In the final moments of 1960’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs—the last classic of Japanese cinema’s pre-New Wave golden age—Keiko, a slowly brittling modern geisha, strides once more into the Ginza, neon ground zero of Tokyo’s thousand-and-one perilously overpriced whiskey bars and girls. Tossed by the currents of the so-called “floating world” and approaching the carpet-padded cliff face of that stairway to another looming night shift, Keiko steels herself with the chilly comfort that “some trees bloom no matter how cold the wind.” Cineastes of similar conviction will recognize her resignation as something like a prayer, if not a reflexive eulogy for the
eternally despondent (if equally resilient) deity who’d contrived to strand her there: director Mikio Naruse—that “other” great master of Japanese cinema, patron saint of all things radiant in their celluloid despair.
Among the most sublime cinematic treatments of that sector of the service industry politely referred to as “bar hostesses,” When a Woman is—with the possible exception of its thematically contiguous cousin, the 1954 graying-geisha drama Late Chrysanthemums— the one bit of the Naruse catechism film-loving lay folk are likely to know; it’s the “Now I lay me down to sleep” of the director’s 90-features-long and still-too-little-known career. Tempting though it might be to describe Film Forum’s 31-film retrospective—flush with rubbed-raw riches from the silent 1933 boy-meets-geisha romance Apart From You to the Sirk-saturated colors of his 1967 career capper, Scattered Clouds—as tantamount to the miracle of resurrection, the reality is that Naruse has so long been locked in the “ripe for rediscovery” position that it’s come to seem an integral aspect of his historically sanctioned rigor state. Born in 1905, Naruse—from his career origins as the Shochiku Studios stablemate of Yasujiro Ozu through his 30-year tenure at Toho and brief taste of independence before his death in 1969—has always been thought of as an acquired and easily spoiled taste. Even acknowledged masterworks, like 1934’s Wife, Be Like a Rose and 1954’s Floating Clouds, were deemed flashes in the decades of darkness he spent (apparently with some contentment) in popular and critical disregard.
According to film historian Audie Bock, Naruse spent much of his life living alone, dining on the cheap, and sharing his thoughts only with waitresses and bottles of booze: He saw “living with people as a terribly difficult thing even before he tried it.” This attitude extended to his treatment of his actors and his characters. Tatsuya Nakadai, who had a reputation for delivering precisely what directors requested, deplored Naruse’s “nihilism” and disinterest in guiding performances. Hideko Takamine, who starred in 15 Naruse films, once summoned the courage to ask him how she should approach a role: “It’ll be over before you know it,” came his chastening response. Hardly surprising, then, was the recurrent centrality of caddish men like Masayuki Mori’s arrogant philanderer in Floating Clouds or emotionally constricted women like Haruko Sugimura’s aging, childless clutch purse in Late Chrysanthemums. Even Naruse’s fans share in their auteur’s alienations, leading critic Phillip Lopate to note that “Fellow Naruseans do not fall into each other’s arms but are testy, as though irritated at meeting another keeper of the flame.”
It’s possible that the director would have taken some perverse pleasure in his consignment to fate’s shadow realm, so suffused were his tormented melodramas with a sense of emotional exile. But how to account for the tenderness and compassion with which those essays in abjection and alienation were made? Or the boundless empathy with which he treated the women on whose suffering his cinema, perhaps even more than Mizoguchi’s, so ardently depends? And has a director ever depicted drunkenness with such delicacy?
Perhaps the answers lie in the minor refrains and mischievously bleak motifs that recur throughout his films. Among them: an interest in calamitous car crashes of the sort for which his 1966 Hit and Run was named, widows and rejected lovers who focus their thwarted affections on household pets, and money (and especially the lack thereof) as the root rot beneath every family’s tree. For a filmmaker who abhorred the mercurial changeability of the weather, Naruse remained preoccupied with the floating, scattered, and “herringbone” cloud formations for which many of his movies were titled. Critics who insist on the aesthetic centrality of the director’s distaste for location shooting should look again at how he sets characters in strolling motion through ruined postwar landscapes, and especially at Floating Clouds, which travels to hotbox French Indochina and monsoon-seasoned Kyushu in order to reassert the remoteness endured by lovers marooned between physical intimacy and the unbridgeable desire that something less fleeting than the lusts of a lifetime might bind them forever.
Superstructured above it all is that grandest of Naruse’s infernal designs: a metaphysical certainty about the interpenetration of the past and the present in human lives, most painfully felt in unrequited hearts and formally manifest in the director’s fondness for joining flashbacks with present-day actions by the most deceptively innocent of dissolve-free straight cuts. As the doomed Takamine comes to realize in Floating Clouds, “For us, the past is our only reality.” Her sentiment echoes everywhere in Naruse’s cinema. Rediscovering Naruse during this extraordinary series is unlikely to mitigate the perpetual essentiality that we’ll need to rediscover him again, and again. Anything less would deny the forever closed and reopening legacy of a director who saw no contradiction in describing a film he’d entitled Flowing as the story of fragile mortals struggling with the realization that “if they move even a little, they quickly hit the wall.”