(All images are details from iPhone photos taken of the film playing from the FilmStruck app on Apple TV; built-in screen-capturing is disabled during playback from the Web and from the FilmStruck app on iPhone/iPad.)
Prefatory note: The go-to reference work in English about Naruse's films is Dan Sallitt's A Mikio Naruse Companion: Notes on the Extant Films, 1931-1967, which exists as a WordPress site accessible from the link. I've been reading his entries on each film after my initial viewing, and have been enjoying tremendously the lucid and sensitive considerations he's drawn from his own viewings over the years.
'Death from consumption.' - Cancer? Pneumonia? Tuberculosis, the flu? With the practically epidemic levels that pervade the 19th-century novel and Japanese cinema of the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, illness has always seemed in these works, no matter the real-world basis, the deus ex machina of choice to push the plot forward to its tragic dénouement. How many Ozu films feature a child stretched beneath a sack of ice-water scaled to meet their brow? How often was the inducer of the fever the film-world (scenario) itself?
The sitting-room as the theater of death: "theater" in two senses: that of the common usage, and that of the "operation theater" that featured recently on the cover of one of my favorite New Yorker illustrations of all time. (I think of The New Yorker here not only in relation to this cover, but also in the context of critical mass, in all the senses of the phrase.)
The patient fixed ("like a butterfly on a pin" [it takes 12 years more till Suzuki's Branded to Kill]), with the physical body and the condition itself as fulcrum; the patient as the operative element of the narrative procedure. I think of Stahl's Magnificent Obsession, Franju's Eyes Without a Face, Frankenheimer's Seconds, Almodóvar's The Skin I Live In. The procedure will transform the film-world itself, transubstantiate, shake the story. (Note written: "Ripe enough for Preston Sturges in Sullivan's Travels." Okay...)
Sallitt compares Floating Clouds [Ukigumo, 1955] to Ford's The Searchers as a work that evinces the full distillation of themes, idea-concerns, all taken to their most complex height of insight, most insightfully and ambiguously, by its respective author, here Naruse. But Naruse it seems to me cannot thrill a general audience as Ford did, never mind color, action, or tech: he makes his ideas expositionalized through incessant one-on-one dialogue pinned against a decor filthy enough to reinforce the emotional ordure. The fact that Floating Clouds was Number 3 in Kinema Junpô's all time Japanese greats some year (mind you the magazine is closer to Sight & Sound than it is to the yellow covers of Cahiers du cinéma) seems a mistake or as they say in the parlance "a misunderstanding." In 2017, whether Floating Clouds is a good or a great movie strikes me as an irrelevant qualification. It's cinema that 'goes too far, and yet, not far enough.'
I believe the Japanese public experienced Floating Clouds as a kind of release: a portrait of the post-war struggle and vicissitudes of finding employment. I suspect too it was moving for audiences as a doomed-romance-story. In a sense it is exemplary Naruse: plot-deployment heavy, claustrophobia around writing in which no breath might be stolen by character or viewer in the seams of dialogue or flung upsets.
That being the case I've sometimes found writing about these Naruse pictures — as much as I admire them — a tedious task. I lapse into recounting their overcomplicated plots, which is to say character definition often resolves after accumulation of plot-beat upon plot-beat. Let's take the matter at end, Floating Clouds, adapted from a story by Fumiko Hayashi. It begins in late-1946 with the arrival in Tokyo of repatriates from French Indonesia. Goads the viewer into the time-honored Japanese cinema tradition of war as backdrop for most acute melodrama.
Naruse and unrelenting story: lyric moments are thankfully folded within: a walk; the movement through a marketplace; a cloistered hall; a forest. This film exhausts me with its two stars (Hideko Takamine as Yukiko Kôda and Masayuki Mori as Kengo Tomioka) playing poor.
We have a flashback structure: Da Lat (exotically scored): the forest administration. A senior official explains to Yukiko, early-20s typist freshly arrived from Japan and garreting at their HQ, "Our mission is forestry, not fighting." And yet, Forester Tomioka: "I have to go check the quinine garden."
Beautiful cuts that link actions into and out of flashback (such as the kisses early in the film), and though the film is not entirely constructed out of the flashback structure, Floating Clouds still existed four years before Resnais's Hiroshima mon amour, which I broach not for nothing given this earlier film's relative naïveté and unregistered troglodyte effectiveness.
Tomioka: "You must forget the past." Yukiko: "For us the past is the only reality. Without it, where would we be? I wish I hadn't seen your wife..." A few minutes later, Tomioka: "My wife has suffered enough. She kept the home while I was at war. I can't walk out on her now." — thereby breaking his promise that he and Yukiko would marry upon their return to Japan.
Tomioka to his wife: "I'm trying to make a go of my business. I need to raise capital. I have to sell the house to raise some! The price of lumber is soaring." — We will never see Tomioka at work on building the business.
Yukiko's brother-in-law (through her sister) raped her before the war — they run into one another in a marketplace and eat noodles together; there's an explanatory conversation (flashback to the precipice of the rape); back to present, she admits she's sold some of his things (mostly bedding) for the money.
Yukiko gets picked up on the street by an American G.I.; she becomes his kept woman. Tomioka, dropping in on her pad, intimates she's casting a wider net as full-on prostitute.
These idiot-winders are determined to keep their flags emblazoned after Da Lat as means of self-preservation. Yet upon their reconciliation at the small-town town of Ikaho, they fantasize over sake about double-suicide. Then the morning after Tomioka eyes Osei (Mariko Okada)... the innkeeper (Daisuke Katô)'s helper and young wife. Tomioka extends his and Yukiko's stay, and he and Osei get together: he moves on to a new woman, she moves on to a new man. She has designs of moving to Tokyo. When Yukiko catches on, Tomioka confesses: "I feel so empty, bored."
Etc. etc. and months later, Yukiko visits Tomioka's residence (inquiring for "Takase-san"?) only to discover he's moved to the "countryside": Yukiko visits a room at the rear of a dark warehouse in an industrial sector of Tokyo by the railroad, Osei living there, who explains that Tomioka visits but lives with his wife who is ill — but when he visits, she stays with a friend: a lie: Yukiko spots his kimono and then two toothbrushes... — she asks a neighbor boy if a man lives there and does he come every day — and he says Yes to both. Tomioka shows up and she tells him she's quite pregnant...
Then there's the House of the Sun God: false healers: the racket Yukiko's brother-in-law is all into now. She borrows money, she chances an abortion: at the clinic eyes a newspaper: "Jealous Husband Kills Barmaid." Cut to Tomioka writing a statement and reading a letter: "Kuniko is dying. We need money." Yukiko shows up. — during her breakdown, the odd punctuation of the children outside playing house: "Honey, dinner's ready," cut back...
More time passes. Tomioka stops by one Mr. Iba's (the rapist's), where a rejuvenated Yukiko now resides. She goes through many transformations in the crazy pattern that's this film. Tomioka tells her Kuniko died yesterday. He needs to borrow money for the funeral (yet money would have allowed his wife the surgery to remove her tumor). — Leaves her place:
...At another point the passage of time (days) is conveyed by the now-absence of Tomioka's medical eyepatch he was wearing due to a stye, otherwise we would think he was arriving straight from Yukiko's place (impossible given that his flirtatious neighbor informs him she stopped by).
Yukiko steals 300,000 yen from Iba's House and absconds to an inn; sends telegrams to Tomioka to join her. (In the course of a drunken evening between the two there, Yukiko invokes Maupassant's Bel ami saying to Tomioka he reminds her of the main character — second reference in Naruse to the novel since Ginza Makeup) — ("He's a poor man and he fools girls to help him succeed.")
Tomioka is headed to the island of Yaku to be forest-ranger. And with this, for the final half-hour, the plot machinations slow down: as the film gets easy: and in response to Yukiko's begging he takes her along — it's their journey — their Narusean storm — her illness — and his regret. (She busts into chills the moment he acknowledges her as a common-law wife.)
And he breaks down over her corpse as flashbacks register of her posing to his camera in Da Lat — "So short is the life of a flower / Yet how many hardships it suffers." Echoing forever the memory of happiness measured by a flower... •
More writing at Cinemasparagus on the films of Mikio Naruse:
Nasanu-naka [No Blood Relation, 1932]
Kimi to wakarete [Apart from You, 1933]
Yogoto no yume [Every-Night Dreams, 1933]
Kagirinaki hodô [Endless Pavement, 1934]
Ginza keshô [Ginza Makeup, 1951]
Meshi [Repast, 1953]
Tsuma [Wife, 1953]
Yama no oto [The Sound of the Mountain, 1954]