Jan. 21
, 2006

(Photo provided by the Northwest Film Forum)
A scene from “When a Woman Ascends the Stairs,” a 1960 film by Mikio Naruse.

The great Japanese director you’ve never heard of

By N.P. Thompson
For the Northwest Asian Weekly

The late Japanese moviemaker Mikio Naruse directed 89 films between 1930 and 1967. Over the next several weeks, the Northwest Film Forum on Capitol Hill will showcase but a mere sliver of Naruse’s prolific output.

Just 10 films will be screened in the Forum’s retrospective, “Weathering the Storm: The Enduring Cinema of Mikio Naruse.” Those 10, however, are all rarities. None of them is available on DVD, and of the handful that were once released in VHS format, all are out of print. Secondhand copies of Naruse films fetch astoundingly high prices at online retailers; the director’s excellent and heart-wrenching 1952 drama “Mother” is available to rent at Seattle’s Scarecrow Video, but only if viewers fork over a $150 deposit.

In his lifetime, Naruse created films that were popular with critics and audiences alike. Why, since then, have his works languished in obscurity? The answers are almost as elusive as prints and screenings of the movies themselves.

On the surface, Naruse’s concerns and choices of subject matter (the disintegration of the family unit; the plight of the poor) seem to mirror those of his much better known contemporary Yasujiro Ozu. Yet Naruse lacks a certain freewheeling quality that I associate with Ozu.

The critic Susan Sontag phrased it like this: Naruse “creates an ardently materialist world where the social pressure for money acts like a vise to the head.” And indeed, in works such as “Late Chrysanthemums” (1954) and “When a Woman Ascends the Stairs” (1960), both of which claustrophobically portray the (mis)fortunes of aging prostitutes and unhappily retired geisha, the endless emphasis on economics is almost overwhelming. Naruse’s women, at least in these two films, seldom speak of anything except money, and the director is well attuned to the intricacies of social Darwinism, so much so that the movies have a disturbingly contemporary feel to them, despite the milieu of a defeated, post-World War II Japan in which they take place.

The two films in the retrospective that I’m most looking forward to seeing are 1951’s “Repast” (playing Feb. 3-5) and 1954’s “Sound of the Mountain” (Feb. 23). Both feature that amazing actress Setsuko Hara, whom Sontag listed as “among the greatest performers in the history of world cinema,” in leading roles. Hara often worked with Ozu, usually in the part of the virtuous daughter who needed to marry and leave the family nest. In her movies with Naruse, Hara, finally, plays the wife, and the marriages she lands in are essentially prisons.

Hara won two best actress awards in Japan for “Repast,” a work that Boston Phoenix film critic Chris Fujiwara describes as “quiet and devastating … in its nuanced portrait of feminine alienation.” In “Sound of the Mountain,” based on the novel by Yasunari Kawabata, Hara’s tormented wife hates her alcoholic husband to such an extent that she spends most of the movie contemplating the abortion of their unborn child — an uncommon cinematic scenario for the 1950s, to say the least.

Yet not all is gloom and doom. Naruse uses a great deal of humor in “Mother” (Feb. 17-19), a gentle film that, among other things, captures a child’s-eye view of death and loss. When a new worker comes to assist in the family’s dry-cleaning business, we hear this voiceover from one of the children: “He was in a Soviet camp until recently. So we christened him Mr. P.O.W.”

The film retrospective “Weathering the Storm: The Enduring Cinema of Mikio Naruse” plays Jan. 20 to Feb. 26 at the Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Ave., Seattle. For tickets, showtimes or more information, call 206-329-2629 or visit www.nwfilmforum.org. 

N.P. Thompson can be reached at scpnwan@nwlink.com.

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