Notebook Roundtable: Talking Silent Naruse

Above: Street without End.  Photo courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

In March the Criterion Collection released a quiet salvo of intervention into the sad state of home video distribution in the U.S. of films by Japanese studio master Mikio Naruse.  After just a solitary release of the filmmaker (1960's masterpiece, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, also put out by Criterion) comes an Eclipse-label boxset of early 30s silent films by the director: Flunky, Work Hard! (1931), No Blood Relation (1932), Apart from You (1933), Every-Night Dreams (1933), and Street without End (1934).  The set, Silent Naruse, instantly dramatically multiplies the number of titles available to American audiences—though sadly, as Dave Kehr recently implied in his review of the set for the New York Times, it isn't exactly a set of canonical masterpieces bound to invigorate and excite shocked discovery of a foreign master.

But then again, Naruse may be one of the most challenging filmmakers to make a strong case for in the auteurist, "visionary" sense—his work for the studios (Shochiku, PCL, and finally Toho) was on a much more restrained and classicist level that his big name Japanese brethren (Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Ozu), and those looking for an easy "signature" to latch on to in the way early auteurists found one in a Hawks or a Hitchcock are required to push deeper within Naruse films, as well as deeper in the filmography, see more, bounce them off one another.  Which is a major reason even six titles may not be enough to secure interest—yet—here.  (In the UK, the Masters of Cinema label has a stronger boxset of the director's 1950s works which probably makes a more forceful and self-reinforcing presentation.)

A passing glance, I think, does neither the films, the set, nor the filmmaker justice, and so two critics here on The Notebook, David Phelps and resident English-language Naruse expert Dan Sallitt, and I started an email correspondence discussing them as we worked our way through the set.  I hope you enjoy it.

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I. INTRODUCTION

DANIEL KASMAN: I actually want to start with a question, and a general one, and one directed at Dan: you've been hard at work, over the years, on an informal project to view and critically discuss Naruse's films as you watch them through various retrospectives, theatrical screenings, DVD releases, and Internet bootlegs.  What is it about his work that so strongly appeals to you?

DAN SALLITT: That's always a tough question to answer about a major artist.  In 1985, at the time of that first traveling Naruse retrospective, I think I was shocked at the idea of a director of this stature being so far off the radar of English-language film culture.  I'm not so easily shocked anymore about the inadequacies of our film canon, or anyone else's.  Basically, I consider Naruse one of the ten or so greatest filmmakers who ever lived, and I'm just giving him the attention that I would give John Ford if I ran across Ford late in life.

There are a lot of different aspects to Naruse, but one of the fascinating things about him is that narrative is crucially important to him, and the way that he refracts or processes narrative is probably the most distinctive aspect of his style.  ("Ways" might be more accurate than "way."  One of the valuable things we can take away from watching Naruse deal with wartime or postwar obstructions is to observe how he dips into his reserve of intuition about narrative, and pulls different arrows out of his quiver to help him make the best of difficult or impossible conditions.)  In recent years, I think that cinephilia is swinging away from an appreciation of narrative, and expending a lot of its energy on filmmakers who don't rely on narrative for their effects.  But I think we'll arrive at only a partial grasp on Naruse without paying attention to his relationship to storytelling.

Of course, the problems of narrative were different in silent films than after the coming of sound; and this Eclipse package deals with a time when Naruse was feeling his way toward his favorite modes of working, not to mention toward the freedom to choose his modes.  Of these five films, Every-Night Dreams might be the only one that really shows off the skills that I'm talking about.

II. NO BLOOD RELATION (1932)

KASMAN: I haven't viewed Every-Night Dreams yet, but No Blood Relations definitely exhibited a narrative structure I associate with later Naruses, especially of the 1950s and 1960s.  The structure, basically, is that the film has a single character whose emotional and psychological state is the core of the film, but instead of the narrative spending the majority of its time chronicling the happenings and turmoil of that character, the story is fractured (to play off a word you suggested) across several characters doing several different things—many of which grant sidelong or refracted glimpses of what's going on to and within our lead.  

So, for example, the actress-mother character of No Blood Relations shares about equal screen time with the rest of the cast (her ex-husband, her estranged daughter, the girl's fragile young step mother, a pair of gangsters), and it's not until about 2/3 the way through the film you realize this is not an ensemble movie in focus, but rather a film, generally, about this actress-mother that uses the emotions and situations of the rest of the ensemble to provide what might be loosely called a cubist look at her mind state and situation.


Naruse certainly uses this technique to greater effect and insight in his later films, but it was startling to find it way back here in the early 30s.  But I find that this "startling" is often the case of Naruse films, whose narratives tend to evolve and reveal themselves—it wasn't until about halfway through this 1932 film that I felt some ground under my feet, figured out why we were seeing these events, these people.

Flunky, Work Hard!, due to its abbreviated length (approximately 30 minutes) cannot develop in this way, and has different pleasures.

SALLITT: That's a good take on No Blood Relation.  At least part of what's going on is that Naruse has a project that is designed to work directly on the audience's anxiety via our identification with the victimized stepmother.  And that kind of direct relationship to the audience never seems to appeal much to Naruse.  So his energy flows toward the characters who have internal conflict: the biological mother, and also the grandmother.  You really don't know which of those two is going to crack first and solve our narrative problem for us: they both get a surprising number of reaction shots.

Biological mom is a more mannered and less appealing actress than the stepmom, but that's the way the cookie crumbles.

"Cubist" definitely evokes the wild, busy editing of this film.  We probably should be cautious about how much of that editing style we attribute to Naruse: a lot of Japanese silent films of the time feature a similarly fragmented editing style that seems to evoke mental states more than it analyzes space.

DAVID PHELPS: Thanks for including me in the conversation. I'm still feeling my way towards any sort of cohesive grasp on Naruse's films, and it's probably much better it hasn't come. This conversation should be a good exploration; I'd probably be more interested to hear you guys disagree than agree with me.

"it wasn't until about halfway through the 1932 film I felt some ground under my feet, figured out why we were seeing these events, these people."

I felt the same way about No Blood Relation, though maybe less because of the refractive narrative than the refractive editing: a lot of scenes inventory their own objects, in both this and Flunky, Work Hard!, and the repeated shot-reverse-shot track-ins come like a shake-down. But even though it was written by Kogo Noda, it has an approach to story I couldn't match with any other director. There are plenty of films in which sympathy is measured out evenly for characters trapped in roles at different ends of a situation and forced to face their duty, whether that of Fate, social custom, or a fatal character flaw: Preminger, Ozu, Victorian novels, etc. Japanese culture codifies this sort of tension between personal desire and a more metaphysical duty, often with social custom as a sort of metaphysics, as ninjo and giri; this attempt at some examples of giri could probably fund ideas for another dozen films by Ozu, Mizoguchi, or even Oshima.

I'm obviously not an expert on Japanese culture, but Naruse's films seem like they often challenge any distinction between these two poles. Even in the films he made with actress Hideko Takamine that pit these paths against each other, there's a less a sense for me that she's "resigned to her fate," than that her social duties are self-imposed attempts at gaining some clarity on her own life, or that the only metaphysics is financial. It seems like Naruse is constantly leaving an open door behind her that she can flee through—an open door we don't get in Mizoguchi, Ozu, etc.—and what's remarkable is that even as she flees each situation, she's determined to make a life for herself in this world or die.

I would be curious to hear you guys disagree, but I bring it up because something similar seems to be happening in No Blood Relation: the conflict only lasts as long as the two mothers decide to keep fighting; the movie could last half an hour or three hours.

There's no sense that either is fighting this battle as a noble obligation to duty or against it; as Dan said, it's an "internal conflict," and their duty is their desire. Naruse disperses sympathy equally, but I think it's a nearly unmanageable sympathy for viewers: we can't take both sides and say that they're responding to the imperatives of a situation, since that situation has been invented by these characters (mainly the biological mom). Clearly the step mom is the "right" one, the one the kid has chosen, the one lauded by the repeated moral that labor-time raising the kid matters more than giving labor. But it's that sense of time-in-progress, and people raised to a slightly more focused comprehension of the world around them, that seems crucial for Naruse, and the reason why the biological mother can amass as much sympathy over the film as her counterpart: if only by virtue, as Dan indicates, of the amount of time we spend with her in close-up, as she eventually realizes her desires are incompatible with the world around her. And she withdraws the narrative she's created for herself just as we realize its importance to her.

But beyond these two women, there's a good amount of social commentary—evidence and interpretation—going on all throughout as well...

SALLITT: I think you're right to put the emphasis on Naruse's challenge to social equilibrium.  Certainly there's a lot in his films that either expresses or documents aspects of Japanese culture.  But he's a forceful personality who generally manages to impart to his projects a darkness that sits uneasily within social systems.

Ozu, the other great philosophical presence in classical Japanese cinema, will always benefit from comparisons between his world view and Naruse's.  The range of human emotion and thought that Ozu expresses is wider; the balance that he attains between joy and sorrow, action and reflection, makes it possible for us to see him as the representative of the wisdom of a social system, as "the most Japanese of directors."  By contrast, Naruse cannot show us how to live—he despairs of living well, and he won't hide it.  And I love him for this.  (No slight at all intended toward Ozu, of course: it's no defect to arrive at an equilibrium that societies may wish to emulate.)

III. FLUNKY, WORK HARD! (1931)

KASMAN: Where No Blood Relation buries the social implications fairly smoothly into the melodrama of the story, Flunky, Work Hard! directly confronts the "social equilibrium"—even from its opening, with the bespectacled (intellectual?) father carrying his son on his back in his dingy garden as he polishes his beat up shoes (full of holes) and his gorgeous (and lipstick'd) wife cleans up inside and is embarrassed by, first, a confrontation with a neighbor, and nearly immediately after, a faceless landlord trying to collect rent the couple can't pay.

The film quickly proceeds from this economic depression to disaffection at home (a brilliant comic sequence where the wife's angry haphazard dusting knocks over a picture of the couple on their wedding day, which leads to a rapid montage leading the father to think she might sweep up their infant child!) to disaffection at work, where the husband has to humiliate himself in front of a potential client, in front of their kids, and in front of a rival in order to try to secure a health insurance contract.  In fact, continued humiliation seems to be the principle situational and emotional cord in the movie, whose final act has the couple's child almost killed in an accident most likely as an excuse to close the story on an optimistic note ("well, at least everyone's alive...").  Although even this melodramatic situation comes from the ingrained humiliation, as the film has the father more worried about the health of his potential client's child than his own until Naruse corrects him psychologically through a flashy montage of inner revelation.

SALLITT: This time around I noticed how strong the Chaplin influence is on this film, and probably on a lot of comedy-drama of the time.  Until the story's turn toward pathos, the gags are pretty much wall-to-wall: all the serious ideas about poverty and work that you mention, Danny, are put over via comedy.  Our protagonist is in a lot of debasing situations, but he's in perpetual motion, and he generally dominates his adversaries physically, like Chaplin.

The really interesting thing about the "montage of inner revelation" is that the last montage interlude occurs as the child is coming around.  It seems to suggest that the protagonist's anguish has staying power even in the face of a relatively happy ending.

PHELPS: I'll see if I can intercede somewhere between those last two comments.

For me, Ozu's idealism is concordant with something like nihilism, a lot like in John Ford's movies: the obligations of a self-renewing social order, and the nobility of a sacrifice to it, become the perfect terms in which to address its bootlicking rituals, celibate sermonizing, buckled compassion, the inability of people to relate in any other terms or acknowledge private feeling. By the 50s, Ford and Ozu can even look to a social system to express its own inexpressiveness—the silent rituals of a wife preparing Wayne's clothes in The Searchers, or the couple making dinner in Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice show everything that's been sublimated into daily routine. But in the 30s, both directors seem to oppose the idealism to the nihilism more directly; Ozu's kids, innocent of social binds but crafty, shove their parents' public obsequiousness in their face as a random moral logic and sop to respectability.

Flunky, Work Hard! seems like it could have been another Ozu salaryman comedy: it's really close to I Was Born, But... (and it looks like Naruse repeats Ozu's matching tracks of school and work in No Blood Relation). There's no point in squinting for auteurist trademarks in a movie that's not operating by them to some purpose, but there are also ways in which Naruse or someone has hewed closer to Laurel and Hardy than to Ozu: until the obligatory "revelation" Danny cites, the tension of the businessman isn't between public and private responsibility, but equally irresponsible models of groveling and violence to get ahead. When the kid points out that his dad has sanctioned fighting in some cases and not others, the dad, equally confused as his kid, tells him, "Please apologize to that boy—if you don't, I'll be in trouble," bribes him with an airplane, and then hits him. Like in Laurel and Hardy, the more he attempts to cover up violence for the sake of social niceties, the more violent it gets. This is a very different disorder in order than Ozu's. There's never any sense that the characters have any private concerns, only material concerns they mismanage terribly.

I'd never take this backyard comedy as a Naruse film if I saw it without credits, but it's a good demonstration of Naruse molding his plot, characters, and concerns so entirely in material and social interest, that the movie doesn't really hold to any social principles. If anything, it explodes them: the bribes and bonds of financial giving and lending are willed by the characters as individual gestures of greed or compassion or both, where in Ozu or Mizoguchi they might be raised to metaphysical fetters. The long tracking-shot in No Blood Relation of items up for auction is redeployed by Mizoguchi at the start of Sisters of the Gion a few years later, but those movies are also studies in contrast: where in the Mizoguchi, the characters, operating by a universal selfishness, are inevitably drawn into debt to maintain the geisha's world of appearance and illusion, in Naruse, their debts and loans are decisions they make based on their own qualities as characters, and the material world is the one they live in, one that Naruse catalogues comprehensively. 

Sublime resignation seems to be as important to Naruse as it is to Ozu and Mizoguchi, but it's resignation to a very different world. If Ozu's characters sacrifice themselves to a social wisdom, as Dan puts it, then what world do Naruse's characters sacrifice themselves to? Maybe that's something to explore after we look at the next two films...There aren't any greater forces at work. The same bargaining continues, and the dilemmas don't really go away.

KASMAN: "There's never any sense that the characters have any private concerns, only material concerns they mismanage terribly."

I like this very much, however I might contest it by saying that the material concerns perhaps are something that become associated or misconstrued with emotional or existential concerns.  That is, the characters deal with them as materials knowingly and unknowingly using those material concerns to express what you call private concerns...

SALLITT: I don't think of Ozu as an idealist, actually.  And I don't think the obligations of his characters to society are necessarily an inspiration to him, as they are to Ford.  I wouldn't be impressed with the balance of his personality if he didn't test that balance by showing so much bleakness so nakedly.

It's worth noting that Flunky, Work Hard! was released almost a year before I Was Born, But...  I wouldn't be surprised if neither Naruse nor Ozu had pioneered this subject matter in Japanese silent cinema.  I too might not spot Naruse as the director here without his credit, but I bet it would be a lot easier if we had more grounding in Japanese genre films of the era.  Every Night Dreams makes the task of recognition easier by manipulating narrative in a way similar to some of Naruse's best-known sound films.

Apart From You, which was released only three months after No Blood Relation, feels rather more personal to me.  I’m guessing that the plots of both films were studio-dictated, but you can tell right away that Naruse wrote the script for Apart From You. There’s a strain of absurdism in Naruse’s work that is easier to detect in projects where he was not completely free; and the opening of this film jumps from one crazy disconnected event to another, even if the plot eventually connects all the disparate elements.  We start in the middle of a wild chase scene (literally in the middle, in terms of camera placement); segue to a group of geisha on the street jostled by the action; break for a weird 1917-style gag in which a crook scares the geisha by emerging from a covered garbage can; wind up in a geisha house where we switch rapidly among bizarre, uncouth comedy routines by unknown characters; fly off into full-blown surrealism as an anonymous geisha’s dream of spilling a bowl of noodles is visualized; and finally get an introduction to a major character, though we are by now so disoriented that we aren’t sure who the stars are for several more scenes.

Not that Naruse doesn’t work just as hard with the Kogo Noda script that he was presumably handed for No Blood Relation Given Naruse’s legendarily morose temperament, it’s surprising how rare it was for him to give up on a project: I’ve seen 62 of his films now, and can’t think of any where he went completely on autopilot.  But Naruse’s greatest gift was his ability to play in that zone between story and narrative, and control of the script on a nuts-and-bolts level almost always produced better results for him than did good subject matter.

IV. APART FROM YOU (1933)

KASMAN: I liked Apart from You very much; yet paradoxically have little to say about it.  Dan noted the fascinating, chaotic opening, which I see as a more vigorous form of the kind of narrative experimentation and structuring that Naruse does so well from here on out.  This film is also, to the best of my knowledge, the first (existing) picture that has Naruse's characters travel from the city to the countryside, a movement motif that will become a signature for his stories and as important to them as it is to Murnau's.  Here, a train ride ripe with jokes and a teasing/sincere suggestion of romance between the two young leads prefigures the famous longer train ride in Yearning that tracks emotion and thought through the space, time and movement of the train. 

The destination, a port town, has a craggy, hilly coziness that beautifully suggests both the protective memories of home of the girl (who is visiting her family), as well as the dangers of life on her mind (a geisha is seen passing by on her way to make her debut; the seaside rocks and visual density as Expressionist gestures of worry, danger-ahead, for the girl, and behind, for her younger sister).


I was noticeably distracted by something intangible about the gorgeous lead played by Sumiko Mizukubo until Dan made the connection: she looks remarkably like a Japanese Sylvia Sydney.  Her expression, 
during the trip home midway through the film, while looking out to the sea, evokes an emotional and existential depth of frustration and feeling not only remarkably contemporary but certainly leaps and bounds more sophisticated than most cinema of this era.


One definitely gets the sense that there is a director behind the camera with this picture.  It is as formally inquisitive as No Blood Relations but notably less aggressively stylized, and with this stronger control you get the sense in each sequence what Naruse as a director was interested in.

Aside from the train ride, another sequence particularly shines: a cross-cutting climax inside an inn where in one room a group of young revelers crank up the music, turn on colored slides, and proposition drinking geisha; meanwhile, in a room down the hall our heroine's mother gets so drunk and depressed over her life that she tries to kill herself while her patron struggles to take away her blade.  The parallel cutting evokes something very Naruse-ian in style to me: using other, unrelated or semi-related sequences and characters to comment on a main thread.  Here, in the room of the party, we see what the mother's life was probably like several years earlier (including a direct proposition for a geisha to take money under the table); in the mother's room, we see the emotional repercussions (of both geisha and patron, to a degree).  At the same time comes across a remarkable cinematic expression: the sense of noise, space, and light calls up a realism of the environment (the inn) across the two rooms, which are eventually linked when the doors to the rooms are opened to the hallway.

Nevertheless, the story movements of the film's final act are very vague, even if Mizukubo continues to shine in a long hospital bed sequence during which she variously frames her face and her eyes by adjusting her bed's blanket.

PHELPS: I watched Apart from You's opening again after Dan's description; it plays an almost Tati catch-release rhythm Mizukubo as it cuts from her to the geisha house where, a few minutes later, she'll be found deep within, already entered. Some more confusion as the next scene's lead is one of the same geisha from the previous scene (the mother), but nearly unrecognizable in medium-shot with glasses by daylight. We don't even find out she's a geisha until a few scenes later at an allusive intertitle about her son being a geisha's child, though I'm pretty curious about the point-of-view shot of a visitor to her room: an altarpiece, a doll, an iron-rake-thing, a basin. Were these the stereotypes of a geisha's quarters to a 1933 audience?

 A lot of the subsequent film follows through on these patterns of watching and catch-up, as though the action hasn't been directed but found. I'm not sure there are any proper establishing shots that aren't undermined; instead of seeing the characters get on a train, we see the train, the tracks, and then the characters already on it. Instead of seeing them arrive in a port town, we see a montage of the town and then, amidst these shots, the characters already walking on the street.

Dan's talked about Naruse's surrealist strain, and Apart from You's editing seems deliberately, consistently askew, really different from No Blood Relation before and Every-Night Dreams after. Even cutting within ongoing scenes, Naruse shows spaces before characters have entered them, and the spatial pirouettes these scenes go through in angling characters against each other makes it difficult to tell where they are and sometimes impossible to tell if we're in the same scene or have started a new one days later. The breaking of the 180 degree rule in Every-Night Dreams flips the scenes firmly or turns them around gradually; here it seems to toss them toward and away from the camera in a floating space in which their postures rarely change.

If these cuts and disjunctions were more calibrated against each other for effect, they could be like something from an 1980s film from Rozier or Pialat or even Ruiz: there are spatial and narrative connections in place between the characters, but the elisions upend them so completely that what's emphasized, instead of an unfolding story, is a moment-by-moment portraiture of characters in moments of respite from the actual story. Of course, it's always a failed respite: the port town idyll delves into the drunken life of the heroine's family.

That's probably what seems so Naruse-like about the movie to me; every moment of respite is also a moment of entrapment in a certain way of life. The movie's structured, something like later Takamine films, so that the characters circle through the different relationships that are like the compass points of their lives: friends, clients, family, and a gang. Each is a small portrait in misery, and along the way the three leads, like other characters in these silents, try to make a makeshift family. What amounts to a dramatic progression for an audience watching the film is just a reminder of their lives as they always have been and will be to the characters on-screen. Dan, is this what you meant by Naruse's "ability to play in that zone between story and narrative"? 

Mizukubo's decision at the end to take a train away from her true love is a good demonstration of what I was trying to get at before: the heroine who submits to the film's drama in fleeing from it, who ensures an perpetuation of the events, tensions, and desires we've seen on-screen. What we thought was a narrative turns out to be an inescapable portrait of her life as it's led. In pursuing it, she becomes responsible for it at the same time she resigns all personal responsibility. That's a lot more compelling to me than the split between idealism and impoverished realism in Every-Night Dreams, but looking forward to hearing you guys.

Meanwhile, Danny, I'm still curious what you meant by this: "That is, the characters deal with them as materials knowingly and unknowingly using those material concerns to express what you call private concerns..." Do you mean that they try to hold themselves off from material, worldly concerns—Mizukubo sacrifices herself to them as if to keep herself from them—only to be able to express themselves in them? Takamine would joke that she was never allowed to kiss anyone, not once, in a Naruse film. Too worldly.

SALLITT:  Takamine's comment has me wondering about the history of the kiss in Japanese cinema.  I can't think of many kisses in general in Japanese film: even in the 60s, rough sex scenes seem more common than kissing scenes.  Maybe we're watching the wrong directors for that sort of thing...

KASMAN: What I meant by that comment was that for the most part Naruse's characters seem to be dealing with material concerns: where money is coming from and how it's getting spent, the relationships between people being rooted in  economics and day-to-day living.  I see the "private concerns" that you may find generally absent from these films as being wholly rooted in the worry over material concerns: that worry may be superficially about material things, but the worry itself—or whatever emotional context is—is the tip of the iceberg, as it were, a restrained public expression of far deeper interior concerns.  The (disappointing) ending of this film works that way, in an unsatisfying and general manner.

SALLITT: In response to David's earlier question: I was thinking of "story" as: "The son of a geisha is so ashamed of her profession that he slips into delinquency, but is saved by the sympathetic intervention of..."  And I was thinking of "narrative" as being broad enough to encompass: "An abrupt cop-and-robber chase; then we follow geisha who witness the chase, and find ourselves in a geisha house..."

That tendency to make transitions via disorienting cuts continues in Every-Night Dreams.  What I find most unusual about Apart from You is the density of the compositions.  I feel more empty space between and around people in No Blood Relations and Every-Night Dreams.  In Apart From You the characters are commonly arranged along diagonals and crowd the foreground, with clashing detail in the background.  The images challenge the eye a bit.

Technically inventive as the film is, I don't think much of its story, and Naruse doesn't exactly try to subvert it.  The boy's change of heart is central, but unremarkable and too easy.  And the girl takes a knife for the boy and sells herself into the sex trade?  The keynote of the last section is mourning, and it wears thin for me.

V. EVERY-NIGHT DREAMS (1933)

PHELPS: Danny, I wonder if you think the hackneyed story of Every-Night Dreams is a good case of Naruse's materialism/fatalism like you were describing. Here there is very clearly a personal ideal, the reunion of two old lovers (now parents) as dad tries to forgo his criminal past, that can only be enacted through material compromises and corruptions: dad tries to save the relationship with stolen money, leading to an escalating series of miseries that will doom the romance forever. Of course that's romantic too, and the story, another unsubversive melodrama, is not totally different from Ozu's A Story of Floating Weeds from about the same time. But I was thinking more of a proto-noir like You Only Live Once: what's maybe novel—who knows—is the father's attempt to transcend the economic deprivations of his class, as the attempt dooms him to it. Again we see characters fighting against situations they're returned to by the end of the film, but this doesn't seem specific to Naruse.

Again the narrative, as Dan calls it, plays momentary disjunctions against the overall predictability. Including in this silent film one moment of off-screen sound: a teakettle, an intertitle of dialogue, a character (not speaking), another intertitle, another character across from the first, placed by the teakettle, not speaking, then speaking. Of course she was giving advice from the start, but for a moment, it looks like the teakettle talks. More evidence that while other directors were experimenting to master a grammar of their own (including Ozu and Mizoguchi), Naruse was working to sabotage it.

KASMAN: David, in a way, the "hackneyed story" of the film provides the perfect material-internal (or shall we say, surface-internal) considerations of a Naruse film.

The melodrama of the story—watching Sumiko Kurishima go through the conflicted emotions of having her deadbeat ex-boyfriend (Tatsuo Saitô) return and try to make a living; watching Saitô comically-forlornly attempt to try to make a living—might be termed the material surface of the film: considerations and worries of a family trying to make wages, make enough to buy their son presents, make enough so that the wife doesn't have to work as a hostess in a maritime tavern (!—perhaps the seediest geisha/hostess job I've seen in a Japanese film, perhaps inspired by Sternberg).

But what these concerns allow is for Naruse to zero in very precisely on the psychology and existential state of his lead actress, Kurishima.  I have no doubt Dan will go into more depth in his description and analysis of this aspect, so I'll leave the weight of that to him, but everything from the character's weary exhaustion and depression in the film's first act (surely an opening mood and attitude of considerable rarity in mainstream cinema, except, perhaps again, Sternberg, but this is far more naturalistic) to her very ambivalent not to say ambiguous responses to her ex-'s repeated failures and insults, all captured in minute eye-glances and mouth-pulling (a technique Naruse continues and masters in his use of Takamine's face in the 50s) all work to create an incredible complex and rich inner life to the character that goes far beyond, I think, the convention of the story.

SALLITT: As I mentioned, I think Every-Night Dreams plays with narrative in a way that resembles some of Naruse's better-known 50s work.  There's a surface narrative which, if not hackneyed, is at least familiar: the flawed protagonist with a record of failure who makes an attempt to change but is stymied by his or her own character defects, which can be either some form of addiction or an inability to function in society.  This narrative comes with certain expectations, such as an essentially sympathetic protagonist who, in the case of failure, will evoke our sorrow and the sorrow of the characters who represent the audience's position.

In opposition to this narrative, Naruse unobtrusively sketches in a shadow narrative that progresses alongside the main narrative and shares most of its turning points.  Here the shadow narrative is about the justified hatred that the bar girl feels for her charming but destructive husband, who she knows will hurt her and her child every time she takes pity on him.  The shadow narrative tussles with the main narrative for control when the husband first arrives: the bar girl reacts with outsized violence to the husband's return ("He's our enemy!"), and tells the sympathetic neighbor helper couple exactly how the story will unfold.  But the couple, who represent the audience's comfort with the surface narrative, are shocked at the depth of the bar girl's bitterness, and preach to her the case for forgiveness.  The bar girl's heart eventually softens, she ignores her own wisdom, and the shadow narrative goes undercover.  For a while, only small inflections indicate that the shadow narrative is lurking.  For instance, when the husband mentions the effect of the bar girl's career on their child, the woman's harsh reaction, which Danny alludes to above, is so contemptuous and withering that it threatens the audience's ability to maintain sympathy for both parties.

The film's dramatic climax is synchronized with the eruption of the shadow narrative.  Surely no story in this mode has ever ended in such a fashion, with the audience's natural desire to mourn frustrated by the dramatic weakness of the husband's final gesture, and strongly opposed by the only character left with which to identify.  The last scene sees the bar girl's complete rejection of the surface narrative and her rededication to the path of hatred that she had been lulled into abandoning.  And then that chilling fast montage of the docks and harbor...

PHELPS: It's interesting: all these silent Naruses, with their disjunctions, diversions, and frustrated ploys for sympathy, could probably be seen as incompetent as easily as they could subversive of audience expectations. But that would take virgin eyes or, maybe, more knowledgeable ones. I think we're all inclined toward the subversive Naruse, not only because we see his firm hand retrospectively, already obvious in the pans, tracks, and shock montage of Every-Night Dreams, but because we're all hesitant to assume a Japanese code that Naruse was flouting: as Dan's pointed out, there wasn't an established 180 degree rule; cuts could come from any angle. Instead the codes and expectations that Naruse defies are the ones his own films establish. But Dan, when you write that "surely no story in this mode has ever ended in such a fashion, with the audience's natural desire to mourn frustrated by the dramatic weakness of the husband's final gesture, and opposed by the only character left with which to identify," I totally agree but see a melodrama, caught between the dilemmas of two characters, forced to follow its flagrant developments to an inconsistent conclusion. For that shadow narrative to erupt, the husband has to resume his role in it as a scourge betraying the wife's hopes, even though the film has given him the surface narrative as a hero.

It's interesting, because Naruse uses those parallel narratives in No Blood Relation and Apart from You similarly to your description: in each the internal dilemmas of two women are framed by their mutual concern for the same third character. The story of Every-Night Dreams is close to No Blood Relation—a parent returns to claim love from a suspicious family—but where the strain in audience sympathy is taken to a breaking point between the two mothers in Blood, Naruse blocks the parents' dramas apart from each other in Every-Night Dreams: about 20 minutes are given to the mother, then 20 to the father, then 20 to their unification over a car crash and dissolution over a crime. Instead of pitting sympathies for the characters against each other from the start, Naruse hedges and forces their split.

These are clashing narratives for me: maybe the mother is supposed to be a figure of realism (a hostess), the father of romance (a thieving bum), but the movie's second section does such a good job in making the father a figure in the landscape caring for his kid that the narrative of the suspicious mother is totally sabotaged. I didn't see much seediness in the bar beyond the sailors and scribblings on the walls, and Kurishima, "the first female Japanese star," is such a deflecting surface—eyes and lips tightened into a mask—different from Takamine's blank quivers absorbing emotions she refuses to release. But I also thought of Sternberg, The Salvation Hunters, in the subplot of the kid wandering through a minimalist playground of hollowed concrete cylinders alongside his father, a scarecrow, John Carradine-like figure whose haplessness seems proportionate with his kindness. A story told not by the characters' actions, but the fact of the world moving by while they sit still together and huddle, as if watching a movie. Or Walker Evans: the full-front framing and open ground jutted against blank housefronts. It's an amazing scene, like ones in later Naruses in which the characters stop and watch as kids circle continuously on tricycles in abandoned industrial outskirts.

KASMAN: I'm not sure I agree at all with your reading of Every-Night Dreams.  How is the conclusion "inconsistent"?  I think it's pointless to paint Naruse as "subversive" but rather prudent to indicate how the film's form is subversive, which I most definitely think it is.  Your hypothesis that the husband has to betray his wife to (presumably) provide a consistent conclusion (consistent with / to what?) seems inaccurate—one of the tragedies of the film is that it's not that the husband betrays his wife's hopes but that he is unable to ever live up to them (or his, or our, own).  His final act is just another weak-willed, poorly thought out and poorly followed through act by a shiftless man with a warm heart and kind demeanor—but utterly ineffectual at "successfully" living.  The subversiveness is in having us care for and to a degree identify with the man; and likewise identify with the wife's cautious investment of hope in the figure (a surrogate of the audience's hope, no doubt) who will, without any melodramatic revelation or shift or change, simply remain as shiftless as he was in the beginning.  The story provokes the desire for an arc that never comes, we end as we began.  (More Sternberg, if you compare the wife's cynical suspicion with Dietrich's similar attitude, warmed eventually by a man, and then betrayed.)

SALLITT: I don't see the shadow narrative as destroying the surface narrative.  We experience a formal shock at the end when we realize that the entire film can be seen as an illustration and a justification of why the mother hates.  But, though Naruse has shown that the pathos generated by the sad-sack father is a dangerous trap, I don't feel that he wants us to forget that pathos, or to acknowledge that it was wrong.  The shadow narrative is a surprise because the surface narrative is so natural for the characters and for us to embrace.  We end up with two coextensive but opposing emotional responses—both sad ones.

We've talked about the bleakness of the ending, but I also think the beginning of this film is stunning.  The mother's easy yet jaded manner as she smokes with the sailors in the harbor is really an amazing way to introduce a character; and then the harbor vistas yield suddenly to that great shantytown set, with all manner of impoverished bric-a-brac overhead, and the brisk editing immersing the mother in the environment without real establishing shots.

PHELPS: I don't care about plausibility except where the director does. Danny, you're right that slant at the end is more on the husband's own crumminess than society's, but, as I think we're all agreeing, that's still recourse to the first narrative, the wife's fears. And for him to take his place in it, he has to become an Altman-type archetype of pathetic loser at all cost to narrative sense. If you think it's plausible for him to commit a robbery and kill himself, this is a pretty brilliant way of dovetailing the two strands into melodrama. If you don't, then it's pastiche. Naruse spends so much time treating the father as a real figure pacing a real landscape that the sudden move to psychology, canted angles, fast cuts seems like a pretty deliberate dive into another movie: the intrusion of plot to wrap things up. And it's not unaware: the cut from the father knocking a toy car off a desk to his son getting hit by a real one is akin to Sirk giving a father a heart-attack as his daughter plays fast music: the logic of pure mise-en-scène at the cost of any other.

SALLITT: I'd say a few canted angles slip into the style of this film pretty easily.  Certainly the device of using detail shots to create a confusing transition is well established by the time of the robbery.

I suppose the resort to criminality is melodrama in some sense, but it doesn't strike me as a violation of character: the father desperately wants to prove himself as a provider, and is just helpless enough in the face of life to consider this a demonstration of commitment.  The suicide I don't consider melodrama: it empties the dramatic space instead of charging it.

PHELPS: I think we all agree Naruse's deflating dramatic expectations? Whether that's attentive or far-reaching, it's interesting.

VI. STREET WITHOUT END (1934)

SALLITTStreet without End is probably a step backward in terms of story—not so much because the plot is more outrageous than the norm, but because Naruse's opportunity to inflect it seems limited.  (Apparently the script was rejected by a number of Shochiku directors before Naruse took it on.)  At first the story seems to bounce around a bit, with that funny subplot about the heroine's chance to be a movie star, and then the melodrama of the car accident and its romantic consequences.  But the script finally devotes the lion's share of its time to a subject not too different from that of Naruse's 1937 A Woman's Sorrows: the too-passive heroine marrying into a family that treats her with contempt.

When Naruse finally lands his knockout punch with the unexpected, utterly desolating ending, the film's structure looks different in retrospect.  It's as if Naruse cared only about the way a random event seeds the universe with irremediable, eternal unhappiness; and that the body of the film was simply a way of arbitrarily filling in a second-rate life for the heroine instead of the first-rate one she might have had.  "I didn't really think things through," she says about her marriage.

The trouble with the film, from this point of view, is that the second-rate life doesn't play out with enough interest or surprise for me.  The climax of the family story, with the heroine causing a death by hardening herself against compassion, seems to me a bit emotionally confusing, not well worked out in terms of its causes or effects.

From the point of view of camera style and rhythm, Street without End feels like an advance for Naruse.  The axial tracks and disorienting montages of the earlier films are much less prominent, and Naruse focuses instead on the chilling effect of space, the anonymity of streets overhung by buildings, wires and sky, and the air over characters' heads as they walk through rooms.  And style and story come together for that chilly ending.

KASMAN: As Dan implies, the structure of this film's story packs the film full of thing–events, possibilities, motivations.  I found it problematic less as Dan does with the interest level in the "second-rate life" scenario—that is, the heroine not marrying her boyfriend, who is driven away from the plot by one of the film's many startling coincidences, and instead marrying the rich man who ran her over, whom she professes to love but does little to support the profession.  My problem lay, conventionally enough, in a combined weakness of actress Setsuko Shinobu and the weakness of her character—a highly obligating, self-effacing woman who places all blame on herself and basically simpers quietly inside through any melodramatic turmoil of the plot.  It's a highly frustrating creation—though the script provides shocking jabs of amendment to the character by, for example, having her get married so soon after being mysteriously dropped by her boyfriend.  Suffice to say, while the film may not be aware of my irritation by this undynamic and unnuanced character, it absolutely is aware of the problems inherent in such a character living in the real world.

I'm not entirely sure I agree with your description of the finale, Dan, which I find less clear than you do and therefore all the stranger and more powerful.  The scenario is that the wife leaves the husband, who ends up in the hospital.  At his bedside, the wife finally gathers the willfulness to castigate and shame the husband's mother and sister for demeaning her as a person, her position as a wife and the husband as a man, as well as sabotaging her marriage.  She then storms out of the room; the husband, hearing her agitated and sensing her leaving, reaches for her, calls out her name, and collapses.  The wife, having left the hospital room, is then told that the husband has died.

I don't see a one-to-one relationship between the wife's blow-up and the death of her husband.  Rather, I see the tragedy of a weak-willed woman who is unable to speak up for herself, her husband, or her marriage until such an extreme (and melodramatic) event jolts her into agency.  She gets (as does the audience) the satisfaction of not a minor chewing out but rather a major, brutal humbling of her oppressors—only to be reminded that it is too late, she has taken it too long, and that her moral-melodramatic victory in front of the women has been immediately crushed by the reality of how her behavior has consistently, and now finally, undercut her possibilities towards happiness.  Thus I find the "knockout punch" of the desolate ending all that more so, as it is enriched by this horrible melodramatic repercussion not of a specific action but rather of inherent behavior.

I admit that in focusing on this I've ignored a good 1/2 of the movie, much of which makes up the bouncy narrative movement that leads to this final denouement.  Perhaps David will focus on it more.  As a side note, it perhaps sounds like I don't care much for this film but I do very much, a very odd and moving film.

SALLITT: But the heroine castigates the critically ill husband too, for his weakness.  She certainly didn't seem to be looking for happiness with him any longer: she was washing her hands of the whole family, no?  Naruse certainly shows her distress at her husband's death, and emphasizes it with repeated tracking shots into her expression.  I took that as an attempt to catch her, and us, in an emotional crossfire: that she had liberated herself, but essentially taken the life of a sympathetic character as a result.  And I was dissatisfied that such a heavy dramatic situation was abandoned so quickly, or that it was undertaken in the first place when the film was in no position to explore its consequences properly.

PHELPS: I'm not sure it's fair to judge this film by a failed or constricting maneuvering room for character response. The movie operates as a mechanism, as Dan says, "about the way a random event seeds the universe with irremediable, eternal unhappiness," and is less concerned, for once, with character response as psychological possibilities than the automatic, deterministic consequences of incidental actions: more than once, what characters automatically presume when seeing friends or lovers with third parties in passing cars. Basically Naruse is faced with straddling naturalistic detail—the modern, open street of the title that provides a base for these casual passing glances, and coincidences as such, chance occurrences of everyday life—and heightened 30s melodrama—the coincidences becoming less plausible the more they multiply and tangling the heroine in wayward stories of playboys, showgirls, and drunken car rides, all presumably from the sort of movie she was hoping to star in as a way out of her dull life as a flapjack waitress. The entire film is a grind through logical responses to illogical events, not so different from the rags-to-riches comedies Hollywood was making at the same time: the character's feelings are determined by the nature of the event, and thus the same as the audience's. The hero/heroine becomes a surrogate for the viewer in navigating this expanding world.

This is a totally different construction than the previous Naruse films that balanced one character's viewpoint against another's onto the same event. But the effect simplifies and complicates any sort of narrative opening: we see through her eyes, but enough so that she becomes difficult to see and read herself. Not totally so, but her simpering seems a natural deflection for a character who is, like the audience, the puppet and viewer of unending plotlines. By later Takamine serial adventures, Naruse has pared down the preposterous mechanism to banal consequences of egg prices and daily work as she becomes an ultimate tabula rasa, character as negative capability, acting so clearly within the social and dramatic obligations of her situation that any other sense of reaction and desire seems to be a vague abstract impossible to manifest within the interests of the scene.

There are directors who fold in outside elements of a social real world as reflections of the characters' private universe—Rossellini, Hitchcock, Ozu; if there was an influence here, it was probably Vertov, whose sidelong car glances in Man with a Movie Camera are similar to the ones here, with notions that characters provide the nodal points of a larger, cosmopolitan consciousness. What's strange is how these scenes seem to break through the drama, not as reflection, not as relief, but as points of contact to other dramas to which they're background characters.

For the film to work at all, to show the different lives of the city as entwined in a single character's relation to them, it needs a sense of the city as its own factory of plots and stories: the city as having its own narrative language. And the grammar of the film is brazen like Vertov. Naruse tends to edit in a shorthand that makes elements signals out to larger, simultaneous dramas: it was only thanks to you guys that I was able to recognize the boyfriend, who appears three times, two of those times for about a second, and whose presence operates only as a signal of a tangential narrative and its resolution. One car accident is filmed as the tumbling of a few personal items down a hill (another Naruse film that's inventory of character possessions). In place of his previous tracks, Naruse (possibly banned from them) now uses rippling rack-focuses to move through planes of a composition as though his scenes are under constant rediscovery. And there's the very Soviet musical refrains of city shots and staccato rhythm, intermittently throughout, of characters in reverse-shot with the things around them. Once initiated, a character becomes a cog, a kind of note, that the film can redeploy in new scenarios with new motivations; the audience is presumed to know these characters as part of a broadening context and a larger grammar that can rephrase them while treating them entirely for abstract, symbolic value as narrative placeholders.

What's strange is that there's a grammar and a syntax developed from the Soviets, but any language tends to be elusive. What's going on during one moonlight interlude as Naruse cuts metrically back-and-forth from the couple to a streetlamp? The disjunctions are rigorous and unending here: intertitle dialogue is impossible to match to characters and even scenes, as it's used to transition from one to another. Within scenes, Naruse cuts so sharply that a single background object is the only way to connect shots spatially. But why?

Maybe I lack the context to see what's going on. As an exercise in form, Street without End is constantly doing things I don't think I've ever seen movies do before. 

KASMAN: I particularly liked how, in these films, not only would the narrative (and point of view) pivot off of these intertitles or object inserts, but they would also form an interesting chain of transition + commentary, so that you'd have image A -> intertitle -> image B (different scene), and while the intertitle was being said or enunciated in image A, it's content carried over to image B, both introducing the image (transition) and commenting upon it (editorially).

SALLITT: The out-of-the-blue intertitles in Street without End seem to serve exactly the same function as the cuts to close-ups of unfamiliar objects in Every-Night Dreams: to create confusing transitions that are clarified only after the introduction of other elements.  Just to keep us on our toes, I guess.  The coming of sound made it more difficult to exercise that kind of playfulness on a regular basis, but Naruse never completely lost his taste for narrative curveballs—like the premature "The End" that occurs two-thirds of the way through 1952's Mother.

That streetlamp interlude is just weird.  I'd call it a failed experiment.  I love the fast, disorienting city editing, though—which is the first thing we see, even before the credits.  I feel an un-Vertov-like chill in the way Naruse pulls images and people away from us so relentlessly in these passages—the same chill I felt in the final rapid harbor montage in Every-Night Dreams.

PHELPS: That's a point. Vertov is always forging connections and relations. These films feel like they're on the brink of disintegration.

***

These five wonderful films are out now on Region 1 DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Responses

9 responses to this post.  Join the discussion

  • greg x

    Thanks for the roundtable guys. It’s this type of open conversation that I think can really add something to the critical understanding of a film or director as it keeps it an open and evolving process instead of a closed off evaluation. I only wish I had something useful to add, but as I am still mostly a Naruse outsider, this is more useful to me than anything I could try to engage with directly. I only hope you’ll come back to this format for other films or directors in the future where more people might be able to get involved in the comment side of the discussion.

  • Daniel Kasman

    Hi greg — thanks for the comments — get the DVD set and let’s talk!

  • David Phelps

    I think we’d all like to hear what think people who are watching the set. This should just be a scaffolding, if that…

  • zerkalo

    I’ve been working through the set since buying it the week of release, allowing time to reflect rather than watching it all in one week. I’m eager to explore this dialogue in-depth after viewing another one (have watched 3 of 5 to date and already had the UK box sets from MoC and BFI) – wanted to mention my hearty support of this analysis/thread/dialogue in advance of that, though!

  • greg x

    I’ve watched Flunky, Work Hard! and four other films from various points in Naruse’s career, and I just haven’t found an “in” to his films so far. By that I mean I can respect his filmmaking, but I don’t really “feel” it like I do someone like Shimizu whose films struck me profoundly when I viewed them. Older Brother, Younger Sister, so far, is the only one that really worked for me in that way, so I appreciate this conversation so much because it might give me a better method of approach on Naruse when I rent the other films in this set, which I will be doing soon. I appreciate some of the comments on the editing in the discussion particularly since that was the element that struck me as the most surprising aspect of Flunky.

    Hopefully some of the other Naruse fans on the site will way in before that point so the conversation will keep going.

  • InsertOzuReferencehere

    this was great :)

  • Michael E Kerpan

    Nice discussion. I personally love Apart From You most of all in this set (just a bit ahead of Every Night Dreams). For what it’s worth, here’s something I wrote about this (once upon a time):

    http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2006/cteq/apart_from_you/

    to gregx — it took me over 2 years to warm up fully to Naruse, I kept evaluating his work using my Ozu yardstick. Finally, after encountering Sound of the Mountain, Repast and Lightning, I managed to tune into Naruse’s own virtues (whereupon he became my number 2 director — right after Ozu)..

  • Daniel Kasman

    Thanks for stopping by, Michael, and thanks too for the link!

  • Michael E Kerpan

    Sorry I couldn’t figure how to make a live link. ;~}

    I think all the surviving Naruse silents (except Flunky) are already “mature” works — just like Ozu’s I Was Born But.

    BTW — I tried out both Apart From You and Every Night Dreams on my (20-something) kids — who all preferred Apart From You.

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