Mikio Naruse Mikio Naruse (1905-1969)

by William M. Drew

     Mikio Naruse, often ranked with Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu as one of the three master Japanese directors who were at their peak in both the prewar and postwar eras, was born in Tokyo on August 20, 1905. The son of an impoverished embroiderer, Naruse developed a love of literature from an early age. Because of his family’s financial problems, he was unable to continue his education into middle school, attending instead a technical school. Naruse’s father died when he was 15, forcing him to take a job to support the family. Through a friend, he began working as a prop man at the Shochiku film company in Tokyo in 1920. Shochiku had just been formed and quickly became a dominant force in the Japanese cinema following the release in 1921 of Minoru Murata’s Rojo no Reikon (Souls on the Road), which revolutionized Japanese cinema with its narrative techniques and depiction of the lives of ordinary people. Naruse stayed with the company throughout the 1920s, graduating to assistant directing and scriptwriting. Befriended by the renowned director, Heinosuke Gosho, Naruse joined his staff in 1929. The next year, after being with Shochiku for a decade, Naruse finally had an opportunity to direct, making his debut with a slapstick comedy, Chambara Fufu (Mr. and Mrs. Swordplay). Naruse demonstrated a lyrical style in his second film, Junjo (Pure Love) (1930), a work which won the praise of another Shochiku director, Yasujiro Ozu.

     Naruse directed 22 silent films for Shochiku’s Kamata studio in Tokyo from 1930 to 1934, a richly creative period when he developed his basic themes in works that resonated with Japanese audiences and critics. Yet despite his early success, Naruse, whose salary as a director was quite minimal by Western standards, lived modestly during his Shochiku years, renting a second-floor apartment from the owners of an unsuccessful sushi shop. Having lost both his parents at an early age, he had lived with privations and become a shy, withdrawn man. Much of his time away from the studio was spent in lonely drinking sessions at cheap restaurants where he was able to observe the lives of ordinary people and to bring this first-hand knowledge straight to the screen. Although a number of his earliest films were comedies, they included serious depictions of class differences and the struggles of the working and lower middle classes for economic survival. One of the best of these comedies, mixing laughter and tears, was Koshiben Gambare (Flunky, Work Hard!) (1931), with a story written by Naruse himself. It is about a poor insurance salesman feverishly attempting to land a wealthy prospect. Unable to pay for the rent or buy a toy airplane for his son, he almost loses his mind when his child is injured by a train. In the end, his son recovers and the family’s finances are saved when he makes a sale.

     In 1933, Naruse reached his pinnacle in the silent cinema with two masterpieces crystallizing themes that would dominate his work for the rest of his career. The prestigious Japanese film magazine, Kinema Jumpo, ranked both films with works by Ozu and Mizoguchi among the year’s outstanding productions. The first of these films, Kimi to Wakarete (Apart from You), which Naruse also wrote, pictures the world of the geisha. To support her son, a widow becomes a geisha, but over time, her customers start to forsake her for younger women. Her son, ashamed of her work, takes up with a group of ruffians. A young geisha who was sold into the profession by her drunken father to keep the family afloat falls in love with the youth. She takes him to her family’s fishing village where they express their love for one another and she persuades him to reform. To save her younger sister from also being sold into the same occupation, she leaves to find a better income for her work as a geisha in a more distant town. With its remarkable characterizations and settings, Kimi to Wakarete demonstrated Naruse’s genius for combining a lyrical realism with his feminist sentiments. Sensitized by his early hardships, the director throughout his work was extraordinarily responsive to the historic injustices suffered by women. The young geisha in Kimi to Wakarete, the first of many independent women in his films, defies her father to his face and vows at the end never, in spite of hardships, to surrender to fate. In her analysis of Naruse, Audie Bock points out his ability to develop characterization through simple actions. In Kimi to Wakarete, his gift is revealed in scenes like the one in which the boy’s mother, looking in the mirror, finds her gray hairs are now so numerous it is pointless to remove them. In another sequence, she expresses her scorn for her competition by getting drunk in front of the man who bypassed her for a younger geisha.

Sumiko Kurishima in NIGHTLY DREAMS (1933)     Naruse’s second classic from 1933, Yogoto no Yume (Nightly Dreams), stars Sumiko Kurishima, one of Japan’s most popular actresses since the early 1920s, and Tatsuo Saito, best known for his comic performances in Ozu’s films, in a dramatic role. Based on an original story idea by Naruse, it deals with a young woman in a Japanese harbor town who, abandoned by her husband and seeking to support her young son, becomes a hostess in a bar patronized by sailors. The husband returns and is dismayed by the environment in which she works but is unable to obtain NIGHTLY DREAMS (1933)employment himself. When the boy is injured by a car, his father, in desperation, robs a company’s safe. Pursued by police, he drowns himself in the harbor. When his wife learns of his fate, she is overwhelmed by grief but urges her son to be strong in adversity. In developing his narrative, Naruse fully explored the creative possibilities of the silent cinema. Virtually every shot stands out for its careful artistic composition. Naruse uses selective focus to highlight one character or another; employs rapid montage and unusual oblique camera angles as well as unique camera movements, such as his frequent track-in to a close-up of a character, and his diagonal tracking shot sweeping across the Sumiko Kurishima and Tatsuo Saito in NIGHTLY DREAMS (1933)interior of the bar to reveal its patrons. Despite this display of technique, the director never loses sight of the characters in his story. Tatsuo Saito and Sumiko Kurishima are remarkable in the leads. In his role as a pathetic loser with good intentions and a gentle, resigned manner, Saito is scarcely a typical romantic hero. Kurishima, her attractive, expressive face a study in emotions, is genuinely warm and loving with her son; artificially charming with her clientele; first angry and then tolerant of her weak-willed husband; and, at the end, in a state of abject grief yet enraged defiance.

     In 1934, Naruse joined the new P.C.L. studio at its invitation, making his talkie debut with his first film for them, Odome-gokoro Sannin Shimai (Three Sisters with Maiden Hearts) (1935), adapted from Yasunari Kawabata’s story of three girls victimized by a tyrannical mother who tries to force them to become shamisen street musicians. Naruse’s third film for P.C.L., Tsuma yo Bara no Yo ni (Wife! Be Like a Rose) (1935), was an overwhelming success, voted the best film of the year by Kinema Jumpo and the first Japanese film to be shown in New York since Teinosuke Kinugasa’s 1928 silent classic, Jujiro (Crossroads). Tsuma yo Bara no Yo ni is a comedy about an office girl in search of the father who had left her and her poetess mother. She finds he is living with a mistress in the country and tries to persuade him to return home to attend her wedding. She hopes to bring about a reconciliation between her parents, but when they meet again at the wedding, it is clear that they were mismatched. In the end, he returns to his mistress and their children. In this film, Naruse used humor to criticize traditional views of marriage and the family.

THE WHOLE FAMILY WORKS (1939)     In 1937, Naruse married Sachiko Chiba, who had played the heroine of Tsuma yo Bara no yo Ni. The two had a child, although they later divorced, and Naruse resumed his bachelor way of life, residing in a modest apartment and frequenting bars, until his second marriage in later years. Naruse continued to direct for P.C.L., which was reorganized and renamed Toho in 1937, but was dissatisfied with most of the films he made at this time, regarding them as mainly commercial assignments. One exception was Hataraku Ikka (The Whole Family Works), a 1939 film with unmistakable autobiographical overtones. It deals with all the members, young and old, of a large family who are forced by economic necessity to go to work. Like Naruse himself, the oldest son has to abandon his dreams of an education in order to take a job.

     Naruse continued to make films throughout the war years. One of them, Hideko no Shasho-san (Hideko the Bus Conductor), a 1941 comedy about a girl working as a bus conductor in a small town, marked the start of his long association with Hideko Takamine, who worked for him more often than any other actress.

    The director recovered from an apparent postwar slump of lesser films with his 1951 drama, Ginza Gesho (Ginza Cosmetics), starring Kinuyo Tanaka as a middle-aged bar hostess who has spent a decade providing for her son and giving money to her ex-husband. She fends off the advances of a rich man whose patronage she was seeking while losing to a younger woman the affections of a well-to do young man in whom she was interested. This return to a familiar theme, exploring the lives of women trapped by circumstances, so revitalized Naruse that he went on to direct for Toho a series of films in the 1950s and 1960s that rank as the masterpieces of his maturity.

    Six of these films were adapted from stories by Fumiko Hayashi, a woman writer who had dramatized her own struggles in fiction and whose point of view held enormous appeal for the director. Meshi (Repast), made in 1951, the first of these adaptations, depicts the frustrations of a housewife ensnared in a childless marriage and a lower middle class life in the Osaka suburbs. Hideko Takamine, Naruse’s favorite actress, starred in Inazuma (Lightning) (1952), from Hayashi’s story of a young unmarried woman who attempts to break away from her sordid family environment but in the end cannot because she is unable to bring herself to abandon her mother. Tsuma (Wife) (1953) was another Hayashi story about marriage, this one concerned with a wife’s attempt to prevent losing her husband to another woman. Bangiku (Late Chrysanthemums) (1954) was based on Hayashi’s stories about geisha life. Depicting the loneliness and frustration endured by four retired geishas in Tokyo, Naruse conveys a sense of aging by counterpointing the interior scenes, with limited use of camera movement, against the exteriors dominated by the bustling activity of the streets. Naruse’s most popular film, Ukiguna (Floating Clouds), made in 1955, again starred Hideko Takamine in Hayashi’s tragic story of a young woman in love with a married man she had met during the war. In 1962, Takamine also starred in the last of Naruse’s Hayashi adaptations, Horoki (A Wanderer’s Notebook), based on the author’s autobiographical novel about her early struggles and development as a writer.

Hideko Takamine in WHEN A WOMAN ASCENDS THE STAIRS (1960)     Other classic films Naruse directed in the postwar years include Okasan (Mother) in 1952, Yama no Oto (Sound of the Mountain) in 1954, Nagareru (Flowing) in 1956, and Onna ga Kaidan o Agaru Toki (When a Woman Ascends the Stairs) in 1960. Okasan stars Kinuyo Tanaka as an impoverished widow with three children who attempts to manage her late husband’s dry-cleaning and dyeing business with the help of her eldest daughter. Yama no Oto, based on a Yasunari Kawabata novel, deals with a young woman (Setsuko Hara) whose husband has had a child by his mistress. She herself obtains an abortion and finds her only support and affection from her father-in-law. Nagareru, which has an impressive array of feminine stars including Hideko Takamine, Isuzu Yamada, FLOWING (1956)Kinuyo Tanaka, and Sumiko Kurishima, pictures the decline of a geisha house as observed by the maid. The others, unaware that the house has been sold and they will soon be forced to leave, happily continue with their lives even though their world has fallen on hard times because the proud geisha managing the house has resisted the trend towards prostitution. Onna ga Kaidan o Agaru Toki similarly chronicles the life of a Ginza bar hostess (played by Takamine) who stands opposed to attempts to turn her profession into a brothel. Widowed, she is so devoted to the memory of her husband that she resists remarriage, even refusing the bar manager who loves her. Both Nagareru and Onna ga Kaidan o Agaru Toki seem to reflect the director’s view that much of the charm, grace, and beauty of traditional Japan were being threatened by the commercial corruption of the postwar era.

SCATTERED CLOUDS (1960)     Naruse continued to direct for most of the 1960s, his final film being Midaregumo (Scattered Clouds), released in 1967, an acclaimed drama about a young widow forced by circumstances to work as a maid in a Japanese inn owned by relatives in Hokkaido. He died on July 2, 1969, at the age of 63. In 37 years of directing, he had made a phenomenal 87 films. Through all those decades, he had maintained a consistent personal vision in most of his work. However, he had modified his cinematic approach since his earliest films. Whereas in many of his silents, he had experimented with a wide variety of techniques, in his talkies, he opted for a more subdued visual style. He now limited camera movement and avoided unusual camera angles and rapid montage in order to place full emphasis on the facial expressions and gestures of the actor. His aversion to shooting on location also intensified his focus on intimate dramas played out in a lifelike manner on the studio sets. Hideko Takamine, who gave so many extraordinary performances for him, said that, before shooting, he would go over the script with her and eliminate dialogue if a look or a gesture could convey the emotion more effectively. As a result, during filming, there was no need for them to speak to each other.

     In the years since his death, Naruse’s reputation has continued to grow with retrospectives of his work, and many now recognize him as one of the supreme masters of world cinema. But as with other great artists, Naruse has suffered from oversimplification and reductionism. Too often, his philosophy has been characterized as one of almost unrelieved gloom, a pessimism tending toward nihilism in its despair. Such an assessment is too sweeping and even misleading. Naruse, after all, successfully directed many comedies and often incorporated scenes with humor and gentle charm in his most highly dramatic works. While Naruse’s vision is most often tragic and skeptic in its unsparing view of human limitations when confronting an inequitable social order, he never succumbs to cynicism. For all the unhappy family relations shown in his films, he continually presents his protagonists motivated by love and kindness, characters with an innate dignity and nobility. Never interested in politics or easy solutions, Naruse projected in his films social criticism that is ultimately far more penetrating than strict adherence to any particular ideology. For example, his arraignment of a male dominated society repressing women can be applied to many other societies besides the Japan of his time. But while Naruse’s heroines are continually defeated in life, their defiant refusal to give up--their vow to go on fighting--gives his films a kind of affirmation of the human spirit. Expressing a rich compassion for his characters wrestling with fate, Mikio Naruse achieved greatness through his creation of works of art that possess lyricism and universal relevance.

REFERENCES: Donald Richie and Joseph L. Anderson, The Japanese Film: Art and Industry (Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle, 1959); Donald Richie, Japanese Cinema (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971); Audie Bock, Japanese Film Directors (Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd., 1978); Noel Burch, To the Distant Observer (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1977); Georges Sadoul, Dictionary of Films (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1972); William M. Drew, "Yogoto no Yume (Nightly Dreams--Mikio Naruse’s Silent Masterpiece."


An article analyzing the work of Mikio Naruse:

An article on several of Naruse's later films:

A commentary on a current Naruse project:

Copyright © 2002 by William M. Drew.  All rights reserved.


Published August 10, 2002 by Gilda Tabarez at GTabarez@aol.com

This site is intended for educational purposes only.

  [home | top of the page]