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The most lighthearted in the set is Flunky, Work Hard (1931), Naruse's earliest surviving work, which follows a poor, bumbling, and somewhat infantile insurance salesman as he tries to woo a new client, keep his disgruntled wife happy, and maintain a relationship with his troublesome young son. This truncated, 28-minute romp includes lots of genuine comic bits that recall early Hollywood two-reelers before it lapses into the kind of tortuous family drama that marks all the films in the set. It's also a great starting point for the affecting anthropological portrait all the films provide in capturing everyday life in suburban Tokyo in the early '30s. Naruse often took his camera on location into the narrow alleys, fields, and bustling streets inhabited by his characters, and it's as captivating to see the reality of ordinary backgrounds in Japan during that time as it is to see the open spaces of small-town Los Angeles in concurrently made films from early Hollywood.
The rest of the films in the set conform more closely to themes that Naruse would develop for most of the rest of his career, following the sagas and struggles of primarily female protagonists who undergo hardships and heartbreaks with very few happy endings. No Blood Relation (1932), Apart from You (1933), and Every-Night Dreams (1933) are fairly bald examples of melodrama, but show enough freshness of technique to explain Naruse's popularity as an accomplished storyteller. Aging geishas, struggling mothers and mothers-in-law, children who are conflicted or caught in the middle, husbands or suitors who are either absent or angry, and the pull of tradition versus the somewhat tawdry lure of modernity are recurring themes in these short features that also rely heavily on expressionistic or experimental techniques to often startling effect. Some of these techniques are deliberately meant to draw attention to themselves and are often overused. A favorite Naruse device of repeated fast tracking shots on characters' faces to emphasize emotional conflict becomes unintentionally humorous after a while. Another common thematic element that turns excessively comic is having a character be hit by a car (or train). It's a device Naruse uses to precipitate bedside drama or resolution of some sort, but which comes off as facile in nearly every context. (Rather than being maimed or mangled, the victims simply fall ill and are confined to bed for such time as is convenient to the needs of the script.) Street Without End (1934) is the only full feature-length film in the set, and it roundly fleshes out the themes Naruse explores more daintily in the other offerings. A waitress in a Ginza restaurant struggles with suitors and a seemingly dead-end existence, ultimately failing at marriage and with finding a way out of her bleak, existential life issues. Though still mired in the trappings of melodrama, it shows genuine stylistic assurance and the promise of a world-class filmmaker who has much better control of craft and the subtlety of film as both art and entertainment. All the films in this beguiling collection include spare, unobtrusive scores (optional) composed and performed by Robin Holcomb and Wayne Horvitz that add a haunting, muted background nicely suited to the action. --Ted Fry