From time to time
The clouds give rest
To the moon-beholders.
Something remarkable happened in Japan in the post-war era. They say it started with Rashomon (1950), but it seems to me that Kurosawa’s great trumpet blast could never signal or predict what was to come. Like all true cinematic flowerings, this was a Great Wave, like Hosukai’s, unquenchable once it had begun. Like the French Wave, to which we have a more ample grounding, it was no one singular movement, but a grouping of disparate individuals, all striving towards something essential, a breaking of tradition with no precedent or awareness.
Ozu. Mizoguchi. Kurosawa. Whisper them like a spell, a remedy against the disease of complacency. We are force-fed platitudes on a daily basis, but these films, by these men, force us to exceed ourselves and our cultures.
The name Mikio Naruse is still relatively unknown to Western audiences. If Kurosawa truly stated that the Japanese ‘think too little of our own little Japanese things‘, then he would have said it of Naruse. His films are prime examples of a traditional art movement known as mono no aware, literally ‘the pathos of things’. Like a haiku, it is a brief blossoming in the dark, an ‘awareness of impermanence’, the transient nature of all things. We are far from the swashbuckling of Kurosawa. This is the quiet stillness of Resnais, in contrast with the great bombast of Godard. It is hard, initially, to comprehend that ten years before this film was made, Japan was a warmongering nationalist cudgel of a state. Like Riefenstahl, Fascism, or its legacy, can still produce wondrous images.
Naruse is concerned with the lingering impact of the war on individuals. Here Yukiko (Hideko Takamine, and gorgeous), recently returned from a gaudy idealized vision of Indochina, finds Tokyo irrevocably changed and the man she loved, Kengo, emotionally frigid. His wife is sickly and suspicious, with gold teeth. The city is gutted, empty, filled with the ignominy of defeat. This is, as Adrian Martin of Rouge has it, ‘the cinema of walking’. You could, equally and perhaps more accurately, say that is a cinema of wandering. It is a film of comings and goings, but never any degree of arrival. Long tracking shots drift with the characters on aimless travels across the city. Like clouds sliding through the sky, they seem buoyed onward by larger forces. These are ‘journeys of the everyday‘, a gradual migration to nowhere and nothing in particular. Naruse meticulously records each journey, and the conversations of alienation that arise, primarily of death, or the desperate will to commit seppuku. That the characters will never act upon their desires for an honorable end merely compounds their aimlessness. Like the defeated nation, they must continue in a form of neutered existence.
The film’s sexual frankness, its femininity, is startling. Yukiko establishes herself as a prostitute, soliciting G.I’s. She meets a man who once raped her, and gently chastises him. The crackling back-and-forth between the former lovers is acerbic and wild. Kengo, unlike Yukiko, is morally bankrupt, charmingly vacant, sexually paralyzed. He cares for her, perhaps, but cannot see far enough beyond the end of his own troubles to understand what to do about their closeness. ‘We should have stayed in Indochina,’ he declares, definitively, oblivious to the idea that it was the war, only the war, that fanned the embers of their desire. Without the great bloodshed, the sexual thrill of global agony, there can be no harmony between them. Yet the mere idea that they can, still, somehow, find solace in each other, over the course of days, months, years, speaks for love, or if not quite love, then necessity for things passed.
The pathos of things, indeed.
It is worth noting that, on distant soil, 1955 also produced Night of the Hunter. Miracles can happen anywhere.