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“Japanese Master Mikio Naruse”

At the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, the Freer Gallery of Art, and the National Gallery of Art to April 29

It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that the protagonists of Mikio Naruse’s films, which often have titles like Wife, Mother, and Older Brother, Younger Sister, simply lack given names. Careful viewing reveals that this isn’t true—for example, the heroine of 1960’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, one of the director’s best-known movies in the West, is named Keiko. Yet she’s rarely called that, instead answering to “Mama,” which refers to her role as the mother hen of a bar in Tokyo’s Ginza district. She, like so many of Naruse’s central characters, is defined by her role in the workplace or the family.

This is characteristic of Japanese culture—and of Confucian societies in general. Thus the “Japaneseness” of Naruse’s work is inevitably a matter of discussion whenever a sympathetic commentator attempts to tug the director’s reputation from the shadow of postwar Japanese cinema’s big three: Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, and Akira Kurosawa. It will certainly be discussed over the next seven weeks, as 30 of Naruse’s 44 extant films—another 45 have apparently been lost—screen at three local venues, the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, the Freer Gallery of Art, and the National Gallery of Art. Organized by Cinematheque Ontario to mark the 2005 centenary of the filmmaker’s birth, “Japanese Master Mikio Naruse” is the most ambitious attempt yet to introduce this underrated director to North American audiences.

To quickly (and inadequately) recap, Mizoguchi is known for his empathy for women, elegant compositions, and long, graceful takes; Ozu for his austere—some say “transcendent”—style and his concern for preserving family and tradition; and Kurosawa for his passion, grandeur, humanism, and dynamic action sequences. In many ways, Naruse is closest to Ozu, his near-contemporary. (Naruse directed his first feature in 1930, three years after Ozu’s debut, and his last in 1967, five years after Ozu’s career ended.) That the two filmmakers are similar is not a fresh insight: Shochiku Studios boss Shiro Kido, Naruse’s antagonist early in his career, is said to have told the fledgling director that “we don’t need two Ozus.”

Yet no one would call Naruse’s films “transcendent.” They are in and of the material world, where money and its scarcity govern people’s lives. One of the director’s motifs is an unceasing interest in cash, and in the most specific terms. When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (at 2 p.m. Saturday, March 18, at the National Gallery and at 7:35 p.m. Saturday, April 15, and 7 p.m. Monday, April 17, at the AFI Silver) has enough exact sums to justify a screening at an accountants’ convention: A rival bar proprietor leaves a 300,000 yen debt when she commits suicide, an admirer who has taken advantage of Keiko’s love for him guiltily gives her 100,000 yen in stocks before moving to Osaka, and Keiko’s ineffectual brother requests 800,000 yen for his polio-afflicted son’s operation. Naruse grew up poor, struggled in his career for many years, and made films for people surviving the Depression, World War II, and Japan’s postwar devastation. He didn’t buy spiritual balms for economic wounds—in fact, he parodied a greedy cult in 1955’s Floating Clouds—and he didn’t expect anyone else to go for them, either.

Samurai swords rarely flash in Naruse’s work—there are none in the films he actually wanted to make—and dramatic downfalls are rare, at least for his central characters. Deaths are typically banal and revealed secondhand, through gossip, newspaper stories, or an offhand reference to a funeral. Fatal car crashes impel plots in several of the director’s movies, and every one of the seven postwar Naruse features I’ve seen includes either talk of suicide or an actual one. But the self-inflicted deaths invariably take place offscreen, and they involve minor players whose desperate circumstances highlight those of the principal character.

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Naruse’s protagonists, most of them working-class women, rarely die. That would be too melodramatic—and too merciful. Instead, his movies usually conclude with a woman alone in her plight, partially defeated, partially accepting. This solitariness may not be literal: When a Woman Ascends the Stairs ends with a close-up of Keiko, dutifully welcoming unseen bar patrons. 1956’s A Wife’s Heart (at 5:20 p.m. Sunday, April 9, and 7 p.m. Monday, April 10, at the AFI Silver) closes with a shot of the repeatedly foiled Kiyoko listening to the laughter of her unsupportive relatives from an adjoining room. And 1952’s Mother (at 5:15 p.m. Saturday, March 18, and 7 p.m. Sunday, March 19, at the AFI Silver) concludes with the title character playing with her young nephew, who is soon to leave her, as her husband, son, younger daughter, and prospective second husband already have. Naruse’s postwar style doesn’t include any visual trademarks akin to Mizoguchi’s long takes or Ozu’s low-angle viewpoint. (Look for flashier camera positions in Naruse’s films from the ’30s.) But his subtle editing powerfully evokes his characters’ private worlds and their sense of isolation in crowds—a telling example of the director’s Japaneseness.

Admittedly, the recurring patterns I’ve found in Naruse’s work might have been amplified by coincidence. I’ve seen only nine of his films, most of them from the postwar period that produced the director’s favorites among his own pictures. In the United States, viewing Naruse’s movies has always been a challenge. Only a handful of them have ever been available on video here, and most copies of those vanished when video-rental shops junked their VHS tapes in the most recent purge of cinematic history. But descriptions of Naruse’s other movies—or at least the postwar ones—suggest that they are very similar in theme, if perhaps not in individual details.

Naruse was a product of the Japanese studio system, and he made many films that were not to his own taste. He struggled for 14 years at Shochiku, beginning as a prop man and working his way up to a director of slapstick comedies, an incongruous gig for a man who was widely considered to be dour. (He might have been, but the films of his mature period are far from humorless.) In 1934, Naruse departed for PCL, the company that would become Toho, one of Japan’s leading studios. Although he freelanced occasionally, most of his best-known movies were made for Toho or its predecessor. These include his first big success, 1935’s Wife, Be Like a Rose! (at 2 p.m. Saturday, March 11, at the National Gallery), rated the best film of the year by Kinema Jumpo, the influential Japanese cinema review, and the first Japanese movie to be released commercially in New York. After the difficulties of the ’40s—war, devastation, and two different sets of military censors—Naruse returned to prominence in Japan in the ’50s. In the West, however, Wife, Be Like a Rose!’s breakthrough was forgotten as Mizoguchi, Ozu, and Kurosawa came to exemplify classic Japanese cinema.

Kurosawa (who served as Naruse’s assistant director on 1937’s Avalanche) and Mizoguchi are known for period films, although they also made contemporary ones. Naruse was required to make such historical films as A Tale of Archers at the Sanjusangendo (at 7 p.m. Friday, March 31, at the Freer), an interesting but uncharacteristic wartime paean to the samurai ethic shot in Kyoto in 1945, while Tokyo was being firebombed. (The title location, a landmark temple stuffed with compassionate Buddhas, also features in a prominent piece in Hiroshi Sugimoto’s current show at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.) But Naruse avoided such stories and sites whenever possible.

Ozu also preferred the present, but traditional Japan beckoned to his characters, as did Buddhism. Naruse shared Ozu’s predilection for lyrical establishing shots of trains, streets, and skies framed by rough suburban buildings, but not his affection for temples, pagodas, and shrines. Ozu often shot in Kamakura, a picturesque temple town near Tokyo; Naruse preferred to work on sets and rarely used locations that evoked traditional life. Typically, the director set his movies in the blue-collar Tokyo he himself inhabited. Naruse lived most of his life in a small second-floor apartment, a place that could easily have been home to one of his films’ neglected wives or abandoned mothers.

Mizoguchi, classic Japanese cinema’s leading chronicler of female oppression, was drawn to extraordinary tales of women crushed by society. For 1949’s My Love Burns, he even adapted the memoir of a pioneering 19th-century feminist, complete with harrowing scenes depicting the mistreatment of prisoners and silk-mill workers. Naruse found his muse in female novelist Fumiko Hayashi, adapting five films from her writings. To judge by Late Chrysanthemums (at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, March 25, and 7 p.m. Monday, March 27, at the AFI Silver) and Floating Clouds (at 7:20 p.m. Saturday, April 1, and 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 4, at the AFI Silver), Hayashi was sort of the Japanese equivalent to British novelist Jean Rhys, spinning tales of women who should know better but keep sacrificing themselves for feckless men. Yet 1953’s Wife (at 1 p.m. Saturday, March 18, and 7 p.m. Monday, March 20, at the AFI Silver), also derived from Hayashi, takes a contrasting course, observing an indifferent spouse who decides she needs her husband only after he becomes close to another woman.

Despite the themes of his films, Mizoguchi did not approve of women who wanted to be filmmakers, and he had a famous split with actress Kinuyo Tanaka—the star of My Love Burns and several Naruse movies, including Mother—when she decided to become a director. He did, however, work extensively and effectively with women screenwriters, notably Yoko Mizuki and Sumie Tanaka. And Naruse’s favorite actress, Hideko Takamine, starred in 17 of his films over 25 years, a relationship that lasted five times as long as the director’s marriage to Wife, Be Like a Rose! star Sachiko Chiba.

Although he’s been downplayed in Western accounts of mid-20th-century Japanese cinema, Naruse was in the thick of it. Devotees of the better-known Japanese directors will recognize many actors in his films, including such emblematic performers as Kinuyo Tanaka and one of Ozu’s favorites, Setsuko Hara. A Wife’s Heart features not only Toshiro Mifune, playing a banker with a samurai’s bearing, but also two other of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. This, of course, is another aspect of Naruse’s Japaneseness, at least to American filmgoers.

There’s more, from the Confucian lessons recited by the young son in Wife, Be Like a Rose! to the way that the characters play out the roles assigned by their native language in 1953’s Older Brother, Younger Sister (at 5:20 p.m. Saturday, March 11, and 5:45 p.m. Sunday, March 12, at the AFI Silver). (That’s the literal translation of the title, Ani Imoto; birth order is encoded into the most commonly used Japanese words for various types of siblings.) Yet if Naruse saw little hope for change, he did not flatter the social order that made him. In Wife, Be Like a Rose!, a young career woman goes to retrieve her father from his mistress, a former geisha, only to realize that the disreputable woman is actually a worthy helpmate and that her dad belongs with his second family. Her own mother is better suited to being alone, writing well-received poems about her loss.

Naruse’s films are full of the usual bustle of marital go-betweens and frustrations at failed matches, too. But near the end of A Wife’s Heart, Kiyoko’s unwed best friend shrugs that she’s “sick of marriage”—and is not rebuked. Such moments are as significant as the ones in which the director’s heroines clean the house, play with the kids, or climb the stairs to a second-floor bar, reconciled to their lives. Naruse’s best films counsel quiet acceptance, but inside they bristle at the world that made such forbearance necessary.CP