Today marks the 110th anniversary of the birth of the legendary Japanese film director Mikio Naruse (1905-1969). Often considered the fourth member of the triumverate of great Japanese directors, Naruse directed some 90 feature films during a career spanning almost forty years. Known especially for strong female protagonists in stories which border on the bleak and pessimistic, as well as his rapid editing style, Naruse’s films include classics such as Repast (1951), Sound of the Mountains (1954), Late Chrysanthemums (1954), Floating Clouds (1955), Flowing (1956) and When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960).
During his apprenticeship days, Akira Kurosawa worked as the third assistant director on Naruse’s 1937 film Avalanche (雪崩) together with first assistant director Ishirō Honda of later Godzilla fame. Kurosawa (who is mistaken about the film’s release date and its availability) had this to say about the experience in his 1980s autobiography:
Among these experiences outside the Yamamoto group the thing that impressed me the most was Naruse’s work method. He possessed something that can only be called expertise. I assisted him on a lost film, called Nadare (Avalanche, 1938), based on a story by Ōsaragi Jirō. I believe the material was not fully satisfactory to the director, but there was much that I was able to glean from this job.
Naruse’s method consists of building one very brief shot on top of another, but when you look at them all spliced together in the final film, they give the impression of a single long take. The flow is so magnificent that the splices are invisible. This flow of short shots that looks calm and ordinary at first glance then reveals itself to be like a deep river with a quiet surface disguising a fast-raging current underneath. The sureness of his hand in this was without comparison.
During the shooting Naruse was also sure. There was absolutely no waste in anything he did, and even the time for meals was duly allocated. My only complaint was that he did everything himself, leaving his assistant directors to sit around idle.
One day on the set I had nothing to do, as usual. So I went behind backdrop that had clouds painted on it and found a huge velvet curtain that was used for backgrounds in night scenes. It was conveniently folded, so I lay down on it and promptly went to sleep. The next thing I knew, one of the assistant lighting technicians was proddig me awake. “Run!” he said. “Naruse’s mad.” In a panic I fled through a ventilation hole in the back of the stage. As I scrambled, I heard the lighting assistant yell, “He’s behind the clouds!” When I came nonchalantly through the front entrance to the stage, Naruse was coming out. “What’s wrong?” I asked, and he replied, “Somebody’s snoring on the stage. My day’s ruined, so I’m going home.” To my great shame, I was unable to admit that I had been the culprit. In fact, I didn’t bring myself to tell Naruse the truth until ten years had passed. He thought it was very funny. (Kurosawa 112-113)
Kurosawa and Naruse also share credits on the collaborative 1947 film Four Love Stories (四つの恋の物語), for which Kurosawa wrote a segment and Naruse directed another.
In 1948, the two men together with directors Kajirō Yamamoto and Senkichi Taniguchi founded the film production unit Film Art Association (Eiga Heijutsu Kyokai). Although the production unit was not designed to raise funding for truly independent film ventures, it allowed its members more freedom to work on productions of their choosing, while still partnering with major film studios on a project basis. For the three years during which Film Art Association existed, this model worked well, especially as the major studios were at the time hindered by union strikes which lowered the number of their own productions and therefore created a shortage in the market. The association’s tally over those three years was no less than 15 films, which included Kurosawa’s The Quiet Duel (1949) and Stray Dog (1949), as well as Naruse’s Battle of Roses (1950).
Like Yasujirō Ozu who died at age 60 and Kenji Mizoguchi who passed away at 58, Naruse died relatively young. Still working, he lost his battle with cancer in 1969 at the age of 63, leaving behind an exceptional body of work.