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Countering Errors in the Age of Discovery:
On the International Critical Assessment of Mikio Naruse  

Shigehiko Hasumi


In the role of a witness who will expose the unfortunate relations that bind films into a single period, I would like to relate the double-layered misfortune underlying the imperative to summon Mikio Naruse. (1) Now it appears that, in world cinema history, after Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa, Naruse’s name has decisively entered into the record as the fourth giant of Japanese cinema. And, at face value, this is certainly auspicious. Let us put aside, for now, questions such as why the fourth giant was not Masahiro Makino or Sadao Yamanaka. It is also cause for celebration that retrospective screenings in various film festivals around the world give rise to rumours that Keisuke Kinoshita, Heinosuke Gosho or Hiroshi Shimizu will assume the title of fifth giant.


Translator’s Notes  

1.Hasumi is speaking metaphorically, using the legal terms ‘witness’, ‘summons’ or ‘subpoena’.


However, in a national cinema that was able to build its productive foundation in the 1930s, after coming through the silent period, it is not at all remarkable that there would be five to ten directors on Naruse’s level. There are without a doubt also such directors in China and India, for example. For Naruse, this would not be a dishonour at all.

It would be impossible to write genuine film history if there was no one to hypothesise the existence of directors possessing their own unique world and, moreover, were masters of a definite technique that enabled them to visually and aurally organise the world. That is plain, common sense. Therefore, the majority of cinema histories are only fictions founded on abstract speculation, completely ignoring this common sense. The emptiness of such fictions begins to become clear. Thus, the movement over the past several years to rediscover Naruse had to harmonise with the movement to concretely rediscover the emptiness of cinema history. One must deny that this rediscovery – that Naruse is a person who exists in the world among others – is a means to compensate for something lacking within cinema history. It is not that cinema history up to now has been insufficient. The effort to champion Naruse involves the claim that cinema history has not yet even come into existence. The 87 extant films of Naruse are offered as evidence of this claim. The cases of the fifth and sixth giant of cinema who must be discovered will derive from the same tendency. We want to emphatically refute those voices that declare Naruse to be the fourth giant of Japanese cinema. Will we next be obliged to determine what ranking Tay Garnett holds among Hollywood giants? Has the effort to determine what number the giant Boris Barnet holds in Soviet cinema already begun? These suggestions of ranking are themselves a symptom of the unconscious depravity that clings to such a fictive cinema history.


It is not without reason that Naruse had to be named the fourth giant of Japanese cinema. His status as number four means that, in postwar Japanese cinema history, three directors are sufficient within the international arena. If we leave out the comparatively recently discovered Ozu, then Mizoguchi and Kurosawa can suffice to represent Japanese Cinema. One of the reasons for this is the situation of cinema after World War II, and the conditions placed on Japanese film as a special case in international film festivals. Italian neo-realism was able to attain world attention in 1946 thanks to the Locarno Film Festival. And the rediscovery of Luis Buñuel would be inconceivable without the 1951 Cannes Film Festival. When Rashomon (1950) received the Grand Prize of the 1951 Venice Film Festival, Kurosawa’s reputation was confirmed, and the conditions imposed on Japanese film by international film festivals ended. After this, contemporary filmmakers mass-produced films aimed at these festivals. As Koichi Yamada stated in the panel discussion ‘The Nouvelle Vague Begins Here’, Ingmar Bergman, Satyajit Ray, Juan Antonio Bardem, Michelangelo Antonioni and Kurosawa, among others, were filmmakers who held this agenda. (2)

To date, Bergman – with the declaration that his films are ‘not Swedish’ – is the only one to question this stereotype. But we can see this gesture in itself as concisely revealing the pros and cons of international film festivals. The heightened consciousness of ‘internationalism’ results in an expulsion of national cinemas from the realm of ‘world cinema’. After this, any avenue through which Masahiro Makino could enter world cinema history has been cut off. This is also the reason that much of American cinema has remained undervalued, despite the breadth of its international market.





2. See issue 3 of the Japanese magazine Lumiere (1986).

Within the effusive outpouring of praise that accompanied the rediscovery of Naruse, one can discern a fixed stereotype. Japanese of the time had hesitated to introduce Ozu and Naruse to the rest of the globe, because they considered the world of these directors’ works too Japanese. This is half-accurate and half-erroneous. At the time that the discovery of contemporary filmmakers by international filmmakers was most functional and effective in the 1950s, the Japanese eagerly sent the samurai films of Mizoguchi and Kurosawa abroad. The Mizoguchi of later years was the one exception – a director who was fortunately able to harmonise this situation with his own concerns. However, it is undeniable that the exoticism of the samurai films accounted for much of the critical and commercial appeal in the international film market – even up to the 1960s, with the release of such films as Harakiri (Masaki Kobayashi, 1962) and BushidoThe Cruel Code of the Samurai (Tadashi Imai, 1963). These were loved by juries and journalists – there was no desire to enter the quotidian world of Ozu and Naruse. If there had been the courage to submit the ghost stories of Nobuo Nakagawa, these films, too, might have garnered critical interest.

This notion – that a Japanese self-restraint against ‘too Japanese’ films is the reason why Ozu and Naruse continued to be ignored by the world – is not entirely true, however. In the 1950s, films such as Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953) and Naruse’s Mother (1952) were premiered in European film festivals. Beginning in the early 1960s, a significant number of Ozu’s films toured several countries in Europe, billed as special events. Naruse’s Yearning (1964) was entered into the Locarno Film Festival, and Hideko Takamine won Best Actress. Therefore, however limited the circle, both Ozu and Naruse were already known to some extent. The fact that neither an ‘Ozu Boom’ nor a ‘rediscovery’ of Naruse occurred at that time is simply due to the fact that the time did not require it yet.   


From the late 1950s to the beginning of the 1960s, cinema passed through a period of revolution; the riches that accumulated within traditional cinema could now be put into practical use by the new filmmakers of this period of maturity, critical of the tendency to build a world from individual works. The emergence of the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers and angry youth, blended in with superficial revolutions in customs, thus suppressed the very existence of Ozu and Naruse. On the other hand, perhaps Ozu is too modern for the abstract, conservation-based language of cinema history. The pioneering experiments in criticism of Donald Richie and Paul Schrader notwithstanding, for a filmic discourse that does not get lost in the myth of Japaneseness, and fashions a language that can accommodate such modernity, we had to wait until the early 1980s and the philosophically-oriented film writings of Gilles Deleuze. It is in Deleuze’s transversal critical method and encounter with Ozu that the latter’s radical deviance is first freed from the myth of Japaneseness, and then able to become the object of analysis as a truly new cinematic case. (3)

What of Naruse? Of course, he cannot be related to the supposed deviance of Mizoguchi or Ozu. As someone who attempts to submerge himself into the film completely, Naruse, almost unconsciously, exceeds the original design of the performance, achieving a direct return to the cinematic. If the topic of the film cannot be harmonised with his own temperament, this visceral return to film is thrilling. Such a tendency is particularly evident in his late works, which one would hesitate to say are blessed with quality scripts. For example, the suffering of the small shop owners in Yearning, threatened by the encroachment of supermarkets, is a situation apparently established to allow Zenzo Matsuyama’s scenario to adjust itself to the period and pace of life. But the pseudo-economic situation becomes completely ambiguous and what comes to the forefront is the attempt to hide the love between the widowed shopkeeper and her younger brother-in-law from the eyes of others, leading to a marvelous escape by night train, told as a suspense tale.





3. Hasumi directs the reader to a piece by Deleuze in the same issue in which his essay appears: ‘Fuhen no forumu toshite no jikan: Ozu Yasujiro ron’, Lumiere, no. 4 (Summer 1986), pp. 12-16. The English version of this excerpt is in Deleuze, trans. Hugh Tomlinson & Robert Galeta, Cinema 2: The Time-Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995), pp. 13-18.

This is also what happens to Nobuo Yamada’s scenario for Drifting Clouds (1967), with its contemporary, international trade bureaucrats and overseas appointees. The tension of a forbidden love is told through a lakeside garden in heavy rain – the film is encircled by a dazzling lyricism realised by discarding the artifice of the narrative, inevitably concealing something by confusing the elements of what is seen. When we are startled at how the film changes attitude from a perfunctory character setup to reach this level of anxiety, we begin to fully comprehend that the journey of the night train or the empty expanse of a rain-drenched inner garden are themselves cinema.

As a contract director for a major company, there were many circumstances Naruse had to accept. But he mastered the special grasp of space that directors who debuted during the silent era acquired, and internalised this skill to transform limitations into a positive force. For example, in terms of material, Sound of the Mountain (1954) is often called ‘Ozu-like’, but those who truly approach the film come away with a completely different feeling. This is, first, based on the lines of vision of the on-screen characters. Setsuko Hara enters the living room carrying a tray with tableware on it. So Yamamura, sitting at the dining table, looks up. Hara lowers her eyes and sits down at the table. Teruko Nagaoka looks at her husband, Yamamura. The editing technique which enables the exchange of looks to continually build layers in the shot, narrating something of each character’s psychology while at the same time structuring the space, is absolutely not a Japanese practice. While the son’s attachment to his bride sitting on the tatami is a particularly Japanese gesture, it is cut in a rhythm frequently found in American movies. This is the kind of adaptability to film that Naruse mastered unconsciously through his experience working in the silent era. It is an accommodation to a cinematic naturalness that requires a figure who appears at a door to smoothly harmonise with the characters who occupy the main screen space. This adherence to natural space is a distinguishing feature of Naruse’s work; it is completely different from Ozu’s spatial fragmentation. However, it would be a mistake to compare Naruse to Ozu based on camera movement arranged within a fixed screen space. More than subject matter or story, Naruse believes in film.


Just as Richie significantly contributed to the discovery of Ozu, Naruse also had his early American champion. Audie Bock contributed a chapter on Ozu for her book Japanese Film Directors. (4) This researcher’s essay on Naruse was translated into French as a special pamphlet (titled Mikio Naruse: A Master of Japanese Cinema) for the 1983 Locarno Film Festival, and was thus made accessible to global readers. As the first monograph in the languages of Europe and America, it was a significant text that offered an unknown artist to its audience and, because of its enlightened intention, it must take up both the glory and the misery of the person who introduces a new artist to the world. That is to say, many pages must be spent on explaining the relevant Japanese cultural details: shitamachi (‘downtown’), the merchants, the middle-class, the sense of money, and the image of the oppressed woman from the geisha to the bar madam, plus many other, similar things – and any analysis of Naruse’s filmic discourse had to be neglected. However, Positif’s Hubert Niogret wrote a critique of Bock’s weaknesses, subtitled ‘A Great Failed Book’. (5) He claimed that Bock’s error comes from the good intentions of someone who wishes to introduce a new artist – but the attempt to elevate Naruse by comparing him to the giants Mizoguchi and Ozu fell into a trap. 

Bock, like Niogret, knew only the later Naruse’s reluctant work with the coarse screenplays of that ‘mediocre screenwriter’ Matsuyama, who was also Hideko Takamine’s husband; his scripts were filled with a decided cruelty that Naruse could not share. Because Bock was committed to giving a positive assessment of Naruse, she did not attempt an analysis of his filmic discourse that would have illuminated his differences from Ozu and Mizoguchi; she also suppressed consideration of the films’ cruelty.


4. Audie Bock, Japanese Film Directors (Kodansha Amer, 1978).




5. Hubert Niogret, ‘Mikio Naruse. Un Maître du cinéma japonais’, Positif, no. 275 (January 1984), p. 18.




In the early Shochiku silent films Apart From You (1933) and Every-Night Dreams (1933), working from his own drafts, Naruse was able to achieve a vibrant, emotional tone; by the same token, these films demonstrate that, more than being a skillful narrator, Naruse had an innate gift for the visualisation of affect. Whether the rustic fishing village in Apart from You or the harbour in the bay in Every-Night Dreams, the intrusive lyricism of the sea agitates the hearts of the silent characters. This indicates an obsession with description far greater than an interest in storytelling. Nothing could be farther from Naruse’s world than narratological economy; in this respect, we must acknowledge Naruse to be a fundamentally different kind of filmmaker from Masahiro Makino. Therefore, in spite of inadequate scripts, that instant when Naruse realises a return to film is not something whose true value can be measured through a comparison with Mizoguchi or Ozu, but must be resituated in another context. For example, in Naruse’s miraculous use of second-storey windows, the supple interpenetration of the exterior and interior begs a comparison with Hitchcockian space, and the intricate play of the backlighting and front lighting falling across a face evinces Naruse’s affiliation with Griffith’s legacy. Yet the Japaneseness that characterises Bock’s monograph disparages such signs that indicate Naruse’s relation to these directors. Bock’s text is also lacking in that she writes of melodrama but completely ignores how filmic melodrama is enriched by the technology of lines of vision. One of the shocks that allow us to grasp Naruse is his mastery (along with Hitchcock) of making people turn around and look back. From the father and daughter in his early work, Wife! Be Like a Rose (1935), to the dialogues between father and daughter-in-law in Sound of the Mountain, Naruse’s women continually turn back to meaningfully look over their shoulder. As Niogret points out in a brief article entitled ‘Mikio Naruse and the Arrangement of Emotions’, the great fascination in Naruse’s work lies in the performances that adroitly adjudicate the emotions infused within the looks given and received by the characters. (6) However, if we compare Naruse to Hitchcock – who inserted the exchange of looks only at decisive moments, at times falling into mechanical arrangements – we should not ignore how Naruse’s popular appeal comes in part from having the characters peer into each other’s faces. That popularity is not a question of the script material, but lies in the undeniable ease with which Naruse negotiates film.

Nevertheless, we love Naruse’s popularity. It is completely different from the kind of popularity of Bertrand Tavernier’s A Sunday in the Country (1984), whose handling of themes is difficult to reconcile. ‘Naruse-esque’ should be seen as the special prerogative of a filmmaker who became a director at the end of the silent era, mastered the narrative techniques of 1930s talkies, and was involved with the first period of 1950s maturity. While Naruse was humbly satisfied with this privilege, he assiduously returned to the direction of film from which Mizoguchi and Ozu had departed. This allowed Naruse to avoid the populism of the next generation of directors such as Kozaburo Yoshimura and Keisuke Kinoshita who had never made a silent film, and whose ways of treating material at times mistook technology for cinema.







6. Niogret, ‘Mikio Naruse et l’agancement des émotions’, Positif, no. 275 (January 1984), pp. 12-17.

What informed the regressive view that took the 1950s to be the golden age of Japanese cinema was a delusion arising from this mistaking of technology for cinema. It distorted critical perspective. The model example of this is the comparatively high critical acclaim for the popular handling of material in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949). Around the world, the 1950s were the years of the error of revering Reed above Hitchcock. The Japanese directors who debuted in this period, constructing themselves and the ‘new individual’, all more or less give the impression that they unconsciously saw Reed-esque composition and editing style as an ideal. Without a doubt, he work of Kon Ichikawa, Kozaburo Yoshimura and Ko Nakahira, among others, clearly shows these peculiarities. Perhaps only Yasuzo Masumura as a new director rejected, early on, this confusion of film and technology. The significance of looking at Naruse now is to reconfirm that he belongs in the Hitchcock lineage, and has no connection whatsoever with Reed. The main reason that Naruse was able to elude the confusion of film and technology was not his preference for the world of the common people as his theme, nor was it due to his modest personality that leaned away from ostentation. It was not a matter of technically dealing with the narrative through composition and editing. Rather, he was able to avoid the confusion of film and technology because he was able to empirically master that radiance which is emitted raw from film as the camera trembles at the unexpected glow from the image itself.

Film is first of all a question of sensitivity to a ray of light. Naruse possesses this sensitivity to a startling degree – as is made clear in the way he frequently stages a scene laterally, training the camera on characters from two sides, in a garden or within a room, uniting the two tones with infinite delicacy. This is something neither Ozu nor Mizoguchi ever did. Of course, a scene in which a character walks down a hall occurs in any film. But using Naruse’s special characteristic, the fusion of front and back lighting, the characters are enveloped in a line of light that is neither external nor internal – and that is the performance. This is where the power of a scene in which a character is photographed by a windowsill comes from. Window and veranda are the privileged spaces imbued with Naruse’s cinematic obsessions.


The fact that Naruse did not like location shots, and that most scenes are on sets, is something many critics have discussed. But he is a filmmaker surprisingly sensitive to external light – The Song Lantern (1943), which he made during World War II, makes this clear. Of course, this is an adaptation of Kyoka Izumi’s novel, but the scene in which Shotaro Hanayagi instructs Izusu Yamada in Noh dance, thanks to the dexterous cinematography of Nakai Asakazu, is filled with a vitality that could make film history. In setting, the scene shifts from the play Ama to another, Matsukaze; the space that serves as the stage is a clearing between the seashore and a pine forest. (7) Even the delicate trembling of the sunlight that seeps through the branches onto the two characters is perfectly suited to the film. And when the camera, at times, leaves the ground for an overhead view, it illuminates the light and dark shadows falling on the ground; when it returns to earth, it displays an elegant movement that captures the shadows of the leaves traversing the faces of the man and woman, as they seem to glide among the jet black tree trunks during their dance. The beauty of this scene, immediately calling to mind Lee Garmes’ photographic work in Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932), was likely the inspiration for Rashomon as well. Such films seem to sneer at the abstraction of film-historical criticism that views the ‘art’ films made during the War years as so many ways in which ‘genius directors’ could elude National Policy propaganda pressure. For example, Naruse’s Tsuruhachi and Tsurujiro (1938), based on a novel by Kawaguchi Matsutaro, is clearly an adaptation of George Raft’s performance in Bolero (Wesley Ruggles, 1934). While Naruse offers a glimpse into the world of theatre, whatever Japaneseness is captured is incidental to this variation on the Hollywood ‘quarreling buddies’ motif. During the War – from the pro-war films to the ‘art’ films – it is more stimulating to illuminate the influence of American cinema.





7. The dance Hanayagi is teaching Yamada is the celebrated ‘tama no dan’ or ‘jewel scene’ from the play Ama (‘Woman Diver’). The play takes place on the seashore and involves a woman breaking into the Dragon King’s palace beneath the sea to retrieve a stolen jewel. All the imagery involves the sea and the shore. Matsukaze (‘Pine Wind’) is an unrelated play, but its title resonates with the film’s setting. For the texts of these plays, see Mario Yokomichi & Akira Omote (eds), Yookyoku Shuu Zyoo Ed. Nihon Koten Bungaku Taikei, Vol. 40 (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1960), pp. 157-165 & 57-65, respectively.

In the 1940s, Naruse experienced a downturn in his career. The rewards for National Policy films during the war, and the disputes within Toho Studios immediately after the war, were not solely Naruse’s problems, but rather affected the film industry as a whole. The existence of The Song Lantern is not a legitimate basis for evaluation. The image of this broken-down bus chugging along in Hideko the Bus Conductor (1941) calls to mind the cart episode in the omnibus film Professor Ishinaka’s Conduct Report (1950), and is mildly amusing. The only Naruse film that fits into the National Policy category is This Happy Life (1944) – a kind of set anthem to mobilise comedy for propaganda. However its relentless cheerfulness – so reminiscent of The Whole Family Works (1939), which enjoyed a warm critical response in Europe – cannot be ignored. The 1940s decline in Naruse’s work, earning him the critical judgment as an artist who vacillated between success and failure, can be seen as partially the effect of limitations placed on themes during World War II. But, in order to appreciate how Naruse returns to film, the works of this period are of great interest.

Now the whole picture of Naruse’s work has just begun to be offered to the world. After the age of international film festivals in the 1950s, the age of revolution in the 1960s, and the age of re-evaluation through the retrospective screenings in the 1970s, we come to the 1980s demands for global contexts. What we need to discover is a cinematic language adequate to this age of discovery. This is not yet at hand.

Originally published as ’Hakken no Jidai no Fukoo ni Sakarau: Mikio Naruse no Kokusaiteki Hyooka wo Megutte’, Lumiere, issue 4 (Summer 1986), pp. 45-49. Translated by Earl Jackson, Jr. Reprinted with permission of the author.


Original Japanese text Shigehiko Hasumi, 1986.
English translation copyright Earl Jackson, Jr & LOLA, October 2016.

Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author, translator and editors.