are set beside demonstrations that the kids have not yet put aside childish things. Kumiko makes funny faces in her mirror after concealing her book of grown-up poetry from her mother; the group gathers for a picnic with a profusion of antics, the boys leapfrogging over each other and the girls mimicking animal noises. The prevailing tone of the film is not far from that of children’s fiction, thanks to Naruse’s immersion in the mentality of childhood, and notwithstanding the omnipresence of sexuality. As if encouraged by the youthful atmosphere, Naruse does not concern himself overmuch with justifying plot transitions, skipping lightly between movements with only a few lines of dialogue as notice.

The kids ask sex questions continually of their parents, their older siblings, their peers: “How do babies get born?” or “Is love such a bad thing?” Naruse’s depiction of Kumiko’s parents is so sharp and pessimistic that one suspects that the occupation forces’ propaganda will be lost on them. Her mother is driven primarily by fear of confronting sexual issues, and cannot bring herself to give her daughter information even in the throes of crisis; her father, hilariously introduced playing a game of Go with himself with an instruction book in one hand, hides his detachment behind paternal authority, gesturing from across the room for his wife to deal somehow with his sobbing daughter after a familial interrogation. The teachers at Kumiko’s school are also forces of repression, but the film includes other pro-sex positions besides Ogura’s ex cathedra pronouncements. One of the fascinations of SPRING AWAKENING is that Naruse and Yasumi take advantage of the film’s mandate of liberation to give a pass to potentially controversial manifestations of sexuality. The tolerant household of siblings Kunio and Hanae (Mayuri Mokusho), where the group often gathers, is located over the family bar run by the siblings’ nonchalant mother (Naruse standby Choko Iida), who gives the kids sex instruction in her own fashion: “You don’t have to be in love to get pregnant – that’s what’s scary about it.” The bar action that occasionally spills into the house isn’t sanitized: Hanae is sometimes pressed into service as a barmaid, where she takes umbrage at a patron’s off-color comments; one of the bar girls is easily provoked into a mock seduction of Noshino. (There’s a lovely throwaway scene where Hanae and her mother give a shamisen lesson to the bar girl, counting out the beats together.) In the context of the film, this disreputable environment comes across as a positive force. In another subplot, Koji harbors a sexual curiosity about his older sister Kazuko (Itoko Kono) that manifests as jealousy. Again, the filmmakers show no discomfort, and imply that such incestuous feelings are part of adolescence.

The film kicks up to a new level of expression for the scene of Kumiko’s first kiss, set in a hilly landscape where Noshiro goes to paint, and made unpredictable by the characters’ intense mood swings. Naruse slows the film’s rhythm and stages its action across a vast space, less to create suspense than to add a timeless aura to the array of confusing impressions jostling for space in the kids’ minds. The kiss itself, filmed as an expressionist shadow overtaking Kumiko, triggers a climactic crisis that resolves a bit shakily, with the film sending garbled signals about Kumiko’s emotional location: I would not rule out studio or occupation interference. Like Deanie in the similarly themed SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS, Kumiko finally breaks down in hysterical laughter under the strain of mediating between libido and societal pressure. But Naruse and Yasumi are not prepared, or permitted, to take their protagonist’s ordeal as far as Kazan and Inge would 14 years later. Still, SPRING’S AWAKENING’s sustained formal and behavioral brilliance show that Naruse was poised, even in his rockiest period, to hit pitches thrown anywhere near the strike zone.

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[1] Some modern sources incorrectly credit Haruko Sugimura at Kumiko’s mother.