The Review/Short Read/

Sympathy for Mr. Sadness: In Praise of Mikio Naruse

The fourth master of classic Japanese cinema had a longer road to renown

Mikio Naruse on set

by James Quandt
Jul 30, 2018

The sixth of several profiles of the great Japanese directors spotlighted in this season’s flagship TIFF Cinematheque programme Summer in Japan.

Long considered the fourth master of the golden age of Japanese cinema, the equal of Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Akira Kurosawa, Mikio Naruse has always been a connoisseur’s choice: his champions, legion in France and growing in force here, have always had to work a little harder to argue his greatness to an audience seemingly sold on the idea that anything less than the Big Three is second echelon. Indeed, much English writing on Naruse has focused on the reasons for his relatively unknown status outside of Japan, and on the disparity between his evident greatness and his international obscurity. Is it his pessimism and sense of resignation (at the Toho studio his nickname was “Yaruse Nakio,” which translates roughly as “Mr. Sadness”), his focus on the domestic and quotidian worlds (especially those of women), his materialist emphasis on economic hardship and the making of money, or his transparent style, void of telltale trademarks, that has kept Naruse from deserved renown?

Phillip Lopate, in his beautiful essay “A Taste for Naruse,” offers perhaps the most compelling answer to these questions. “Naruse’s forlorn flavour of existence can become addictive,” he writes. “In order to acquire the taste, however … the viewer may need to surrender his or her speeding mental processes to a far less hurried, subtler movement. The effort pays off: if Naruse’s films are invariably about disappointment, he himself does not disappoint — no more than does Chekhov, an artist he greatly resembles in stimulating our appetite for larger and more bitter doses of truth.”

Masayuki Mori and Hideko Takamine in Floating Clouds

The parallels between Naruse’s and Ozu’s careers have been frequently remarked; indeed, Naruse left the Shochiku studio after being told that they did not need a second Ozu. Both directors started in the silent era, influenced by American cinema and working in a variety of genres (social satire, crime films, slapstick comedies and melodramas) whose tone and approach did not portend their respective later styles. Like Ozu, after this spate of experimentation with diverse genres Naruse established a set of themes and variations which he returned to again and again, thematic markers that are reflected (again like Ozu!) in the sometimes bewildering similarity of his titles. (Be sure to get your Clouds straight: Floating or Drifting, Scattered or Summer.) Naruse’s repeated use of certain actors, most notably Kinuyo Tanaka, Setsuko Hara, Ken Uehara, and Hideko Takamine — who starred in two of his masterpieces, Floating Clouds and When a Woman Ascends the Stairs — further emphasized this Ozu-like sense of reiteration.

Despite all these correspondences, however, the two directors diverged greatly in style and vision. Early privation marked Naruse for life, and many of his films focus on the working class, on need and struggle; even in the comparatively well-off world of his late domestic dramas, money concerns frequently impinge. It sometimes seems that it is this materialism (in several senses of that word), a kind of grubby acknowledgement of the fact of money’s importance, that has stanched admiration for Naruse among those who prefer their Japanese cinema cosmic, sublime, transcendental, serene, refined. Endlessly resonant in their domestic circumscription, stippled with mundane frustration and tawdry attention to petty economics, Naruse’s films could never be read, as Ozu’s often are, as transcendental: the director’s aging, obsolete geishas, trapped, grasping housewives, and struggling widows are blunt in their appraisal of their chances in a precarious world.

Hideko Takamine (left) in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs

Because so many of Naruse’s films centre on women who are trapped in some way (by economic need, a relationship with a feckless or abusive man, a family that takes from them but grants them little love and less freedom), they have also often been compared to Mizoguchi’s. As with Ozu, the comparison is telling but ultimately beside the point, so far away from Mizoguchi’s universe of cosmic suffering, remorse and catharsis is Naruse’s world of tragically aware but persevering victims and his unsentimental, even mordant tone. Naruse scholar Catherine Russell has argued that Naruse’s depiction of Japanese women and femininity derived substantially from his encounter with the stories and novels of Fumiko Hayashi, six of which he adapted into films (including Floating Clouds). Hayashi’s background of poverty, her astringent tone and unsentimental realism surely found rapport with the director; Russell even suggests that Hayashi so influenced Naruse that even those of his films in the ’50s and ’60s not based on her work were nevertheless marked by her vision.

Setsuko Hara in Naruse's Sound of the Mountain

As with any great artist, Naruse has been subject to revisionism as his films have begun to circulate more widely outside Japan, and some clichéd and commonplace views of his work are now being contested. The desolation which so many find in his later work has been recast as a refusal of false catharsis, and, as is also the case with Ozu, the oft-ignored humour in his films is now increasingly emphasized. Most notably, Naruse’s supposed lack of a distinctive visual style has been contested by critics and scholars such as Alexander Jacoby (who employs Murnau as a point of reference for Naruse’s symbolic use of place and setting), Bernard Eisenschitz (who compares the “exuberant expressivity” of the camerawork in Naruse’s early films to Hitchcock and some of the late films to Antonioni), and veteran Japanese historian Shigehiko Hasumi, who has written exquisitely about Naruse’s unique and revealing use of space and finds in the director’s deployment of light and shadow an echo of Josef von Sternberg. The final repudiation of Naruse’s stylistic conservatism or transparency perhaps lies in the director’s proposal to Hideko Takamine near the end of his life that they make a film with no sets or exteriors, only neutral backgrounds, so that they could concentrate on the nuances of expression.

It was Kurosawa (who told associates that Naruse was his favourite director) who long ago discerned the invisible artistry, the hidden complexity of Naruse’s style when he compared his cinema to “a deep river with a quiet surface disguising a fast-raging current underneath.” Though the simile could stand for most of Naruse’s films — surface calm restraining emotional roil — Kurosawa had a formal technique in mind: the inconspicuous way Naruse had of cutting so that complex montage took on the quality of a long take. Naruse’s precise placement of bodies in space, his use of ambiguous or oblique glances to replace dialogue, and his disciplined editing, so masterfully efficient that variant shots have a seismic effect, may in the end seem less a style than an approach, but Naruse’s lack of stylistic affectation, like his forthright vision of human nature, has a bracing clarity.

This article was adapted from a longer essay for TIFF Cinematheque’s Mikio Naruse retrospective in Fall 2005.