If anything, SUMMER CLOUDS is too well organized around its subject – the threatened tradition of family farming – and its theme – the passing of a patriarchal, family-centered way of life and the onset of an individualistic ethos. Based on a book by farmer Tsutou Wada that was adapted by frequent Kurosawa collaborator Shinobu Hashimoto, the movie traces the precarious situation of a farm overseen by family elder Watsuke (Ganjiro Nakamura, from FLOATING WEEDS) and his discontent sister-in-law Yae (Chikage Awashima, from EARLY SUMMER and EARLY SPRING), who is beginning to enjoy the freedoms of modernity after years of servitude to the family.
Hashimoto’s script goes into some political and sociological detail on the difficulties that the family farm faced in the era of land reform; and the tangled family connections criss-crossing the rural community can be equally difficult to absorb at first. Soon the film settles into a well-organized blend of a number of individual stories, all hitting the theme of the dissolution of the old society’s authority. Yae, suspended between worlds, holds the film’s center as she is drawn into city pastimes by her school friend Chie (Michiyo Aratama, the wife in THE STRANGER WITHIN A WOMAN) and dares an affair with married journalist Okawa (Isao Kimura) that offers her a vision of a better life. Watsuke’s three adult sons each stage their own rebellion against the outdated social order: they plot their escapes and gather clandestinely like the children in THE WHOLE FAMILY WORKS, but here history is clearly on their side.
Nakamura’s vivid performance as Watsuke, equal parts oppressor and amiable grownup kid, energizes the film’s early sections, and some tension leaves the movie when Watsuke’s power ebbs in the second half. The film’s strong thematic focus occasionally gives the sense that theme is driving the characters rather than vice versa: Watsuke’s sale of his land, after a lifetime of intransigence, particularly suggests an attempt to compress a multi-generational transition into a single generation. The drama is on a long fuse, and most of the plot threads serve only to contribute to the depiction of a world order dying of a thousand cuts. Naruse finally springs his reinterpretation of the story in the last scene: Yae, who led the film’s charge for the benefits of individualism, is shown at last to be too entrenched in the dying world to reap the benefits of change, and remains one of the dwindling few who can be counted upon to sacrifice her happiness for the survival of her hated community. Despite a certain amount of adumbration, this shadow narrative drops into place with the film’s most satisfying click.
If not Naruse’s most exciting film, SUMMER CLOUDS has a compelling unity and a pleasing look. Shooting for the first time in color and widescreen, Naruse creates striking, pictorial compositions that benefit from the imposing terrain of the farmlands near Atsugi. The film also includes flourishes of melodramatic visual artifice in the the romantic scenes between Yae and Okawa – particularly in one nighttime hotel assignation with flashing red and blue street signs flooding the room with unnatural color.