Street Without End

STREET WITHOUT END is a step backward from EVERY NIGHT DREAMS in terms of story—not so much because the plot is more outrageous as because Naruse’s opportunity to inflect it seems limited.  (Apparently the script – by Jitsuzo Ikeda from a serialized novel by Komatsu Kitamura, who wrote a number of Ozu’s and Gosho’s films of the period – was rejected by other Shochiku directors before Naruse took it on.[1])  At first the narrative bounces around a bit, with a funny subplot about its waitress protagonist Sugiko (the appealingly restrained Setsuko Shinobu) chosen to audition for a film career, before it arrives at the melodrama of the car accident that begins Sugiko’s love affair with the car’s wealthy owner Hiroshi (Hikaru Yamanouchi) and sweeps her first love Harada (Ichiro Yuki) out of her life.  The script eventually devotes the lion’s share of its time to a subject not too different from that of Naruse’s 1937 A WOMAN’S SORROWS: the too-passive heroine marrying into a family that treats her with contempt.

When Naruse finally lands his knockout punch with the unexpected and utterly desolating ending, the film’s structure looks different in retrospect.  It’s as if Naruse cared only about the way a random event seeds the universe with irremediable, eternal unhappiness, and the body of the film was simply a way of arbitrarily filling in a second-rate life for Sugiko instead of the first-rate one she might have had.  “I didn’t really think things through,” she says about her marriage, just as Hiroko in A WOMAN’S SORROWS would say “I trusted my judgment too much.”

The trouble with the film, from this point of view, is that Sugiko’s second-rate life plays out without enough interest or surprise.  The climax of the marital story, with Sugiko liberating herself by hardening herself against compassion, thereby causing a death, seems to me a bit emotionally confusing, not well worked out in terms of its causes or effects. I was dissatisfied that such a heavy dramatic situation was abandoned so quickly, or that it was undertaken in the first place when the film was in no position to explore its consequences properly.

From the point of view of camera style and rhythm, STREET WITHOUT END is an advance for Naruse.  The axial tracks and disorienting montages of the earlier films are much less prominent, and Naruse focuses instead on empty spaces, the anonymity of the Ginza streets overhung by buildings, wires and sky, the air over characters’ heads as they walk through rooms.  And style and story come together for the ending, which reprises the opening images of city chaos to amplify Sugiko’s lingering sense of loss. There’s a chill in the way Naruse relentlessly pulls images and people away from us in these passages — the same chill as in the final rapid harbor montage in EVERY NIGHT DREAMS.

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[1] Bock, Japanese Film Directors, 124.