Regarded at the time as a comeback film for Naruse, TSURUHACHI AND TSURUJIRO strikes me as a partial achievement, another tentative step in the director’s tightrope act following the high-water mark of 1935. It was adapted by Naruse from a novel by Matsutaro Kawaguchi (a frequent collaborator on the scripts of Mizoguchi’s films), which apparently was inspired by the 1934 Hollywood film BOLERO, starring Carole Lombard and George Raft and directed by Wesley Ruggles. The pattern of quarrel and reconciliation between the two musical partners – shamisen player Toyo (Isuzu Yamada, in her first role for Naruse) and singer Jiro (Kazuo Hasegawa) – does indeed have the routinized tone of American genre comedy, and Naruse prefers to enhance rather than minimize the automatism of their conflict, skipping lightly over story points in order to emphasize the predictable rhythm of approach and avoidance, and blending in a steady stream of exposition from supporting characters to signpost the plot. Much screen time is devoted to the duo’s performances, and Naruse films the musical numbers beautifully, favoring low angles and spacious backgrounds, and imparting a sense of drama by cutting from the audience’s perspective to the stage at odd times and sustaining the tension of the performances with long takes. (As in FLOWING, Yamada looks quite convincing on the shamisen.) Seemingly acknowledging that he is on Hollywood’s turf, Naruse shoots the film’s big emotional scenes with slow dolly-ins from long to medium shot – not an unusual form of dramatic emphasis, but one that I don’t generally associate with him. His stylistic flexibility when working with unfamiliar story forms seems unbounded: it’s not so much a sign of an eclectic temperament as it is an indication that his skill for deploying different narrative conventions entails appropriating style elements associated with these conventions.
The story concept is so unusual for Naruse, who generally has a more pervasive and entropic vision of conflict, that I needed a few viewings to realize how many odd vibrations he creates within this unfamiliar framework. The feuding musicians are part of an unusual romantic triangle that includes Toyo’s enigmatically tolerant admirer, the wealthy Matsuzaki (Heihachiro Okawa), whose waterside house allows Naruse to signal Matsuzaki’s scenes with a chugging boat engine on the soundtrack, a peculiar effect borrowed from the previous year’s LEARN FROM EXPERIENCE, and repeated years later in WHEN A WOMAN ASCENDS THE STAIRS. The scene in which Matsuzaki proposes marriage to Toyo is a startling exercise in sleight-of-hand: tipsy after dinner, Matsuzaki light-heartedly throws the proposal out from an adjoining room, and Toyo giggles as she says “Yes, please.” Laughing along, Matsuzaki says “This won’t work – you’re not serious.” Toyo mildly says “Yes I am” – and the two change the subject! Only later are we sure that both parties mean exactly what they say.
The turbulent central relationship between the musicians truly comes to life only after the arrogant Jiro takes a career fall when he goes solo, sinking into alcoholism on an endless tour of rural gigs with diminishing attendance. Naruse’s vision of Jiro’s descent is appealingly free of expressionist despair: even Jiro’s drunken blackouts suggest a retreat into solitary contemplation. One incongruously idyllic passage shows Jiro eating an apple on a muddy country road, then throwing the core aside to follow a theater procession like an excited child, seemingly abandoning his own performance. The film’s sacrifice ending, in which Jiro provokes a fight with Toyo to prevent her from leaving her marriage and returning to the stage, is if anything too multilayered: Naruse and Yamada give such quiet conviction to Toyo’s declaration of her priorities – “It’s what I live for – I can’t change my nature” – that the viewer is unlikely to feel that Jiro is doing her a favor by sabotaging her comeback and preventing her divorce. Was Naruse’s clear suggestion that everyone loses from this happy ending a rebellion against a societal or studio mandate to preserve the sanctity of marriage? In any case, the powerful final scene is an instance of Naruse suddenly pushing a shadow narrative into the spotlight, with Jiro contentedly explaining his good deed even as he steps back onto the path of alcoholic ruin, his dedicated assistant (Kamatari Fujiwara) looking on with helpless despair.
 Russell, The Cinema of Naruse Mikio, 140.