The large questions are tough to answer. Cinema as a medium has two conflicting truisms; it is the most realistic presentation of the so-called human condition, but the most unrealistic representation of the space that engenders.
Or is the opposite true?
Is classicism the answer to this problem? Is the melodrama the eternal form of cinematic “purity”?
By definition melodrama must attain realism in a form lacking reality. Ozu forsook melodrama in his move to sound. Mizoguchi amped it into overdrive. Naruse excelled, but was it specifically because his career was able to slide in-and-out of mediocrity? The large questions…
The overall arc of As a Wife, as a Woman is simple. In Naruse’s sixties period he became an experimental filmmaker. He combined narrative elements of his earliest films, with narrative elements of his largest successes, took the actors he knew best and asked them to reinvent the melodrama. In As a Wife, As a Woman Naruse takes No Blood Relation and reforms it with Floating Clouds. What do we have?
Naruse understands he’s making a film about a people that never experience what these characters experience. The narrative is meaningless. What Naruse infuses the film with is moments. Hideko Takamine’s crying face alone provides the film its punch; the surrounding events don’t matter. Takamine is in the film specifically because she cries like no other person ever captured.
Is cinema just that silent moment, in a dark room, watching a barely visible face pour our its heart without saying a word?
I haven´t seen “No Blood Relation” yet, but I can definitely see the link between “As a Wife, as a Woman” and “Floating Clouds”. In fact I think that in “Floating Clouds” he mishandled the melodrama, the ending seemed a bit excessive and forced in that regard, while “As a Wife,..” is arguably the more balanced and coherent film. But if we talk about cinematic “purity”, in terms of melodrama the three Naruse films that instantly come to my mind are “The Sound of the Mountain”, “Yearning” and “Flowing”. The constant feel of dolorourness resulting from the protagonists´ entrapment and their futile attempts to find a way out pervade these films and cause a feeling of solicitousness in the spectator that becomes almost unbearable toward the end (especially in “Yearning” which has one of the most heart-wrenching ending sequences that I´ve seen).
Have you seen Morning’s Tree-lined Street? Because the final section of Yearning is based on the narrative arc of that film.
When I talk of purity that’s sort of what I’m talking about. Naruse reuses his older works and reinvents their context and usage for a modern culture. He could do it so blatantly because his older films weren’t still being shown at that time, but today the similarities are striking.
He’s reducing narrative in a manner that Ozu never considered (the more often cited in terms of so-called ‘purity’). Ozu just deleted the elements, or introduced them so flippantly that they seemed meaningless, even when they become the central aspect of the film. In Naruse they are essentially devalued because of their heritage elsewhere. What becomes important is the interplay of actors creating this world that becomes real, not through narrative, which is implicitly unreal, but through emotion, which is undeniable.
The melodrama works specifically for this purpose, because the narrative determines little in success of the overall work. Melodramas live and die in their explication of emotion. Hence the greatest melodramas being argued as the purest films.
Or that’s my reasoning anyway…
I haven´t seen that one either, in fact I still know little of Naruse´s earlier work and have already been considering to order Criterion´s “Silent Naruse” set at some point. Not sure I quite understand the concept of purity in terms of reusing his older work which you refer to, though perhaps I really need to see those earlier films first to make a comparision.
When I think of cinematic purity, I consider a paring down of superfluous structural elements and the absence of ornamental flourishes which do not add anything constructive to the unity of form (which is maybe what Falderal means by “reducing narrative”?), which are the kinds of things Ozu and Bresson excelled at.
I’m not sure how this ties in with melodrama because from what I understand of it, melodrama is more concerned with stereotypical characterisation and manipulation of base emotions rather than the subtlety of expression in aesthetic form appropriating the way in which we symbolically perceive the world and appreciate the poetic, the ineffable.
Cinema as a medium has two conflicting truisms; it is the most realistic presentation of the so-called human condition, but the most unrealistic representation of the space that engenders.
I don’t think that any artistic “space” is inherently “realistic”, in that an artistic medium expresses the symbolic form of human feeling rather than human feeling itself. Cinema certainly has a unique potential for exploring the human condition in the art of story-telling and characterisation (or, more to the point, “moments” such as a crying face within a certain context), even if other artistic mediums can do so but with a more visceral appropriation. For instance, great pure music can subconsciously symbolise the rhythms of the human body, feelings and thoughts, and how we symbolically perceive reality, which of course has the potential to be quite profound for the listener.
The question then becomes, reframed, is emotion the most pure? Accepting that narrative is largely a contrivance that communicates transient details.
I would argue against that. It’s a reaction to conditioned phenomena.
Cinematic purity for me in particular rejects emotion, and thrives in the examination of perception.
You know at some point I was under the impression that melodrama, though now given its current connotations, used to mean the specific genre where a rich girl and poor boy get all loverly on each other, causing of course no small amount of horror and tragedy when the family finds out.
I do not know if that is accurate but it does put into question what we mean by melodrama.
Which I think we’ve discussed here before, though it’s been a long time.
Anyway, there’s that ‘purity’ again.
To the OP: Your last sentence made me think of the last shot in Vive l’amour, even though the crying face is in sharp relief. Even if you know nothing about the rest of the film there is so much there in that shot. A woman cries her heart out in a public place. A man sits nearby but doesn’t even react. When she finally stops crying, in an almost post-coital manner, she lights a cigarette. It’s the entire film in microcosm.
“Anyway, there’s that ‘purity’ again.”
“Not sure I quite understand the concept of purity in terms of reusing his older work which you refer to…”
“When I think of cinematic purity, I consider a paring down of superfluous structural elements and the absence of ornamental flourishes which do not add anything constructive to the unity of form…”
“The question then becomes, reframed, is emotion the most pure? Accepting that narrative is largely a contrivance that communicates transient details….
“Cinematic purity for me in particular rejects emotion, and thrives in the examination of perception.”
Alright, in risk of making this less about Naruse and more about a term…
What is ‘purity’? The paring down of superfluous structural elements? Alright, let’s look at that.
How did Ozu pare down? He got rid of all formal elements beyond just simply putting the camera on a tripod and recording. And he got rid of essentially all major narrative elements. Richie correctly mentions that his narratives are “the heart of anecdote,” not trues structured narratives.
How did Naruse pare down? In his late period he made narrative meaningless. Not by directly paring it down, but by realizing that the structural aspect of the medium isn’t found in storytelling, at all. It’s found in structuring the sense of transience in the emotional aspect of the characters created.
And yes, that is the aspect of his cinema that the new-wave generation rejected. Their cinema definitively focused more on ‘examinations of perception.’ So I’m not arguing this as a definitive, just as a counter to the more common definition of so-called “purity” or “transcendence.”
… by realizing that the structural aspect of the medium isn’t found in storytelling, at all. It’s found in structuring the sense of transience in the emotional aspect of the characters created.
So what you’re saying is that your idea of “melodrama as purity” involves structuring characters’ emotions as opposed to structuring narrative points? Interesting.
For the record, I haven’t seen much Naruse and it’s been awhile since I viewed one of his films, but I’m definitely interesting in viewing more now.
“So what you’re saying is that your idea of ‘melodrama as purity’ involves structuring characters’ emotions as opposed to structuring narrative points? Interesting.”
Pretty much. Or at least that’s the general aspect.
It’s something like this.
If we say Ozu, Bresson, Tarkovsky and Angelopoulos are masters of “transcendent” anti-genre cinema, with Ozu being the most stylistically conservative and Angelopoulos the most stylistically expansive. Then we could say Naruse, Ophuls, Visconti and (say…) Almodovar are the masters of “transcendent” pure-genre(melodrama) cinema, with Naruse being the most conservative and Almodovar being the most expansive.
What matters in all of their works isn’t actual narratives. They pretty much all concentrate on the same, repetitive themes. What is important in their works is their concentration on character and their relationship to larger concerns.
Naruse did this, specifically in his very late period, by relating Japan in its distant post-war landscape to the era pre-war. The world of economic expansion and waxing western wonderment with economic depression and waning western wonderment. So the axis in his work is always WWII, which is the “larger concern.” Japan’s response to that buildup period and their defeat.
Yes this interests me a great deal because I subscribe to the notion that there is no single way for a narrative to be stylised so as to elicit a poetic response, or in other words what is more important is the way an artistic medium expresses a symbolic form of human feeling in how we perceive meaningful pattern and order, whether with characters’ emotions or with more abstract techniques. That is, there’s a difference between a well-made film and a poorly-made film no matter what the style or genre or narrative.
It’d be very interesting to analyse the structure of a particular film – say, a Naruse film – with this idea of “melodrama as purity” in mind.
I’ve just seen “Ginza Cosmetics” from Naruse, and although I don’t have that much intelligent things to say about it as of now, i wanted to share a small scene from the film that reminded me of the title of this thread.
Two shadows that move towards the other, transforming into bodies that unite with each other. Young love, gazing at the stars. Wonderful.
I was actually thinking about something similar while I was watching A Legend, or Was It? re: filming love. How do you film an emotion? Mariko Kaga loves Go Kato, he’s leaving. She yells at him, tells him to die in an air raid, he says he might, she says she’ll die, too then. Pouts, walks off, won’t let him touch her. He smiles. She walks down to the river and jumps in, still angry. He pulls her back up and tells her he has to go, she tells him to go. He looks at her and grabs her hand and tells her to run with him.
Kinoshita just lets them run off screen.
Then he films them riding in a cart as he’s leaving. They talk about meaningless stuff. Then he tells her she needs to get off before she gets too far away from her home. She gets off, the camera lets him get far away and she takes off her jacket and runs with it waving over her head. Just lets her run.
Then I realized Kinoshita just put love on screen. Masterful. Of course in this particular film and in every Naruse, love is never enough, which is the entire tragedy of life.
For what it’s worth, the definition of the term “melodrama” has shifted dramatically over the years as it once was used to describe a variety of thrillers, westerns, adventure films and other movies where there was a dualistic or manichean quality to the film, and which relied more on character “types” and suspense in laying out their narratives. It was only in the seventies when the use shifted to being more associated with “women’s films” or family/romantic dramas. So the notion of melodrama during the time the films were made, would not have been suited for Ozu and Naruse in English language film thinking. What genre/definitional categories might have been in play in Japan during that time I can’t say beyond assuming they spoke of films in terms of resemblances as is the case here, but that is something different than what the term “melodrama” implies as it goes beyond simple description to something more laden with values.
Yeah I’m not claiming authority here, it’s just some personal reflections based on what little knowledge I’ve gained. For me, melodrama is like Justice Potter’s definition of pornography, maybe I can’t fully explain it, but I know it when I see it.
No complaints here, I just find it interesting that the use of the term shifted as the view of what constitutes “important” movies. During the first part of the last century the more highly regarded films were dramas of the sort Ozu and Naruse made, though of course in Hollywood terms here in the US, and whatever the equivalent might be in other countries.“Melodramas” during that era were thought of as being more connected with the generally less respected “genre” films, respected meaning in terms of dominant critical dialogue, of the sort the Cahiers crowd would later argue against. As time went on and the viewpoint of the aforementioned critics like the Cahiers group gained strength, the term “melodrama” shifted to fit the new ideas of what should be thought of a lesser films, those sorts of dramas the older critics had singled out for praise. Of course this left certain notable directors sort of caught in a false paradigm where the implicit derogation in the use of the term “melodrama” may seem to condemn their films as well given their resemblance in at least plot and setting to the formerly respected and now denigrated types of social dramas which often were accused of being less “cinematic” than many genre films which were/are now in vogue. (Crudely speaking anyway.)
I mentioned this not to criticize your use of the term melodrama, as this is how it is used now. I just wanted to point out the history of the usage as I understand it to suggest something of the tension inherent in its use as a definition in some instances as the associations it carries can have an effect on how we perceive certain films or types of films.
I can’t help but feel a sense of wonder when it comes to Naruse that I find it difficult to call it melodrama. I regard the “trap” of life in Naruse as an ideal way of expressing the simple beauty in our lives and experiencing them as pure reality. I feel a incredibly sober enlightenment and kinship with his films that it makes me rejoice in life’s lost moments and lost loves. I often think of the end of The Sound of The Mountain as films purest example of life. So within this and within his films I find a rejuvenation of life.
Are these contradictory statements? I think of his quote quite alot how life betrays you, but I can’t help but feel a promise of opportunity in saying go go and live. Okay I just felt it this is our life for all of us our time, I can’t help but be myself and live this way… His view on life is the most penetrating and crushing in all of cinema. I cant help but sit and sink into Naruse’s interiors then cry openly in his exteriors.
Is there a paradox hidden in Naruse’s melodrama? Life is pain but it is also the only pain we can get. The same with its beauty, sadness, and love??
I’ve never seen a Naruse film, but all this talk makes me feel like I ought to. Where do I start, the Eclipse set?
hulu+ has a nice selection
@Jupiter – I second David Grillo’s suggestion. Hulu+ has almost all the Eclipse selections (except Flukey, Work Hard, I think) and then a bunch of his sound films, the best of which, in my opinion, are Yearning, The Sound of the Mountain, Flowing and Scattered Clouds. Floating Clouds is highly regarded, though it didn’t do much for me.
Of the Eclipse silent films, I’m really drawn to No Blood Relation.
“Naruse understands he’s making a film about a people that never experience what these characters experience. The narrative is meaningless. What Naruse infuses the film with is moments. Hideko Takamine’s crying face alone provides the film its punch; the surrounding events don’t matter. Takamine is in the film specifically because she cries like no other person ever captured.”
I think you answer your question about how to film “love” here. You don’t try to film love, you just film moments of interaction between people. Life had love in it but when you try to film the grandiose emotion and a kid the details you end up with Hollywood claptrap instead of Naruse or Ozu.
I think there’s a misunderstanding here of cinema. It is simply the moving image. Roundhay Garden Scene, La Jetée’s eye. That is enough to mark it as wonderful. Paring down to some idealised purity otherwise may add to the variety of cinema, paving the way for new possibilities- as Bresson did- but it may also be a trap for intellectualising, without appreciating that melodrama, theatre, music, the whole wide world, are valid as parts of cinema. Bresson tried to rid his films of perceived defects. He seems to have believed in good and evil, and notions of superiority. I don’t believe Evil exists, certainly not as an opposite ot Good. To do so, i think, is to be against life. So someone caught up in Catholic doctrines and dogma revolving round sin can then move to being a nihilist. I think we are one, and variety is to be welcomed. There should not be some hierarchy of purity. That feels like Fascism.
Manoel de Oliveira treats cinema with proper generosity of spirit, an open mind. Raul Ruiz; i’m happy he was for complication, that was the way that suited him, he had a lot to express! He was no less cinematic than Bresson.
For me, the problems arise from what comes of the films- whether they reinforce closed minds and exploitation or the opposite, and whether variety of viewpoints and cultures is being suppressed.
Naruse quietly got on with things. It doesn’t matter to me if the ending of Floating Clouds may seem melodramatic, though we should beware cheap manipulation- examples aplenty. There is very little ego in Naruse, and a lot of acceptance, the simple act of doing, and people being. If you want auterism, he may be the ultimate auteur, but really no such thing exists..The idea of auteurism itself can also be a trap, revolving round expression of ego. So we can be drawn in admiration to directors with a striking individual style. Form and “cinematic” qualities have become more important in critical circles than underlying meaning or spirit. Naruse may appear a pessimist rather than idealist, and while i might want some revolt or action against how the world is working, i think he was true to himself, without forcing, or undue self-obsession. That’s the impression i get, with many of his films still to see, which i think will be increasingly rewarding.
“Is there a paradox hidden in Naruse’s melodrama? Life is pain but it is also the only pain we can get. The same with its beauty, sadness, and love??”
Beautiful. Okay I recently said Ozu’s cinema is a bitter glass of whisky after life smashes you in the face with a brick. Naruse’s cinema is more like a sad letter written by a once close friend in a time in which you both feel utterly alone.
At least you’re alone together…
“…he may be the ultimate auteur…”
To me given the classic definition of an auteur there is no maybe about it. He is the greatest explication of an auteur, and it is why he is the master. I would give to him the same reverence I would give, not just a master chef, but someone like Juan Mari Azrak, whom other master chefs look at and say, “some day I’d like to be like him.”
“You don’t try to film love, you just film moments of interaction between people. Life had love in it but when you try to film the grandiose emotion and a kid the details you end up with Hollywood claptrap instead of Naruse or Ozu.”
See that’s what makes the melodrama, or whatever one might call it, interesting because Naruse was never afraid of histrionics in the way Ozu was. So there are these grandiose moments in his cinema, but it’s infused with moments within the grandiose.
Like the final scene to As a Wife, as a Woman he ends on the children, not the mistress, not the adulterer and his wife, not in climax, but post-everything. The children discuss the destruction of their family, there is seriousness, sadness, acceptance, a need to leave, move on, being trapped in their world. And how does it end?