Eclipse Series 26: Silent Naruse (Flunky, Work Hard / No Blood Relation / Apart from You / Every-Night Dreams / Street Without End) (The Criterion Collection)
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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
Top Customer Reviews
*Flunky, Work Hard
Being from a Dad's perspective instead of a boy, this film reminds me of Ozu's "I was born, but." and interesting & odd to see Naruse's film without female leading role.
*No Blood Relation
This melodrama was based on a newspaper serial from 1912, which have been filmed staggering 8 times, and performed on stages for numerous times as well, obviously one of the Japan's favorite stories at that time, probably because the loyalty that the young girl exhibited to her step mother who had raised her was very appealing to the audience. For this filming in 1932, which was 7th of it, Naruse was allowed to use Top Stars like gorgeous Yoshiko Okada and very handsome Jouji Oka. The story goes like a mother who abandoned her newborn baby daughter went to Hollywood to be a star, came back as a rich & famous to reclaim her daughter. Nope, this is obviously not the material for Naruse. He excelled on more realistic stories of women who was exploited by men & society. However, Naruse did his best to make the characters believable, and especially Yoshiko Okada did a wonderful job. Also he was not shy away from the experimental techniques.
*Apart from you
The most important film of this Naruse's period, at least among the surviving films of his. This is a story of a young Geisha, who was forced to be in that business because of her lazy father, tried to survive through and sacrificed herself for her younger sister at the end.Read more ›
The films are not pristine-quality, as you'd expect. Sure, there is a fair amount of flecking and fading. However, they are still perfectly watchable. The fact that Naruse shot a lot of exteriors makes them especially interesting as documents of Tokyo at the time. The set comes with modern (optional) music tracks, which are well suited to the material. Naruse is a film-maker of extraordinary sensitivity to social conditions and the human predicament, as seen through the eyes of geisha, waitresses, moga, lower-rung salarymen, working class couples, delinquents and the unemployed. His films offer a rare and intriguing glimpse into pre-war Japan.
Naruse never disappoints.
Rating = ***
Director: Mikio Naruse
Producer: Shochiku Company
Film = barely three (3) stars; music = 3.5 stars; restoration = three (3) stars. Director Mikio Naruse delivers a rife on a hoary theme: prostitutes with hearts of gold. This is a slice-of-life story about two depression-era bar girls: one aging with a troubled youth to support at home; the other much younger who is the sole provider for her multi-generational family. There are a number of twists and turns in the photoplay to hold (just barely) the viewer's interest including a non-fatal stabbing of the younger prostitute. The Director overdoes zooming closeups for dramatic affect. His actors seem fully capable of evoking more than sufficient dramatic impact without camera trickery.
Several actors are members of Naruse's stock company--you have probably seen them before and will likely see them again. The leading actor has been seriously miscast as a juvenile. His days of playing a juvenile lie in the distant past. So do those of all male "juvenile" performers! The younger leading actress delivers an upbeat, dynamic performance which keeps the film mildly interesting and moving right along. Cinematography (narrow screen, black and white) and lighting are fine. Restoration is a work in progress. Images are very good, but wear and aging artifacts often appear (and could have been digitally removed). Compensation for different camera cranking rates has not been provided especially for exterior scenes (like shots of trolleys, trolley tracks, and actors walking/running) which appear unintentionally comical.Read more ›