“If my characters move even a little, they quickly hit the wall. From the youngest age, I have thought that the world we live in betrays us; this thought still remains with me.”
Born: 20 August 1905, Tokyo, Japan.
Died: 2 July 1969, Tokyo, Japan.
Directing Career: 1930 – 1967.
Movement: ‘Golden Age’ of Japanese Cinema.
Traits: Known as a maker of shomin-geki (contemporary-set films about the lower-middle classes) and understated, realist melodramas often focusing on female characters. Themes often deal with broken families, unrequited love and the clash between Japan’s traditional and modern values, with a melancholy, often pessimistic tone. His style is un-showy, down-to-earth and devoted to showcasing fine performances and psychological nuance.
Collaborators: Hideko Takamine (actress), Kinuyo Tanaka (actress), Setsuko Hara (actress), Kyoko Kagawa (actress), Masayuki Mori (actor), Sumie Tanaka (screenwriter), Toshiro Ide (screenwriter), Satoru Chuko (production designer), Ichiro Saito (composer), Masao Tamai (cinematographer).
Related Directors: Yasujiro Ozu.
In the years following the war, Mikio Naruse, like almost every other Japanese director and indeed his nation itself, had to adjust to a new situation and undertake a process of regeneration. Under the Allied Occupation (1945-52), the political climate trying to steer Japan into a more liberal and democratic state made the role of women in the new society a hotly debated topic. Under this climate, Naruse as well as his illustrious peer Kenji Mizoguchi, made incredible masterworks highlighting the many plights of women in Japanese society.
His 1955 film Floating Clouds, often regarded as his masterpiece, was the fifth of his six adaptations of works by the popular novelist Fumiko Hayashi, noted for her feminist themes, and from whom Naruse admitted to taking a great deal of inspiration. Like, among many other examples, the early Akira Kurosawa films from late 1940s (c.f. The Quiet Duel), Floating Clouds can be considered a film dealing with Japan’s post-war malady. The wonderful Hideko Takamine (Naruse’s muse — she was in 17 of his films) stars as Yukiko, a young woman fleeing an abusive family past, and Masayuki Mori (seen in many of the great Japanese films including Rashomon and Ugetsu) as Kengo, a married civil servant. The plot begins in 1945, when the two of them are repatriated from Dalat in Indochina (present-day Vietnam), where they worked for the forestry department during Japan’s wartime colonial rule.
Soon, we learn from light-dappled flashbacks (in contrast to the darkness of post-war Tokyo) that they had an affair in Indochina, in which Kengo promised to leave his wife once they return home, and settle down with Yukiko. Back in the present-day, he no longer has the mettle to go ahead with his promise. Nonetheless, these flashbacks and their romanticised memories of a more naively innocent, colonial era, form the kernel of Yukiko’s dreams and longings, from which she is never fully free. Throughout the film we’ll never quite understand what she sees in this unworthy man, but then that’s the irrationality of love. Any answer we come up with will be nourished by the richness of Takamine’s performance and the nuances Naruse enables it to show. Same goes for the mirror question, ‘why does Kengo not love her back’, his cowardice combined with an immature arrogance (deftly humanised by Mori’s performance) being just as frustrating. Kengo’s arrogance is most acutely displayed in his womanising fling with the young Marika Okada (new wave director Yoshishige Yoshida’s future muse and wife — the two would make their own riff on impossible love in post-war Japan, Akitsu Spring, in 1962) at a mountain resort.
The film follows an episodic structure, spreading over several years with time-jumps in between (1946 eventually gives way to the early 1950s), and over these years we see Yukiko struggle to make ends meet for herself in the new post-war Tokyo. At various times she falls under the dependence of an American G.I., or later the exploitative charlatan Iba, the very same relative who’d abused her in the past. Yet through all this, Yukiko’s path occasionally crosses again with Kengo’s, and the film’s structure comprises essentially of a series of encounters between them, each time with slightly changing circumstances, as their lives gradate slowly by. Yukiko, her unrequited dreams and false hopes, represent the floating clouds alluded to in the typically poetic title — she is drifting aimlessly, swept along by powers larger than herself, and fated not to leave any significant mark as she passes through the world.
Yet it’s the eagle-eyed insight into humanity that cuts through mere pessimism and makes this a truly impressive work of art. When, halfway through the film, Yukiko and Kengo spend a few days together in a mountain resort, for him it’s an opportunity to incorrigibly fall for the Okada character, but for her it’s a rekindling of their Indochinese days. She will later refer back to this resort interlude with all the romanticisation already attributed previously to their colonial fling – only this time we see quite clearly how little there was there. This imbalance between the two of them highlights all the more clearly the desperately human need for connection that goes to waste within Yukiko, making the final moments of the film, when a transcendent glow radiates from her dying face, feel fully earnt.
Such almost spiritual moments of quasi-martyrdom are uncharacteristic for Naruse though. More typical of his films is the way the social milieu is reflected in small details: money is always orbiting around everyone’s lives, being handed out, stolen, or worried about; the character of Iba, who comes back into her life and shows himself to be a real scoundrel, proudly working as a religious charlatan to make money off desperate people seeking easy answers and cures in dark times, is the symbol of this material poverty’s connection to a spiritual and moral one; outside in the many scenes of Tokyo streets, there is plenty enough evidence of this corroding poverty, most memorably exemplified by a march of disgruntled workers chanting the Internationale in the background as Kengo and Yukiko discuss their daily lives.
However, the film was made in 1955, when signs of Japan’s ‘economic miracle’ were already showing, under the watchful guidance of the USA and multi-national corporations. Yukiko cuts a tragic figure, not just for her personal lovelorn fate, but also in ironic contrast to her social milieu — just as Tokyo is about to undergo a rebirth, in which all those around her will more or less find a position for themselves, she will remain forever an outsider, hopelessly lost and out of place, and slowly fade away unhappily. Modern cinema, through Italian neorealism on, has revitalised itself by depicting those characters on the margins of society’s centripetal forces, those left behind by a world trying to progress too fast— in this respect, Naruse’s film is a very socially and historically anchored, modern tragedy. But it’s also a symbol that as Japan was reinventing itself towards a more prosperous future, something once hoped for was inevitably being lost, only ever to be found again in a past lost and idealised. (December 2017)