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Mikio Naruse

September 23, 2009

Wife! Be Like a Rose!, 1935

wife_rose.gifIn Nippon Modern: Japanese Cinema of the 1920s and 1930s, Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano cites the contradictory delineation between urban and provincial life in Mikio Naruse's Wife! Be Like a Rose! as an example of interwar Japan's amorphously defined domestic and social spaces that arose from society's ambivalence towards the rapid pace of modernization in the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake. In Naruse's film, this nostalgia for a distant, idealized hometown is embodied by Hirao Village, where the estranged father, Shunsaku (Sadao Maruyama) has gone to prospect for gold in the mountains (a paradoxical emigration from Tokyo that is antithetical to the idea of moving to the city to seek one's fortune). Having settled into a new life with a former geisha named Oyuki (Yuriko Hanabusa) and their children, Shizuko (Setsuko Horikoshi) and Kenichi (Kaoru Ito), Shunsaku's new life reflects a return to a more traditional way of life even as it represents a rejection of another tradition - his marriage to Etsuko (Tomoko Ito) who, along with his now grown daughter, Kimiko (Sachiko Chiba), were left behind.

In turn, the seeming modernity of Tokyo with its Western-dressed workers and bustling streets (made all the more kinetic by the establishing shot of offices closing at the end of the work day) is contradicted by Etsuko's anxiety over being asked to act as a go-between for a former student in Shunsaku's absence. Channeling her loneliness and heartbreak through poetry, Etsuko ostensibly plays the role of the devoted, long suffering wife waiting for her husband to return - a reunion that seems at hand when Kimiko decides to go to Hirao village to fetch her father in order to attend to family obligations. However, inasmuch as Shunsaku's trips between Tokyo and Hirao Village reflects what Wada-Marciano describes as the cultural negotiation of space, the separation also reinforces Naruse's familiar themes of perpetual disappointment, stubbornness, and perseverance that would resurface throughout his body of work. For Etsuko, the poems express a romanticized longing for the absent Shunsaku, an image that evaporates when the idealization converges with the reality. For Oyuki, a life of sacrifice and shame are the price of her devotion to the feckless Shunsaku. For Kimiko, the desire to reunite her family is undermined by her parents' self-absorption. In this respect, Naruse's social observation transcends the contemporaneity of interwar society and converges towards a broader commentary on the human condition, where the quest is elusive and grace lies in the longing.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 23, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Mikio Naruse

May 26, 2008

Flowing, 1956

flowing.gifAdapted from the novel by postwar author Aya Koda (the daughter of Meiji-era novelist Koda Rohan) and filmed in the same year as the banning of prostitution in Japan, Mikio Naruse's Flowing is something of a corollary to Kenji Mizoguchi's Street of Shame, a complex and richly textured panorama capturing a transforming way of life within a community of women whose increasingly uncertain livelihood depended on the patronage of men. This idea of place as transitional station is suggested in the establishing shots of a river, then a pedestrian bridge that is subsequently reinforced in the intersecting image of disgruntled junior geisha, Namie leaving her place of employment, the Tsuta House in Tokyo's geisha district (for what would turn out to be a permanent departure), as a middle-aged widow, Rika (Kinuyo Tanaka) arrives at the same location to apply for the job as a housemaid - the sense of a changing, but steady dynamic created by their coincidental role reversal as resident and outsider. Despite running a highly respected establishment, owner and senior geisha Otsuta (Isuzu Yamada) is facing hard times, having fallen into debt to her older sister, Otoyo (Natsuko Kahara), a money lender who took on the mortgage of the house in order to settle the debt of Otsuta's wayward lover. With fewer and fewer geishas under her management (including a fellow middle-aged geisha and neighbor, Someka (Haruko Sugimura) who has turned to her to arrange bookings), her daughter Katsuyo (Hideko Takamine) choosing not to follow in her mother's footstep in favor of finding employment outside of the industry, her younger sister Yoneko (Chieko Nakakita) moving back home with her daughter Fujiko after being spurned by her lover (Daisuke Katô), Namie's boorish uncle (Seiji Miyaguchi) threatening to sully the house's reputation when she refuses to pay him Namie's disputed back wages, and Otoya increasingly interfering in her affairs by arranging meetings with prospective clients without her consent, Otoyo is forced to turn to her former colleague, now a society matron, Mizuno, for assistance in restructuring the business that would allow Tsuta House to continue its operation (and perhaps, leave a legacy for young Fujiko) - an alliance that would also have wide-reaching consequences for the household. Similar to Late Chrysanthemums, transactions serve as a surrogate for the women's emotional interdependency: Mizuno's brokered financial assistance from Otsuta's former patron; the medical expense money offered by Yoneko's former lover when Fujiko falls ill; Someka's dispute over earnings that surfaces after separating from her younger lover. Like the assorted treats that Rika buys on a whim for her surrogate family, the enduring parting image of Otsuta and Someka's shamisen performance before their respectful apprentices - and the entire household - becomes a delicate savoring of the present, a bittersweet taste of transitory bliss.

Posted by acquarello on May 26, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Mikio Naruse