Mikio Naruse Collection Review

Belatedly receiving recognition on the West, Mikio Naruse’s gentle post-War Shomin-geki family dramas of ordinary people doing their best to cope with the challenges they face in life are inevitably compared to the films of Yasujiro Ozu, but the two filmmakers have quite different themes and stylistic approaches to their work. Ozu’s area of interest is largely the family - distinct generations coming to terms with each other, life moving on and adapting to change. Ozu’s filming technique is also singular - his plain, unadorned style of low-level static shots of people speaking directly to the camera, his settings the everyday locations of modest homes, bars and train stations. While the characters and settings are superficially similar, Naruse’s filmmaking style, his concerns and his approach are quite different from Ozu. What the two directors do have in common however is the precision and simplicity with which they depict the everyday concerns of ordinary people, the complexity of their relationships, their reaction to their social circumstances and the struggle they face to get by.


Almost invariably, the subjects of Naruse’s films are women and, often derived from stories written by women authors, the director’s films consequently have an air of authenticity in the situations they present. The naturalistic dialogues that take place between his female characters, their perspective on life, their mannerisms and their concerns are more domestic and less melodramatic than Mizoguchi’s feminist outlook, but the circumstances they have to endure are no less real and consequences no less serious. Treated unfairly by the men in their lives and inequitably by a society that places little value upon them, Naruse’s female characters are often living in poverty or very close to it, constantly worrying about money, striving to make enough to pay the rent, putting their faith in an illusion that things will get better, but often finding themselves disillusioned and betrayed by people they believed they could depend on.

The role of females in this society is limited. In Naruse’s films they are often geishas, working in bars in a competitive environment - who is the prettiest? who has the richest patron? – but as they get older and become prone to illness, options are much more limited and it becomes harder to retain the status they once enjoyed and find the money to they need to keep up those all-important appearances. This common situation is the case in two of the films collected in the BFI’s Mikio Naruse Collection, Late Chrysanthemums and When A Woman Ascends The Stairs.

The role of the woman in society is rather more complex however in Floating Clouds, the third film in the collection and the film generally acclaimed to be Naruse’s masterpiece. Setting the film very specifically in the post-war milieu, Naruse contrasts the idealised exoticism of the blossom of a relationship with its turbulent aftermath set against the harsh realities of Japan’s defeat in the war. As in a number of Ozu’s films, it is the women who are seen being the more pragmatic when dealing with the practical realities of everyday life, while men wallow in their defeat, shame and loss of face – a role they are not accustomed to playing. Naruse however is much more convincing than Ozu in this melancholy neorealism, convincingly working with the darkness of the material (written by an important female author, Fumiko Hayashi, whose stories form the basis for Naruse's best films) and working with real human emotions, without ever letting it sink into melodrama or strident feministic social commentary.



DVD
The Mikio Naruse Collection is released in the UK by the BFI as a three-disc set containing When A Woman Ascends The Stairs, Floating Clouds and Late Chrysanthemums. Each film is on a dual-layer disc, in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.

Video
The video quality of the transfers on the three films is uneven. Late Chrysanthemums and Floating Clouds are progressively encoded, but When A Woman Ascends The Stairs is interlaced. Clarity and detail is strong on the two later films, but the earliest film in the set, Late Chrysanthemums, is rather murky and indistinct. Marks and damage are evident on all prints to varying degrees. Nevertheless, apart from the lack of progressive encoding for When A Woman Ascends The Stairs, the very best efforts seem to have been made to present these films as well as they can be, and they are all certainly quite watchable despite the minor problems. Specific details on each of the titles can be found in the individual reviews of the discs on the subsequent pages of this review.

Audio
Each of the films is presented with a Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track. Late Chrysanthemums and Floating Clouds are mono, while When A Woman Ascends The Stairs is in stereo (without the original “Perspecta” surround track that is available on the Criterion edition). The audio is slightly on the dull side on all the films and some minor distortion can be detected. There is however little in the way of analogue background noise, and music scores, sound effects and dialogue are all relatively clear and distinct.

Subtitles
English subtitles are provided for each of the films in a clear white font and they are optional. The extra features on the discs, including English commentaries, all have full English subtitles for the hearing impaired.

Extras
Each of the three films contains a good selection of extra features, by Mikio Naruse experts Freda Freiberg and Paul Willemen, who provide introductions to the films, commentary on specific scenes and the themes they display, as well as putting the films into the context of the director’s work and as part of that important period of Japanese post-war cinema.

A 30-page booklet is also included, superbly illustrated with original movie posters and promotional stills. It contains essays by Paul Willemen on Naruse's life, an outline of the director's themes, techniques and an overview of his films by Freda Freiberg - both of which are informed, informative and unpretentious - as well as a less compelling essay on the theme of walking in Naruse films by Adrian Martin. Cast and credit information for each of the films is also included.


Overall
The three films collected here are marvellous examples of the work of Mikio Naruse, an important but up until recently largely neglected director of post-war Japanese cinema. The three films in this set provide a wide perspective on his work, showing the various means by which he handles common themes and the characteristics that align him with, but distinguish his work from the films of Ozu and Mizoguchi. The fine work already done by Masters of Cinema in their Naruse: Volume 1 collection, and now by the BFI in this Mikio Naruse Collection, each presenting intriguing films whose qualities are clearly evident and supporting them with good extra features that put the work into context, should ensure that Naruse’s legacy will live on and henceforth be considered alongside the work of those other two masters of post-war Japanese cinema.


Reviews of the individual DVDs of When A Woman Ascends The Stairs, Floating Clouds and Late Chrysanthemums can be found on the following pages 2, 3 and 4 of this review.
When A Woman Ascends The Stairs (1960)

The title of When A Woman Ascends The Stairs refers to this daily journey to the top of the stairs made by Keiko (Hideko Takamine), a hostess at a bar in Tokyo’s Ginza district, as well as the uphill struggle she has to endure uncomplainingly every single day, whether she wants to or not. Keiko is proud of her position and the profession manner in which she deals with her clients - all prestigious and successful business men - refusing to let one person monopolise her time. The hostess business is declining however and Keiko isn’t getting any younger, but since she refuses to take on an exclusive wealthy patron, there are only two options open to her – either to marry a wealthy man, or open her own hostess bar. It’s a choice that has ruined many women before her, so Keiko treads carefully, attempting to build up a partnership of clients, hoping they will agree to finance a hostess bar between them. But there are further setbacks for Keiko along the way.


As has already been shown in Naruse's films Late Chrysanthemums (1954) and Flowing (1957), modern values had already eroded the position and respect that women in the profession of providing entertainment for men could traditionally command. In When A Woman Ascends The Stairs, the situation is even graver, the women ever more reliant on the patronage of men and their struggle to meet the day-to-day challenges ever greater. Nonetheless, we are told that in 1960, 16,000 women still work in the profession of hostesses in the Ginza district, all seeking to improve their situation and consequently categorised or judged by how far they are willing to go to achieve it.

Keiko, making the daily climb up the stairs, would appear to have a clear head on her shoulders and be under no such illusions about her position. But illusions are a necessary part of her profession, and keeping up appearances, expensive kimonos and a luxurious apartment, costs money – money not for the first time being the main issue underlying a Mikio Naruse film. At the age of 30 however, Keiko knows that her options are limited and when she is temporarily forced to stay with her mother in a poor district due to illness, the necessity of having stability and sufficient income to deal with the troubles in life becomes even more urgent. Perhaps for those reasons, she allows herself to take risks and become closer to clients than she normally would, and inevitably, the result is betrayal and disillusionment.


Surprisingly for Naruse, these issues are made rather overly explicit in When A Woman Ascends The Stairs, the characters openly explaining their condition and their intentions, while the betrayals and disappointments follow much too schematically and calculatedly, rather than flowing naturally from the situations – and often not just once but twice, as in the repetition of cases of a female bar owners being driven to suicide - hammering the point home rather too emphatically and melodramatically. There is however a characteristic degree of complexity to the characters, none of them – not even Keiko – being depicted in black and white. All of them are forced to keep up appearances, and the unhappiness in their lives and their relationships with others would seem to stem from this. There are also some moments of poetic reflection in Keiko’s narration and in the metaphor of the stairs, but too few of them and despite the fine performance by Naruse’s regular actress Hideko Takamine, When A Woman Ascends The Stairs never has that feel of authenticity seen in those earlier films. It isn’t surprising then to find that this particular script is written by a man rather than the more common Naruse adaptations of women’s writing, and it shows - the stoicism of the lead character in the face of terrible adversity bringing the treatment of the film closer to the melodrama of Mizoguchi than the lightness and understatement of Ozu.

Video
Rather like the Criterion edition of When A Woman Ascends The Stairs, the video quality here on the BFI edition looks reasonably impressive on the surface, but there are certain niggling elements that are problematic. The BFI indeed seems to be derived from the same source as the Criterion, since the rippling effect that appears on a few sequences there can also be seen here. Likewise, the clear, sharp image here is superbly toned, stable and free from flicker, showing excellent detail and few marks. On a CRT display the image looks simply fantastic, but sadly, unlike the progressive Criterion, the transfer here is interlaced. On a progressive display motion blurring is prevalent, jagged lines are evident and, depending on your video mode, there can be combing issues. There seems to be slightly less grain evident on this transfer, but this could be simply down to the image being interlaced. The latter part of the film also has problems with colouration, the image seeming to have a greenish tint and show cross-colouration. This is not evident in the Criterion.

The first screenshot comparison below should how closely the BFI and Criterions transfers match in terms of tone. The second shows the discolouration of the b&w image in the latter part of the BFI release, which is not present on the Criterion. BFI is shown first, followed by the Criterion.





Audio
This edition just includes a standard Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo mix. It doesn’t have the original “Perspecta” track which is also included on the Criterion, but it’s not a great loss. The sound is relatively clear with no real issues of background or analogue noise. There may be some underlying distortion – you’ll certainly hear it on the first few notes of the score on the opening credits – but although the overall tone is slightly dull, it is reasonably clear and handles voices, sounds and the jazzy score with an adequate dynamic.

Subtitles
English subtitles are in a clear white font and are optional for the film and available also for all the extra features on the disc.

Extras
Freiberg Introduction (16:07)
The film critic considers why Naruse’s films have only recently come to prominence and been placed alongside the works of Ozu, Mizoguchi and Kurosawa. She goes back over the filmmaker’s career and examines his relationships with the Japanese studio system and how he came to develop his own style, identifying those qualities that are typical of Naruse.

Freiberg on the Film (07:56)
Looking specifically at When A Woman Ascends The Stairs, Freiberg considers the modern aspects of the film’s look and sound, as well as how it sits alongside his earlier films.

Freiberg Commentary (15:35)
Looking at the opening sequence of the film, Freiberg sets the scene, pointing out themes that are going to be developed and identifying aspects of Naruse’s technique. It’s kind of descriptive however and, since the characteristics of Naruse’s style are self-evident, the commentary is largely superfluous.
Floating Clouds (1955)

By far the most complex of the three films in the BFI’s Naruse Collection, Floating Clouds also has the distinction of being widely regarded as Naruse’s masterpiece. Based on a novel by the popular female author Fumiko Hayashi (also the author of Late Chrysanthemums in this set), and adapted to the screen also by a female writer, Sumie Tanaka, Floating Clouds doesn’t so much follow Naruse’s normally clear narrative line as much as flow to the emotional rhythm of its main characters. Dealing with affairs of the heart – and a central relationship that is a particularly turbulent one – and complicating the turmoil with the added social realities of post-war Japan, the situation is an incredibly complex one that fluctuates according to the vagaries of the human heart and the rather more practical issues of surviving in the real world.


The arrival back in Japan, repatriated from Indochina after the war, is particularly difficult for two government officials. Yukiko (Hideko Takamine) looks up Tomioka (Masayuki Mori) again on her arrival in Tokyo, hoping to rekindle the idyllic affair they shared while working for the Forestry Department in the exotic location of Dalat. She soon has to face up to the harsh reality of the fact that Tomioka is married, and that the end of the war has brought about many material changes and challenges that have to be faced – not least of which is the earning enough money to survive. For men and women the priorities are different and their means of dealing with them places great difficulties on Yukiko and Tomioka as individuals, as well as how they function together as a couple over the years that pass. They have been thrown together by fate and are subsequently buffeted by the winds of change that bring them together and force them apart like drifting clouds.

Through this relationship, Naruse also successfully manages to convey the changes in Japanese society brought about after the war. Tomioka bears the sense of defeat that weighs on the Japanese men, while the women – as in many Naruse films - have to be stronger and adopt a more practical stance, fighting against intolerable injustice and hardship, but doing whatever it takes to get by. Yukiko consequently proves to be one of the most resilient female characters in all of Naruse’s films, suffering mistreatment and abuse, forced into prostitution and into work as a confidence trickster, but never losing sight of her reason for surviving – her love for Tomioka, and perhaps by extension, should you wish to regard it that way, for Japan itself – making the sacrifices that need to be made and accepting the consequences, regardless of the setbacks she receives from her unfaithful and uncommitted lover.


If there is any film that shows the real differences between Naruse and Ozu, it’s Floating Clouds. Ozu’s films and his depiction of families, emotional relationships and their conflicts within a changing society are not without their darker side – most evidently in Tokyo Twilight - but they are never conveyed with the same sense of authenticity of feeling that Naruse can achieve, and that is most clearly demonstrated here in Floating Clouds. What would be highly melodramatic and emotionally manipulative material in the hands of a lesser director (and I don’t include Ozu in this), is treated with remarkable precision and delicacy by Naruse. More than in any of the director’s films, Floating Clouds in particular demonstrates Naruse’s mastery of the art of the glance. Longing, distain, disappointment, dismay, anger, confusion, despair – all are expressed effectively through simple looks and glances, with a turn of the head or the dropping of the eyes, saying much more than words, and giving the viewer much to interpret for themselves.

Video
Like When A Woman Ascends The Stairs, Floating Clouds shows excellent tones, has a generally excellent level of contrast and brightness and shows satisfying blacks with good detail. The image quality is slightly softer than the later film and the brightness can seem a little over boosted in places, but really, this is a fine looking print in terms of tone. It is however rather heavily marked with minor scratches and dustspots. Slightly larger marks are also evident, but less common, as are heavier and persistent tramline scratches and reel-change marks. The image however is reasonably stable with only occasional minor fluctuations in brightness levels, or perhaps some faint telecine or macro-blocking elements. Overall however, this has very little impact on the quality of the viewing, and the beauty of the cinematographic lighting and framing is fully evident.


Audio
The quality of the Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track is similar to the other films in this set. It’s a little dull and echoing in places, with some distortion audible, but is generally fine for the demands of the film’s score and dialogue. There are however some lip-syncing issues on a couple of scenes, but nothing that is badly out of sync.

Subtitles
English subtitles are in a clear white font and are optional for the film and available also for all the extra features on the disc.

Extras
Freiberg on the Film (10:20)
Regarded by most critics as Naruse’s masterpiece, Freiberg is not totally convinced by Floating Clouds, but points out the strengths of the film’s script and its treatment.

Paul Willemen on the film (7:08)
Willemen addresses the various readings of the film to counter the suggestion of masochism on the part of Yukiko (not a reading that I would have taken from the film), and makes a case that seems much more self-evident. He does stretch things himself however with a reading of the film as a social commentary on democracy – but the social aspect of the film is certainly important.

Freiberg Commentary (10:02)
Freiberg chooses a key early scene in the film – the first post-war, post-romance scene – and analyses Naruse’s formal treatment in the film and how he achieves so much through an economy of means. Again, although short, the obvious is often stated here and it does end up getting quite descriptive.
Late Chrysanthemums (1954)

Based on a collection of short stories by the author Fumiko Hayashi, Late Chrysanthemums intertwines separate stories of three women, all in similar circumstances, but by skilfully interweaving them, Naruse manages to provide a wider perspective on the condition of a lonely middle-aged woman in Japan. Each of the women worked as geishas in their younger days and their services were once in high demand, but those days are long past. For many women, like Tamae (Chikako Hosokawa) and Otomi (Yûko Mochizuki), the only option now open to them is to work as a washerwoman or in a bar, but it’s a living that barely allows them to pay their rent. They are forced to turn to Okin (Haruko Sugimura), a former geisha they once worked with, who is doing much better, acting now as a moneylender and successfully investing her money in property.


As it often is in Naruse films, money is of principal concern for each of the women, but the director paints a much more complex picture of their circumstances, their isolation, their disappointments and the manner in which they confront their problems. Tamae is ill, which makes paying the instalments demanded by Okin difficult, while Otomi drinks heavily and is unable to even get a loan from Okin, since as a mere washerwoman, she would be unable to pay it back. The women are also faced with the departure of their children - Tamae’s son finding work in far-off Hokkaido, Otomi’s daughter running off to get married - which is goign to place them in an even more lonely situation. There is always the possibility of remarrying, but the women feel old-fashioned and out-of-touch with youthful trends and doubt their ability to find a suitable match – they are however able to find some measure of comfort in each other.

Okin should be in a more favourable position, but finds herself isolated by her status as a moneylender and her own inability to trust anyone – she even retains a maid whose discretion can be relied upon on account of her being a deaf-mute. Her mistrust of men is even greater, having been through a difficult experience with a man called Seki, but her hopes are revived when she is informed of the arrival of Mr Tabe, a former military officer she was once in love with. His visit however proves to be a great disappointment to her.


Naruse depicts these ordinary, everyday real-life situations simply and deeply, capturing the daily trials and problems of his characters as well as the hopes and illusions that make life bearable for them, showing their tenacity to keep going when life fails to live up to their expectations. On their own, each of the little stories would be minor, but by having each of the three women take their share of life’s problems, Naruse manages to present the circumstances of the middle-aged women of an older tradition in a wider context as a social issue rather than as a personal misfortune and melodrama that would ensue should all the problems befall one woman, as is perhaps the case with the director’s later film When A Woman Ascends The Stairs. Late Chrysanthemums is consequently a lovely little film, full of subtle insight and humour, depicted masterfully by Naruse with a delicate hand that operates almost invisibly, but hightly effectively.

Video
Undoubtedly working with less than perfect original elements, Late Chrysanthemums is the least impressive transfer in the set, but it’s certainly satisfactory for the most part. Early scenes are quite greyish in tone and rather murky, but this improves somewhat after the first quarter of the film. Although there is little in the way of print damage, at least as far as marks and scratches are concerned – there are a few of the larger marks, but little evident dustspots – there are however other troublesome issues. The rather murky image is rather smeary with a mesh-like texture – possibly a form of digital noise reduction has been applied – and there is evidence of purplish cross-colouration and wavering of backgrounds, also suggesting noise reduction issues. The image is nevertheless largely serviceable, although one crucial night-time scene at the end of the film looks particularly indistinct.


Audio
There is a little bit of crackle and a few pops in the audio mix, which is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. A little bit of distortion can be heard behind the voices and is more noticeable on louder passages, but other than a slight dullness of tone, the quality is reasonably good and there are no major problems.

Subtitles
English subtitles are in a clear white font and are optional for the film and available also for all the extra features on the disc.

Extras
Freiberg on the Film (07:58)
In a good overview of the film, Freda Freiberg talks about how Naruse version of Fumiko Hayashi’s stories are welded together and how they differ from the original stories, pointing out the little moments where the film comes fully to life.

Paul Willemen on Naruse (22:57)
Willemen similarly provides a good, if lengthy introduction to Naruse, considering his place in Japanese cinema, his shooting practices and the social context of his work. It’s a bit of a lecture, but it does provide a strong overview of who Naruse was and what his films are about, with some specific (over-)analysis on the treatment of Late Chrysanthemums.

Teruo Ishii (12:36)
Ishii recalls his experience working as assistant director for Naruse. He identifies the director’s characteristics and his natural shooting style and talks about the nature of Naruse’s working relationship with Kinuyo Tanaka.

Freiberg Commentary (15:55)
Freiberg provides a partial commentary, using the key scene from the end of the film. The commentary is very descriptive and narrative and is no more illuminating than Naruse’s lucid visual storytelling. At least it’s not a full length commentary, which would be completely unnecessary.

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Film
8 out of 10
Video
7 out of 10
Audio
7 out of 10
Extras
7 out of 10
Overall

8

out of 10

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