Naruse: Volume 1 Review

Mikio Naruse was a contemporary of the great post-war Japanese masters Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi and indeed his works lie somewhere in between Ozu’s natural rhythms of everyday family life and Mizoguchi’s outlook on female issues and social injustices. In some respects Naruse even surpasses these two great directors in their own areas, his films being more naturalistic and not as formally rigid as Ozu, tackling a wider range of subjects and issues, those concerns often being adapted from the works of female authors, giving them a truer perspective on female issues than Mizoguchi, whose films can often seem like a man’s guilt-ridden perspective on the treatment of women in society.

Naruse’s works however have achieved little of the recognition of either Ozu or Mizoguchi and his films are little known in the west. Eureka, through their Masters of Cinema series have released a boxset containing three films from Naruse’s most productive and important period in the 1950s, never before released in the UK in any format - Repast, Sound of the Mountain, and Flowing - three films that successfully show the depth and range of one of the great forgotten masters of Japanese cinema.

Repast (1951)
One doesn’t make comparisons to Sunrise lightly, but Mikio Naruse’s Repast has much in common with F.W. Murnau’s silent classic. It has the same simplicity in its storyline of a husband and wife who find they have lost something from their marriage and have to undergo a period of rediscovery in order to rekindle it, and it also has the same brilliance and clarity in direction that fully captures the complexity and importance of the underlying feelings and humanity of its protagonists.

Set in an Osaka suburb, Michiyo Okamoto and her husband Hatsu are struggling to make ends meet in the difficult post-war years. Their friends and colleagues regard their marriage as exemplary, but the day-to-day drudgery in reality is having a negative impact on their relationship. Hatsu (Ken Uehara), a clerk at the stock-market, tries to keep up appearances but, unwilling to use his position to make insider deals like many of his colleagues, he finds it difficult to get by. Michiyo (Setsuko Hara) likewise makes all the necessary economies, but her diligence in maintaining the appearance of the household through constant cleaning leaves her little time for anything else. The situation is no different for many others in their neighbourhood, struggling to find and hold down a job in a competitive market. When Hatsu’s beautiful young 20 year-old niece comes to stay however – in hiding from an arranged marriage - it places a further strain on the Okamotos. Not only is it another bowl of cheap rice they have to find, but Michiyo is envious of the younger girl’s freedom and suspicious of how she flirts with her uncle.

What seems like a simple, almost soap-opera like situation is, like the work of Yasujiro Ozu, given greater depth by the accuracy of the observations and the ability of the actors to bring out the nuances and underlying complexities of the situations. Naruse makes marvellous use of locations and with only a few places captures the entirety of their lives, hopes and ambitions – the house to represent their entrapment, the bar to represent their temporary escape, and the steps at the end of the street, where wives see their husbands off at the start of the day and where mothers set their children out into the world – a place that represents the bonds of love, family and hope for their future in the day ahead. In the totality of these locations Naruse summons up the entire narrow limitations of their lives in the suburbs. The acting adds further light and shade then to the characters who live their lives there, Setsuko Hara in particular speaking volumes with her hands alone as she fiddles with a lock on the door, pets a cat or washes rice.

Sound Of The Mountain (1954)
Setsuko Hara and Ken Uehara reprise their roles as another couple whose marriage is in difficulty in Naruse’s 1954 film adaptation of a Kawabata novel. The reasons for the relationship difficulties in Sound Of The Mountain are however rather more difficult to define, as the nature of the relationships remains ambiguous and emotions are internalised.

Part of the difficulty would seem to come from the fact that Kikuko (Hara) and Shuichi (Uehara) live with Shuichi’s parents, Mr and Mrs Ogata. Having lost their servant, Kikuko has come to take on the role as a maid, keeping the house in order and forming a closer bond with her father-in-law than she has with her husband. For his part Mr Ogata (Sô Yamamura) has a closer relationship with his daughter-in-law than with his own daughter Fusako (Chieko Nakakita), who has also landed back at the house with her children, her marriage also in difficulties. With all these married children still living with their parents, it would seem to be a rather unhealthy environment for all concerned. Perhaps unable to relate meaningfully with his wife under such circumstances – he regards his Kikuko as being rather child-like - Shuichi has been carrying on an affair with another woman. Mr Ogata, who works in the same office as his son, is aware of the situation but is indulgent or at least reluctant to intervene, concerned about the effect it will have on Kikuko when she finds out.

The situation in Sound Of The Mountain might sound like a typical Yasujiro Ozu family situation out of Tokyo Story or Late Spring, Mr Ogata here a Chishu Ryu-like father-figure who appears to be overprotective of his daughter-in-law (the presence of Setsuko Hara certainly adds to this impression), but despite his close bond he knows that it is in her own best interests to let her break free and live her own life. While the situation is handled with a delicacy and acuity that is equal to Ozu, the manner in which Naruse reveals it is completely different and takes in a much wider range of impressions beyond the complications of family bonds.

Even the connection between Mr Ogata and Kikuko is far from clear – the attraction is mutual, Kikuko drawn by the kindness she does not receive from her husband, Mr Ogata feeling paternal towards her in a way that he never was to his own daughter – but there are many other parallel situations that can lead one to form other impressions about the nature of their relationship. The film also takes in the randomness of how bonds are formed (his wife points out that he would likely have married her sister if she had not died) and the circumstances that allow them to bloom or disintegrate. Most intriguing is the use of a Noh mask which Mr Ogata has come into possession of, its child-like features stirring some undefined feelings in the man, suggesting psychological depths and impressions that can only be speculated upon. The same ambiguity of feeling can be applied to all the women around Mr Ogata, leaving the film with much to consider.

Flowing (1956)
While the female perspective was certainly to the forefront in the two earlier films in this collection through the characters played by Setsuko Hara, it is considered in a much wider manner in Naruse’s adaptation of a Koda Aya novel, which looks at the lives of a group of women in a geisha house which has fallen on hard times.

The Tsuta House employs a new maid Rika (Kinuyo Tanaka), whose diligence, kindness and pleasant manner of always wishing to help soon finds her at the centre of much that is going on in the household. Times are changing in the post-war years and the tradition of the geisha is not as highly regarded and respected as it once was. It’s a business now like any other and Mistress Otsuta (Isuzu Yamada) finds that she can no longer rely on the patronage of rich clients to pay the bills and keep the geishas fully employed. The tension in the household is increased by the girls feeling that they are not receiving their due wages. Constantly harassed and harangued loudly by a disgruntled uncle of one of the girls who worked at the house, creating such a fuss that it threatens their good name and reputation, Mistress Otsuta also has to consider alternative ways to adapt to the changing circumstances.

Despite the opportunities afforded by the geisha house setting and the difficulties of their circumstances, there is neither glamour, melodrama nor hand-wringing social conscience in Naruse’s film. It shows the women as they are, not complaining or bemoaning their lot, but getting on with their lives and struggling to adapt. The geisha is a highly skilled profession and the women are sure of their abilities. It’s not always glamorous, but it’s who they are and it is what they do. They are used to dealing with men, using their skills, their flattery and their charm to de-stress situations with policemen and irate uncles the same way they do with their clients. Increasingly however, they find that they can no longer rely on the old ways, old ties and traditional treatment with respect - there is only one language that speaks now and that is money.

Again, defusing any notions of glamour with the situation of the geisha, Naruse depicts the lives of a much wider range of women of different ages and classes – from Someka (Haruko Sugimura), the older geisha, to the young child being trained into the profession, from the maidservant Rika to Otsuta’s daughter Katsuyo (Hideko Takamine), who is struggling to be independent and choose her own life. The film relates the situation of each of the women with remarkable realism and sensitivity. It helps not only that the source material comes from a woman writer, but that Naruse trusts his actors to invest the script with their own real personalities and insights into the characters. Consequently, as well as a full range of realistic women characters we have a great spectrum of personalities, with well-judged and simply delightfully nuanced performances throughout. Regular Ozu actress Haruko Sugimura provides a delightful dynamic as their gossipy neighbour Someka, but it’s through Isuzu Yamada’s remarkable performance that we get below the surface of the disappointments, the disillusionments and fortitude against the lack of prospects that face each of the women.

The Mikio Naruse Collection: Vol 1 is released in the UK by Eureka under their Masters of Cinema imprint. The films are individually numbered #35, #36 & #37 in the series. Each of the three films in the set is held in an individual amaray case, housed in a sturdy slipcase box. The set comes with a weighty 184-page book, beautifully illustrated with stills. There is a commentary on each of the films by Catherine Russell, which tend to recount the events of each film and tie them into modern cinema theory, but do at least provide some useful information on the background sources and development of the scripts. More interesting are the earlier examinations on Naruse’s body of work by Audie Bock and particularly the longer piece by Phillip Lopate. The discs are in NTSC format and are encoded for Region 2.

The quality of the print used for Repast is quite good. The print is clean, without a scratch and is very steady, with not a flicker of telecine instability, little fluctuation in brightness and, generously housed on a dual-layer disc, there are no noticeable digital compression artefacts. The image is a little soft, tending towards hazy, and tones are shades of grey rather than black and white – the print looking like it has been artificially brightened. It’s possible that this could also be the result of noise reduction or filters, with banding or posterisation occurring frequently throughout in backgrounds. Nevertheless, there is reasonably good detail visible in the clear, stable transfer. Considering the age of the materials, the Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio track is reasonably good, with little troublesome background noise. Voices are clear and well toned, there is detail in small noises and the music score is warm and strong.

Not quite as impressive as the print for Repast, Sound Of The Mountain is nonetheless quite good and never has any serious issues. The same problems with an overall greyness of tone are there, as are the issues of banding, though both are much less noticeable here, with there being more outdoor scenes. The print however does show slightly more damage and less stability, the image wavering slightly at points. Noise reduction would appear to be an issue here as well, with one or two scenes showing wavering between foreground and background elements. There is also one transfer error in the master quite early in the film (around the 4-5 minute mark) where the image breaks up for a second. Despite the enumeration of flaws here, they are relatively minor issues and the overall impression of the video transfer is good. The audio is fine and clear, particularly good for age of the material.

Flowing has the best transfer of the set with stronger contrasts and a better range of tones than the other two films, although it still remains slightly on the grey side. There are scarcely any real flaws – a few minor scratches can be seen occasionally at the end of reels, but largely the image is clear and stable throughout. The audio is generally fine – slightly dull, perhaps due to noise reduction, but consequently there is no noise, distortion or background noise. Dialogue is clear throughout.

English subtitles are optional on all films and are in a clear, white font.

The only extra feature on Repast is a Discussion (14:17) between Kent Jones and Phillip Lopate over a version of the film edited down to illustrate their points. I personally found this much more interesting to listen to than a full-length commentary, the discussion covering the essential themes of the film without unnecessary meandering and without the constraint of making points within scene-specific situations.

Sound Of The Mountain has a full-length Commentary from Kent Jones and Phillip Lopate, which suffers from those very issues. I personally didn’t find this interesting or feel that it added anything to the film at all. It largely consists of stating the obvious in regard to the characters and the plot, pointing out features that are “typically Naruse” and comparing him with Ozu.

The Discussion (9:00) format is returned to for Flowing which serves as a reasonable introduction to the film. It covers the title, the films theme of the flow of life and its dramaturgical structure – Jones and Lopate settling for the overused and not entirely accurate description of Chekhovian. There is nothing here however that you would not recognise from watching the film yourself.

It’s not overstating the case to say that the Eureka/Masters of Cinema DVD release of the Naruse Volume 1 boxset is a major event worth celebrating. Any filmmaker who can compete on equal standing with the likes of Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, and who can be seen as an important influence on Akira Kurosawa and Shohei Imamura, likewise deserves due recognition for his work. Repast, Sound Of The Mountain, and Flowing clearly show the range of Naruse’s talent and the unique character that aligns him with the other major Japanese filmmakers of the post-war period. This set, making some of Naruse’s best films available for the first time in the west, with high quality transfers and some good critical analysis, should help raise Naurse’s profile and reputation considerably.

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