In the U.S. we call racy, daring “women’s films” of the 1920’s and early 1930’s pre-code, referring to the dampening effect of the morality code instituted by the Hays’ office. To my surprise, I’ve found that other countries had their own version of the honest little melodramas and comedies that dealt with women’s issues, and that these grapple with equally risky themes. I was even more surprised to find that some of these are Japanese, which made me confront my own assumptions about what Japanese women’s lives were like eighty years ago, and, especially, what could be dealt with in films of the period. (Actually, I have been struck over and over again with just how socially daring and progressive that art was then, and how far we have regressed. But that’s for another essay.)
For now, I’ll talk about the silent films of Mikio Naruse. Throughout his career, Naruse’s films focused on the travails of working class women, and, often, on geishas. These are not high-end geishas — they work in bars and men’s clubs, and only a few play musical instruments — and it’s strongly implied that they are prostitutes. This isn’t a prettified geisha world, and there is actually a contrast between their natural beauty at home with their children and the more artificial painted beauty that adopt in the workplace. In both of the silent geisha films I watched — Every-Night Dreams (1933) and Apart From You (1933) — the women are ashamed of their work. And the work is strictly something they have to do for money to support their families. In every Naruse film I saw, there was a weak or struggling man who forced the woman to become a working girl. That these films were directed and written by a young man in his twenties was really quite remarkable to me, as the focus is primarily on the women and is completely on the women’s side. Naruse is never judgmental, and in fact is quite the opposite. He puts the blame on the men and, sometimes, on a family matriarch. In a less direct way, the blame is also placed on society, in particular a rigid class structure that forces people into roles and perpetuates poverty. This, too, parallels concerns that come up in American pre-codes that often would probably be considered “socialist” if made today. The world was in the grips of the Depression in the early 30’s — it wasn’t just us in the States. The themes of joblessness and poverty ran through all four of the Naruse silents that I watched.
Mikio Naruse himself grew up poor; both of his parents died when he was young. He began working in film as a prop manager while a teenager and directed his first film at 25. One biographical account claimed that his father left the family for a geisha. If that’s so, he certainly had sympathy for the geisha.
Just as with American pre-codes, Naruse’s films were specifically created for and marketed to young working women who would often bring friends and family to the theater with them. The basic plot devices are familiar to anyone who has watched a D. W. Griffith melodrama or a contemporary romance on Lifetime: The husband-boyfriend is weak or a jerk; someone (child or protagonist) is hit by a car or gets a hideous disease and may or may not live; someone needs money for an operation (or medicine); someone is threatened by a boss or by a customer; men can’t get jobs and may turn to crime or alcohol; girls have a good laugh at the expense of guys — and women are more comfortable with one another; mothers-in-laws are bitches; girls will do a lot to help/protect their younger siblings and/or children; women will sacrifice their own lives for others. While I would be bored silly with such hackneyed plots if that was all there was, I was completely pulled into the Naruse films. The reason for this is not just in the fascinating differences in culture and time period. It’s that the films are just so beautiful and compassionate and are filled with many small, touching moments that have little to do with the broader storyline. They are wordless glimpses that tell us volumes about a character’s mental state or situation. They are not dramatic, but are more rueful and reflective, which felt to me to be emotionally realistic. Some of my favorite of these came in the film Every-Night Dreams, the most successful of the four “working girl” silents I watched. In one, the geisha Omitsu, played by the funny-faced Sumiko Kurishima, must pin up her hair in preparation for going out on the job. She stands in front of the mirror, resigned to her fate, while the act of pinning her hair is in itself gracious and lovely. Another moment comes when her husband Mizuhara, who can’t find work, must discuss his situation in front of his wife’s pretty friend; he is embarrassed, and turns away, then looks up quickly and laughs just a little. Mizuhara has other touching scenes, especially when he plays baseball with his young son, or when he realizes his son has fixed a hole in his shoe by using a card and chewing gum (a motif that comes up in other Naruse films). Actor Tatsuo Saito does a wonderful job of showing the fellow’s shame as he attempts to look for work and always fails, yet meets his defeats with melancholy good humor. (Tatsuo Saito appears in many films by Naruse, Ozu, and Shimizu, among many others; he is a familiar, good-humored, downtrodden dad.) The landlady has her own quiet moments, too, as she tries to help Omitsu leave her geisha life; she is played by Choko Iida, who was in four of the Naruse silents and whose face is instantly recognizable. Here she is worried and thoughtful as she quietly observes the struggles of this young family, and she provides calm in the center of what looks to be growing trouble.
Naruse is not a straightforward director. He has an odd style flourishes that I found sometimes jarring. Sometimes he’ll do a distant shot of a character and then very quickly flow into a close-up. He will also quick cut from one character’s face to another, bam bam bam, to make a point about a conflict. It’s quite strange, especially in this kind of film, which generally has a more naturalistic, realistic style. I got used to it after awhile, and certainly give him credit for having a signature, but I did at times find it intrusive, even while I was thinking, well, yes, that’s pretty cool.
In all of these films Naruse would step back to give us a full, detailed look at the cultural surroundings. This, too, separates his work from standard family melodrama. Apart From You, Naruse’s other silent geisha film that is still in print, shows in some detail the actual activities at a risque “teahouse.” While Omitsu in Every-Night Dreams worked in a seaside bar, these geishas and their patrons looks and behave in what we Westerners see as more traditional geisha fashion. The teahouse has tea and food, and geisha musicians, and “games.” The women entertain the men in small compartments by talking with them, sharing food and especially liquor — the sex is implied in a few scenes, as when a young Harry Potter-ish-looking guy sets his coin purse of bills beside Kikue’s leg, sticks his tongue out, waggles his eyebrows, etc. (The scene is actually a bit creepy, though the kid is clearly painted as harmless. Another man does a sinister dance.) In another subplot, an older geisha who is supporting a resentful teenaged son has a long-time patron who wants to dump her for a younger one; he clearly is helping to support her. The teahouse is not remotely classy; the women share camaraderie there, but are clearly hungry (one girl fantasizes that she’s eating a bowl of rice) and/or depressed, and the manager is shown smoking and counting money. The male patrons are for the most part portrayed as lecherous buffoons. Kikue, our protagonist, is financially forced to work as a geisha as a way of keeping her younger sister out of the profession; her father is a drunk. The older geisha works to support her hateful son.
Two other silent Naruse films I watched featured young women who were not geishas, but who were still forced to work in blue collar jobs and suffered the contempt of others because of it. Street Without End I particularly liked for its contrast between working class people in Tokyo and the more traditional, snobby, rules-bound rich. Though it was full of the standard “pre-code”-type cliches (I kept thinking of early Joan Crawford movies where the tough chick is picked on by her boyfriend/husband’s family), it was well worth watching. I liked getting a look at the waitresses, artists, and movie-makers of early 1930’s Tokyo; they gave the movie a real energy. I especially like Naruse when he goes outside his sentimental plot structures to show us the details of how people lived. The behind the scenes look at early filmmaking (following a subplot involving Sugiko’s friends) was a particular kick, and I wish there had been more of it. I did, though, find it interesting that when the heroine Sugiko “marries up” she moves from Western-style outfits into the more traditional clothing — very geisha-like. I could only see this as a commentary that marrying for class mobility is a kind of prostitution. Naruse simply gave no nods to tradition in any of the films I watched, and indeed implied that tradition was repressive for all concerned. Those who fought to retain traditional ways were in fact rather horrible.
Through all of the Naruse movies, I felt that I gained a real sense of Japan in that time period. The impression — which is quite modern, fast paced, industrial and tough — was actually very different from other Japanese films I’ve seen. They lack the contemplative, kindly, dignified sensibility of the silent Ozu films, which also often explore modern family life. Naruse takes a more distant, setting-oriented stance, making the films less intimate than Ozu’s, but in some ways more interesting in terms of the social backdrop. The settings in Naruse included both the very urban (Tokyo) and the small town seafront. Every-Night Dreams has many long shots of docks, ships, the sea, as well as factories and vacant lots. It felt quite hardscrabble. The sailors in the bars looked every bit like real sailors. The docks looked like a lonely place for a geisha to smoke a cigarette. A kid looked isolated sitting on top of a large concrete pipe; the same kind of pipe appears among flowers in the only silent Naruse comedy, Flunky, Work Hard. In contrast, the film Street without End showed crowded, busy, sign-strewn Tokyo streets in great detail and in a lingering way. People are busy doing things (running, fighting, bustling around, throwing things, even robbing people), while behind them cars, trains, and buses threaten and take people away. (Every Naruse I watched included someone being hit by a car or train — a hokey device, but also a nod to the suddenly overwhelming presence of vehicles.) Naruse’s Tokyo felt quite contemporary, actually, like Scorcese showing the streets of New York. The environment of the films imparted a realistic, almost documentary sensibility.
(I ought to slip in that Naruse’s first short film, Flunky, Work Hard, was the only film of his that was a family comedy with a male protagonist. It reminded me of an early Ozu film, except actually funnier. The shlubby insurance agent who’ll do anything to sell a policy was goofy and endearing. Being Naruse, it has its melodramatic twist, but the emotion remains true. It made me wonder why his studio so consistently directed him toward women-oriented films.)
Despite the melodrama and plot devices of the Naruse films, I found myself drawn in, even hooked. Perhaps because I’m female, I’m not willing to dismiss them as women’s films, which they actually were. Films aimed toward working women, whether made in Japan or America, shouldn’t be rejected, ignored, or demeaned because of that. I like seeing these nice, upbeat, struggling women sorting out their roles, working out their place between old and new society. The focus on women allowed directors of the period to indulge in emotional content and close character development that they might otherwise have had to avoid. (Gangster films were other big thing in the late 20’s and early 30’s. In fact, Ozu did some gangster films and they just aren’t up to his other work.) At least in these films the women aren’t just passive sidepieces or nagging shrews. And I also sympathized with some of Naruse’s male characters who are trying and usually failing to make money. Sure, there’s a soap opera quality to his films at times (as there are in many American “women’s films” of the era), but that’s just plot. Every existing silent film of Naruse’s has moments that are genuinely touching, funny, weird, and sad. The films are also beautifully shot. I’m going to seek out as much Naruse as I can find.
The Naruse films I watched are all included in Criterion’s terrific box set Silent Naruse as part of their Eclipse Series. What would we do without Criterion to restore and distribute great foreign films?