July 8, 2013

Silent Japan V: Who is Mikio Naruse?

The first two Japanese silent films I have watched - Flunky, Word Hard and Apart from You - were both directed by Mikio Naruse, so as part of my exploration of early Japanese cinema it seemed a good idea to find out exactly who that guy is and what sort of films he made. What is his position in the history of Japanese film?

Naruse was born in Tokyo in 1905. He was by accounts a shy, reserved young man who scored a job at the newly formed Shockiku film studios as a property manager and then as an assistant director. After much begging for the chance, Naruse was finally granted the right to direct a film of his own in 1930 (aged 25). His first film was Mr and Mrs Swordplay (Chambara Fufu). Despite obvious skill and talent, Naruse's films were not commercially successful and he struggled to secure directorial assignments at Shockiku. He ultimately jumped studios to PCL (later named Toho), where he continued to direct up into the mid-1960s.

For Western audiences, the first exposure to Naruse's work was his critical hit Wife, Be Like a Rose, which was released in the USA in 1935. It was particularly liked by American critics but it was, however, the first Japanese 'talkie' to be screened internationally. Western audiences may have later embraced Mizoguchi, Ozu and Kurosawa, but they were exposed to Naruse first.
Naruse is widely considered a master of 'shomin-geki', a genre of film based around working and lower class people. Certainly based on Flunky, Work Hard and Apart from You alone I can see that is the case. His films are predominantly based in contemporary settings, with working-class people - more often than not women - struggling to make ends meet. There is a melancholia about Naruse's works that is widely noted. Even his comedies have elements of tragedy and sadness.

Naruse's first seven works have all been lost, and it's Flunky, Work Hard that is the earliest extant example of his work. Other notable early films include Apart from You (1933), Nightly Dreams (1933) and Wife, Be Like a Rose (1935). His films failed to gather much attention during the 1940s but he had a creative resurgence in the 1950s and 1960s with a string of fresh contemporary dramas. In total he directed 88 films over the course of his career; his final film, Scattered Clouds, was released in 1967. He died in 1969, aged 64.

He has remained a much more noted figure within Japan than internationally. While Western audiences and critics tend to cite Ozu, Kurosawa and Mizoguchi as Japan's three great directors (and generally in that order), Japanese critics have often hailed Naruse alongside them. In 1999 the prominent cinema magazine Kinema Junpo ran a poll among Japanese critics to celebrate the magazine's 80th anniversary. Those critics voted Naruse's 1955 film Floating Clouds Japan's second-best feature film, after Kurosawa's Seven Samurai: high praise indeed.

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