Yogoto no Yume (Nightly Dreams)--
Mikio Naruse's Silent Masterpiece

by

William M. Drew



 

    In a Japanese harbor town, a young woman, abandoned by her husband and seeking to support her little boy, works as a hostess in a bar patronized by sailors.  The husband suddenly returns to resume living with her but is unable to find employment.  When the boy is struck and injured by a car, his father, in desperation, robs a company's safe.  Pursued by police, he tries to give his wife the money which she refuses, asking him instead to turn himself in.  He then drowns himself in the harbor.  When his wife learns of his fate the next day, she is overwhelmed by grief but urges her son to be strong in adversity as the film ends.

    That, simply stated, is the synopsis of the 1933 silent classic, Yogoto no Yume (Nightly Dreams), written and directed by Mikio Naruse and produced by Shochiku studio which recently released the film on home video (Catalog no. SB-0382). But a bare description of the plot can scarcely do justice to Naruse's remarkable mastery of the cinematic techniques of the late silent era and the powerful performances of the two principals, Sumiko Kurishima as the wife and Tatsuo Saito as her prodigal husband.

    Mikio Naruse (1905-1969) is considered to be, along with Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu, one of the three greatest Japanese directors of his generation. After a decade of apprenticeship at the Shochiku studio, Naruse began directing silent films in 1930. He was soon recognized as a major filmmaker in his own country and even attained international acclaim when one of his first sound films, Wife, Be Like a Rose! (1935), was shown abroad including the United States. After the war, he remained a major force in Japanese cinema with such noted films as Mother (1952), Floating Clouds (1955), Flowing (1956) and When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960).

    1933 proved to be a banner year for Naruse and the Japanese silent cinema. Yogoto no Yume placed third among the year's outstanding productions cited by the prestigious Japanese film magazine, Kinema Jumpo, behind Ozu's Dekigokoro (Passing Fancy) (available on video # IVCV-3304S) and Mizoguchi's Taki no Shiraito (The Water Magician) (available on video # APVA-4010) and just ahead of another Naruse film, Kimi to Wakarete (Apart From You).

    Like the other Japanese filmmakers of the thirties, Naruse had the privilege of exploring the creative possibilities of the silent cinema long after Western filmmakers, whether willingly or no, had adopted sound. The result is that Yogoto no Yume has an extraordinarily sophisticated use of cinematic techniques. Virtually every shot stands out for its carefully composed artistry. Naruse makes continual use of selective focus to highlight one character or another. For example. when the husband returns to the apartment from his unsuccessful job-hunting, in one shot he is in focus dominating the right-hand side of the frame while his wife in the background is out of focus. Yet in a subsequent shot from the same position, it is Sumiko Kurishima who is in focus and Tatsuo Saito who is out of focus.

    Naruse employs unusual camera angles and movement. There is a tilted shot in which the heroine's face appears dominant to the left in a mirror while her neighbor is seen in the distance in the mirror's right side. The commission of the robbery is presented in a series of oblique camera angles showing Saito fleeing from the scene and others reacting to the discovery of the theft. A frequent device used by the director is a rapid track-in to a close-up of a character or characters and a track-out to establish either a sense of drama or intimacy as in an early shot near the beginning of the film when the camera tracks in to show the mother warmly clasping her son in close-up.

    There are unique transitions of setting as well. In one shot, the heroine is looking at herself in the mirror at her home. This cuts to a similar shot of her looking in a mirror only now her hair is arranged in the traditional style popularized by geisha and the film quickly reveals she is primping herself in the bar. When Saito tosses a little ball in the air in his wife's apartment, the camera tilts up with the ball, then cuts to a long-shot of a baseball being thrown outside and a succeeding sequence in which the hero plays baseball with the neighborhood children near a construction site. Naruse also makes use of camera movement to explore the film's mise-en scene as in the diagonal tracking shot sweeping across the interior of the bar and revealing its patrons at their tables.

    The director utilizes montage effectively. A close-up of the boy's toy automobile that had been pushed across a table by Saito is succeeded by brief, rapidly-cut shots in the tradition of Gance and Eisenstein showing children rushing in to tell him of his son's injury and a real car moving towards the screen--the vehicle that had hit the child. Another salient example of Naruse's editing style can be found towards the end when Saito's suicide is disclosed. (The director never actually shows him killing himself.) The camera tracks back across a long-shot of the apartment's interior with the heroine in the background, then Naruse cuts to a long-shot of the neighbors outside, then a semi-closeup of them rushing in and suddenly going out of focus as they announce the grim discovery. Following is a close-up of Kurishima's face which also goes out of focus, intercut with titles increasing in size and seeming to leap out on the screen as they declare her husband is dead. This is succeeded by a close-up of the water in the harbor and Saito's hat being thrown down and then shots of the heroine and others running to the scene of the suicide.

    Naruse had opened the film in the harbor with the heroine meeting two sailors, customers in her bar, who give her cigarettes. He ends the film by cutting from a big close-up of the boy and his bereaved mother, her hair straggling across her cheek, to a long-shot of them in their apartment, then shots of the neighborhood outside followed by more and more distant shots of the harbor. Thus, with this concluding montage sequence, the heroine and her son are as effectively swallowed up by their environment as McTeague and the dead Marcus in the desert wastes of Death Valley in Erich von Stroheim's Greed and John and Mary Sims disappearing into the laughing audience at the vaudeville show in King Vidor's The Crowd.

    Despite this display of technique, Naruse never loses sight of the characters in his story or the setting in which their lives are played out. Indeed, the abundance of close-ups of the characters' faces only accentuates the audience's emotional involvement with their fates. Simultaneously, the director is meticulous in his recreation of the environment which shapes their destinies. Although in later years Naruse professed to dislike location shooting, he makes effective use of actual settings in Yogoto no Yume. One comes away with a real sense of the harbor town, the apartment in which the heroine lives, the bar where she works her trade. As an example, Naruse manages a swift transition from the heroine riding on a boat in the harbor to her neighborhood, cutting from a close shot of the water rushing by to a shot of the narrow alley outside her apartment complete with clotheslines and children playing in the street. Her milieu is definitely lower-middle class but by no means a slum. Her apartment is neatly maintained and comfortably furnished complete with arranged flowers and expensive toys for her child. Far from living in an impersonal metropolis like the characters in The Crowd, she seems to live in a closely-knit community as demonstrated in her warm relations with her next-door neighbors, her landlord and his wife who 'baby-sit' her boy when she works her trade at night.

    For all the film's tragic denouement, Naruse manages to inject charm and humor into his narrative.  Kurishima's landlord is depicted as an amusing somewhat bumbling figure with a drooping moustache who is first seen fast asleep with a child's toy protruding from his mouth. There is poignancy in the scene in which Saito plays baseball in his stocking feet with the neighborhood children as his son, seated on a large sewer pipe, examines the gaping hole in his father's shoe and attempts to repair it by filling the crevice with paper and mud.

    Tatsuo Saito and Sumiko Kurishima are memorable in the leads. For Saito, best known for his comic performances in Ozu's films, Yogoto no Yume offered him a chance to play a completely serious role as a pathetic loser albeit one with good intentions. Angular, wearing a goatee and with a characteristically gentle, resigned manner, he is scarcely a typical romantic hero. Sumiko Kurishima's portrayal is a triumph for the veteran "First Lady of the Japanese Cinema" who had begun as a child performer in films in 1909 and had emerged as one of Japan's first popular screen stars in the early 1920s. Her attractive, expressive face is a study in emotions as Naruse repeatedly focuses on close-ups of her. She is genuinely warm and loving with her son, artificially charming with her male clientele, first angry and then tolerant of her weak-willed husband and, at the end, in a state of abject grief yet enraged defiance. When, after the discovery of her husband's body and his suicide note, she is approached outside by the sea captain who had pursued her earlier, she strikes out at him, slapping him and pushing him back and then rushing to her house and her son.

    A film of such quality ought to have been long recognized by historians as a masterpiece of the silent cinema. Yet whatever the high reputation of Yogoto no Yume in Japan, historians in the West have not given Naruse's film its due despite the director's renown. There is the traditional tendency on the part of some critics when analyzing a director who went on in the sound era to dismiss his silents as so much early 'prentice work rather than considering them as the fully matured artistic exploration of an autonomous mode of cinematic expression with its own aesthetics. This has been the limitation, for example, in many analyses of John Ford and the resultant critical underrating of his mastery of dramatic visual narrative in the silent era. In the case of Mikio Naruse who, like Ford, had a long and distinguished career in sound films, this has been compounded by the West's protracted indifference to, or unfamiliarity with, the early Japanese cinema as a whole.

    Unfortunately, appreciation for Yogoto no Yume as an outstanding work of film art was not aided by an ambitious attempt in the 1970s by critic and historian Noel Burch to redirect attention to the pre-war Japanese cinema in his book, To the Distant Observer. Although Burch did gain some long-overdue critical recognition for works previously unknown in the West, his study was marred not only by a pretentious style but also by a dubious, ideologically-driven approach to film history. Conjuring up the image of a pre-war Japanese cinema that Burch maintained at its best was largely pristine from Western cinematic influences which he associates with colonialism--in particular, Hollywood's "codes" of filmic language--the critic could only emphasize those aspects of Japanese cinema which accorded with his theoretical base. As a result, he was mostly dismissive of Naruse's assimilation of rapid-tracking, montage and extreme close-ups, regarding it as a comparatively unsuccessful use of Western film techniques. In truth, however, Naruse in Yogoto no Yume adopted the form he felt not only best accommodated his subject matter but also his working in the silent medium. While like all Japanese silents, this film was originally shown in theatres with a benshi performer providing the narration and dialogue, it was characteristic of Naruse and other Japanese directors to reduce the benshi's function to one of redundancy by pushing silent cinema to its limits as a visual medium. When Naruse finally began making sound films in the mid-thirties, he opted for a more subdued visual style than in his silents, a development that was paralleled in the West by many directors such as John Ford and William Wellman.

    To those who seek to postulate either an early Japanese cinema resistant to the 'imperialism' of the Western filmic norms or the older view of a pre-war Japanese film industry merely imitative of Hollywood and Europe, the individuality of a Japanese film artist such as Mikio Naruse will be ever elusive. Yogoto no Yume has been seen by some Western critics as derivative of Josef von Sternberg's The Docks of New York. While Sternberg's film is also a masterpiece with a similar setting of a harbor and a bar complete with a heroine reduced to prostitution, the 1928 film breathes a kind of tough-minded optimism that is as different from the somber mood of Naruse's film as Betty Compson's frowzy whore redeemed by the love of burly seaman George Bancroft is from Sumiko Kurishima's gentle mother driven to near-prostitution by her husband's defection and the resultant loss of family security. Naruse made creative use of Western techniques but his film ultimately owes its autonomy, its power and individual expressiveness to the experiences of the director as a sensitive artist responding to the Japanese society of his time. Having lost his parents at an early age and lived with privations, Naruse became a shy, withdrawn man. Even as he emerged in the early thirties to become an outstanding, award-winning new director, Naruse, whose salary was quite modest by Western standards, lived a far from glamorous existence, renting a second-floor apartment from the owners of an unsuccessful sushi shop. Much of his time away from the studio was spent in lonely drinking sessions at cheap restaurants. Thus, for all of his lack of camaraderie, Naruse was directly observing the ordinary people's lives that he was bringing to the screen.

    It is a tribute to the creative freedom enjoyed by Japanese film artists in those years that Naruse was able to project the truths he saw without the intervention of a smiling official line embodied in the same era by the Stalinist "socialist realism" in the USSR, the Nazi sugar-coating in the Third Reich and, for that matter, the attempt to enforce "bourgeois" standards of respectability on Hollywood with the adoption of the 1934 Production Code. Although Yogoto no Yume does not have nudity or salacious bedroom scenes nor does it feature the pat solutions of "leftist" propaganda films, its frankness is deeper and more meaningful than explicitly sexual depictions and its social criticism more penetrating than an exercise in obvious political demonology. There are some unpleasant characters such as the captain but there are no villains in Naruse's film. Rather, the director paints a picture of a society with poverty and unemployment, one with few opportunities for women. Like D.W. Griffith and his contemporary Kenji Mizoguchi, Naruse was a male heterosexual artist whose early hardships had so sensitized him to his feminine side that he became extraordinarily responsive to the historic injustices suffered by women. Driven by societal inequities to work in a profession that almost leads her to prostitution, Sumiko Kurishima's mother, in her singular devotion to her son, emerges as the most heroic figure in the film, one who is at last able to call her soul her own. Her final defiance of the sexually predatory captain at the end becomes an emblematic response by generations of women abused and exploited by men.

    In this 64-minute feature, Naruse was thus able to develop his view of life. To many observers, his philosophy has been characterized as one of almost unrelieved gloom, a pessimistic attitude that is even nihilistic in its despair. Such an assessment is perhaps too sweeping a generalization, one that can even be misleading. Naruse's vision in Yogoto no Yume, as in other films, is unquestionably tragic and skeptic in its unsparing view of human limitations when confronting one's fate in an inequitable social order. There is irony, too, in the film's very title as the "dreams" the heroine offers nightly to the bar's patrons ultimately become for her and her husband a nightmare. Yet Naruse never succumbs to a Buñuelian cynicism. Human nature as revealed in the film, is more often than not good. For all his pitiful weakness, the husband played by Saito is a man of good intentions with a genuine love for his family. Kurishima's neighbors, far from being judgmental of her actions, are kind to her and supportive of her and her child. And the heroine herself remains motivated by noble goals throughout the film. The ending leaves her and her boy apparently trapped in their environment yet Naruse wisely leaves it to the members of his audience to decide for themselves whether or not to find a glimmer of hope in the heroine surviving and urging her son to be strong. Inarticulate in real life, Naruse in his film expresses a rich compassion for his characters. If in no other way, his narrative achieves a kind of affirmation amidst all the defeats due to his sympathetic portrayal of human beings struggling with fate. His art thus attains what Aristotle called purgation and has universal relevance beyond the boundaries of its particular time and cultural milieu. And Shochiku, which distributes Yogoto no Yume on video in a print of flawless quality, is to be congratulated for making this masterpiece of the silent cinema available to a new audience.


 
 

 Click here to view photos from Yogoto no Yume.
 

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Article uploaded October 27, 1997 by Gilda Tabarez at Henning7@aol.com

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