Category Archives: Japanese film

Children of the Beehive Hiroshima

Children of the Beehive

Shimizu's haunting film about traveling war orphans

children-of-the-beehiveI recently watched Children of the Beehive, a haunting post-World War II film by one of my favorite directors, Hiroshi Shimizu.  Although it’s made in 1948, and beyond the usual scope of my site, I love it so much and it’s so hard to find that I feel I should discuss it here.  It has an artistic and historic value that I hope raises it from obscurity.

Children of the Beehive is about a band of orphans who follow a repatriated World War II soldier who is jobless himself and has no family.  Like many other Shimizu films, it’s set on the road, on a journey where rootless people meet others and attempt to establish some tentative connection.  These orphans are not cute victim-sorts, at least not obviously.  Sometimes they come across as clever thieves.  Mostly, though, they are just ordinary kids who have noplace to goShimizu Children of the Beehive because their parents have died in the course of the war.  They wander to survive.  When the soldier meets them, they’re working for a one-legged thief who, like everyone else, is just trying to get by.  (This movie has no villains.)  They end up following the soldier who goes from place to place taking on fieldwork; the boys begin to grasp the benefits of labor.  Although reluctant at first, the soldier also teaches them to become better people by helping them to understand others, and he becomes committed to helping them get an education.  (When a group of boys runs away from them, one of the orphans calls the group “weak.”  The soldier explains that they’re not weak, they’re afraid, and it’s up to the boys to adopt the right approach.)  In the course of the film, the soldier also becomes more generous and less isolated (and even gives up smoking!), meaning that he has gained something from the boys.  And they meet a young woman along the way, someone else who has noplace to go and is trying to find a safe spot.  This is the story.

The actual meaning of the film arises slowly as we come to know the children and, like the soldier, develop compassion for them.  Not pity.  The film pivots upon a childrenofbeehive stairs goodtragedy that is truly poignant, slowly and subtly developed.  This makes it all the more troubling.

Like other Shimizu films, the setting here is extremely important, as we go to parts of Japan that aren’t usually shown in films.  We bump along the road in trucks and we walk. The movie is in constant motion.  Many of the film’s shots are from distances — across bridges, up and down long flights of stairs, down roads to the horizon — and are quite beautiful.  (Even with my bad print, I could tell that at one time, they must have been gorgeous.)  The towns they visit are identified, giving it a bit of travelogue quality, similar to Shimizu’s Mr. Thank You.  The film’s most unforgettable scene, for me, is set in the ruins of Hiroshima.  There is no big deal made of this.  No dramatic dialogue — no direct discussion of what happened there.  The strongest statement, aside from the destruction itself, is a shot of a boy who walks around with his arms outstretched in the shape of a cross, in front of crumbling monuments that evoke headstones. Ultimately, a scene develops between one of the boys and the young woman, and it becomes an allegory for what took place among these beautiful ruins.  I’ll never forget this scene.

Although this isn’t all that important, I was impressed that the young woman (Natsuke Masako) is not wearing make-up and isn’t beautiful; she is in baggy pants for nearly all of the film. She isn’t played for sexual attractiveness (though there’s achildrenofbeehive woman sense, a hope, that maybe she and the soldier will stay together, even though they rarely have a direct conversation).  She’s a fellow traveler who serves, through no real effort on her part, as a mother figure.  (We certainly don’t see her adopting the maternal role in any subservient way; it’s just something that happens.)

The film on its own is beautiful and moving.  Beyond that, though, is the fact that the orphans are actually played by war orphans, children that Shimizu took in, adding another element of realism.  Like the soldier, Shimizu helped them to survive and provided them with schooling.  I actually didn’t know this when I watched the film.  Now that I know it, I find it even more profound.  The children are good actors, too, natural and at ease with the camera.  When the children reveal glimpses of their stories, I now wonder if they were true.childrenofbeehive trees

Children of the Beehive is, sadly, extremely difficult to find.  I found a copy from an ebay seller (I call him “my source,” ha) and it has English subtitles.  I hope that Criterion will include this if it releases a second Shimizu box set.  Apparently, his films are just hard sells, probably because they are rather slowly paced, have no samurai, and are too subtle for most modern audiences.  It’s such a shame.

mr thank you musicians

Yes, please, Hiroshi Shimizu

4 amazing films: Mr. Thank You, Japanese Girls at the Harbor, The Masseurs and a Woman, & Ornamental Hairpin

mr thank you musiciansI bought Criterion Collection’s Hiroshi Shimizu box set as a lark, knowing nothing of what I would find.  I ended up completely drawn in to the point where I had to search out as many Shimizu films as possible.  Needing films with subtitles, I found this to be far more challenging than I expected. (Brief rant: It’s really frustrating that even the finest old Japanese films are nearly impossible to find in the States, with the exception of Kurosawa or Ozu.  It goes to show just how Euro-centric we remain.  I did manage to find some Shimizu through an e-bay seller’s off-site list of bootlegs which he translated.  That’s it!)  I’m grateful that Criterion took the risk to make their fine editions available in the Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu set.  His colleague, the great filmmaker Kenji Mizoguchi, once said, “People like me and Ozu get films made by hard work, but Shimizu is a genius….”  I understand why he felt this way.mr thank you driver

I imagine that Shimizu’s films might be a challenge for some viewers, as they seem at first to be rather mild and slowly paced.  Not only are they, well, from Japan, but they don’t feature samurai and not quite as warm and family oriented as work by the more popular Yasujiro Ozu.  Shimizu’s films move like poems or like imagistic short stories.  While they have story lines, the focus is on the image and on a string of loosely linked characters.  There’s an episodic quality that I very much like, as Shimizu peeks in on various groups with the sum of it all not readily apparent. Yet in all of his films there is a sense of unity that becomes clear at the end.  Shimizu was a practicing Buddhist and there is a kind of peaceful, evolving, accepting concentration to his work.  Let me explain by delving into my favorite of four Shimizu’s in Criterion’s set, the early talkie from 1936, Mr. Thank You.
mr thank you landscape

Mr. Thank You is mostly set on a small bus that takes people through some isolated mountain communities.  People come onto the bus; people leave the bus — but a few people stay, and they provide the center of the story.  The bus is driven by a good looking, friendly, generous, and perceptive young bus driver who is known by people throughout the towns as “Mr. Thank You” for his tendency to call out “thank you” to those walking on the street.  Various stories are united by the thread of giving and taking, of stinginess and generosity.  The people who come and go provide a microcosm of people who lived in Japan in this period — everyone from wandering minstrels to sophisticated Westernized women to an old doctor and, most importantly, a mother who has sold her daughter and is taking her to work in (we assume) a geisha house.  Incidents on the bus reveal the changing status of women, the state of mr thank you road 2economy (a deep depression), the onslaught of modern vehicles (as they rush past those who still walk), the lack of available men, the decline of rural life, and other situations common in this period across the world.  But you don’t really think about all that as you’re watching the movie.  It’s hardly ponderous; Shimizu has such a light, witty touch that you might just think you’re going on a pleasant bus ride.

mr thank you geishaAnd the ride really is enjoyable.  On one level, Mr. Thank You works as a travelogue — I saw parts of Japan on the ride that I’ve never seen in other movies.  Even in black and white, it was quite lovely as the bus wound around water and through tunnels and nearly toppled down mountainous drop-offs.  There are sweeping views of fields and flowers and sensuous paths.  The quaintness of ordinary people walking in groups down the street had a real sweetness.  (This same look at people walking on rural roads comes up in another Shimizu film in the box set, The Masseurs and a Woman.)   It felt like a final glimpse at a vanishing world.  It had a certain documentary quality.  All of the people did seem to represent types, and since we see them so briefly, we know them only as we might know that person we see every day on the subway.  This doesn’t mean that we can’t conjecture quite a lot about their lives, though.

mr thank you shimizuWe do come to know more about our core characters as the ride goes on.  It becomes clear that among all the light-hearted talk is a weighty situation.  The pomegranate crop is so good that there is no money to be made.  People can’t survive.  The girl being sold as a geisha is withdrawn — nearly mute — and very unworldly.  She has absolutely no idea whatsoever about life in the city.  She has never heard a popular song (which is revealed in a funny scene in which girls on the road greet the bus driver and ask him to bring them back a recording as if it’s the most precious thing in the world).  She is embarrassed to speak and humiliated by her situation.  Her mother seems to accept it as a practical situation and only rarely reveals that it causes her grief. People on the bus discuss how commonly girls are sold, because there are too many of them and no way to feed them.  It’s chilling.  A doctor remarks that he doesn’t know whether he should congratulate parents on a birth or offer condolences.  In many little ways the real conditions of poverty are revealed, and yet there is no great drama over it.  It’s simply a fact, andmr thank you records people try to get by, and someone makes a joke or falls asleep.  Only the bus driver as he glimpses in the rear view mirror seems to have an understanding of the wider picture, much as the director himself might feel.

While our driver Mr. Thank You embodies the virtues of kindness and politeness, it is the sassy young woman in Western dress who consistently does the right thing.  While Mr. Thank You drives along, she-who-has-no-name watches the others, cracking jokes, mouthing off, and passing around a flask.  She is a wanderer; she would be an entertainer if she could sing, she says.  We don’t hear her tale of woemr thank you michiko kuwano (as is so often revealed in early Japanese films); for all we know, she has no woe.   Aside from being wistful, and unsuccessfully flirting with the driver, she seems to have made peace with her situation.  (There is one great moment, though, when one of the passengers says that no matter how bad the girls have it, the boys have it rough.  And she stares at him.  For a long time.)  And it is she who finds the solution to the potential-geisha’s problems.  She breezes in, she breezes out, and it’s the last we see of her.  She is played by an actress named Michiko Kuwano who unfortunately died young, and I loved her in this.

Oh, and Mr. Thank You tosses in a number of pop culture references, as with this little joke about the changes in films (and how slow they are to be discovered in the mountains): mr thank you talkies

Traveling on: not all of Shimizu’s films are as upbeat as Mr. Thank You.  Japanese Girls at the Harbor is an odd gothic melodrama about a murderous schoolgirl who comes to lead a life of disgrace.  This is a silent film from 1933, and one of the things I liked most about it was the way the intertitles sometimes entwine with the visuals to create a fable effect.  So there will be the beginning of a sentence — beautiful shot — middle of sentence — another cool shot — and end of sentence japanese girls at the harbor(moving on into the story), as if the film is truly being narrated by a knowing and rather kindly voice.  Though this is a story that might lend itself to all manner of narrator judgment (after all, our heroine shoots someone, becomes a prostitute, and seduces her best friend’s husband), the narration seems generous.  The errant schoolgirl punishes only herself; there is no call for retribution upon her.  (This is, in fact, rather puzzling.  Although she goes into hiding for awhile, she does reappear in her home town and even briefly helps the woman she shot.  Yet there’s no apparent fear of arrest, and no one really seems to mind much that she actually shot this flirty Western-dressing interloper in the first place.)  Nor is society taken to task for what happens to any of the women.  There are really few American silents that were as open-minded about its female transgressors — if it wasn’t her fault, it had to be someone else’s.  It was refreshing to have the moral stance off the board; it meant I could japanese girls at the harborcome to my own conclusions about the characters.  This was a trait I enjoyed in all four of the Shimizu films that I saw.  And, in fact, the only person I actually disliked in the film was Henry, the charming guy that all the girls wanted.  It in fact seemed quite telling that there were apparently no other appealing guys in all of Japan, given the way these three women fought over him.

japanese girls umbrellasAll of this aside, what I most appreciated about this film was its visuals. Frame by frame, there were simply stunning shots.  Shimizu uses several unusual devices, as when some people leave a scene by simply dissolving and disappearing, or when a change in location can be indicated by one woman at her window, while her friend, miles away, is shown in another.  People are often framed by doors and windows, doors opening and closing.

There was a sweetness to its visual portrayal of the two girls who become women, a real affection toward them and their friendship.  I felt it captured something fleeting and true about close female friendships, especially in adolescence.  This is treated in a delicate, poetic manner, and to me these scenes are the best parts of the film.  After the girl commits her crime, the film shifts into a different phase.  Japanese Girls at the HarborThen it becomes the story of a geisha, one seen often in the Shochiku films of the period, treated in varying ways by Shimizu, Ozu, and Naruse, and probably others whose work is lost.  Because we’re gotten to know our fallen heroine, there is real poignancy to her grief and her attempts to carry on.  This is not at all heavy handed; it’s done quite beautifully as in a scene where she smiles and says the right geisha things, only to have it come apart in a simple glance away.  She switches on her role; she switches it off, all in the space of a second.  There’s something very true Japanese Girls at the Harborin that; who hasn’t done it?  There is no need for dialogue or histrionics to get across the woman’s pain.  The actress Michiko Oikawa is wonderful — Sunako could be dismissive and cruel, but the actress made me sympathize with her by the way she reveals how she is suffering underneath it all.  Oikawa is also not a traditionally pretty actress; she has an unusual face, a ferocious face, and that made her interesting to watch.  She is not a victim and she is not demure.  Neither is she particularly evil.  She is passionate about her emotions.

This film, which has a pretty trite plotline, is carried by Oikawa’s Sunako and by some quirky elements.  I am a huge fan of the actor Tatsuo Saito.  Usually he plays sympathetic dad-types or lovably cranky professors; here he follows Sunako while wearing a beret and toting painting canvases.  He literally washes her underwear Japanese Girls at the Harborwhile she supports the household.  He’s not especially likable, though.  He’s in fact just rather…strange, as much as I felt for him.  I always find this actor funny, a bit goofy and out of place. Ozu played on that quality quite poignantly when using Saito in his films.  Here he’s funny in a peculiar way, as if the actor is laughing at his own character, who is all angles and puzzlement and head tilts.  He is also featured in some of the film’s best moments, as when he and a friend attempt to sell art on the street, talking about the lack of jobs as people pass quickly by, not looking; “There’s a lot of people in the world,” he says (shot of feet passing at their eye level) “too many people.” That this fellow takes matters into his own hands at a certain point provided an interesting plot twist.  His presence also adds a certain bohemian element into what would be an otherwise standard working girl scenario, as he japanese girls saitohides the dirty laundry (literally) and has his paintings thrown at him.  Shimizu is so wonderful at coming up with these small odd touches that might seem unimportant, but that actually make the film worth watching.  (And that painting-toss scene actually uses a hallway, a door, and a long shot to great comedic effect while giving the scene a kind of balanced unity.  It’s so good!)

It’s strange how little Shimizu is known.  He was big in his day, directing 160 movies.  Japanese Girls at the Harbor actually uses some motifs that are practically goth (murderous schoolgirls in uniform and all).  I’ve seen plenty of anime films that might as well be direct lifts.  Unfortunately, many of the people who might like this movie would probably not be caught dead watching a silent film.    It’s a shame, because it’s terrific.

Ornamental Hairpin and The Masseurs and a Woman were the two other films in this box set.  I loved Ornamental Hairpin, but as it’s made in 1941, it just slips beyond the purview of this blog.  It’s a sweet, sad little movie with a very ornamental hairpin poetry ornamental hairpin 3 sympathetic heroine.  Like Mr. Thank You, it brings together a disparate group of random people and then disperses them.  This film again includes Tatsuo Saito and another actor who appeared in many Ozu films, Chishu Ryu.  As with the other films, it has beautiful cinematography and features elements of the natural world.  And it has a similar setting to the one he uses in the film The Masseurs and a Woman, with both films using a vacation retreat on the Izu Peninsula to bring everyone together.

Both The Masseurs and a Woman (1938) and Mr. Thank You refer to the economic depression and the difficulty of men finding work, with the masseurs concerned that they will lose their jobs to women.  Although The Masseurs and a Woman (1938) was my least favorite in the set, it was still fun to watch and allowed 000f8032_mediumShimizu to practice techniques that he later used more effectively in Ornamental Hairpin.  (A long winding bridge and an adorably obnoxious child are used similarly in both.) The Masseurs is primarily of interest because it features blind people — the very sufficient and competent masseurs.  They can out walk and out work all of the other travelers in the movie, including two young groups of hikers.  Although there are some jokes at their expense, the film takes them seriously for the most part, and one masseur is the hero of the story.  This masseur, Toku, is a kind of all-seeing eye who picks up on all kinds of details that sighted people miss, and his ultimate masseurs and a womanvulnerability is touching.  Like Mr. Thank You, this is an upbeat little movie, and its good humor nearly masks its statements about the self-sufficiency of the supposedly handicapped.

I’m so glad that I came across this box set.  These are wonderful films. (Personally, I like his work more than I like the more popular Ozu’s, in part because the women are more complex.)  It would be great to see more Shimizu films released in the West, but I’m not holding my breath.  A number of writers have conjectured that Shimizu films don’t sell in Japan or the West, and we’ll probably never see more.  I hope that isn’t so.  For now, I’ll watch bootleg versions of the other films and wait.  Everyone who hasn’t seen Shimizu should check out this reasonably priced set Travels With Hiroshi Shimizu in Criterion’s Eclipse series.masseurs and a woman

 

 

 

Every-Night Dreams Naruse

Silent Naruse – geishas in desperate straits

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 apart from you geishas2 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.)

mikio_naruseFor 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 streetwithoutend geisha wifefamilies.  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 jstreetwithoutend couplemountainoblessness 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 Tatsuo SaitoAmerican 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 apart from you boy 2compassionate 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 apart from you hairlaughs 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 flunky work hard kidsothers; 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 streetwithoutend actress mirror 2flow 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 apart teahouse 2.jpgsurroundings.  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. apart from you jerkThe 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 andstreetwithoutend smile 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 apart dancing jerk 3did, 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 streetwithoutend bridge factorymodern, 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 apart husband seathe 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 streetwithoutend moviethe 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.)

streetwithoutend narusestreetwithoutend women on street

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 apart from you  manwomanwomen 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.every night dreams baseball

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?

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