Atypically comic for Naruse, Traveling Actors follows an itinerant kabuki troupe, focusing on two actors who play a horse—the older and more experienced in charge of the front legs, the younger relegated to the rear—but whose jobs are threatened when a real animal is hired to play the part. Naruse called this one of his personal favorites, saying “the actor who plays the front legs of the horse . . . sees his role as a serious artform. However, the harder he tries to succeed, the funnier things get for the audience. That’s the kind of comedy I wanted to make." —UC Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive
Mikio Naruse is one of the least known of Japan’s early master directors, both in the West and in Japan, yet he created some of the most moving, darkly beautiful works in Japanese cinema. Like Kenji Mizoguchi, Naruse showed an uncanny understanding for the psychology of women. Like Yasujiro Ozu, he preferred subtle shifts of character over broad strokes of plot. Unlike either of these early greats, however, Naruse’s vision of humanity was much darker and more clinical. He stripped all vestiges of hope or acceptance from his films, what remains is only a willful struggle to endure. His relentlessly negative view of human existence has resulted in Naruse’s often being labeled a nihilist.
Born in Tokyo, in 1905, Naruse was the youngest of three sons of a desperately poor embroiderer. Although he excelled in elementary school, his family could not afford to further his education. He was instead enrolled in a two-year technical school. There, he spent virtually all of his free time… read more
When during a drinking session the great character actor Fujiwara Kamatari laments the audience's neglect to his contributions to the kabuki play he's part of (as the front end of a pantomime horse, and so dedicated to his art that he's developed equine characteristics), he might as well have been referring to how supporting actors are generally received in his actual profession. After all, while running through movie history like the veins in a granite cliff, the careers of such performers are known to begin and end without any fanfare. Fujiwara gets a rare opportunity to shine, however, as the lead in this 'geidomono' or 'traditional arts' project, a refuge of sorts at the time for filmmakers who wanted to avoid making propagandistic national policy films (Mizoguchi also made a few of these during this period). But the ostensibly benign and playful Traveling Actors still managed to draw the ire of the authorities, and was severely cut as a result—perhaps the motif of the horse's 'act' ended up inviting a few ideologically allegorical readings, yet the relatively muted moment in which the actors watch a draftee heading off to war managed to survive. Largely shot on location (for someone who preferred the studio, it's remarkable how many Naruse films are shot as such), it still remained one of Naruse's favorites and happens to be among his better films of the decade.
A change of pace for the prolific Naruse, this is an out-and-out comedy and one of his personal favourites. Similar to Ozu's Floating Weeds in that it features a touring theatrical troupe, the story focuses on the bickering brothers who play the pantomime horse. An unfortunate accident in which the horse's head is crushed leads to them being replaced by a real horse. Fujiwara excels as the front legs of the horse....