click to buy “Naruse Volume One” at Amazon.co.ukThe posthumous international triumph of Mikio Naruse is one of the most unique corrections in film history.

– Phillip Lopate, quoted in the booklet accompanying the Criterion release of Naruse’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs

At the time of writing this article early in 2007, two releases of major works of Naruse Mikio with English subtitles and illuminating supplementary information already claim a paramount position in the DVD releases of this year. In the UK, the Masters of Cinema series has released Naruse Volume One, leading us to be optimistic that more of the master’s work will follow soon from this company which has been filling so many important gaps in the DVD catalogue. If this company continues its present track-record, dedicated cinéphiles should consider permanent orders of all their releases, personal circumstances permitting, of course. We should all cry, “Eureka!”

Criterion in the U.S. has also just released one Naruse title in its usual well-documented fashion and the British Film Institute is preparing another three titles for 2007.

A quick internet search of Naruse’s name will reveal references to various screenings and discussions of his work. A few scholars outside Japan know a great deal about this director and his career, and these same names are attached to various publications, retrospective screenings, etc. It’s no surprise that several members of this tiny band of dedicated “Narusians” also provide invaluable illuminations on the soundtracks and in the publications in these new DVD sets. The availability of several films at the same time is especially important because, as Dan Callahan commented, “all of his films feed off each other”.

Naruse was a contemporary of Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, directing nearly 90 films between 1930 and 1967. The four films just made available on DVD are from his most critically acclaimed mature period of the 1950s and ’60s, when he was working for Toho. His most frequent genre, the shomin-geki dealing with lower middle-class life, usually centred on a female protagonist whose life is frequently melancholy and imbued with disappointment, even if the atmosphere is not necessarily downbeat. Thus, he became known as a director of women’s pictures that perhaps limited their immediate appeal to audiences in Japan. His works were rarely exported to more prestigious festivals despite their success at home. George Cukor, Stanley Kwan, Douglas Sirk and Rainer Werner Fassbinder could also be described as men who created stories about women’s concerns, so Naruse is in quite illustrious international company.

Although Naruse’s work is well known in Japan, it has been seen fleetingly in other countries despite occasional retrospectives in the West from the early 1980s. My own first experience of Naruse’s masterly cinema was at the Melbourne International Film Festival, which presented Meshi (Repast, 1951) and Onna ga kaidan wo aguru toki (When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, 1960) as a prelude to more than twenty of Naruse’s films being screened around the country in conjunction with the Australian Film Institute and the then Spoleto Festival in Melbourne.

For a detailed account of Naruse’s work, please refer to the article by Alexander Jacoby in this journal

http://sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/03/naruse.html

and also

http://sensesofcinema.com/contents/01/12/naruse.html

Of the really major figures in Japanese cinema in the 20th century, Naruse could be said to be closest to Ozu through both directors’ choices of contemporary settings and examinations of family interactions. Moreover, the unforgettable presence of Setsuko Hara is pivotal to the work of both filmmakers in the early 1950s. Yet the similarities are very superficial. In U.S. in the 1950s, a parallel could be drawn that Howard Hawks and John Ford directed John Wayne in Rio Bravo (1959) and The Searchers (1956) respectively. Yet, although both films have settings in the American West of a similar period, they are unique and very individual films of each filmmaker and quite dissimilar to each other. Unlike many other filmmakers, Naruse shot his narratives in dramatic sequence, keeping his shooting script to himself and giving his actors little specific direction.

Major works by Ozu, Mizoguchi and Akira Kurosawa have appeared on home-video formats internationally for many years, particularly the more acclaimed post-war masterworks. Now that Ozu’s silent films are appearing with English subtitles, we can hope that the essential Mizoguchi films of the 1930s won’t be too far behind. A tiny number of films by Naruse have appeared on videotape in the West, sometimes in French or Spanish territories, and even fewer DVD releases have been available in Europe but without English subtitles.

The Masters of Cinema set comprises Repast, Yama no oto (Sound of the Mountain, 1954) and Nagareru (Flowing, 1956). When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is the Criterion release and the only Tohoscope film by Naruse to be released on commercial DVD so far. All four films illuminate each other as a cohesive group, although Naruse directed twenty films during this period. One hopes future releases will include some of Naruse’s final widescreen and colour films, too.

A very welcome aspect of both sets of discs is that they load directly to simple menus. No tea breaks are needed while slow animations unveil the set-ups, chapters, etc. After the titles of each Master of Cinema film concludes, there is a very salient warning and a potent reminder of the right of the ownership. It warns that if the material is copied and distributed illicitly, it will very much limit the chances of further similar releases. Fair copyright warning indeed and more.

Repast

Repast was Naruse’s critical return sixteen years after Tsuma yo bara no yo ni (Wife! Be like a Rose!, 1935). It is one of six Naruse films based on novels by Fumiko Hayashi and he even made a film about her life, Hourou-ki (variously called Her Lonely Lane and A Wanderer’s Notebook, 1962). Repast is an uncomplicated narrative told with insightful detail and subtlety from the point of view of the unhappy wife, Michiyo Okamoto (Setsuko Hara), disappointed by her drab existence and the boorish indifference of her husband, Hatsunosuke (Ken Uehara), whose attentions are easily distracted by the arrival of his niece. As in the other films discussed here, Naruse portrays life in post-war Japan in an almost documentary fashion, particularly in his location sequences in claustrophobic alleys and near waterways. One of the commentators mentions how it was Fassbinder twenty years later whose dissection of middle-class life in the post-war society in Europe is very much a reminder of Naruse’s concerns.

The DVD presents a new progressive transfer of a recent restoration of the film by Toho. The images are sharp and well contrasted and generally the disc seems a fine representation of the original release, but with new subtitles. The sound may seem a little thin in its dynamic range, but this is common with Japanese films of this period, and it suffers less noise than say films by Ozu made at the same time. There is a supplementary chapter in which two contemporary Naruse enthusiasts – Kent Jones (editor-at-large of Film Comment) and Phillip Lopate (renowned essayist and writer on Naruse’s work) – provide a 14-minute audio discussion to accompany scenes from the film. They discuss the Hayashi’s characters as represented by Naruse, and how the drama is shown from the woman’s viewpoint, particularly with Hara Setsuko’s marvellous performance revealing her ability to smile through tears. One of the short sequences illustrating their talk shows Naruse’s mastery in composing and editing his shots. Like other directors from the silent era, Naruse shot in such a way that he became his own editor. In fact, there is no editor listed on the three films in the Masters of Cinema set. His sequences flow almost seamlessly with a glance or a movement picked up almost imperceptibly in the next shot so that the cut becomes invisible at times. Kurosawa was said to have admired Naruse’s editing enormously and mentioned how “a flow of shots that looks calm and ordinary at first glance reveals itself to be like a deep river with a quiet surface disguising a fast-raging current underneath”.

Jones and Lopate go on to describe how much Repast is a film about Tokyo (the wife’s place of growing up) and Osaka (where she finds no joy in her domesticity). They emphasize that this portrait of a marriage in crisis has a similar but different potency to the central drama in Roberto Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (1954), but Naruse provides no miracle help to resolve the tension. They also ponder the swapping of Hara for Hideko Takamine, another favourite Naruse performer, in the main female role.

In Sound of the Mountain, the principal actors from Repast, Hara and Uehara, again play a couple whose marriage heads to an even more downward crisis. Yasunari Kawabata, the first Japanese to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, provided the novel on which the film is based. The location for the film is Kamakura, Kawabata’s hometown beside the sea, and the main setting is said to resemble his own house. It is claimed that this film was one of Naruse’s own favourites of his work. If in Repast Uehara played an indifferent husband, this time his character is actively philandering, much to the disapproval of his father with whom he shares a house, together with his wife and mother. A spiritual bond develops between the wife and her father-in-law. Again, there are few characters but they are developed richly and in its final moments the film reaches an almost unbearable level of poignancy, not only through his dramatic development but also through the use of tracking shots and indoor and exterior imagery. Naruse’s characters have never been more pushed to the edge however real or figurative, with nowhere to move. He is recorded as saying, “If the characters moved just a little bit they’d bump into the walls.”

The image on this restoration is a pleasure to see, although there is the tiniest amount of unsteadiness at times, perhaps the result of uneven shrinkage of the original material.

Again we can hear Kent Jones and Phillip Lopate recorded in New York in June 2006, but this time their fascinating and insightful commentary plays throughout the entire film on a separate audio track. They discuss how masterly is this compression of such a large original novel, the appearances of Naruse’s stock company and how once again this is such a rich portrait of the working of a city in the early post-war years in Japan. There are several long tracking shots during the film, particularly featuring Hara and the splendid Sô Yamamura as her father-in-law. The commentators point to the way in which these shots express the harmony between these people, how they keep the same pace, while a dappled late afternoon light falls on them between the trees. Kent and Lopate discuss how Hara is framed with her in-laws to establish the dynamics of the relationships. It is also pointed out that, unlike Ozu, Naruse reveals more interest in the everyday dilemmas of lack of money and uneasy family relationships. That music is such an important part of Naruse’s world is also mentioned. Over the final sequence between Yamamura and Hara, we are told of the unique way in which Naruse directs such a scene compared to how other filmmakers would adapt the situation.

Flowing

Set in a geisha house in a period of decline, Flowing was made in 1956, the same year as Mizoguchi’s final film, Akasen chitai (Street of Shame), which dealt with prostitution in the year it was outlawed in Japan. Again the film’s origins are a contemporary novel by Aya Koda. Expertly Naruse explores a number of subplots concerning lives of geishas as they face an uncertain future, while unifying the structure of the film through the use of the architecture of the house. Many major actors appear in the film. In her chapter in the booklet accompanying the discs, Catherine Russell discusses the multi-faceted meaning of the title. It could refer to “the uprootedness of the characters, or to the river” or perhaps the movement of the film in short scenes or even to the “‘flow’ of money that circulates among the characters”.

As with Repast, the disc of Flowing has a short, in this case nine-minute, audio discussion by Kent Jones and Phillip Lopate, while scenes from the film are examined and broader issues discussed. Both writers declare their dedication to Naruse and particularly to this, one of his greatest works. Again they discuss the documentary impulse revealing life in the cities interspersed with everyday events. They agree this is perhaps Naruse’s most Chekhovian film and discuss various thematic groupings of the director’s works.

In the three or four years between Flowing and When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, we find the arrival of the bar hostess scene in Tokyo’s Ginza district. Hideo Takamine appears in both these films about the entertainment of men in post-war Japan. In the later film, she is the absolute focus of the drama, providing a performance of striking power often through its subtlety as well. As a widow with strong attachment to her late husband, Keiko Yashiro tries to find a more permanent ascension than can be provided by the walk up the single flight of stairs to the hostess bar. Naruse draws a rich ensemble of characters on both sides of this type of diverting but impermanently satisfying activity. Naruse’s attention to details of place and character were never more keenly on view than in this, one of his most enduring and highly regarded works. Again he uses a woman’s voice-over to draw us into the story.

Criterion has provided a new high-definition digital transfer in the original Tohoscope ratio. It’s valuable to see at least one ’scope film in this new batch of Naruse releases.

The image is richly black and white. The soundtrack has sourced from a 35mm optical track and digitally cleaned up. It’s a pity there is some distortion of the music during the opening credit titles, something that always seems to be an imperfection on copies of this film that must be beyond restoration. There are occasional moments of light flickering in an otherwise pristine set of images, something that is apparent on both a plasma display and an older CRT television. A previous grey-and-white issue of the film on VHS tape doesn’t show this blemish. If Naruse’s stoical heroines can be resigned to their disappointment with an imperfect world, we can accept very easily the occasional imperfection in an otherwise outstanding release.

click to buy “When a Woman Ascends the Stairs” at Amazon.comThere are three audio tracks on this very special disc. The original soundtrack can be heard in mono or an alternate selection will provide a Dolby 3.0 soundtrack preserving the original Perspecta stereo track of the first release. Perspecta was a kind of pseudo stereo process often used by MGM as its answer to the four-track magnetic stereo of the early films by Twentieth Century-Fox, but a process that stopped in the West around the time of this film by Naruse. Most important, there is a third audio track providing a full-length commentary by noted Japan specialist Donald Richie. Richie’s contribution was recorded in 2004 and 2006, but evolves as seamlessly as the best Naruse film itself. Not only does he provide insight into the world of Naruse, but also this is a very valuable audio document from an American who has devoted the past sixty years to illuminating the world about Japanese cinema and society in general. Richie leads us through the way Naruse used actors and their gestures to reveal his great concern for presentation. He admits Naruse had his share of lesser films, but When a Woman ascends the Stairs is certainly one of the best. Throughout the director’s career, Richie points out, he chose as a narrative focus a woman who does not live within conventional marriage arrangements. As a social commentator, Richie discusses the bar hostess scene in Japan as a new phenomenon at the time the film was made. Richie places the film within its social and demographic context, and describes the specificity of Naruse’s locations in the film. Although he is discussing a black-and-white film, he makes mention of the use of colour in the final films of both Ozu and Naruse.

Finally, there is a new 14-minute interview with Tatsuya Nakadai, a stage and screen actor familiar to anyone who has been watching the major works of Kurosawa, Masaki Kobayashi, Kon Ichikawa and many more. He describes how, as a stage actor, he was in the unusual position of not being contracted to any studio and could appear in the work of these important filmmakers. Naruse was a very quiet man, he notes. He acknowledges his debt to Naruse and to Hideo Takamine in When a Woman ascends the Stairs for an excellent introduction to film acting. Comparisons with the totally different method of filming by Kurosawa are discussed.

Both DVD packages include significant printed publications with numerous production stills. Interestingly, as they hail from opposites sides of the Atlantic, both booklets have articles by the same authorities from North America. In addition, the Criterion booklet includes an article by Takamine about working with Naruse over many years. From Audie Bock’s annotations at the time of the first major Naruse retrospective in the early 1980s to extracts from a forthcoming publication by Catherine Russell, these writings are a valuable and comprehensive background to the unique world of Naruse, particularly for a new audience unfamiliar with any of his work. In the Masters of Cinema book, there are chapters by Catherine Russell specifically on Naruse as a filmmaker and on Repast (“The Salaryman’s Wife”), Sound of the Mountain (“Naruse as Modernist”) and Flowing (“House of Women”). “The Art of the Sidelong Glance: the Cinema of Naruse Mikio” by Audie Bock in 2005 is followed by Phillip Lopate’s “A Taste for Naruse”. The chapters in the Criterion publication are “They Endure” by Lopate, “Diary of a Ginza Bar Hostess” by Russell, “The Essential Naruse” by Bock and “About Mikio Naruse” by Hideko Takamine.

Some other supplementary reading can be found in Cinemaya, Vol. 31, where an article by Andre Scola on Dutch painting, especially the work of Pieter de Hooch, has been reprinted in English from an original piece in Cahiers du Cinéma, no. 466. I would also recommend most enthusiastically the published essays of Phillip Lopate, particularly his volume, Totally Tragically Tenderly, which includes a most insightful chapter totally in tune with the sensibility of Naruse, one of the truly greatest artists of the 20th century.

Click here to order Naruse Volume One from  Amazon.co.uk

Click here to order When a Woman Ascends the Stairs from  Amazon.com

About The Author

Michael Campi has been under the spell of the cinema for half a century. He was involved with the film society movement, assisted with the former National Film Theatre of Australia and was a committee member of the Melbourne Film Festival in the 1970s