Three by Naruse (The Cornfield #15)

A long time ago I read that from an early age, whenever Peter Bogdanovich saw a movie he would write notes on the film on a 3×5 card and file the card away in a cabinet, where it was available for future memory-refreshing. Or maybe it wasn’t Bogdanovich; I don’t know, somebody somewhere did this, and it sounded like a good idea to me. Sometime after the personal computer came into my life, I thought it might be smart to try this, even if only to write down the plots to more obscure movies, so they could be summoned at a later date. (Plots vanish from my mind, sometimes while I’m still watching the film in question.) And for a while I did, but who’s got time? And now I put immediate impressions into a Movie Diary on this website, albeit in much shorter form than I attempted in the film capsules I would jot down for myself.

I made some notes on three Mikio Naruse films that came through town when the Northwest Film Forum did a Naruse series in 2006. Two of these three feature Hideko Takamine, the celebrated Japanese actress who died on Dec. 31. Writing down these notes is a way of trying to remember things.

Flowing (1956)

Life in a geisha house, once busy, now declining. Somewhat oblique in its storytelling, which might have something to do with the title, though the cumulative effect is persuasive and the final sequence is remarkable. We follow a widow (Kinuyo Tanaka, from Life of Oharu) who comes to the house in search of a maid’s job; she is too old, but they take her on, and her scrupulousness and discretion are like a steady thread upon which the narrative is strung. The mistress of the house (Isuzu Yamada) tries to hold it together through belligerent creditors and advice from others to sell the place and rent instead. Her daughter (Hideko Takamine, star of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs) is a mysterious figure, having failed at or otherwise fallen away from being a geisha herself and not having a clear goal. In one scene she seems to ask out a visiting salesman, but this, like many other tendrils in the movie, goes nowhere. Takamine is a great star, but her role here is submerged in the ensemble, just another figure in the flow.

Melodrama, or even drama, barely ripples the surface of the film. The focus tends to be on dreams that don’t lead anywhere, and financial transactions that might or might not happen, which carry as much nerve-fraying weight as they do in a Dickens novel (the setting is not actually a brothel, but the business office, as it were, where economic contracts are made that have quietly debilitating effects on the lives of everybody involved). The madam is embarrassed late in the movie by the failure of her once-beau to come through with either money or a declaration of his love. Time and age have flowed past this place.

Great supporting performance by Haruko Sugimura, as a 50-year-old geisha, whose silly fluttering and backbiting are superbly delivered. The last sequence has the remaining women in the house training a couple of younger geisha, receiving a new geisha at their door (sort of a traveling coming-out party or something), and then cattily criticizing her, while the madam’s daughter quietly (but not silently; the hum of the machine is important) sews upstairs, still uncertain of what she’s doing. The maid, meanwhile, driven by a sense of duty, has turned down a nice offer of a better job from the lady who bought up the geisha house, in favor of returning to her husband’s home country, to pay homage to his memory even though his relatives aren’t very nice. The lyrical note of the final sequences is played out in shots of water flowing past bridges into a bay, as the film began.

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960)

Beautiful b&w widescreen film by Naruse, set in the jumble of bars in the Ginza neighborhood, crowded with neon signs and overhanging awnings. Terribly subtle in its emotional touch. The movie follows bar hostess Hideko Takamine as she ponders whether to go into business for herself, passing through other bars and considering the offers and encouragement of her favorite clients (her own bar appears to be in decline). She might also marry again, but for a promise made to her late husband. And so she continues, taking on her burdens and managing them.

The title refers to a repeated image of her facing the stairway as she goes to work each night—a long walk she knows how to navigate but is reluctant to continue making (there is some echo of Vidor’s The Crowd in these shots, in that film’s repeated forced perspective of a figure climbing stairs, an upward mobility made literal and dynamic). The momentousness of life is just putting one’s foot on the stair and getting it done, even when doing it is less than pleasant. Naruse’s wide frame is a jungle of interior beams and screens and horizontal surfaces; the exteriors crowd and complicate the heroine’s journey. The credits are hip and would not be out of a place in a Saul Bass film of the same era; the music is vibraphone cool. Somehow the whole thing not only comments on the place of women in Japanese society but on the uncertainty and unease of the postwar era. But primarily it’s a superbly calibrated look at disappointment and stoicism.

Wife! Be Like a Rose! (1935)

Wonderful-sad-funny movie about daughter and sad-sack mother in a Tokyo house (out-of-it mom comes home channeling her precious poetic inspirations, which she must grandly rush to her desk to deliver to parchment), wondering why their father has abandoned them. (Spend some time with the mother and you see why.) The daughter Kimiko, who has an office job, is unofficially engaged to a nice guy, but her sweetheart’s father needs to meet with her father to make it official, and her father lives far away with his mistress in a small town. He comes to Tokyo from the country, spotted by Kimiko, but doesn’t show up at home. So Kimiko takes it upon herself to visit; when she gets to the rural spot she runs into a small boy and asks for the father’s name; he replies, “My father?”, which is how she meets her half-brother. Turns out the old man is panning for gold in a river, living with a former geisha who is not at all the gold-digger she was thought to be, but in fact keeps her family together (they also have a teenage daughter). She’s the one who’s been sending money to the Tokyo family for years, not the father. Kimiko manages to get the father to come back to Tokyo, hoping he will stay, despite her new admiration for his mistress; but the father can’t wait to get away from his dreary wife.

Happy-sad movies don’t come much more exact than this. It begins with lovely fresh location shots of Kimiko’s office, where an office boy is whistling “My Blue Heaven” as the film begins (her boyfriend is whistling it down in the street minutes later; song and poetry play many different roles as the movie goes along). Great shots of the city streets in that sequence, and later of the countryside. It was the first Japanese sound film distributed in the U.S., and it got bad reviews at the time. When it isn’t completely delightful, it’s calmly devastating.