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Takamine Hideko

She, in a cinema whose cadence seemed to both rest and peak on steady, everyday anguish, was at once a passive subject as well as our, the audience’s, most active and empathetic guide.  Takamine Hideko, and what director Mikio Naruse saw in and brought out of her, is first this passivity, her face a soft record of the minute grievances and disillusionment of a nearly three decade span of Japanese cinema and Japanese society (a 1940 – 1966 run with Naruse).  But she was not just recorded, she was also insistent.  Her perseverance in Naruse's films makes this oeuvre one of the rarest things in the arts: an artist (and a major star at that) who pursued in the public limelight—hugely public, with the audience boom during Japanese ‘50s, the peak of the Takamine-Naruse collaboration—the minutia of everyday life, of cresting disappointments and small glimpses of modest happiness, the practical particulars of living in a household, in a marriage, in a community, and who bore all of its emotional and spiritual weight.

Her’s was an obstinate, forcefully continued observation and reflection of sorrow (never more so in the history of cinema than Floating Clouds [1955]).  This obstinacy of director and actress—a partnership as significant, if not more so, as the better known Hollywood collaborations of Wayne/Ford, De Niro/Scorsese, etc.—year by year, film by film, is informed entirely by Takamine.  She has a conscious, sponge-like presence in Naruse’s films, frowningly absorbing and remaining stained by all the pettiness of a human world, and yet always amazingly, achingly matched by an acute and moving rebellion, the need to persevere and continue on.

Whether for a minute hope or a mere stubbornness to survive knowingly in the face of all the suppression, repression, and inherent, intrinsic smallnesses of a vast human world, Takamine, for the sake of herself, keeps going.  Her mouth pulls downward, an expression made mild by her wide, soft cheeks, and her eyes drop in simultaneous dissatisfaction and a cloaking of further exposure of herself.  The expressiveness of her face is so controlled that in her most melancholy moments I think she shows signs of being a great comedian; indeed, she may have been one outside of Naruse’s films, but I mean in silent cinema, a frown to match Keaton’s blank stare.

Her sidelong looks forever mark and deflect the moment, escape flashing hatred or revulsion (but never escaping hints of being let down), and the actress teaches us to read her diversions and masks as her own language of emotion.  More often than not, she is the only pliable, observant being in the (film) world, the only one who we see feels the injustices around her, the only one who sees a bitter accumulation of failed love, economy and society that she struggles to swim through and not tire out and drown.  Her physical softness, which when unsmiling makes her beauty all the more normal and therefore all the more beautiful, is a cushion with which to first absorb and nurse but then stubbornly repel those peons who dare to crush the woman’s dreams of a good, stable income, a happy home, the fulfillment of a content life.  The attacks keep coming—Naruse was witheringly honest about the world we live in.  So Takamine looks aside and drops her mouth a bit, and fails to give up or truly give in.  Forever frowning, forever defiant—and we know there is a smile lurking inside her, just waiting for the smallest excuse to break free.

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Thanks for this, Daniel.
I just obtained the Criterion Collection DVD of Naruse’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs which I have not seen in over a decade. I am most curious about Donald Richie’s commentary since I was fortunate enough to be a student of his. More than may of his contemporaries (even Ozu) I find Naruse’s work exquisite in its cinematic and emotional restraint. I find similarities with modern novelist Kazuo Ishiguro’s characterizations in which the choice NOT to act is the most authentic, human and poignant.

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