Floating Clouds

When writing about the oeuvre of Mikio Naruse, critics invariably lapse into invidious comparisons and a list of negatives. A late addition to the pantheon of Japanese auteurs, he has always been rated below Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi. There is a common chorus of complaints. He made intimate domestic dramas but his work isn’t as playful or charming as Ozu’s. He served his apprenticeship at Shochiku’s Kamata studios, alongside Ozu, but couldn’t or wouldn’t master the lightly entertaining house style. They were glad to dispense with his services because he persisted in being heavy, sombre and depressing. He was a classic director whose career embraced two golden ages of Japanese cinema, but his work doesn’t exemplify the distinctive stylistic flourishes of the Japanese film as celebrated by Bordwell or the radical aberrances of Japanese aesthetic practice as outlined by Burch. He made women’s melodramas but they are not as exquisitely moving as Mizoguchi’s, either stylistically or emotionally.

It is instructive that the first major Naruse retrospective in the West was organised by Audie Bock, an American woman. The American male critics have always treated him as second-rate. They were entranced by the boyish playfulness of Ozu and the macho histrionics of Kurosawa. They could locate Zen Buddhist aesthetics in late Ozu and Mizoguchi, Zen and samurai ethics in Kurosawa. In search of spiritual elevation or showy displays of stylishness, they found Naruse too bleak in philosophy, too austere in style.

It is time to debunk some of the pieties of Western criticism of Japanese cinema. Nearly 20 years ago, Japanese academic critic Shigehiko Hasumi deplored its omissions and biases; (1) and, in his recent attack on the American academy and Western criticism of Japanese film, US-based academic critic Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto argues that American academics and critics retain a vested interest in culturalist and formalist approaches to Japanese film. (2) In Australia as well as America, Japan has been seen through the prism of wartime Washington intelligence lenses as the home of the chrysanthemum and the sword, the dichotomy of aestheticism and militarism, of ritual refinement and brutal social practices. Naruse refuses to service these readings; he exposes their inadequacy, not his inadequacy.

Naruse is a materialist par excellence. There is no escape from the world as it is. Life is a school of hard knocks. We all have to face up to disappointments, betrayals and loneliness, and yet keep on going on. His is a world of disillusion, not illusions. Of survival, not suicide or other more comforting forms of self-transcendence – such as religion, aesthetics, or poetics. In Naruse’s world, there is no transcendence, only daily bodily existence subject to social and economic conditions.

His characters battle to satisfy basic physical, social and economic needs. They seek comfort and security in relationships with family, friends and partners, but try to extricate themselves from oppressive relationships. Their bodies need food and clothing, housing and sex. They need money to buy food and clothing, to pay the rent and the doctor’s bills. Money changing hands, being counted – these are the recurring images of Naruse films. His central characters are single women coping with the problems of making a living, supporting a sick parent or child, finding companionship and sexual partners, seeking ways of reducing their burdens and improving the quality of their lives.

The images that linger in my memory are of an aging geisha sitting in front of a mirror, dying or plucking out her grey hairs; of a woman looking hopefully at a man who cannot return her look; of women who doggedly resume the daily grind of business as usual after the dashing of their hopes – getting dressed, applying make-up and climbing the stairs, surviving disillusion to face another day.

* * *

I was fortunate to be in Japan when the Naruse retrospective was being prepared for the 1984 Locarno Film Festival. Mme Kawakita was organizing the collection and subtitling of the film prints, and she very kindly invited visiting film scholars to attend private previews of the films. I later reviewed these films when the Naruse Retrospective was finally brought to Melbourne in late 1988 by the Australian Film Institute (AFI), in association with the Spoleto Melbourne Festival (forerunner of the Melbourne Festival of the Arts). They were the good old days, when the AFI was still active in fostering international film culture, when they used to import and exhibit exciting packages from abroad, and before economic rationalism forced them to confine their activities to the promotion of the local national industry. Together with my colleague Susan Stewart, I wrote an appreciation of Naruse for Filmnews, a national film journal that would become another victim of economic rationalism. (3) We attempted to identify the sources of the pleasure we derived from Naruse films, castigated Western critics of Japanese cinema for underrating him, and challenged feminist critics of mainstream cinema to re-think their position in the light of his practice.

Naruse was a studio director, working initially for Shochiku, where he underwent a decade-long apprenticeship, and then for Toho, where he remained until the end of his working life. He spent 47 years in total in the industry and produced 88 films over his 37 years as a director (between 1930 and 1967). A glum, taciturn man, he did not endear himself to his superiors, his crews or his actors, but he doggedly persisted in turning out quality films efficiently and economically.

The earliest surviving Naruse film, Flunky, Work Hard (Koshiben gambare, 1931), shows him awkwardly mixing melodrama with slapstick routines, betraying the strain of having to produce Shochiku’s Kamata studio formula of laughter with tears. The main character is an unsuccessful insurance salesman who cannot provide adequately for the needs of his family and has to evade the rent collector. He competes with another salesman to sell life insurance to a rich woman and finally lands the deal, only to learn that his own son has been hit by a train and is at death’s door in hospital. The holes in his shoes, his ploys to evade the rent collector and the competitive games between the salesmen are treated as Chaplinesque opportunities for slapstick. As in Ozu’s I was born but (1932), class distinction is an issue – and is fought out on the children’s playground. But the film turns heavily melodramatic at the end – with an ominously dripping tap drowning an insect in the washbasin, and the parents weeping forlornly by the prostrate body of their child. The motif of a toy aeroplane is milked for irony and pathos.

There are fewer glaring gags in his two extant 1933 silents, Everynight Dreams (Yogoto no yume) and Apart from You (Kimi to wakarete). (4) Both films are strong melodramas which impressed the Japanese film critics (they rated highly in the annual Best Ten list of Japanese films) and introduced the two themes that would persist throughout Naruse’s oeuvre: single women battling to support their ungrateful families and retain their self-esteem; and unhappy couples who cannot live apart or together. The melodramatic events of Everynight Dreams (aka Nightly Dreams) – abandoned wife faces prospect of prostitution, son has serious accident, husband returns but commits crime and then suicides – would be much less in evidence in the later works, but the social realist setting and the focus on losers and battlers remain.

In the early films it is the Depression that is causing poverty and unemployment; in the later films there will be other historically specific economic pressures facing the central characters. The frustrations and moroseness of the lovers in Floating Clouds (Ukigumo, 1955) are directly linked to and embedded in the depressed and demoralised social and economic conditions of early post-war Japan – the bombed out cities, the shortage of food and housing, the ignominy of national defeat and foreign occupation, the economic temptation of prostitution with American military personnel. The aging geisha of Flowing (Nagareru, 1956) are not just suffering from the problems of age but from the post-war decline in the status and rewards of their profession. When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Onna ga kaidan o agaru toki, 1960) is virtually a dramatised documentary on the precarious life of bar-hostesses on the Ginza in the guise of a melodrama about a high-minded widow trying to maintain her business and her self-respect in the face of strong pressures to abandon both. Even though the melodrama of Yearning (Midareru, 1964) centres on a tortured quasi-incestuous love story between a high-principled war widow and her delinquent young brother-in-law, it also documents the rise of the supermarket as a threat to small family businesses.

Everynight Dreams was successful not only because it created a convincing social context for the melodrama but also because it featured a very delicate performance by the silent star, Sumiko Kurishima, in the role of the heroine. Naruse was to benefit from the casting of seasoned actresses in his films’ leading roles. His principal star in the later works was the very versatile Hideko Takamine, who could play the spirited young girl, the gracious lady, the repressed bourgeoise, the angry rebel and the mature voluptuary with equal conviction. But there were other female stars whose performances enhanced his films: Isuzu Yamada (in Tsuruhachi and Tsurujiro, 1938); Setsuko Hara (in Repast [Meshi, 1951] and Sound of the Mountain, [Yama no oto, 1954]); Machiko Kyo (in Older brother, Younger sister, [Ani imoto, 1953]); Haruko Sugimura (in Late Chrysanthemums [Bangiku, 1954]); and Kinuyo Tanaka (in Flowing [Nagareru, 1956] and Her Lonely Lane [Horoki, 1962]). Flowing‘s cast featured a whole inventory of veteran female stars – Yamada, Kurishima, Sugimura, Takamine, Tanaka and Mariko Okada.

The unusual insight into feminine experience, the acute understanding and detailed elaboration of women’s feelings that mark Naruse’s films are also due in part to the collaboration of women as scriptwriters, often adapting women’s novels. Max Tessier noted an “elective affinity” between Naruse and the popular woman novelist, Fumiko Hayashi. (5) Audie Bock and Catherine Russell have likewise drawn attention to the inspirational role of Hayashi in Naruse’s career, and to his identification with her personal and professional struggles. (6) Many of his masterpieces are adaptations of her stories: Floating Clouds, Repast, Lightning, Late Chrysanthemums and Her Lonely Lane. Sumie Tanaka wrote the screenplays for most of these and another woman, Yoko Mizuki, was responsible for the scripts of other masterworks: Mother (1952), Husband and Wife, (1953), Older brother, Younger Sister (1953) and Sound of the Mountain (1954), as well as Floating Clouds. Mizuki’s script shifted the emphasis of Kawabata’s novel, Song of the Mountain, away from its male point of view and principal focus on the psychology of the old man, giving more dramatic attention to the feelings and experiences of the daughter-in-law with whom he forms an obsessional attachment.

Alain Masson, in a fine essay in Positif, says that almost nothing happens in a Naruse film, that they are constructed around an event that does not take place. (7) It is true that unhappy wives often end up remaining in the marriage, and that lonely women are often frustrated in their attempts to find a true lover and end up alone, but a lot happens in the course of the films. His discontented and frustrated characters actively pursue their options and do not just submit to their fate. If they end up where they started, it is only after they have explored all their social, economic and sexual potential, or resolutely refused some options because they are incompatible with their personal (or socially conditioned) self-respect. As Audie Bock says, “There are no happy endings for Naruse, but there are incredibly enlightened defeats.” (8)

A few comments on the issue of style. Many commentators have drawn attention to Naruse’s skill in non-verbal communication, in using subtle changes in body language, the look, the glance and the averted gaze to convey crucial information about his characters and their relationships. It is also generally agreed that he mainly followed standard international codes of editing, editing on action and eye-line matching. He learnt his trade in the silent era, working on both comedy and melodrama, and he knew how to use abrupt or jolting cuts to reinforce the melodramatic impact and deepen the irony and pathos of the situation. As Alain Masson astutely observes, his style is complex and rent with oppositions – Masson calls them antagonisms – between the calm surface of everyday routine and the base blackness of the world; between fracture and composure; between delicacy and brutality. (9)


  1. `The International Reputation of Naruse’, in Mikio Naruse – A Master of the Japanese Cinema, Art Institute of Chicago monograph, September 1984.
  2. Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema, Duke University Press, 2000.
  3. For full article, see Freda Freiberg & Susan Steward (sic), `If Only Feminists Knew’, Filmnews, February 1989, Vol 19, No 1, pp 8-9 (centre-fold pages).
  4. For a detailed analysis of Nightly dreams, see William Drew, Yogoto no yume (Nightly Dreams) – Mikio Naruse’s Silent Masterpiece, at www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Boulevard/7770/Naruse.html
  5. `Les rapports de la literature et du cinema au Japon: les bibliotheques au secours des cinematheques’, in Cinema et Litterature au Japon, Editions du Centre Pompidou, Paris 1986, p 17.
  6. See Audie Bock, Japanese Film Directors, Kodansha International 1978, pp 110-1; and Catherine Russell, `From Women’s Writing to Women’s Films in 1950s Japan: Hayashi Fumiko and Naruse Mikio’, forthcoming in Asian Journal of Communications.
  7. Alain Masson, `Un humour pathetique’, Positif, June 1993, pp 75-79.
  8. Audie Bock, op cit p 118.
  9. Alain Masson, op cit, p 79.

About The Author

Freda Freiberg is a freelance critic, lecturer and researcher on Japanese cinema.

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