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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVD, Pick of the Week: Box Set. Silent Naruse


Silent Naruse (Three Discs) (Three and a Half Stars)

Japan: Mikio Naruse, 1931-34 (Criterion/Eclipse)

He was a sad-looking man who’d had an unhappy love life, early feuds with his bosses, and little beyond his career to make him feel any joy or optimism about life. He’d been raised in poverty, and stumbled into his profession. He married a beautiful woman, one of his actresses, and the marriage failed, disastrously.

He spent most of his time at his job, making movies, and his movies were often very sad too: tales of persecuted women, powerless men, hapless children, discontented families, businessmen whose jobs were failing and geishas who were older or near the end of their careers. His view of his native land, Japan, was dark, grim, melancholy, but — it was thought by critics, colleagues and the public — very true to life.

His name was Mikio Naruse (1905-1969).

For most aficionados of Japanese cinema, the three great names in Japan‘s first filmic Golden Age (the ‘30s through the ‘50s or ‘60s) are Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi. Naruse is the fourth — and if he’s slightly behind his three master colleagues, not as much of a visual stylist perhaps, not as riveting a storyteller as Kurosawa, as wise a human observer as Ozu, or as consummate a visual stylist as Mizoguchi, he’s not behind them by much.

Of all the Big Four (let’s call them that, at least for this review), Mikio Naruse may have been the most bitterly truthful. Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi offer views of life that may be as tragic, dark or sad as Naruse’s often is, but that are somehow, perhaps through the beauty of their imagery, redeemed by their art. Naruse‘s special sadness is unrelieved. He is a stylist too in many ways (the writing, the acting, the simple, precise camerawork). But his style is more invisible, especially in the latter part of his career, than that of his three superb contemporaries.

Naruse began directing in the late silent movie era — which, for Japan, stretched into the early ‘30s — and he survived all the way until 1969, outliving both Ozu and Mizoguchi, making oe of his acknowledged masterpieces, Scattered Clouds two years before his death. His 1935 film Wife! Be Like a Rose! was an international hit and American art house release, at a time when few Japanese films were exported to the U.S. (Sachiko Chiba, the star of Wife! Be Like a Rose! was the wife in Naruse’s first unhappy 1937-1944 marriage. She was no rose, and he was no gardener.)

Naruse directed a number of silent movies, of which five survive, and all five of them are in the Criterion/Eclipse 3 disc box set, Silent Naruse. They are not all classics, though they are all good. (The best are the last three, Apart from You, Every-Night Dreams and Street Without End.) And they’re all fascinating reflections of the Fascist-leaning, repressed, Emperor-worshipping Japanese society of the ’30s, a closed system that Naruse, like Ozu, Mizoguchi and Kurosawa, found fault with or opposed.

He is a great filmmaker, about whom most movie fans know very little. This is a very fine set, historically invaluable, dramatically moving — even if, probably, it‘s mostly for true aficionados of foreign art film. I wish Criterion or Eclipse had boxed Naruse’s later movies, specially Flowing, Mother, Repast, and the annihilating romance, Floating Clouds. But maybe they’ll get around to his ’50s films (his finest period) later.

Meanwhile, whenever you remember Kurosawa, Ozu, and Mizoguchi, try to remember also their excellent colleague, Mikio Naruse. He was a sad man and he made sad films, but beautiful and truthful ones. (All the films in Silent Naruse have new musical scores by Robin Holcomb and Wayne Horvitz.)

Includes: Flunky! Work Hard (Japan, Mikio Naruse, 1931) Three Stars. The first extant of Naruse‘s films is a comedy about a poor, luckless, improvident insurance salesman (Isamu Yamaguchi) and his beleaguered family. It’s breezy, sometimes farcical and, at times, it almost suggests the mood of the family comedy classic I Was Born But… that Ozu would make a year later. With Tomoko Naniwa and Seiichi Kato. (Silent, with English intertitles.)

No Blood Relation (Japan, Naruse, 1932) Three Stars. A real unabashed woman’s picture melodrama: Tamae (Yoshiko Okada), a Japanese-born Hollywood movie star (modeled on who?), returns to re-meet and help her old husband Atsumi (Shinyo Nara) financially (he refuses even though his business is failing) and to establish ties with the daughter, Shigeko (Hisako Kojima) whom she abandoned. But, despite Tamae’s glamour and money, the little girl prefers her caring adoptive mother Masako (Yokiko Tsukuba), driving Kishiyo to kidnapping and a plot with Atsumi‘s greedy mother Kishiyo (Fumiko Katsuragi), to try to win her daughter’s love. Scripted by Ozu‘s lifelong collaborator, Kogo Noda — though it’s no Tokyo Story. (Silent, with English intertitles.)

Apart from You (Japan, Naruse, 1933) Three and a Half Stars. Naruse’s first big critical hit, named to the Kinema Junpo list, this is the touching, perceptive tale of Kikue (Mitsuko Yoshikawa), an aging geisha facing the loss of her charms and the end of her career, of Kikue’s alienation from her much-loved dropout hoodlum son Yoshio (Akino Isono), and of the kindness shown both Kikue and Yoshio by Terugiku (Sumiko Mizukubo), a young, beautiful and popular geisha, who is deeply resentful at being forced into her “dishonorable” profession to pay her family’s debts. Finely crafted, very well-acted and very reminiscent of Naruse’s great later work. Script by Naruse. (Silent, with English intertitles.)

Every-Night Dreams (Japan, Naruse, 1933) Three Stars. Omitsu (Sumiko Kurishima), a lovely ginza bar hostess and single mother of the lively little boy Fumio (Teruko Kojima), faces worse problems when her well-meaning but hopelessly inept and jobless husband Mizuhara (Tatsuo Saito, who looks a bit like a Japanese John Carradine) shows up and tries to reform the long-shattered family unit. A more violent melodrama than No Blood Relation, almost a semi-noir, and an example of Naruse’s darkest side. (Silent, with English intertitles.)

Street Without End (Japan, Naruse, 1933) Three and a Half Stars. Sugiko, a hostess who’s offered a chance at movie stardom passes it by for marriage to a rich, but troubled, man dominated by his family — an unwise choice that threatens to ruin their lives. Both an intriguing backstage look at Japanese moviemaking in the ‘30s and a lacerating domestic drama. Naruse, like Ozu a fan of Hollywood‘s master of romantic comedy Ernst Lubitsch, includes a date at a Lubitsch movie here: The Smiling Lieutenant, with Maurice Chevalier and Claudette Colbert. With Setsuko Shinobu and Hikaru Yamanouchi as the unlucky couple, and Akio Isono as Sugiko’s feisty brother. (Silent, with English intertitles.)

Extras: Film notes by Michael Koresky.

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