Mikio Naruse: The Other Women and The View from the Outside
By Chris Fujiwara
Chris Fujiwara examines the ouvre of Japanese master and women's director Mikio Naruse
Mikio Naruse was known during his lifetime as a great director of women. “To act in his films was really an honor for actresses,” said Yoko Tsukasa, who appeared in several Naruse films, most notably his last, Scattered Clouds, in 1967. “He understood perfectly the psychology of women.” If women and their problems predominate in Naruse’s films, as in Mizoguchi’s, the unique mixture of anguish and calm that characterizes the work of the less famous (but no less great) director arises from the fact that his female figures are always doubled. For every Naruse heroine there is another woman, her rival or mirror image, whom she finds waiting when she turns a new corner, who legitimately possesses the man to whom the heroine has at best a moral or sentimental claim, or who stands as a living reproach to the heroine.
The jolting Hit and Run (66) is built on a pattern formed by two women: a widow whose son is killed in the title accident and the guilty party, a car manufacturer’s unfaithful wife. In an emblematic close-up, the eyes of the latter’s young son shift from one woman to the other, as though he had intuited the plot’s pivotal secret, the equivalence between the women. Later in the film, the widow imagines herself being embraced passionately by the other woman’s husband.
One version of the Narusean other woman is the Other Mother—the mother whom the daughter has never known. In The Girl in the Rumor (35), a young woman refuses to accept the truth when she’s finally told that her father’s mistress is really her mother. In As a Wife, As a Woman (aka The Other Woman, 61), it’s the same situation again: the children of a distinguished professor find that the woman they have come to regard as their racy and slightly disreputable Ginza aunt is really their mother. A different surprise awaits the newly widowed Mitsuko, one of the three half-sisters in Lightning (52): still carrying around her husband’s ashes, she’s suddenly confronted with his mistress, who requests financial support for herself and the baby he has fathered by her.
Naruse pushes the other-woman theme to an extreme of clarity and tension in films that reverse cinematic clichés about “strong, independent women.” In the superb Untamed (57), the ever-dissatisfied Oshima, at two stages of her random course from man to man, finds herself confronted with the same rival, the opportunistic Oyu. Oshima triumphs over Oyu by beating her up—in an aggravated (and by no means rare) breach of the decorum that reigns uneasily over the Naruse universe. In A Wanderer’s Notebook (aka Her Lonely Lane, 62), based on the journals of writer Fumiko Hayashi, the heroine for a while becomes reconciled with her romantic rival, with whom she teams up to form a literary magazine. But the two split up again, as if in acknowledgment of the law that makes Naruse’s women oppose each other.
In Repast (51), the first, and one of the best, of six Naruse films based on Hayashi’s works, housewife Michiyo is eclipsed and reduced to resentful silence by the flirting of her niece, Satoko, with Michiyo’s husband and with Michiyo’s potential lover, a handsome male cousin. Satoko represents, by implication, a freedom of sexual behavior that the older woman has denied herself. Near the end of the film, Michiyo’s triumph over Satoko—which marks the renewal of her ability to reconcile herself to the perpetual disappointments of her married life—is signaled by her suddenly seeing the humor in the girl’s modern affectations and laughing at her.
Michiyo’s laughter expresses something characteristic about Naruse’s extraordinary films. If, despite the loss and sadness in them, the worldview they imply isn’t tragic, it’s because Naruse puts so much weight on the ability of his heroines to change their minds about their problems—a gift celebrated at the tears-turning-to-laughter end of Lightning, another Hayashi adaptation. A certain increased distance is always available to Naruse’s women. Reflecting this possibility, most of the director’s films contain moments when he suddenly withdraws his camera from a scene, putting it outside a window to peer in at the characters. As a Wife, As a Woman boasts lovely shots that look in from outside at the home the heroine shares with her grandmother and at the traditional restaurant where the film’s two central Other Women confront each other. In Apart from You (33), the beautiful scene of a couple’s train ride into the country is intercut between interior shots of the couple and exterior shots in which we see them from outside, through the window.
Naruse’s customary move of cutting to an exterior view of an interior scene is never more effective than in Untamed: the master of the house comes upon a maid in a bathroom and, overcome by passion, seizes her. At this point, Naruse cuts to a shot from outside the house. The couple’s shadows grapple in a square of light in the background. A clump of snow falling from the roof obscures our view; then, a momentary truce having been called at the same moment, the woman backs slowly into the visible section of the hallway and runs her hand over her hair. Fade-out. During the climactic philosophical discussion between mother and daughter in Lightning, Naruse cuts repeatedly to a view of the characters from outside the daughter’s apartment, visualizing the potential for the daughter, at least (who sits closer to the window and occasionally looks outside), to free herself from the misery and the constraint that have characterized her life.
Naruse’s own impoverished beginnings no doubt helped predispose him to be sensitive to the struggles of the poor. He was born in 1905 to an impecunious embroiderer and his wife, who both died while he was young. Naruse started his film career in 1920 as a prop assistant at Shochiku. With the support of Heinosuke Gosho, Naruse started directing for the company in 1930. At the house studio of Ozu (his elder by only two years), Naruse failed to find his own path and felt, he said later, “compelled to take up anything even if it was not very pleasing to me, or even if I was weak at it.” With his 1935 switch to P.C.L. (which soon became Toho), Naruse discovered sound and won commercial and critical success. His Wife, Be Like a Rose (35) won Japanese film magazine Kinema Jumpo’s top annual prize and was distributed in the West. This film and several others from the same period established Naruse as a leading director of shomingeki, or dramas of the common people, a genre with which Naruse would remain associated throughout his career.
In the Fifties, usually considered Naruse’s peak period, a series of hits consolidated his position as one of Toho’s top directors. His ability to craft popular films without going over budget or schedule was especially prized by his bosses, who seem to have rewarded him with some degree of autonomy (his regular editor, Ume Takeda, recalled that “as a general rule, Naruse did the editing as he intended and the studio didn’t touch it”). Yet, in the twilight of his career in the Sixties, Naruse was heard to lament, “We can no longer trust the studio.”
In all its periods, Naruse’s is a strikingly modern cinema. A summary comparison among the three best-known Japanese directors of their generation might go like this: if Mizoguchi’s long-take traveling shots show time in perpetual flow, and if Ozu’s reverse-shot patterns freeze the timeless within time, Naruse’s varied and distinctive rhythms, created by the careful counterposing of look with look and movement with movement,highlight the cruel exhilaration of being jostled in the present moment. Structuring his films as unpredictable journeys, Naruse employs a subtlety of composition that makes the graphics of the camera angle itself visible as a form of movement—movement of the eye in a certain direction—and not just “point of view” or “perspective.” Though ’scope enhances this awareness with its elongation of space (Naruse mastered ’scope from his first use of the format, in 1958’s Summer Clouds, and thereafter shot almost exclusively in that process), the effect doesn’t depend on a widescreen aspect ratio, since it’s apparent as early as The Girl in the Rumor (35), with its vigorous orchestration of various characters’ movements through streets. In the supreme triumph of ’scope filmmaking that is When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (60), Naruse draws a stirring sense of implacable modernity from sets and locations, like the industrial area where the heroine, a Ginza bar hostess, meets one of her Other Women—the wife of a man who has deceitfully proposed to her. But the corrosiveness of the modern pervades Naruse’s work at least since such Thirties masterworks as Three Sisters with Maiden Hearts (35), with its documentary-like opening montage of city streets.
Naruse likes unexpected bursts of voiceover narration and the surprise of introducing a flashback in a narrative that until then has been strictly present tense. In the last section of Late Chrysanthemums (54), an adaptation of several Hayashi stories, unexpected voiceover narration by an ex-geisha makes explicit the lack of feeling remaining between her and her former lover, even though outwardly the scene looks like meetings they had in their youth. The single flashback to happier days in Mother (52) is the more poignant for being so sharp and short. In Scattered Clouds, sudden flashbacks to the widowed heroine’s married life portray her lost happiness with a characteristic Narusean blend of curtness and lyricism. Three Sisters with Maiden Hearts even has a flashback within a flashback, though that is perhaps less startling than the fantasy within a fantasy in Morning’s Tree-lined Street (36). In As a Wife, as a Woman and Floating Clouds (55)—another Hayashi adaptation and probably the best known of the director’s 89 films—the Narusean flashback is a sudden opening up of unexpected passageways and escape routes in time. Past and present are continuous in Naruse. In Floating Clouds, a kiss begun in flashback is completed in the present. In As a Wife, as a Woman, two children run out of a room in flashback, then, in response to the call of their supposed mother, return (after a straight cut) through the same doorway, years later. In Stranger within a Woman (66), which shares the same basic story with Chabrol’s Just Before Nightfall, the hero relives his obsessive relationship with his slain mistress through quick straight-cut flashbacks.
In Floating Clouds, the heroine observes wryly to her lover during one of their many walks together (which Naruse contrives to present as one infinite walk): “We’re not getting anywhere, are we?” Over the many years spanned by the film’s narrative, various obstacles, including several Other Women, always keep the heroine from pairing off with her chosen man, the married seducer whom she follows on a downward spiral of misadventures to sickness and death. The condition of their relationship is its instability. Throughout Naruse’s career he remained faithful to the theme of the impossible relationship. In Okuni and Gohei (52), the netting around the noble Okuni’s sickbed, dividing her from her devoted servant, is the visual reminder of the ban on the love that develops between them as they travel together. The singer-hero of Tsuruhachi and Tsurujiro (38), willfully and in apparent consciousness of what he is doing, ruins the relationship on which both his personal happiness and his professional success depend, opting for solitude and failure.
Some Narusean relationships are impossible because of the punishing role of the ideal in his characters’ lives. In Wife (53), based on a Hayashi novel, a widow sacrifices her potential happiness with her married lover because she recognizes the superiority of the claims of the man’s wife. Fulfilling her preordained role as the hero’s feminine ideal, the widow finally makes herself unattainable. The heroines of Yearning (64) and Scattered Clouds follow her in this choice, convinced that fate has cast them in roles that bar them from happiness. In When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, Naruse again describes the predicament of a woman who’s believed to be too good for the world: most of the characters idealize the heroine, in part because of the legend that she placed a letter and a photograph with her husband’s ashes, symbolically burying herself with him.
The role of the widow in Naruse’s cinema might be described as highlighting the fact that in Naruse’s world, the man is necessarily dead, that is, unable to fulfill the ideal of masculinity. If the man happens to be biologically living, the woman’s role becomes that of protecting him from becoming aware that his life is a failure, that he is already dead. The characters played by Kinuyo Tanaka in Ginza Cosmetics (51) and Mother fulfill this function, as do the hero’s second wife in Wife, Be Like a Rose, wives of failed writers in The Actress and the Poet (35) and Anzukko (58), and Fumiko with her tubercular husband in A Wanderer’s Notebook. The heroine’s brother in Lightning, a wounded war veteran, is a frail zombie, still bearing in his body the bullets that could at any moment actualize a death that he has merely delayed (when his brother-in-law gets into a fight with the baker who has cuckolded him, the brother shrinks away in terror). Only his mother’s pampering sustains for him the illusion of a kind of dreamlike existence, a perpetual childhood.
In A Woman’s Sorrows (37), one of the best of several excellent films Naruse made during his career’s supposed 16-year slump between Wife, Be Like a Rose and Repast, Naruse’s art is one of portraying conflicts that, for almost the whole of the film, have not yet erupted and become irreversible, of showing the small discouragements and unpleasantnesses of family life. There are no villains: if the heroine, Hiroko, becomes exploited by her husband’s rich family, her condition appears as the almost inevitable result of her fidelity to an outmoded way of life. (Throughout this film, the heroine is in constant motion in response to the successive demands of the other members of the household. It’s the opposite of Naruse’s The Whole Family Works : here, nobody in the whole family works except the heeroine.) The Sound of the Mountain (54) is also about a loyal wife who sticks with an impossible situation until its impossibility becomes too obvious to all concerned. Setsuko Hara, best known in the West for her roles in Ozu’s films, plays both this woman and the central character of Daughters, Wives, and a Mother (60), who also makes personal sacrifices to live up to an unwritten code of How People Should Behave, a code that’s calmly violated and ignored by all the relatives who exploit her. But the opposite course, putting personal desires above family expectations, doesn’t lead to happiness either, as the heroine of Summer Clouds finds when she makes her single, doomed bid to escape her condition as a war widow in a rural land-owning family by having an affair with a married journalist from Tokyo.
Summer Clouds is one of a group of Naruse films that examine the impact of large-scale economic trends on families: other examples include Older Brother, Younger Sister (53), A Wife’s Heart (56), and Yearning. Another avatar of the demon of The Impossible that harasses Naruse’s characters, money divides families and uproots people in film after film. In Naruse’s series of Fifties films about young married couples—Repast, Husband and Wife (53), Wife, the almost plotless Sudden Rain (56), the lacerating Anzukko—the emphasis is on how economic pressure erodes relationships that were based on love. The perpetual talk about money among family members in Naruse films is highlighted by the moment in Scattered Clouds in which the heroine must ask her sister and brother-in-law to change the subject.
Because of money, the domestic space itself is always double. There’s the space as it is supposed to be, well organized and conforming to the belief in the primacy of the family, which this space is meant to support; but behind this space lies the darkness of the impending realization that this credois counterfeit and lacks the real backing of the social order. In Untamed and When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (both of whose heroines become financially responsible for wastrel brothers), all relationships are on a cash basis. In the former film, the motif of the giving of money culminates in the heroine’s leaving money on her lover’s grave. The equivalence of money and life is underlined by a significant repetition of the word “receipt” (uketori) in The Sound of the Mountain and Scattered Clouds. In the earlier film, a man visits the apartment of his son’s mistress and, informed that she is pregnant, gives her money. She asks bitterly, “Shall I write a receipt?” In Scattered Clouds, the hero arrives at the apartment of the heroine’s sister and gives her a packet of money—an installment on the payment by which he expresses his guilt for having been the innocent cause of the death of the heroine’s husband (in a car accident). The sister offers to give him a receipt, but he declines.
In Daughters, Wives, and a Mother, someone can’t bring home a shortcake without its price becoming a topic of conversation. Nothing (especially Hara’s widow) enters this house without a price tag. Daughters, Wives, and a Mother is another film in which Naruse compares the ideal of life—what the characters suppose themselves to be living—with its reality. The birthday party for the mother, her children and grandchildren gathered round lovingly, is the image of the ideal. It’s followed by two events that shatter the illusion: first the screening of a disturbing home movie (with sped-up footage of a daughter doing the laundry), then a family business meeting at which a son-in-law reveals the financial calamity that will turn the family members against one another. Again and again in Naruse’s films, the internal coherence of the family is an illusion that’s exposed the moment a crisis loosens the bonds among the family members (instead of doing what people like to believe a crisis does, bringing them together).
Naruse’s staging of scenes portrays the home as internally divided. In Yearning, the heroine and her much younger brother-in-law, after he confesses his love for her, face each other across the division between two rooms. In A Woman’s Sorrows, a shoji partition separates Hiroko, relegated to helping her husband’s youngest brother with his homework, from the other adults of the house, as they play mah jong. The rigidly compartmentalized mise-en-scène of A Wife’s Heart expresses the heroine’s isolation in the house of her husband’s family. In Three Sisters with Maiden Hearts, one sister’s disapproval of their strict mother is underlined by their positions in space: the sister stands on the threshold between two rooms, while the mother sits on the floor.
The ending of The Whole Family Works is very striking: the sons do spontaneous somersaults in their room upstairs; cut to the parents, who, puzzled by the noise, look up at the ceiling; The End. What a strange way to end a film: the parents isolated in their world, the sons in theirs. The sons in motion, the parents still. The scene seems almost anarchistically to extol the sheer energy of youth—but it’s an energy contained, pent up, without outlet.
The question of belonging to a space, of occupying it appropriately or of entering it as a stranger, is foregrounded in Wife, when the heroine’s female friend comes and takes over the house. Her bustling presence highlights the ways in which the house is not really lived in by the couple who occupy it. In Husband and Wife, domestic space is a space of potential or actual intrusions (the roommate pauses at the top of the stairs and coughs before descending to join the couple). Naruse conveys the poverty of the family in Mother by showing that the house is too large, underdecorated, with empty shelves and much bare wall space. The house is made even emptier by the departure, late in the film, of the youngest daughter, after which the mother and the older daughter, in the same medium shot, repair to separate rooms. In Older Brother, Younger Sister, the ground floor of the family home is a vast space offering neither solace nor protection to the family members, who occupy it like travelers at a rest stop; an emblematic shot shows the angry brother in the foreground, with the pregnant and unmarried sister and the resigned, fatalistic mother isolated in separate areas of the background.
Instead of the explorations of theatrical space proposed by such masters of Hollywood melodrama as Ray, Minnelli, and Sirk, Naruse deals in a progressive overcoming of the limits of three-dimensional space. Though based on a stage play and betraying its origin in its rather setbound narrative, The Road I Travel with You (36) nevertheless offers interior scenes in which the characters’ shifting relationships are plotted in relation to a freely shifting camera. Withholding the regular reassurance of a proscenium-and-master-shot view of space, Naruse brings us into a whirlwind or a dance.
Naruse’s Thirties films exhibit an experimental style of camera movement. Volleys of repetitive dollies-into-close-up mark dramatic climaxes in Apart from You and Every Night Dreams; mannered forward and backward tracking shots highlight the end of Wife, Be Like a Rose. In the postwar films, there is a paring down of style: camera movement becomes relatively rare (although there are postwar films, like Okuni and Gohei, in which the evocative use of smoothly flowing tracking shots is an important formal element). Still, the fluidity of time that characterizes Naruse’s unpredictable narratives is matched by their spatial mobility, which is substantial for a director who was supposed to have disliked going on location. Many Naruse films involve journeys away from the home or other familiar surroundings, forcing characters, at least for a while, to redefine themselves and test their strength—for example, Morning’s Tree-lined Street, A Woman’s Sorrows, The Way of Drama (44), Repast, Husband and Wife, Anzukko, and When a Woman Ascends the Stairs.
Naruse admires people who move, who wander, even if they make little progress. (A nubile Hideko Takamine starred in Hideko the Bus Conductress, one of the director’s more cheerful works, in 1941; 11 years later, in Lightning, Takamine—the quintessential Naruse actress—is still conducting bus tours.) This is the other side of Naruse’s analysis of the home: a taste for the homeless. For the child hero of The Approach of Autumn, domestic space is nonexistent: there is no space for him to share with his mother. Ginza Cosmetics and Hit and Run both open with scenes of a young boy’s solitary urban adventures. Throughout the former film, the boy searches for his vanished father in various men, known and unknown. (Already in Apart from You, the delinquency of the son of a single mother is a key Naruse theme.)
Walking forms a major part of most of Naruse’s films, such as Traveling Actors (40), in which the two heroes make a study of horses’ walking, and Okuni and Gohei, which looks like a revenge tragedy but turns into a kind of road movie. The action referred to in the title constitutes a visual refrain of the haunting When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. Appropriately, footwear is a returning motif throughout Naruse’s career, from the perforated shoes and socks worn by characters in Flunky, Work Hard! (31), Apart from You, and Every Night Dreams (33) to the shabby shoes that form the symbol of fellowship among such declined figures as the heroine’s ex-protector in Ginza Cosmetics, the salaryman husbands in Repast and Sudden Rain, and the hero in Floating Clouds. If the shoes theme—along with the theme of wandering, the recurrent emphasis on labor and money, and the habit of ending films with people walking away down streets—links Naruse to Chaplin, Fumiko is a kind of female Chaplin in A Wanderer’s Notebook, doing a dance routine with a plate. And there’s an explicit tribute to Chaplin in a stage review attended by the main characters in Husband and Wife.
Though Naruse’s is largely an urban cinema, a lyrical, pastoral strain can be detected in much of his work. In Morning’s Tree-lined Street, soft lighting and focus diffuse light in a forest into soft globules of gray and white. The sequence in The Song Lantern (43) in which the hero and heroine practice a traditional Noh dance in a forest is both a visual highpoint of the film and a standout in Naruse’s career for its lyrical crane shots. Emphasizing the layers of time and space that the girl must pass through to reach the forest, Naruse identifies this location as a place apart, a sacred space. The lyrical sense of landscape tends to disappear from Naruse’s later work. In Whistling in Kotan (59), little emphasis is put on the scenic attractions of the Hokkaido region where the story of race prejudice takes place; the visuals are keyed to the drama, which is intimate and small-scale. Still, the father’s garden in Anzukko indicates a role for order and beauty in the universe, and the scenes along the water in Scattered Clouds punctuate that film’s bleakness with stabs of lyricism.
The horizontality of the street attracts Naruse, but he is also a very “vertical” director, who draws many of his most striking effects from the top-bottom arrangement of space. In Three Sisters with Maiden Hearts, the middle sister, Some, and the younger sister, Chieko, are constantly involved in up-down patterns: Chieko enters a room, looks down at the seated Some, and sits down, whereupon Some gets up, goes to her, and sits down again. Then Chieko gets up and walks to a window. Some gets up, follows her to the window, and sits. (All through Naruse’s career, we find him, as in this sequence, cutting on frames into which characters rise or sink.) In The Girl in the Rumor, the older sister, riding on a ferry, looks up and sees her younger sister on a bridge. Returning home, the older sister comes upon the younger sister lying on the floor. In The Sound of the Mountain, the viewer’s eye is drawn, with the eyes of the characters, repeatedly upward (toward a roof barraged by heavy rain) and eventually outward (toward a park’s “vista”). Several Naruse films feature scenes on rooftops, as if the characters felt drawn to seek the widest possible view, the greatest distance (the ending of A Woman’s Sorrows and the beginning of Husband and Wife are examples).
Naruse always articulates his characters’ doublings through careful visual patterns. In the furious The Girl in the Rumor, as tight, absorbing, and intricate a 55-minute film as any ever made, a confrontation between two sisters is staged and cut as a series of complementary, mirroring, responsive movements in and out of frame, resulting in a dizzying pattern in which the two sisters ceaselessly replace each other. Much of the visual shock of the film comes from the intercutting of shots in which one or the other sister is alone in the frame with shots showing one in the foreground and the other in the background (alternately in/out of focus). The visual equation shifts and surprises.
In Apart from You, a curtain is drawn across the screen from left to right; Naruse then cuts to a shot in which a window slides open from right to left. Later in the film, a door closes in the foreground in a leftward movement that obliterates the figure of a geisha; after the cut, the geisha’s kimono crosses the foreground from left to right, obscuring the figure of an older geisha lying in bed. In the final train station scene of Three Sisters with Maiden Hearts, the electric shot changes convey the terrifying sweep of temporal progression in a way that already hints at the strangely detached purposefulness of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs.
Throughout his career, Naruse liked two-shots in which one person is in the foreground, the other in the background. The husband and the wife are filmed this way repeatedly throughout Every Night Dreams. The regular alternation of such shots creates a strong emotional cohesion, which pays off in the scene that follows the robbery the husband commits to pay for their son’s medical treatment. Contrary to the usual pattern, husband and wife now both face in the same direction, and both descend to floor in unison. In all his films, Naruse’s editing patterns emphasize criss-crossing diagonal movements, looks exchanged and averted, and the turning of faces toward and away from each other. A recurrent gambit has one person walk away from another, whereupon the other person advances to a new place to look at the first person from the side.
Naruse underlines the surprise of his shot changes by having people walk from behind the camera diagonally into depopulated visual fields. In the moment before the figure enters the shot, we’re often bewildered as to where we are and what relation this space bears to the last space we saw. The art of connecting “full” and “empty” spaces reaches unexpected heights of complexity and elaboration in the last half hour of Kumoemon Tochuken (36), one of a cycle of Naruse films about performing artists. (Noël Burch, who dislikes the film, simply calls it “slightly over-edited.”) But this art is already very advanced in Every Night Dreams, which has a stunning montage in which the heroine is shot from various angles as she walks around a room and bitterly denounces her husband: in each new shot, she walks into an empty frame into close-up. The apartment scene between the hero and his boss’s daughter early in Scattered Clouds is a remarkable example of Naruse using the same cutting and staging patterns in ’scope that he uses in standard format: cutting on movement, unexpected introduction of new angles, cutting to an external view of the scene from outside a window.
Naruse’s last films reveal increased severity and a certain impatience —not that there’s anything slapdash in their orchestration of detail, but the reserve with which Naruse has always viewed his characters hardens into a grim skepticism. His implacable awareness of how life hurries people through time and space has passed through anguish and become pure and desolate. The climax of Naruse’s career in this sense may be the supremely uncomfortable scene in Scattered Clouds of the central couple’s cab waiting at a train crossing. Here, with minimal prompting from the plot, Naruse makes us aware of a destined unhappiness linked both to the cosmos and to the film’s visual patterns.
But already we have got this feeling from the heartbreaking last sections of Mother, which Naruse called his “happiest” film. So pervasive in this film have been the abrupt departures of people and slow fade-outs on others left alone—which together imply that any look at a loved person could be the last look—that as soon as Naruse shows the mother seeing her oldest daughter dressed as a bride (for a hairdressing competition), we know that the mother will not live to see the daughter married in reality. Yet Naruse, having already surprised us by placing the end title in the middle of the film (in a movie-theater sequence), surprises us again by ending Mother before the mother dies. This could be the most subversive stroke in Naruse’s work, suggesting that since all endings are unhappy, one that is non-unhappy is simply premature.
The author wishes to acknowledge the generosity of Sachiko Watanabe, Reiko Murakami, Miguel Marías, Michael Kerpan, and Kent Jones in providing materials for preparing this article.