Mikio Naruse Collection  [DVD]
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Three of Mikio Naruse's finest films, now widely regarded as among world cinema's greatest achievements. 'When a Woman Ascends the Stairs' (1960) is a heartbreaking tale of a middle-aged bar hostess's (Hideko Takamine) attempt to escape her existence set to a soundtrack of tinkling cocktail jazz and filmed in black and white Cinemascope. In 'Floating Clouds' (1955), based on the novel by Fumiko Hayashi, the elegance and indisputable hard punch of Naruses's storytelling become immediately clear the moment the lovers kiss and the director cuts, mid-clinch, to an almost identical shot of them kissing in the past. This film is based on flashbacks, which tell a story of forbidden love between a forester (Masayuki Mori) and a typist (Takamine) during and after WWII. In 'Late Chrysanthemums' (1958), again based on works by Hayashi, Kin (Haruko Sugimura) is a retired geisha who has become a coldly efficient moneylender. Even her old colleagues are indebted to her. Then an old lover she remembers fondly shows up asking for money...
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FLOATING CLOUDS (1955) a couple enjoy a romantic affair in indo-china during the war but return to defeated Japan & struggle to maintain their lives & love amid the economic & psychological devastation.
LATE CHRYSANTHEMUMS (1954) a group of ex-Geisha argue about children, men, memories and, most of all, money.
This BFI box set follows the Masters of Cinema Naruse box set - it has an almost identical format: 3 films on 3 discs with booklet, filmed introductions, commentaries etc. Although the prints are not always in the best condition they are all watchable & generally the BFI have done an excellent job here.
Naruse is a baffling director - he is basically working in the genre of over the top histrionic melodrama yet his films also contain extraordinary subtlety and unflinching realism. These apparent contradictions are somehow made to work together beautifully in "When a Woman Ascends the Stairs" - probably the best Naruse film to begin with because of its very sophisticated direction & acting plus appealing modernist scope cinematography (& jazzy soundtrack). "Floating Clouds" is a moving melodrama but also has a brilliantly achieved complex narrative structure and radical psychological insights. "Late Chrysanthemums" might be Naruse's purest effort in that he manages to empty the film of almost all melodrama & plot, leaving just the cynical (but often very funny) interactions between a group of middle-aged women.Read more ›
The DVDs include, as extras, a useful interview with a former assistant to Naruse, as well as a couple of Western critics giving their takes on the films. You may agree or disagree with what they have to say, but their comments can be useful for stimulating a discussion. (Unfortunately, they sometimes show a poor understanding of who is who and what is what; for example, when the male lead in "Floating Clouds" is mistakenly described as having been a wartime military officer - in fact, he was a government bureaucrat.) The quality of the reproductions is good, on the whole, although the prints from which the transfers were made have not been restored and show some wear and tear. This, however, is not a major detraction.
These are films about relationships. The dynamics that attract and repel the various characters are subtly and authentically held in control by the director; the viewer is intrigued, sometimes puzzled, but never trifled with or bamboozled. There are clues laid carefully to enable an understanding, without ever forcing one. The directorial presence is completely unobtrusive. The cinematography and editing are also superb.
Immerse yourself and be provoked. There are not many better DVD sets out there.
From my American point of view Naruse is definitely what is called a "one-of-a-kind" film maker.
You can distinguish his films in a moment from any other Japanese film maker. He has a pessimistic understanding of life, but portrays it in an incisive "close to the bone" manner.
I live in California, near several large Universities -- and so was able to see a "retrospective" of Naruse's most important films -- but that was almost 30 years ago. The poster for the series showing Takamine going up those stairs in When A Woman Ascends the Stairs is framed and mounted on my wall.
BUT until this set was discovered by me -- I only had my memory to go on. Now I can watch When a Women, or Floating Clouds or Late Chrysanthemums whenever I want! Isn't "modern" life wonderful!
You do not need to be particularly interested in Japanese film to appreciate the wonders of these masterpieces. We will never be seeing ANY films with the so-so tenderness of his trapped people.
And they do seem to be people, not actors in a film. They have a life of their own given to them by the master, NARUSE, Mikio.