The scope of discourse surrounding the greatest directors of Japan’s Golden Age of cinema tends to unfortunately limit itself to three major directors: Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujirō Ozu, and Akira Kurosawa. While this framework leaves out plenty of key contributors that helped make that era what it was, there is one glaring omission above many others: Mikio Naruse. However, to only view him through the lens of who he is not is to do a great disservice to a man who spent nearly his entire lifetime working behind the camera, beginning work at Shochiku at just fifteen years old.1Russell, Catherine. The Cinema of Naruse Mikio: Women and Japanese Modernity. Duke U.P., 2008, p. 2 Naruse’s film output was virtually unparalleled, directing almost 90 feature films in just 37 years, 7 in 1932 alone. Their quantity and consistent quality stand as a testament to his strengths as a filmmaker. Naruse’s contributions to cinema deserve to be analysed on their own merits outside of comparison with the works of his contemporaries. What Kurosawa can give us, however, is an excellent analysis of the man’s style:
“Naruse’s method consists of building one very brief shot on top of another, but when you look at them all spliced together in the final film, they give the impression of a single long take. The flow is so magnificent that the splices are invisible. This flow of short shots that looks calm and ordinary at first glance then reveals itself to be like a deep river with a quiet surface disguising a fast-raging current underneath. The sureness of his hand in this was without comparison.”2Kurosawa, Akira. Something Like An Autobiography. Seuil/Cahiers Du Cinema, 1985. p. 113.
This metaphor applies not only to Naruse’s shooting and editing techniques but to his stories themselves. His films are typically slow-burning, slice-of-life pictures that tackle systemic social issues, coolly shot with minimal camera movement. “Pessimistic” is one of the most succinct adjectives attributed to his tone and screenplays, but this feeling is not something Naruse simply conjures. The innumerable tragedies that befall his protagonists stem from the artificial constraints manufactured by daily life, which he presents with painful authenticity. As Naruse himself has so bluntly said, “the world we live in betrays us.”3Jacoby, Alexander. A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors From the Silent Era to the Present Day. Stone Bridge Press, 2008. p. 209.
It may appear that not much has changed by the end of a Naruse film, but that is merely the aforementioned surface-level reading. His stories are populated by struggling women who seek happiness while men continuously disappoint them. By the end, something deeper and often darker has manifested itself within the hearts of Naruse’s protagonists, many of whom are hopelessly stuck in the same situation they started in. While they almost always headline his stories, Naruse’s heroines rarely escape from our harsh, unforgiving world.4Jacoby, Alexander. A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors From the Silent Era to the Present Day. Stone Bridge Press, 2008. pp. 208-209. These women were often brought to life by some of Japan’s most iconic actresses, including Kinuyo Tanaka, Setsuko Hara, and most notably Hideko Takamine, who appeared in 17 of Naruse’s films and embodied the new independent Japanese woman the director worked at crafting in the postwar era.5Masako, Kamimura, and Ishikawa Yumi. “Japanese Film and Women: The Works of Mizoguchi Kenji and Naruse Mikio.” Review of Japanese Culture and Society, vol. 8, 1996, p. 31. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/42801190.
While Naruse eluded an international reputation during his life, his work did play overseas on a few occasions during his career.6Russell, Catherine. The Cinema of Naruse Mikio: Women and Japanese Modernity. Duke U.P., 2008, p. 2 When A Woman Ascends The Stairs (1960) may be the film that carries the most recognition and highest reputation—and for good reason. His turn of the decade masterpiece examines the world of hostess clubs that largely overtook geisha businesses7Russell, Catherine. The Cinema of Naruse Mikio: Women and Japanese Modernity. Duke U.P., 2008, p. 334. from the point of view of mama-san Keiko Yashiro (Hideko Takamine), a widow caught between a myriad of oppressive forces. At 30 years old, she is aging out of her physical ability to attract new customers while also losing the opportunity to marry a respectable man. As Keiko tries to raise the capital to buy a bar of her own in Ginza, she is hassled by various patrons, co-workers, and parasitic family members, leaving this single woman trapped with no way out in male-dominated society.
Naruse’s time-tested directorial strengths are honed to their finest levels in When A Woman Ascends The Stairs. Hideko Takamine’s performance and costume design marks a high point of her career, and she is aided by some of cinematographer Masao Tamai’s greatest compositions. The film’s sharp, noir-esque style8Russell, Catherine. The Cinema of Naruse Mikio: Women and Japanese Modernity. Duke U.P., 2008, p. 338. and understated but powerful cutting reinforce its excellent titular motif, showcasing Naruse’s ability to construct a distinct visual language of each picture. Film critic Phillip Lopate brilliantly described the stairs which lead up to Keiko’s workplace as a “Sisyphean vertical treadmill,”9Lopate, Phillip. “When A Woman Ascends the Stairs: They Endure.” The Criterion Collection. Criterion, February 19, 2007. https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/471-when-a-woman-ascends-the-stairs-they-endure literalising a woman’s inability to move forward, able only to momentarily rise up to the men’s location for the purpose of pleasing them before making her way back down to her unfulfilling life.
As one of Naruse’s most esteemed and widely-available films, When A Woman Ascends The Stairs is a logical starting point for anyone interested in testing the waters of Naruse’s deep river. His filmography is a treasure trove for anyone looking to mine the depths of the female experience, but with a wealth of his films now available to stream or buy in some capacity, Naruse’s extensive—and very domestic—filmography can be a daunting challenge for the uninitiated. Fortunately, such a large catalogue provides viewers with many different entry points that cover a wide variety of topics, so there should always be a Naruse film that fits a viewer’s parameters. For those with something more specific in mind, here are six types of Mikio Naruse films and recommendations for each, all of which can be accessed at the Criterion Channel.
Silent Naruse – Apart From You (1933)
“Why shouldn’t I drink? Look who I have for a mother.”
Honourable Mention: No Blood Relation (1932)
Naruse began his career near the end of the silent era with Mr. and Mrs. Swordplay (1930), though films without sound were prevalent in Japan throughout the decade. Despite building a reputation for bitter realism, many of his early films were actually comedies.10Jacoby, Alexander. A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors From the Silent Era to the Present Day. Stone Bridge Press, 2008. p. 208. In the span of four years he directed a whopping 24 silent films, the earliest surviving print being Flunky, Work Hard! (1931). Much of his early filmography remains lost, but these remnants clearly display Naruse’s early ability to tell captivating stories. Apart From You offers fascinating glimpses into many of the ideas he would tackle throughout his filmography. Its story revolves around Kikue (Mitsuko Yoshikawa), a single mother working as a geisha to raise her troubled son Yoshio (Akio Isono), who has gotten himself embroiled into gang activities. Yoshio resents his mother for her occupation, but also finds himself attracted to her young co-worker Teriguki (Sumiko Mizukubo), who was forced into the same career by her family. She gradually helps him appreciate his mother’s sacrifices while making her own in an effort to spare her younger sister from a similar fate.
Apart From You is emblematic of a typical Naruse picture. It favours the societal hardships placed upon working women by the men in their own families over heavy plot-driven storytelling. The film varies in execution, but not in content, from later Naruse pictures by virtue of being silent and therefore adhering to some techniques that will be dropped with the incorporation of sound, such as the dramatic dolly-in for emphasis. The story is written, structured, and directed as many of his best films are, though his editing here employs frequent match cuts, a tool that will be reduced, but not eliminated, in his ensuing filmography in favour of the more “invisible” edits.11ussell, Catherine. The Cinema of Naruse Mikio: Women and Japanese Modernity. Duke U.P., 2008, p. 61.
Naruse excels with simple details. One motif repeated throughout Naruse’s 1930s and 1940s film output that can be observed in Apart From You is that of a torn sock, worn here by Yoshio.12Russell, Catherine. The Cinema of Naruse Mikio: Women and Japanese Modernity. Duke U.P., 2008, p. 62. Initially Kikue sees his foot exposed from under the covers while he sleeps and places it back underneath. Once he gets up and prepares to storm out of the house, he puts on a black sock with a hole in it that still exposes his foot—his true personality despite his external anger towards his mother and his dabblings with crime. He is seen throughout the film taking off his shoes to stretch the sock over the toe and even paints over his exposed appendage with black paint at one point, but try as he might, the boy underneath is still remembered fondly by the other characters. Small touches like this permeate Naruse’s filmography.
While the film itself is not as reputable as those following it on this list, it functions as a great sampler of several key Naruse themes. Oppressed geishas, failed men, and even taboo relationships (given the Oedipal nature of Yoshio’s attraction to Teriguki) will become frequent staples of his worlds. Clocking in at a brisk 61 minutes, Apart From You is a solid entry for fans of silent films.
Naruse’s Marriage Stories – Repast (1951)
“A happy wife like you shouldn’t complain.”
Honourable Mention: Wife (1953)
The stories of housewives in unhappy marriages are Naruse’s bread and butter. He was an auteur of the shomin-geki genre, which focused on the daily hardships of the lower-middle class. Most of these struggles are directly blamed on Japan’s defeat in World War II. The grieving nation was long faced with shortages of food, housing, and amenities, amplifying pre-existing problems and tensions within households.13Mellen, Joan. “Late Ozu, Late Naruse.” Film Quarterly, vol. 61, no. 4, 2008, pp. 26-27. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/fq.2008.61.4.24. Repast is among the greatest and most significant of these dramas.
The film is notable for being Naruse’s first adaptation of a literary work by Fumiko Hayashi, whose realistic, semi-autobiographical writing and own colourful, norm-defying past helped set her apart from other female writers at the time.14Horton, William Bradley. “Tales of a Wartime Vagabond: Hayashi Fumiko and the Travels of Japanese Writers in Early Wartime Southeast Asia.” Under Fire: Women and World War II, by Eveline Buchheim, Verloren Publishers, 2014, pp. 38–39. Her protagonists were always women suffering through systemic hardships in contemporary Japan, which aligned perfectly with Naruse’s own established style.15Russell, Catherine. The Cinema of Naruse Mikio: Women and Japanese Modernity. Duke U.P., 2008, pp. 15-16. He would adapt her work into six films, one of which was a biopic of her own life story—A Wanderer’s Notebook (1962). Hayashi’s prose would form the basis for much of Naruse’s 1950s filmography and lead him to critical and commercial success, which had been lacking during his 1940s output.16Masako, Kamimura, and Ishikawa Yumi. “Japanese Film and Women: The Works of Mizoguchi Kenji and Naruse Mikio.” Review of Japanese Culture and Society, vol. 8, 1996, p. 30. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/42801190. Unfortunately, his wartime and occupation-era films remain largely inaccessible for further analysis.
Repast also marks Naruse’s first of four collaborations with Setsuko Hara, delivering one of her career’s finest performances under his direction as Michiyo Okamoto, a housewife in a loveless marriage with her husband Hatsunosuke (Ken Uehara). The tedium of their lives is stirred by the unannounced arrival of Hatsunosuke’s flirtatious runaway niece Satoko (Yukiko Shimazaki), forcing Michiyo to assess her own happiness and what options she has as a married housewife in modern Japan. Naruse’s deft hand in building the worlds of his characters is on full display here. For example, he visualises the ineffectual Hatsunosuke’s reliance on his wife by having the house quickly enter a state of virtual disrepair when Michiyo leaves to visit her family. At the same time, other women come in and out and are able to make subtle yet important changes, such as flipping the sandals of his guest to face outward for their departure, that Hatsunosuke would never think to notice. The film encapsulates the “woman’s touch” that is exhibited in so many of Naruse’s films.
Repast also flexes the director’s strength at creating palpable tension. The central conflict of a young woman attracted to her uncle and threatening to break up his marriage certainly shows him working through more taboo ideas that can be exploited for surprisingly suspenseful melodrama. Multiple sequences of misunderstanding or silent acknowledgement always simmer but never boil over into outbursts of emotion. Such is his style, crafting moments of quiet desperation and acceptance in an unforgiving society. Michiyo’s realistic, three-dimensional life is shown to be open and expansive, full of connections to friends and family throughout Japan, yet none can provide a decent alternative to her current situation. The world has condemned her to a life of unhappiness where she will always wonder what could have been. As far as shomin-geki cinema goes, few surpass Repast and any fan of the genre owes themselves a viewing of it.
Naruse’s Working Women – Late Chrysanthemums (1954)
“It’s busy leading a boring life.”
Honourable Mention: Flowing (1956)
If Naruse’s lead actress is not playing a housewife, she is sure to be playing a single working woman.17Masako, Kamimura, and Ishikawa Yumi. “Japanese Film and Women: The Works of Mizoguchi Kenji and Naruse Mikio.” Review of Japanese Culture and Society, vol. 8, 1996, p. 31. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/42801190. That job may take the form of a hostess as it did in When A Woman Ascends The Stairs, but more often it is that of a geisha. Late Chrysanthemums, adapted from three short stories by Fumiko Hayashi, presents an unglamorous look at the lives of four geishas beyond their prime. Haruko Sugimura is given a rare moment to shine as the film’s lead Kin, a wealthy former geisha who routinely lends money to her three ex-geisha friends. Tomi (Yūko Mochizuki), Tamae (Chikako Hosokawa), and Nobu (Sadako Sawamura) struggle to make ends meet to pay their debts to Kin while she is visited by two disappointing men from her past. Tomi and Tamae also see their adult children transition out of their lives into marriage and more gainful employment.
Naruse’s empathy for the plights of women is overwhelmingly clear throughout his filmography. His camera captured and characterised women as real people without objectifying them, which made his films very popular with female audiences.18Masako, Kamimura, and Ishikawa Yumi. “Japanese Film and Women: The Works of Mizoguchi Kenji and Naruse Mikio.” Review of Japanese Culture and Society, vol. 8, 1996, p. 32. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/42801190. Late Chrysanthemums is a superb example of his ability to show an unglamorous side to womanhood, the title aptly equating its characters to a flower whose beauty has, inevitably, faded.19Russell, Catherine. The Cinema of Naruse Mikio: Women and Japanese Modernity. Duke U.P., 2008, p. 269. Tomi in particular exhibits little of her presumed geisha manners—drinking heavily, gambling often, and loudly blowing her nose. But for a geisha to lose her career-necessitated beauty to the inescapable passage of time is a particular cruelty. Their moment, the season in which these flowers may blossom, has passed and society is ill-equipped to extend them any support. Some, like Kin’s friends, have finished their careers with little to their name and even less in the way of opportunities. Others, like Kin herself, have emerged from their careers fruitfully and joined the very oppressive establishment that they worked their entire lives to emancipate themselves from.
Late Chrysanthemums also serves as a vessel for Naruse to work through his ideas about the post-occupation Westernisation of Japan, which would be further explored in his subsequent feature Floating Clouds (1955). While not the centrepoint of the plot, there are nonetheless curious asides such as a more modernly dressed woman walking past the former geishas doing the famous Marilyn Monroe walk. Tomi mocks the woman’s gait but the same style of dress can be seen on her own daughter Sachiko (Ineko Arima), who is growing up and getting ahead in a new Japanese democracy poised to leave her own mother behind.20Russell, Catherine. The Cinema of Naruse Mikio: Women and Japanese Modernity. Duke U.P., 2008, p. 275. What has not changed in Naruse’s evolving world is the failure of men. Visits from both of Kin’s complicated past lovers are initially received differently but prove to be identically disappointing in the end. Pieces of her own backstory gradually fall into place and the tough woman before us on screen is revealed to be one of great depth, molded into her current form by these men and the patriarchal society they run.
The geisha remains one of Japan’s most iconic symbols and the experiences of the women beneath the makeup are, and have always been, an essential element of Japanese cinema. Naruse’s filmography contains a plethora of their stories, dating all the way back to the aforementioned Apart From You. He has one to offer for any point in a geisha’s life, but Late Chrysanthemums’ dissection of the lives of these women when they cease being what defines them is a great geisha film to start with.
Postwar Naruse – Floating Clouds (1955)
“I’m just a memory, and a memory quickly fades. And then it’s forgotten.”
Honourable Mention: Mother (1952)
The Japanese film industry was long beholden to the wills of censorship officials, both from the wartime Imperial government as well as the occupying forces of the United States. Scripts and film narratives were contorted to the wishes of the ruling power, the former mandating propaganda or films which upheld traditional values and the latter mostly blocking the production of jidaigeki period films and mandating more progressive, democratic ideals. Japanese cinema’s widely observed Golden Age began in 1952 following the departure of occupying forces. The industry was now given far more freedom of expression and allowed artists to finally tackle more controversial and uncomfortable societal topics21Jacoby, Alexander. “Introduction.” A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors From the Silent Era to the Present Day, Stone Bridge Press, 2008, pp. xv-xvi., which Naruse has always strived to do.
Like many auteurs of his time, he used his newfound artistic freedom to take a closer look at the darker elements of postwar society and its systemic effect on the citizens of a defeated and demoralised nation. This was accomplished through the troubled production of Floating Clouds, Naruse’s largest scale film and best known work within Japan.22Russell, Catherine. The Cinema of Naruse Mikio: Women and Japanese Modernity. Duke U.P., 2008, p. 277. Inspired by Fumiko Hayashi’s novel of the same name, this melodrama follows Yukiko Koda (Hideko Takamine), who seeks to reconnect with Kengo Tomioka (Masayuki Mori), a man she met and became romantically involved with during their wartime duties in Indochina. She finds that the man has still not left his wife for her as he once promised, but the two resume a tense on-again, off-again affair. Kengo’s womanising nature causes him to become entangled with many other partners, which results in a cycle of continuous heartbreak for Yukiko, who still finds hopelessly herself drawn to him.
Floating Clouds is a unique entry in Naruse’s body of work, most notably for how he plays with time through editing. The film is composed of meeting after meeting between Yukiko and Kengo with little or no time in-between. The fluid structure of the story allows for a greater span of time to pass than in his more self-contained dramas like Late Chrysanthemums, which is deliberately designed around a tight four-day ticking clock. Naruse even employs flashbacks on occasion, most notably an iconic match cut connecting a kiss between doomed lovers from their brightly lit past to their dark and dreary present. The utilisation of this technique here is not an isolated case, but his typical narratives do not often allow for such experimentation with time.23Russell, Catherine. The Cinema of Naruse Mikio: Women and Japanese Modernity. Duke U.P., 2008, p. 278.
Pessimism permeates Floating Clouds. Each scene of snowballing heartache routinely builds to further pain and disappointment in this pathetic man at the expense of a depressed woman. Yukiko lacks the infrequent, sparing joy of female camaraderie found amongst many other Naruse characters like Michiyo’s friends and family in Repast or Late Chrysanthemums’ duo of Tomi and Tamae. Yukiko is painfully alone, drifting between different men, past abusers, and even becoming the mistress of an American GI—a startling and controversial reality for some women during the occupation years that could never be shown during Allied censorship. This particular detail also doubles as a further exploration of the Westernisation of Japan with Christmas music over advanced radios and several American brand names and logos on display.
These elements, combined with stock footage of the somber return of Japanese nationals to the mainland from Indochina, allowed Naruse to help preserve an important part of his nation’s history that was threatening to disappear from public consciousness. The basis of Yukiko and Kengo’s affair is rooted in the idealised wartime past, and thus Floating Clouds is able to project the devastated feelings of an entire nation upon them for the audience.24Russell, Catherine. The Cinema of Naruse Mikio: Women and Japanese Modernity. Duke U.P., 2008, p. 277. This makes the film an important distillation of a critical area of Japanese history and mandatory viewing for both Naruse fans and fans of Japanese cinema in general.
Taboo Naruse – Yearning (1964)
“Sister. I wanted to stay here because you’re here. I don’t want you to think I’m a coward. I’m in love with you.”
Honourable Mention: Sound of the Mountain (1954)
Naruse’s penchant for the understated necessarily skirts around much violence or vulgarity, but his films did have the ability to directly tackle very uncomfortable subject matters. Far from the extremes of Japanese New Wave directors like Nagisa Ōshima or those of the pinku eiga subgenre, Naruse’s taboo films broach the uncomfortable realities of civilised life and a woman’s place within it. He infused Oedipal undertones early on in Apart From You, made a man’s niece the main romantic rival for his wife in Repast, and portrayed a harsh truth regarding many women and American GIs in Floating Clouds. Yearning, his final collaboration with Hideko Takamine, straddles a very complicated line surrounding incest.
Truth be told, the incest in Yearning is more in name than in fact, but that does not make it any less startling. The story surrounds Reiko Morita (Hideko Takamine), a widow who lost her husband of only six months during World War II. Despite this loss, she has remained with her husband’s family for eighteen years, rebuilding and running their store after it was destroyed in an air raid. But as corporate culture spreads throughout Japan, family shops are being run out of business by larger supermarkets who undercut all of their prices. Reiko’s husband’s younger brother Koji Morita (Yūzō Kayama) is poised to transform their store into their own supermarket, but the process will result in Reiko being pushed out of the family. Not only does Koji not want this to happen because Reiko is like a sister to him, he is also in love with her.
Like other taboo films, Yearning is a film about confrontation. Its parallel stories challenge the viewer’s feelings surrounding the true cost of cheaper goods and, more importantly, how a relationship between two unrelated people can still feel inappropriate. War has taken the adult men of the Morita family, leaving Koji to grow up surrounded by women—his mother, two sisters, and his sister-in-law. Reiko is more than a decade older than him and far more traditional than his siblings. Koji almost exclusively calls her “sister,” even in scenes where he professes his love to her, which creates an uneasy yet subtle tension that Reiko is too slow to realise. He has grown up with this woman as a part of his family, practically on the same level as his biological sisters, and desires her nonetheless.
While Reiko is horrified by this revelation, Hideko Takamine’s excellent performance conveys the titular yearning (and confusion, which is a more accurate translation of the Japanese title Midereru),25Russell, Catherine. The Cinema of Naruse Mikio: Women and Japanese Modernity. Duke U.P., 2008, p. 368. with extreme nuance. Naruse savors her last performance by dialing in on stolen glances, brief moments of touch, and Takamine’s glassy eyes that could shatter into tears at any moment. Reiko’s decision to remain with her husband’s family was happily made of her own free will, but she still admits to having a woman’s desires. Within the revelation that the man she has seen as her brother loves her lies the deeper realisation that she may feel the same way as well.
Naruse has crafted a truly impossible love story, one which traps his heroine on all sides. We, the viewer, want both of these people to be happy, yet it is difficult to fully approve of the means by which that can be achieved. Much like Keiko in When A Woman Ascends The Stairs, Reiko watches every door close around her and there does not appear to be any ethical way out that we could advise her to take. She is caught between a man proposing an unattainable romance and a patriarchal society that is forcing her female-owned business to sell out. Naruse expertly manages to balance these two conflicts. The film’s gripping final act is rather unconventional compared to his other works and he leans into the melodrama a little heavily throughout, but Yearning is undoubtedly one of Naruse’s greatest and most engaging pictures.
Naruse in Colour – Scattered Clouds (1967)
“Why do we run into each other? I’m trying to forget about what happened.”
Honourable Mention: The Lovelorn Geisha (1960)
Nearly thirty years after his silent debut, Naruse made two major deviations from his established style by shooting the film Summer Clouds (1958) in both colour and widescreen. Naruse scholar Catherine Russell stated, “[t]he widescreen frame forced a real shift in his editing and framing strategies, so while the tempo is much slower, the pictorial elements became more complex.”26Russell, Catherine. The Cinema of Naruse Mikio: Women and Japanese Modernity. Duke U.P., 2008, p. 17. Although twelve of his thirteen subsequent films would also be made in widescreen, only five would be in colour. Hideko Takamine attested that Naruse himself disliked shooting in colour, quoting him as saying, “[t]he color of the surroundings is so obtrusive you lose sight of the important thing, the drama.” In what would be a major stylistic shift, she even claims that he wanted to create another black and white film that was just her against a white sheet, drama unclouded by any possible distraction.27Takamine, Hideko. “About Mikio Naruse.” “When A Woman Ascends The Stairs” Criterion Collection DVD Booklet, February 20, 2007, 31. Regardless of his personal feelings on the matter, Naruse’s final film Scattered Clouds, also known as Two in the Shadow, is the high point in his limited crop of colour films, featuring some of his greatest cinematography.
The plot centers around Yumiko (Yōko Tsukasa), a happily married woman getting ready to move to the United States with her husband, and Shiro (Yūzō Kayama), a stranger who accidentally kills her husband in a car accident. Though he is found not guilty of any negligence or recklessness, Shiro still feels obligated to provide for Yumiko, who wants no tie to the man who widowed her. Fate brings the two together time and again as they navigate their changing lives in the wake of a shared disaster. Gradually, feelings develop between them.
In many ways, Scattered Clouds is a succinct manifesto of Naruse’s career, style, and outlook on life itself, full of many familiar elements in a new setting.28Russell, Catherine. The Cinema of Naruse Mikio: Women and Japanese Modernity. Duke U.P., 2008, p. 389. Like the similarly titled Floating Clouds, this film spans a greater amount of time and locales than many others, though it is much further removed from the immediate postwar depression that defined many of those works. Here, Naruse shows us a more modern, globalised world of complexities and missed connections. Yumiko has a college degree in English and is preparing to leave the country behind to continue her actual happy marriage to her husband. Shiro is a more Westernised Japanese man who caters to actual foreign clients and is far more sympathetic than many prior male characters. Their ill-fated relationship is not unlike that of Yearning, as it could work in theory were it not for the factors by which the two came to know each other in the first place. The notion of a widow falling in love with the man who accidentally killed her husband is one of several taboo attributes of Naruse’s final feature, which also features an abortion (as was the focus of one of his personal favourite creations, Sound of the Mountain).29Russell, Catherine. The Cinema of Naruse Mikio: Women and Japanese Modernity. Duke U.P., 2008, p. 261.
While it may not be possible to see what Naruse created the first time he stepped behind the camera, we are fortunate to be able to see what he did for his last. Anyone who has enjoyed his films should see this enrapturing end to a career that spanned nearly four decades. In addition, fans of Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai, particularly his masterpiece In The Mood For Love (2000), will find Scattered Clouds to be a fascinating watch. In many ways, Wong’s film builds upon a foundation set by Naruse here. Both films centre around an unconsummated, seemingly impossible relationship in the 1960s and amplify the external tensions of attention by constantly capturing their characters in frames within frames. There are even instances where Naruse’s own lush compositions are directly replicated in In The Mood For Love, most strikingly a shot of the two leads framed in the back of a taxi. Both films are also similarly edited, covering many short meetings (often in restaurants) across a long span of time and leaving some key plot points to happen offscreen. Despite coming from two different places and times, Scattered Clouds and In The Mood For Love complement each other in a very rewarding way.
Mikio Naruse passed away two years later in 1969, leaving behind a truly impressive body of work with a remarkably consistent vision. Even with so many films, he always found ways to make similar statements with dissimilar narratives, providing experiences that feel uniform in their approach but fresh in their content. That artists such as Naruse exist is a reminder that the annals of cinematic history are full of talents waiting to be rediscovered by contemporary audiences. He had, and still has, so much to offer to anyone bold enough to dip their toe into his seemingly docile current of honesty, heartbreak, and humanity.