Mikio Naruse (Floating Clouds
, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs
) was one of the most popular directors in Japan, a crafter of exquisite melodramas, mostly about women confined by their social and domestic circumstances. Though often compared with Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi for his style and treatment of characters, Naruse was a unique artist, making heartrending, brilliantly photographed and edited films about the impossible pursuit of happiness. From the outset of his career, with his silent films of the early thirties, Naruse zeroed in on the lives of the kinds of people—geisha, housewives, waitresses—who would continue to fascinate him for the next three decades. Though he made two dozen silent films, only five remain in existence; these works—poignant, dazzlingly made dramas all—are collected here, newly restored and on DVD for the first time, and featuring optional new scores by noted musicians Robin Holcomb and Wayne Horvitz.
This outwardly unremarkable three-disc set from the Criterion Collection's pared-down offshoot Eclipse label is an intriguing collection of the earliest surviving work of Japanese director Mikio Naruse. Its appeal should hardly be limited to those with a scholarly interest in the nascent efforts of a master whose work has largely been unrecognized by Western audiences. It also makes for a fascinating glimpse into how the language of cinema developed in tandem with some of the more ambitious works being produced in the United States, Germany, and the Soviet Union as filmmakers were gaining greater understanding of the emotional, artistic, and intellectual impact this new form could have as a popular entertainment medium. Naruse is probably fourth in line behind Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Yasujiro Ozu in the Japanese directors' hall of fame, but that's probably a distant fourth, and his name may not be known at all to many. He was a stolid, workmanlike purveyor of films about ordinary people often living bleak lives in contemporary times, producing about 90 films over a career that spanned from 1930 to 1967 (he died in 1969). Most of those films are lost, and only one has been readily available to region 1 viewers, his 1960 masterpiece When a Woman Ascends the Stairs
(on Criterion DVD). The five silent films in this set were made between 1931 and 1934, and they show a rapid development of style and form, and favored content that leaned heavily on melodrama, but were easily accessible to audiences of their time and remain striking for their lasting historical impact.
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