In September the Arsenal-Kino in Berlin screened a series of films by Mikio Naruse. The emphasis of the programming was on two of his screenwriters; Yoko Mizuki und Sumie Tanaka. Kayo Adachi-Rabe likened these two women to the great matriarchs of Japanese literature, Sei Shōnagon and Murasaki Shikibu, in her introduction to Ukigumo (Floating Clouds). It was unlikely for two women to get a break into the industry at that point in time, and it was a collaboration Naruse’s films benefited from greatly.
Naruse is a very difficult filmmaker to write about. I’d seen all the programmed films either once or twice before, but they stupefied me all over again quite swiftly. Nothing is pronounced. There don’t seem to be any distinct stylistic qualities to latch onto. The films seem foreign, vague even. Small gestures that we would consider extemporaneous, like a woman scooping rice, sprinkling water on the street, or plucking her nose hairs, have as much weight as the actions that move the story forward. And it’s often difficult to distinguish between the two. I wonder if I am even fit to interpret them; they present the critic a film he isn’t prepared for. I could attribute part of this to their Japanese qualities. The names, customs, foods, habits, cultural practices and social codes are all strange to me. An example of this is a repeated motif where characters assess a stranger’s social standing and background from their accents. It’s a a nuance that goes missing on me and is more read than it is felt. These films are from a different time, too; the aftermath of World War II. The mother in Inazuma (Lightning) exaggerates that the ratio between single men to women is 23 to 1. There’s a lot of competition between women, they don’t have much solidarity with one another, and most of the men live with a defeated attitude. But all these conventions alone are not what make his films so distant, not at all.
The stories they tell are not that foreign, either. They don’t uses ellipsis and hardly ever contain flashbacks: they move forward. They’re typically domestic dramas about couples or families or small social groups living in a larger community. Each film is an extended stay with one of these social units as they interact with their extended social universe through their work as shop-owners, laundresses, business-men, geishas, tour-guides, housewives, bicycle-delivery-men and so on. Most of them struggle to make ends meet and are constantly having to make sacrifices. All the occupations overlap between films, you’ll see the bicycle-delivery-men pick something up from the laundresses, laundresses buying from the shop-keepers, lawyers visiting geishas: all these workers are present in all the films even when they’re not the primary characters. It’s always implied that the drama in the film we are watching is just one of many taking place in those suburbs. Nagareru (Flowing) and Bangiku (Late Chrysanthemums) are distinct in that they lack a protagonist. The narrative just flows through geisha houses, attaching itself to different characters at different moments as they struggle with money and slowly, imperceptibly, experience their own ageing. Naruse’s films revolve around these imperceptible phenomena. And the stories are porous; they don’t have clear cut beginnings or ends. Thus they have had the tendency to blur in my memory. In the “Against all odds” retrospective, seeing this selection presented consecutively night after night, I had the sense each film wanted to all add up with all the others, such that their sum total would become a mosaic-like portrait of a neighborhood (ignoring the obvious geographical differences between the films, which take place in different cities). The physical make-up of the neighborhoods, the alleyways, exteriors, balconies, windows, backyards and gardens, all play important roles in the stories. Most of the films take place inside closed, domestic spaces, but these semi-public spaces where neighbors see one another and interact link the characters and the stories together. Men meet up in the morning and make idle chatter over the fence, children play and light fireworks in the alleyways, girls stand on the balcony waiting for boys to come by to flirt with, knife sharpeners and umbrella salesman walk through announcing their trade, traditional Japanese parades and musical processions weave through the neighborhoods, and the noises from the streets always permeate through the houses as the scenes shift back inside.
The characters all live difficult lives. Suffering is the only constant. If they aren’t enslaved by economic destitution then they suffer emotionally. The well-to-do are psychologically repressed and act out through cruelty and sabotage. The social contract doesn’t benefit anyone. It’s a wonder how this world keeps going on. Many people dream of death as the only escape from it. Some commit suicide, some attempt it and fail. Others wrestle with their unhappiness, some take it out on their spouses, others yet bear it like a martyr. They all live with profound doubts and uncertainties. Kierkegaard wrote that paradox of modern life is that it must be lived forward but can only ever be understood backwards. Naruse’s characters exemplify this fate; they’re all in situations they’re unprepared for. They’re forced to negotiate between their needs and emotions and the social world they’re bound to. Experience rarely accumulates; whatever was learned yesterday gets contradicted today. It’s these qualities of unpreparedness and uncertainty that guide Naruse’s films. Their truth-content unravels furtively, just beneath the surface, as they slowly sketch the outlines of a character’s inner life. His formal precision is a means of sustaining a kind of ambiguity. Through it we can experience some of the doubts and things his characters cannot admit to themselves.
I think it’d be commonplace to say that Yoko Mizuki und Sumie Tanaka’s contributions to Naruse’s films were to provide a female perspective. The same could be said of Fumiko Hayashi’s novels that the two screen-writers adapted. Something reductive is always implied here, as if there were a such thing as a coherent, unified female perspective, as if this could somehow be known or demonstrated in an art work. In Naruse’s films the opposite is true. “You think because you’re a woman you understand all women’s struggles?”, the father in Yama No Oto asks his wife. We don’t know his characters because the characters in the scripts Mizuki and Tanaka wrote don’t know themselves. Naruse’s films focus on the atmosphere around people, on their social situations and the characters’ limited realm of agency within them. This focus is a way of sustaining the opacity of the other, of not keeping them from being reduced to another person’s perception of them. Empathy gets stretched out. For Naruse everyone is opaque, most especially to themselves. Film cannot violate this surface but has to operate on its edges. Any attempt to circumvent this boundary results in a reduction and a lie. The closer we think we come to knowing someone, the further away they recede. The painter Johannes Vermeer was motivated by the same dynamic between seeing and possessing, between appearances and the substance they hide. His “The Art of Painting” in Vienna stages this relationship self-consciously. Like Naruse, Vermeer’s primary concern was a precision of detail. Detail was a means of finding distance, precision a way towards estrangement. “His detachment reveals itself as a quality of love,” Lawrence Gowing writes. “Its lucid surface holds suspended a contradiction; its purpose is as near to concealment as revelation.” Vermeer’s painter is a transmitter; his eyes are fixed on his model as his his hand paints freely. How to sustain this form of perception, such that perception doesn’t dominate that which it beholds by reducing it? Most of the history of Western painting is a performance of possession. Vermeer’s achievement, Gowing claims, is to overturn this. „From the grossness of the traditional subject, the force of erotic circumstance, Vermeer has distilled his pure theme: he has discovered the virtue of female existence, its separateness. We gather from the process the understanding of an intimate sense in which style and substance are one: we see his development again from this other standpoint as the uncovering of a love which leaves its object unimpaired.“ There is the utopian dream of a reconciliation in his dated language we are apt to recoil from.
Unlike Vermeer’s static images, Naruse’s move and tell a story. They call little attention to themselves and work in the service of the narrative. His technique doesn’t displace us amidst the characters through a series of cuts as Kenji Mizoguchi does with his constant reframing, and he doesn’t pare movements down to accentuate the movement of time the way Yasujirō Ozu does. Akira Kurosawa wrote that “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.” Everything is subdued. The difficulty Naruse faced in making aesthetic choices was always one of temperament; how to come close without closeness becoming the subject, how to emphasize something missing without pointing to it and making its absence explicit. We’re not omnipotent as viewers, we don’t exist outside of time, and we don’t know the character’s inner thoughts. (I can only attribute the bookending voiceovers in Inazuma and Okaasan and the sparse internal monologues in Bangiku to studio demands.) He tends to use wide to medium shots; we stand at the edges of the room, near the walls, just outside of where the action is taking place. We’re not eavesdropping, but we’re not part of the conversations either. Naruse worked within these parameters because he wanted his films to approximate to the viewer the distance his characters experience towards one another. This is Naruse’s ethical mandate: to work within, not against, the vast space that keeps us separate from one another. He accentuates this space, he gives form to its negativity. This presents us with a difficulty, an awkwardness. Emotions aren’t always disclosed, things get left hanging. We can accept this in ever-day life, but we’ve been trained to have different expectations with films. It takes a bit of work to tune ourselves into what Naruse is doing, to learn to listen to what is getting left unsaid.
His most brutal film, Yama No Oto (Sound of the Mountain), begins with an affectionate conversation.* Kikuo (Setsuko Hara) happens upon her father-in-law Shingo (So Yamamura) as they’re both returning home. She asks him what he’s looking at and he points to a sunflower. “Whenever I see a sunflower I think of man’s head. I wonder if the inside of a man’s head could be as beautiful as a flower. Wouldn’t it be great if you could send your brains off to be cleansed? You could remove your head take it down to the hospital and say, “Wash this for me,” like at the laundry…The best part would be, as the hospital got on with cleansing the brain you could just sleep for a week while you waited. The body could just rest, without getting up, without dreaming.” The sun is shining, and some foliage casts a shadow on Shingo’s back as they continue their walk. There’s something light-hearted about this conversation that covers over the fatalism of Shingo’s daydream; a reprise from the exhaustion of everyday life, a nothingness that can only be found in death. Shingo’s comments are like a condensed representation of Naruse’s technique. It is only in the utterance that one realizes part-way through that they mean something quite different than what is actually being said. And this excess is rarely acknowledged out loud; sentiments surface just to get buried. This scene in Kawabata’s novel, the one Yoko Mizuki adapted, operates differently. Shingo is staring at the sunflowers, and the narrator writes that the first thing Kikuko notices upon seeing Shingo is that her husband Shuichi isn’t with him, understanding therefore that he must be with his mistress. “They’re fine specimens,’ he [Shingo] said. ‘Like heads of famous people.’ Kikuko nodded, her manner casual. Shingo had put no thought into the words. The comparison had simply occurred to him. He had not been searching for one. With the remark, however, he felt in all its immediacy the strength of the great, heavy, flowering heads. He felt the regularity and order with which they were put together. The petals were like crowns, and the greater part of the central discs was taken up by stamens, clusters of them, which seemed to thrust their way up by main strength. There was no suggestion that they were fighting one another, however. They were quietly systematic, and strength seemed to flow from them. The flowers were larger in circumference than a human head. It was perhaps the formal arrangement of volume that had made Shingo think of a brain. The power of nature within them made him think of a giant symbol of masculinity. He did not know whether they were male or not, but somehow he thought them so. The summer sun was fading, and the evening air was calm. The petals were golden, like women. He walked away from the sunflowers, wondering whether it was Kikuko’s coming that had set him to thinking strange thoughts.” A similar dialogue to the one quoted from the film takes place about sending one’s brain to the laundry, and the narration continues; “He had thought on the train of sending his head to a laundry, it was true, but he had been drawn not so much to the idea of the laundered head as to that of the sleeping body. A very pleasant sleep, with head detached. There could be no doubt of it: he was tired. He had had two dreams toward dawn this morning and the dead had figured in both.”
The breadth of Kawabata’s description of the unconscious at play in Shingo’s associations is quite intense, and it is suited to the novel’s capacity to represent a stream of consciousness. But there is an important discrepancy between the level of detail the narrator lends the sunflowers and Shingho’s perception of them; they are not synonymous. He first makes an association without knowing why, and then studies the formal qualities of the flowers to find the source of his thought. He felt their regularity and order, how they were put together. He traces them backwards. There is a lag between speaking and thinking. Even his dreams pointed forward, „toward the dawn.“ Shingo, beside himself, is trying to catch up with everything on the peripheries of his consciousness. Yoko Mizuki’s reduction of this literary tour-de-force to a brief, light-hearted interaction, coupled with Naruse’s detached treatment of the bizarre thought, translate this interiority cinematically. “He put no thought into the words. The comparison had simply occurred to him.” Speaking without thinking. Somehow this is also what is implied in the film, only rather than giving us a schematic of Shingo’s coming-to-terms with his associative formation, the eerie qualities of his remarks get sustained in an awkward conversation afterwards, which only dances around its implications. Naruse doesn’t explain Shingo’s thoughts or try to trace them back. Cinema can’t really do this, it stays on the surface. So Naruse decided to elongate them. We remain, therefore, in a state of suspension. Naruse’s films take on a poetic countenance through such inexplicable movements. Their masterful pacing and rhythm are attenuated to what remains unresolved.
In many of Naruse’s films a character comes to visit. These intrusions triangulate a relationship in crisis. In Meshi (Repast), Shuu (Sudden Rain), and Yama No Oto, the unstable dynamics between partners, which might have persisted however uneasily otherwise, begin to unravel. In Meshi, Hatsunosuke’s (Ken Uehara) cousin Satoko (Yukiko Shimazaki) gets cold feet before her marriage and runs away to stay with him and his unhappy wife Michiyo (Setsuko Hara). Michiyo complains about her married life and her chores. She says she has nothing to look forward to anymore. Her only love is her cat, whom she treats better than the husband she’s starting to resent. We sense she feels destined for greater things, for a more luxurious life that her husband can’t provide. Despite his humble nature, he’s not at all stupid, and much less abusive. Though emotionally distant, he loves his wife and does what he can to make her happy. He tries to get her to come out with him and his cousin on a guided tour-bus ride through Kyoto. He buys three tickets for them all, but she changes her mind at the last minute, claiming she has too much to do. She’s sabotaging whatever chance of happiness she could have, and she doesn’t realize it. The husband and cousin stand there with a truly confused look. They want her to be happy and they don’t understand why she doesn’t want to be happy as well. She’s incredibly stubborn. Even when things go her way, she rejects the outcome if she’s not the one setting the course of events into motion. This happens when Satoko decides, after all, to marry her fiancé, and says that she hopes this will make Michiyo happy. Michiyo laughs and rebukes Satoko’s attempt at an emotional connection because it tacitly acknowledges that Michiyo had been jealous of Satoko, which she would never admit to. Michiyo herself runs away to spend time with her family back in Tokyo. She sleeps the whole day through and refuses to write her husband. She meets up with a friend who has become a single mother and, her welfare running out, cannot manage to find work. This clearly affects Michiyo. She walks through the town along the river by herself before returning to her parents. She sees Hatsunosuke’s shoes at their house and turns right around, not yet ready to reconcile with him. While walking she looks at a woman selling newspapers, her child sitting on a fence right next to her, facing away at some train tracks. She freezes up, a profound emotion comes over her face. She then walks away, meets up with her husband, and decides to return home with him. What happened inside of her upon this sight we will never know. We might assume she sees an image of herself as a single woman trying to make ends meet, but she has no child, and she could live with her family if she needed to. She’s not in danger of being put out on the streets. It’s possible this scene is connected to some memory buried deep inside her that we don’t have access to. We only see the outer effect of some inner transformation, which is later manifest in the decision to commit to her husband. This, for me, is a quintessentially Narusian scene; a scene where the inner life of a character manifests itself in a glance, a gaze, a small gesture that doesn’t signify anything other than the depths it conceals. A similar scene occurs at the beginning of Inazuma, when Kiyoko (Hideko Takamine) sees two people, a man and a woman, on the street. Her face changes; she is curious and then saddened and distant. We later hear her tell her mother, a bit after we’d forgotten about the sight and its effect on her, that she saw her brother-in-law with a mistress. This gaze finds a belated explanation. Michiyo’s never does. Whatever is going through her mind, so transportive and meaningful, remains forever unbeknownst to us. A great deal of the frustration between characters develops within this chasm. They feel unheard and unlistened to, their inner life gets suppressed, or they get treated as though they are known and get reduced to another’s perception of them.
Resentment is a common theme in Naruse’s films. „From the youngest age, I have thought that the world we live in betrays us,” the director once said. Many tend to interpret his films as pessimistic, but this is lazy and takes his words at face value. Pessimistic people don’t make films about how difficult our social condition is. Only people who think humans are capable of changing themselves do. His films are full of hope. The resentful characters don’t experience a normal course of life, they’re not victims of circumstances, but people who have made terrible decisions, behaved selfishly without regard to their effects on others, and have to live with the consequences of it. Most crucially, they represent an antithesis to Naruse’s philosophy: they cannot distinguish between love and possession. There is a terribly haunting, lonely scene in Ukigumo. Kengo’s (Masayuki Mori) estranged wife has died of consumption. He’d had an affair with Yukiko (Hideko Takamine) while in Indo-China during the Second World War and promised her he would divorce his wife to be with Yukiko, but he finds himself unable to, either out of guilt or obligation. He later has an affair with a barmaid, who in turn gets murdered by her jealous husband. He still won’t commit to Yukiko despite her persistence and attachment for reasons unclear, both to us and to himself. He is living in the storage unit out back of a shop and the shop owner, a young girl (Sadako Kimura), comes in after he rejected Yukiko yet again. He says he can’t talk, he’s too busy. We assume he has nothing to do, but just wants to bear his sadness in solitude. “Why did you kiss me when you were drunk?” “I’m busy. Please go.” Sober, we can tell he regrets the decision, but is also just depressed, annoyed, and tired of his drunken-self, the one who made the decision to kiss her last night. He’s given up trying to say that this character wasn’t him; he’s resigned himself to nothing and sees how ugly a person he is. He can’t change. We assume he wants to just sit there alone and let time pass, to spite it by means of endurance. It’s clear his problems are somewhat opaque to himself, as well. He might be able to put part of the blame on the loss of the war, his unemployment, or other material causes, but he knows he himself is largely responsible for his fate. He isn’t sure why, though. He doesn’t know what he has done wrong, what his fatal flaw is. It’s too late to rectify any of these problems, anyways, so he doesn’t try too hard to figure it out.
The only film in the program that wasn’t centered around the domination of one person over another is Okaasan. Interestingly enough it was the only original screenplay, written by Yoko Mizuki. It’s not without tragedy; the characters all deal with financial issues, loneliness, uncertainty, and death. But in this film hardships are not caused by interpersonal conflicts, avarice, or hate. They stem from the frailty of mortality. The mother (Kinuyo Tanaka) is an angel. The daughter (Kyōko Kagawa) introduces her as the kind of woman who still uses a hand-broom. She bends over close to the dirt and the dust she’s sweeping away. A lot of directors avoid dirt but Naruse doesn’t. His dirt isn’t erotic, it’s not bloody or valiant either. It’s a commonplace dirt, just the stuff that lingers around and has to be maintained. We see repeatedly through the films a curious gesture; women splashing water onto the unpaved roads out front of their houses. I can only assume, based on having seen wagons dumping out water before the parades in John Ford’s films, that this is a matter of keeping the dust from getting kicked around. The mother is unselfish, she never thinks of herself and never tells her husband (Kyôko Kagawa) what to do. But when he is sick and refuses to go the hospital, claiming they don’t have enough money, she orders him to go. He doesn’t concede, and she has to live with him knowing he’s going to die next to her in their house. I sense that part of him wants to die. He has set out to re-open their laundry-shop after a hiatus as a security guard. It failed the first time; I think something in him fears it will fail a second time. He doesn’t know if he has what it takes for another go. A difficult scene ensues between him and his wife. On his sick-bed, he is reminiscing about old times when they first opened their laundry-shop. “After four years we had a phone. You used to give out cards that said: We already have a phone. Call us whenever you want. I remember how you used to walk back then. You were young.” His wife (the mother) tried to breed weasels for their hides, but she overfed them and they never reproduced. She made a scarf for herself out of their fur. “You never wore it”, the father says. “I will when I have a pretty Kimono.” “That’s what you said twenty years ago.” She smiles; they both realize this will never happen. She keeps up good spirits, not for her sake but for his. “Yes. I liked that weasel. It brought us good luck. It lived during the best years of our lives.” “We’ll be happy again.” In a rare moment, the mother shows expression. As she leaves his bedroom, she looks over him sleeping, closes the door part way, walks outside and begins to weep profusely. It’s as though she had to go outside to weep, as though she couldn’t do it in the house she made, which depends on her holding everything together emotionally. She isn’t crying for herself, for her failed dreams, for her vanity. She’s crying because she has to see her husband weak, unable to provide for the family (and, by extension, for her) despite his best efforts and cheery demeanor. She’s weeping because she doesn’t want others to have to suffer. We sense she would gladly take all of their unhappiness and sorrows upon her own shoulders if only she could. It’s a horrible scene, the saddest in all of Naruse’s films. Hope is a difficult thing to maintain.
His films that deal with unhappy marriages are also about hope, although in a very different way. In these films Naruse’s philosophy about human relationships, about the limits of what we know about the other, about ourselves, about our interactions which are based upon these limits, and the way we relate to them, all come to the forefront. The beginning of every relationship seems to pose the same questions: Will I repeat the same mistakes? Have I learned anything, am I capable of learning or changing anything? When will we get bored of one another and how will we deal with this? Am I settling with you, are you with me? And when did I decide to give you the power to have a judgement over me? What qualifies you to assert value here? All of a sudden, as though in an instant without our knowing it, we realize our dependency. And yet one has to pass through these doubts, sometimes together, at other times alone, to get out of this state of dependency by building up trust. To place faith in this third thing that is nothing more than what two people put into it, to do so amidst deep suspicions of the other’s commitment to that thing, and, most daunting of all, to commit to someone not just as they are now, but as they’ll be in the future, as they change into a latent version of them that will get formed through the trials life has in store for them… Are they even up for that challenge? Am I? How do they relate to the self that they are not yet? And I to my future self? “The cost is enormous. Too much for one life.” There is a loneliness that follows in the concomitant realization that tacitly, haunting our own doubts like a shadow: the other must be feeling the same. It’s the prisoner’s dilemma. How will they control their doubt? Hopefully the same as you, waiting steadfast for it to go away, but you can’t be sure. Maybe it’d be better to detach yourself before getting hurt, maybe they think the same. There is an aphorism Walter Benjamin wrote that applies here; “The only way of knowing a person is to love them without hope.” The tendency is to read this aphorism as saying that real love is only performed without hope, meaning, in a very Christian sense, without expecting anything in return. Fair enough, that is pretty good advice. But Benjamin is writing about knowing someone, which can only be achieved through love, a love that has no hope. There is a paradox, a tautology here that Benjamin is playing with, a contradiction that is the kernel of love. One cannot begin to love without knowing, without individuating the beloved from everything else. Without distinction, the beloved is nothing but an empty vessel, a smokescreen for the lover to project their desires onto. Love also expresses itself in a contempt for everything that is not the beloved, Benjamin’s friend Theodore Adorno wrote. It’s an obsession with a particularity. The phrases in Benjamin’s aphorism can get swapped in its English translation; loving someone without hope is the only way of knowing them. (Auf Deutsch it is more difficult. The original “Einen Menschen kennt einzig nur der, welcher ohne Hoffnung ihn liebt” could be literally translated as “A person knows only the one whom he loves without hope.” Thus the swap would read “It’s only the one whom a person loves without hope that he can know.”) This gets us a bit closer to the other side of the paradox, that you can’t know anyone without first loving them hopelessly. Love with the hope of fulfillment is a restriction; the beloved is thus confined and not known beyond their confinement. We’re not static beings, we change over time. Loving without hope means to attach oneself to the other as one does not know them yet to be, and this must be done blindly. Thus, loving someone hopelessly and knowing them are not mutually constitutive acts but in a constant antagonism. This dialectical tension that keeps love alive is the same as what keeps the lovers separate, it’s what requires faith. One has to work hard to get to this starting point, to not repeat the last trial all over again, to not stay stuck in yourself.
For Naruse there is nothing metaphysical about these questions; love starts with a disenchantment. It’s a matter of self-mastery, of self-understanding, of accepting the terms of life and learning to negotiate with them. His film-making reproduces this process; we get a chance to see the difficult and corrupt the parts of ourselves that we don’t know and learn from them to not find excuses or run away. His films usually do this negatively. People tend to interpret a happy ending to Meshi, but I think Naruse intended the opposite. The couple’s problems will continue because Michiyo hasn’t learned anything. She only resigned herself to her husband out of fear of something worse. She’s just as selfish, stubborn, and incommunicative as when the film began. It’s really only in the ending to Naruse’s Shuu that we see a couple begin to learn something about coming to terms with their situation. But first another detour by way of painting. In the 1730’s and 40’s Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin painted a series of pictures depicting adolescents playing games. They’re dressed up in adult’s clothes and their games have to do with the body and its relationship to gravity. Spinning tops, building card-houses, blowing bubbles; they’re learning to set into motion an energy or a dynamic outside of themselves. Their bodies are learning about cause and effect. The self is getting projected outwards, manifesting itself in things extending beyond their reach. „Soap Bubbles“ is a particular case; the boy is creating a world, something which is nothing but a thin film of soap reflecting light. It comes from within him; it is his breath, and this breath-world will disengage from his straw and float around a while before popping. The illusion will shatter. He concentrates on the moment of its creation. Chardin admired Vermeer’s work greatly and sought to recreate their mystery within very different historical circumstances, through different materials and different motifs. In his „Salon of 1763“ the preeminent critic Denis Diderot praised Chardin’s „Le Bocal d’olives„, writing, “Oh Chardin! The colors crushed on your palette are not white, red, or black pigment; they are the very substance of your objects. They are the air and the light that you take up with the tip of your brush and apply to the canvas.” It’s significant that Diderot claims the substance of the objects are not the things themselves but the light and the air, the atmosphere through which they’re mediated. They’re crushed on the pallet and applied to the canvas just with the tip of the brush. The painter is an intermediary. Chardin’s paintings reproduce the phenomenology of painting itself, of objects emerging out of darkness. Doesn’t this apply quite precisely to Naruse’s films? He who is entirely concerned with the emergence of something unknown and unknowable only at the moment of its surfacing. He who lays so much emphasis on the atmosphere, the sounds, the ambience through which life emerges? The husband and wife in Shuu are unhappy. He (Keiju Kobayashi) wants to move to the country and to farm. She (Setsuko Hara) doesn’t agree. She needs the comforts of a city. She calls him a little mouse. They consider separation (he sees no other way); she calls him feudal. The next day at breakfast she refuses to pour him his tea. They return to the positions they sat in at the beginning of the film. It’s another Sunday and he’s reading the newspaper; she’s taking care of some chores. She’s cut a coupon out of the newspaper before he had a chance to read the article on the other side of the page (he asked her at the beginning not to do that). Two girls, their next-door neighbors, are playing with an inflatable ball, and accidentally knock it into the couple’s back yard. He blows inside to inflate it more fully and starts batting it into the air by himself, frantically, without coordination, a bit like a child would. He smacks it in one direction and all of a sudden his wife is outside standing in the direction of the ball’s flight and she smacks it back at him. They spontaneously go through an intense volley where an exchange of all their frustrated emotions get felt in the transference of the ball, this thin film of plastic held taunt by the pressure of air held inside. Relationships are a struggle. “Do you know what a woman has to give up for marriage?” This line is said in both Shuu and Meshi; these women would like a bit of consolation for their compromises. They both indicate one of the things they’ve given up is music, which in Inazuma and Shuu is the lonely characters only connection to the world outside, to the future and to their dreams. A life without dreams isn’t worth living, especially when your husband doesn’t realize the sacrifice you’re making. But when the couple in Shuu is smacking the ball back and forth, it’s like they’re finally learning to struggle together, not towards anything but with one another. Maybe in this struggle they will discover the possibility of learning to love one another without hope. In this group of films that Yoko Mizuki und Sumie Tanaka wrote and Naruse directed I’ve learned a lot about love, mostly how unprepared I am for it.
*A caveat: the film actually begins with a brief scene of Shuichi (Ken Uehara) entering his office and greeting his secretary. The film then switches to Shingo and Kikuko returning home walking alongside one another. Naruse intentionally places us in Shuichi’s work place, only to take us away from it before anything happens there, such that it only stays in the back of our minds, the way it is in the back of Kikuo’s mind, as I try to demonstrate in my discussion of Kawabata’s novel.