Judge Bill Gibron had his eyes opened by this celebration of a forgotten Japanese film legend.
Five Films from One of Japan's Forgotten Art Form Experts
It seems to happen to all great artists. Between time and studio temperament, a lack of consideration or an absence of preservation, many seminal moviemakers have seen most (or in some sad cases, almost all) of their creative canon wither and die. It's happened to the famous (Orson Welles) and the not quite so universally known. Take the case of Mikio Naruse. Often positioned alongside fellow Japanese auteurs Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, and Kenji Mizoguchi as one of his nation's creative treasures, nearly half of his work in silent films has been lost. That's more than two dozen movies. Indeed, it is a rare glimpse when a fan can see some of the important titles he delivered at the start of his career. Luckily, the Criterion Collection, through the efforts of its "lost, forgotten, or overshadowed classics" imprint Eclipse, is bringing five of his earliest efforts out of the vaults. Within this intriguing box set, one finds the foundation for all the accolades, as well as the rationale for why so many may have been lost.
Facts of the Case
Representing 1931 to 1933 and offering Naruse's oldest surviving effort and his last silent film, Eclipse Series 26 is a fascinating foray into the director's burgeoning approach. Almost all have similar themes, though how he achieves them makes for an interesting five and a half hours of viewing. Dealing with each story individually, we can see what draws Naruse to his subjects, and how subtle changes in the details defines his future. The films are:
Flunky, Work Hard (1931)
No Blood Relation (1932)
Apart From You (1933)
Every-Night Dreams (1933)
Street Without End (1934)
It's hard to remember a time when film, like other media, we considered nothing more than disposable entertainment. Producers and directors filling Kinetoscopes and penny arcades machines at the turn of the century were not concerned about their lasting legacy—they wanted to make money. Sure, art played a part, but it was for future generations to argue over safeguarding, not the audiences plugging pennies into the newfangled mechanical machines and turnstiles. So while sad, it's not inexcusable that many movies from the art form's earliest days no longer survive. Sometimes, the technology itself (easily flammable and quick to deteriorate nitrate negatives, for example) was to blame. In other instances, a lack of foresight stifles staying power. In the case of Mikio Naruse, one may never know why so many of his early silent works are lost. Of course, every day we hear of new discoveries (the missing elements from Fritz Lang's original cut of Metropolis, for example) just waiting to be unearthed. In this filmmaker's case, it could be a matter of priority and premise.
Naruse focused on an unlikely aspect of classic feudal Japan and its contemporary translation into an early century paternalism. Almost all centered on the female. Some have even crassly called him the first "chick flick" filmmaker. Comparing him to Douglas Sirk and King Vidor is one thing, but there is an unusual organic quality to his work that transcends such shoddy typecasting. Yes, the first film in this box sex—the uniquely named Flunky, Work Hard—finds a terrific balance between the experimental and the expressive, but it is only a short. Naruse clearly made it as an way of discovering the limits and legitimacy of the new filmmaking form. With its split screens and smash cuts, it's both a work of farce and a horrifying glimpse at domineering domestic strife. In all fairness, it's better to call Naruse a kitchen sink dramatist than a maker of weepy melodrama. Sure, his images often have the bite of a classic cinematic soap, but for the most part, he is accurately reflecting the Japan he sees all around him.
This is particularly true of the next film in the set, No Blood Relation. In dealing with that most tenuous of early nuclear family issues—the stepchild—Naruse juxtaposes a more fictionalized take on the trauma. It's almost noir in its approach, the various oddball elements (this is a man who adores his rapid track-ins and back and forth pans) buffering what is often a rather harrowing narrative. By placing criminal acts alongside the struggles of a biological parent and the part they play in raising (or failing to raise) a child, Naruse begins to build his affinity for the female perspective. Yes, it's all Hollywood starlets and underhanded felons, but the main theme is of a child misplaced—and the one who ends up caring for it. While the men go out and work and the older kids head off to school, it is the women of Japan who sew the foundational cloth the country is wrapped in. Even with the various nefarious plot points utilized, the faces of his actors divulge a pure, pointed motive. At its core, No Blood Relation is about what it means to be a mother, and what it's like to accidentally/aggressively lose that status.
Another variation on every parent's nightmare arrives with Apart from You. Throughout the course of this collection we can see Naruse picking and choosing through his aesthetic tools, sticking with ones that work (the track-in) while disposing of many that no longer offer insight. Here, both mother and child are social pariahs—she's an aging geisha on a decided downward track, he's reacted to said status by becoming a troubled school-cutting juvenile delinquent. When you think of it, it does sound like a handwringing Hollywood tearjerker from several decades ago—the fallen woman and her rebellious son. Yet Naruse is still using style as a trial, bringing in subplots (like the girl the boy falls for) that sometimes support, and sometimes subvert his purpose. By the end, we feel the impact of his narrative, even without the many manufactured moviemaking flourishes. In fact, Naruse's continued affinity for obvious directorial flair undermines a few of his more poignant scenes.
By the time we get to Every-Night Dreams, we can see things really start to settle in. Naruse had been making movies for almost three years, and had about 20 titles under his belt by then. With this decidedly dark effort, he clearly finds firmer footing. The movie's main storylines sees the age-old tale of one mother's undying sacrifice for her fragile son melded with a weird undercurrent of male ineffectualness. Indeed, when Omitsu's deadbeat husband returns to be "part of the family," his powerless, unemployed persona masks the real meaning. Naruse seems to be suggesting that, like before, Japan would be nothing without women. While men can sneer and chauvinistically argue otherwise, it is his female protagonists who provide the foundation for the denouement in many of his films. The male plays a part—he has to—but it's the opposite sex who drives the decisions, who upends the tragedy, and who seeks the silver lining when all around them is poverty and pointless subservience.
Those looking for a true indication of Naruse's lasting legacy can feel vindicated by his final silent film, Street Without End. Even the title suggests a dour descent into bleak Hell. Oddly enough, there is a surreal fairytale undercurrent here, our heroine finding herself persecuted and tormented by her wicked mother and sister-in-law. You half expect a winged godmother to show up and grant her an invitation to the ball. But since Naruse is working in cold, calculated climes here, we get no such levity. Instead, Street settles into a rhythm ripe with despair, our lead constantly being harangued while her wimpy, whipped husband sits back and lets it happen. As the story unravels, you get the distinct feeling that something significant is going to occur. When the ending does arrive, it's underwhelming force redefines your opinion of what Naruse was/is after. Indeed, as with many of the movies here, what we witness is an artist finding his voice while hinting at the greatness that will one day be extolled. Silent Naruse may not a wholly consistent or engaging compendium, but from a film history standpoint alone, it's enlightening.
What one has to remember about the Eclipse label is that Criterion is not out to present the most pristine, polished remaster of these movies possible. It's a question of availability over tech spec aesthetics, something the transfers in Silent Naruse illustrate over and over again. Yes, the movies look very good considering their age and rarity. No, they are not flawless. There are scratches and dust, edit defects and the random missing element. Luckily, none of the problems distract from our enjoyment of the films. Similarly, the newly recorded scores (since these are silent films, music is provided to supplement the Japanese/English translation title cards) have a nice crisp newness, represented well by the Dolby Digital stereo mix. Finally, there are no added features here save for an insert with write-ups on each movie. They make for a wonderful read.
Again, sometimes it's easy to see why a filmmaker, foreign or otherwise, is hailed for his or her work. No one would argue with those hailing the films of Fellini, or the deconstructionist designs of Godard. It's the outlying icons, though—the artists and artisans who helped forge the path toward preservation—that need remembering. For Mikio Naruse, there is a relatively small line of countrymen in front of him, a series of names almost every film fans knows. Hopefully, with the help of this box set, he can join their revered ranks. While perhaps not wholly indicative of his entire output, Silent Naruse both highlights his work and helps this important filmmaker get the recognition he deserves. That's the joy of perspective. That's the beauty of such a DVD delight.
Not guilty. A wonderful introduction to a forgotten filmmaker.
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Scales of Justice, Flunky, Work Hard
Perp Profile, Flunky, Work Hard
Distinguishing Marks, Flunky, Work Hard
Scales of Justice, No Blood Relation
Perp Profile, No Blood Relation
Distinguishing Marks, No Blood Relation
Scales of Justice, Apart From You
Perp Profile, Apart From You
Distinguishing Marks, Apart From You
Scales of Justice, Every-Night Dreams
Perp Profile, Every-Night Dreams
Distinguishing Marks, Every-Night Dreams
Scales of Justice, Street Without End
Perp Profile, Street Without End
Distinguishing Marks, Street Without End
Review content copyright © 2011 Bill Gibron; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.