Although programmed in Film Forum's retrospective on the work of Japanese actor Nakadai Tatsuya, Nakadai barely appears in Untamed (1957), but you won't hear any complaints from me. This is a Mikio Naruse film, a studio director if there ever was one, the same man who said to his frequent star, if not muse, Takamine Hideko after he retired that his ideal film would be "one with no exteriors and no sets—only actors working in front of white backdrops." We admire Naruse for his realism—both psychological and social—and for his pessimism, pushing farther than Ozu's melancholy or Mizoguchi's tragedy, about human relationships in a world driven by money. Yet perhaps Naruse's often elaborate stories are more than anything excuses to explore the breadth of variety and humanism, not to mention inhumanity, in the expressions of actors in front of the camera.
Untamed is another of the director's extensive, pivoting stories, where one character, in this case the headstrong and hardworking divorcee Oshima (Takamine) goes from situation to situation, man to man, work to work, finding mostly nothing but human scorn and petty economics everywhere she goes. Both in past work and in future, Naruse creates remarkably nuanced psychological portraits by providing an unruly but sympathetic protagonist whose place in the world and whose self is gradually rounded out like a cubist painting: all sides exposed through an aggregate, in these particular films an episodic collection of incidents and the catalyzing introduction of characters as Oshima moves from situation to situation.
And so it is with Untamed, which gives us a fantastic, who's-who cast of the era's finest actors, including Uehara Ken, Mori Masayuki, Kato Daisuke, and even Shimura Takeshi as a gregarious, money-lending lech. Nakadai's minute presence—a few minutes, a few lines spoken—bares heavy weight in retrospect (or shall we say foreshadowing) of his roles in other Naruse films with Takamine, in particular 1960's When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, but for now he is the same as other men in the world of Untamed: an initial promise of hope, probably ill-founded and probably ultimately fruitless. So instead of watching the episodic plot repeat itself with each of these men, we cast our attention to the actors embodying these all too human roles.
The best thing that can be said about any artist is that his or her work can never be just one thing, and the same is true for Naruse. Write off an entire oeuvre worth of socio-economic (to say nothing of romantic) discontent, and you still get one of the greatest gifts to the art of cinema: Naruse directing Takamine Hideko through a series of circumstances of such great annoyance, of such profound dismay, of so many small joys, of such endless humiliation that within Naruse's restrained, distant, and purposefully unstylized technique it is easy to imagine that ideal film of nothing but human expression.
But praise one attribute and risk forsaking the others; if Untamed is less singular than Naruse's masterpieces like When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, Late Chrysanthemums, Yearning or any of the many others, it is a supreme studio auteur film, containing most of if not all of the director's pleasures and pains. The thoroughness of its story, scripted by Mizuki Yoko (who wrote a number of Naruse films) from an early-20th century novel by Tokuda Shusei, resembles a Kobayashi film: the methodical tracking of an unalterable fate. If it were not for the plaintive empathy evoked by Takamine, such a series of misfortunes might be too much, but where Tanaka Kinuyo in Mizoguchi's The Story of Oharu takes that tragedy to a level of heightened extremity, Naruse and Takamine ground their series of events in the banality of domestic discord and economic bankruptcy. Crucially, they also give Oshima a feisty coarseness that is one of the reasons why Naruse's cinema seems so realistic: even our heroine to some degree is suffuse with the qualities which, in others, beset her so.
The cyclical nature of Naruse's stories may be a source of boundless suffering in a minor key, but as they rotate or pivot the panels of a film we can come closest to Naruse's ideal cinema. With each episode remarkably similar in content (the men aren't as nice as they seem, money problems accentuate character flaws, fidelity is a myth, propriety prevents natural happiness and causes unnatural discord) we can watch what is occurring in front of the repeated pattern: the look on Takamine's face of new determination, of sullen disappointment, of feisty unrest and a stung sense of injustice, of minute pleasures and vivid self-possession, of realization of the same thing happening again and again—and indeed watch Naruse's abstract, yet impossibly human cinema. As sad as it sounds, it's like this: with the world as continually disappointing as it is with people under the strain of capitalist society, all social interactions boil down to a steady, predictable stream, in front of which we are graced with the possibility of watching full-blooded human beings come to terms with the world around them.
Untamed is playing in the Film Forum's Tatsuya Nakadai retrospective.