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110 years ago today: Mikio Naruse born

Mikio Naruse
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.


Discussion

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Ugetsu

Thats a great summary, Vili.

I really must dig out some of his films to watch again. I find them absolutely fascinating. For me, he is very much the equal of the other ‘big three’ directors – actually, in my view he is a more intelligent and thoughtful director than Mizoguchi and the equal in many ways to Ozu. I think in the eyes of some western critics he has suffered by seeming to be less ‘Japanese’ than Ozu or Mizoguchi, which of course is a deeply wrong-headed way of looking at Japanese cinema of the period.

His filming technique is intriguing. Its not until you look closely that you see what an incredible number of edits he uses in each individual scene, it must have been infuriating for the actors. But somehow, it works very well. I suspect that Kurosawa learned a lot from him, as I think both them seemed to share a fascination with the editing process.

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Vili Maunula

Ugetsu: I really must dig out some of his films to watch again.

Me too! Let me know if you decide to watch some and I’ll see if I can find the same ones. I’ve at least been planning to watch Sound of the Mountain for a while as I have it on DVD and can’t remember ever watching it.

Ugetsu: Its not until you look closely that you see what an incredible number of edits he uses in each individual scene, it must have been infuriating for the actors.

I don’t remember where I read this — it may have been Catherine Russel’s book on Naruse — but my understanding is that Naruse’s working methods may actually have been easier for actors. If I remember correctly, he often shot actors so that they delivered all of their lines of dialogue separately, and he then just put them into the proper sequence in editing.

Then again, I suppose it may have been equivalent to George Lucas shooting everything in front of green screen for the second Star Wars trilogy and Ewan McGregor finding it extremely challenging to conjure up any real performances as he was acting against nothing and had to imagine the situation rather than being a part of it.

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Ugetsu

I’ve at least been planning to watch Sound of the Mountain for a while as I have it on DVD and can’t remember ever watching it.

Its been quite a few years since I watched it, but it is an amazing film, with a gorgeously filmed ending that actually reminds me of ending of The Third Man – in fact, I always wondered if the final scene was influenced by Reeds film. Its one of the rare cases in my opinion of an adaption of a literary novel which is actually better than the book (or at least the book in translation). Naruse changed the emphasis from the books narrator, a man entering old age, to his daughter in law, making for a much more interesting story.

I don’t remember where I read this — it may have been Catherine Russel’s book on Naruse — but my understanding is that Naruse’s working methods may actually have been easier for actors. If I remember correctly, he often shot actors so that they delivered all of their lines of dialogue separately, and he then just put them into the proper sequence in editing.

It is Russell I think who discusses this in detail, although (perhaps I picked this up wrong), I thought actors hated the technique, because they were basically acting to his finger (he would tell them to stare at it). He also had a tendency to tell them to repeat the scene over and over, without explaining what he wanted.

Then again, I suppose it may have been equivalent to George Lucas shooting everything in front of green screen for the second Star Wars trilogy and Ewan McGregor finding it extremely challenging to conjure up any real performances as he was acting against nothing and had to imagine the situation rather than being a part of it.

I always thought the biggest challenge for an actor in a Star Wars film was to speak Lucas’ dialogue without giggling.

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Longstone

Naruse is a director that I would love to see more films by, unfortunately he’s the least well catered for in English friendly home video compared to the big three.
As far as I know there are no Blu-ray editions at all for example, luckily I picked up the three available DVD box sets as they were released because the Masters of Cinema one is long out of print now and I think the BFI set is also unavailable ( though I read they planned to reissue it ). I think the only currently available films are the Criterion releases which is the Eclipse box of silent films and When a Woman Ascends the Stairs.

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Vili Maunula

Ugetsu: It is Russell I think who discusses this in detail, although (perhaps I picked this up wrong), I thought actors hated the technique, because they were basically acting to his finger (he would tell them to stare at it). He also had a tendency to tell them to repeat the scene over and over, without explaining what he wanted.

It must actually be me who is mistaken. I just checked Naruse’s Wikipedia page, and I’m now quite convinced that my recollections of his working methods come primarily from there.

Ugetsu: I always thought the biggest challenge for an actor in a Star Wars film was to speak Lucas’ dialogue without giggling.

Well, at least they were giggling then. I have nothing but respect for Lucas for various reasons, but some of the dialogue that he has written is literally painful. I remember Episode II to be particularly tough to get through.

Longstone: Naruse is a director that I would love to see more films by, unfortunately he’s the least well catered for in English friendly home video compared to the big three.

Indeed! The BFI set is currently fetching ridiculous sums second hand on Amazon. I remember when it was on sale for £15.

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Ugetsu

Vili: It must actually be me who is mistaken. I just checked Naruse’s Wikipedia page, and I’m now quite convinced that my recollections of his working methods come primarily from there.

I’m vague too about where I learned about his techniques – Russell does discuss them, but I think its mostly from dvd extras in interviews. He does seem to have taken the technique of shooting each cut in a precise manner to an extreme. It does seem that one thing Naruse and Kurosawa had in common was that they had the edits precisely in mind when they filmed any scene.

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