Sunday, October 10, 2010

Naruse Mikio and the Magic Touch

Director Naruse Mikio is a forensic investigator and portrayer of intricate human behavior. His images create provocative thought patterns, and are fascinating for how truthful they feel. If you have lived and loved intensely, you will appreciate his work.

Naruse is one of my favorite directors. As I age and change, so do my preferences. These days, I appreciate films that portray authentic human relationships -- I know how difficult these are to pull off, and they are pulled off so seldom.

The filmmaker was born in 1905 and died in 1969. He left a potent body of work.

Repast ('51) is a particular favorite of mine. It explores the loneliness of love. Recently, it has been bundled into an impressive box set by Eureka in the UK. The box set is simply titled Naruse Volume One. Also included in the set are the director's favorite films, Sound of the Mountain ('54), and Flowing ('56).

Repast is about a married woman named Michiyo (Setsuko Hara) whose doubts about her marriage are intensified when her husband Hatsunosuke's (Ken Euhara) niece comes to visit. His attentive and loving treatment of the younger woman contrasts starkly with his seeming indifference to Michiyo's state of being. Compounding matters is the oppressive sense of social duty that Michiyo feels, a duty her own mother is unsympathetic towards.

Naruse does not create false urgency or contrived situations; feelings emerge fully fleshed out from his slowly building set-ups; most are brief and concise, subtly telegraphing trouble. The pleasure of watching Repast is akin to the pleasure one feels when eating a delicious, lovingly prepared dinner. The cherry on top is the glorious aroma of the drama.

Setsuko Hara, who was already an accomplished actress when Repast was filmed, seems so real and representative of the reluctantly dutiful Japanese housewife of the time. Her tale is clearly the tale of many women -- men also.

I'm not a great believer myself in the longevity of relationships. I'm not convinced that two people are meant to spend decades together, or it is in their best interests to do so. Of course, couples do spend decades together, but, in most cases, it's a clearly compromised internal structure that enables such an animal to exist.

All relationships, short or long, require compromises in order to exist; I get that. Two forces of nature can't move harmoniously through the same narrow pipe. A travel schedule must be written. Arrangements must be made. But the big compromises I see in some relationships seem more like states of surrender than recipes for harmony.

In Repast, Naruse focuses on what happens when fantasy (what we want) meets reality (the way things really are). We are complex creatures, and we tend to bury our complexities in a wishing well of romantic idealism. But, like most things we bury, our complexities rise eventually to the surface.

Romantic love is fine in books, films, and paintings, but in real life, it doesn't last or remain as deliciously urgent as it was when first tasted. When it declines, our desire to experience the frisson remains, but the frisson can be an amoral dictator. Ultimately, in most relationships, we are alone with our deep complexities.

Repast is the story of a woman who confronts the truth of her choices and accepts her complexities. She gains perspective, and sees the road to a new future.

Naruse makes me think about his films many months after I've experienced them. He possessed the magic touch.


  1. jervaise brooke hamsterOctober 10, 2010 at 10:27 PM

    I cant endure films about people and relationships anymore they seem so ludicrously out-moded and unwatchable in comparison to the modern special effects oriented product.

  2. jbh -- I totally disagree with your point of view, jbh. Special effects-oriented product irritates me to no end. I'm intensely interested in human behavior. Humans are such massive contradictions. There's massive freak show appeal!

  3. jervaise brooke hamsterOctober 11, 2010 at 9:43 PM

    Yes but strickly speaking the point i`m trying to make is that films about people have no cinematic power, they`re perfect for the cosy medium of television, where-as going to the movies should always be a roller-coaster ride of visual effects magnificence, a special effects extravaganza as it were. I`ve always believed that long before the release of Star Wars back in `77. going to the movies should always be an incredible, astonishing and breathtaking experience it should never be about the mundane or the ordinary it should be about the spectacular and the imaginitive. I`ve never seen any of Naruse Mikios films, 30 years ago i might have been able to appreciate them to the levels that you obviously do but like i said in this day and age i need space battles, monsters and robots other wise i become bored by the proceedings very quickly.

  4. @ JBH - It's hard to tell whether you're joking or not, but for the sake of responding, I'll assume you're sincere. I question what you consider mundane. It sounds like you're using mundane to mean "events that happen in real life". I don't know about you, but the more "real" something is, the more relatable it is to me. If I can relate to it, I can become more involved emotionally and intellectually. A space battle can get a person excited, show them something they haven't seen, be a fun spectacle, and serve any kind of sensory stimulating purpose as well. I don't experience space battles in real life, but I get into disputes, conversations, collaborative interactions, emotionally dramatic mood swings, just recap any moment of your day and you'll know what I'm talking about. To me, if you don't have interesting relationships with people, you probably won't find interesting relationships in cinema to be...interesting, to over use a word in one sentence.

    It strikes me as very odd that you wouldn't think that normal every day life requires imagination. Not too long ago, I was smoking marijuana one night. I went to the kitchen to make some tea but noticed that the cap for my tea kettle was missing. It was very important to me to drink tea, especially this caffeinated black tea I've been enjoying lately. I ambled around the kitchen for a very long time, until I realized that I could use aluminum foil to cover the spout on the kettle. I covered it, poked a hole in the middle, and waited for the water to boil. I would love to see an overblown re-enactment of this in a film! But that's just me.

  5. Had Miichiyo's husband been more attentive would she have had a satisfying marriage? Or is this an existential dilema with the outcome independent of good intention?

    ("wishing well of romantic idealism"- very nice!)

  6. anon -- I think Michiyo would have liked a little more tender loving care (who wouldn't?), but her dilemma was/is a universal one. Why am I here? Is there some purpose for me other than THIS? She was living a life shaped by social pressure. She wasn't aware enough at the time of her marriage to choose another path.


    jesse -- good points, and I like your tea example. I agree that the more one can relate to a character, the easier it is to care. That applies to real life, of course.

    I look forward to jbh's answer, but, given his recent form, I'm not sure you'll get a serious one. That's a challenge, jbh.

    jesse --

  7. jervaise brooke hamsterOctober 14, 2010 at 2:53 PM

    Jesse (and Phantom) dont you understand that film is a fantasy medium by definition irrespective of the actual subject matter of the film w-HEATHER it be science-fiction or gritty drama, so all i`m saying is why not play up to the fantasy ele-girl-t completely and forget about all the supposedly realistic stuff if its all fantasy anyway, which it is. Why not just make film as astonishing and incredible as it can possibly be. I mean faced with a choice of seeing a "FANTASY" about an alien invasion or a "FANTASY" about someone making a cup of tea i know which one i would watch every time.

  8. jbh -- film is as many different mediums as you want it to be. Fantasy is one of those. But even fantasy is about people. Bad fantasy revolves around cardboard people. Good fantasy revolves around three-dimensional people. I don't think the cup of tea analogy was meant as the subject of a fantasy film.

    Art is never absolute, so there's no right or wrong way to go. There is simply the desire of the viewer to be "entertained" and involved in it.

  9. @ JBH: Of course I understand the intrinsic characteristic of 'fantasy' inherent in STORYTELLING. You're appropriating two different definitions of fantasy, which is funny because you have provided definitions for both yet somehow you're still mixing the two together. When you're describing the medium of film, which we will equate with literature and other art forms as well, you're talking about fabricated drama in a sense. That is your first definition of fantasy. Obviously, there is a contrast with reality. Real life events occur because of 'natural' forces in our world and universe. Duh. Art, however, seeks to manufacture life as a way of expressing a thought, idea, or value of life. I know you're familiar with allegory, anachronism, metaphor, irony, etc. (More importantly, you have to be familiar with them). Independent of those literary devices, we also have tragedies and comedies in theater and performance art, which film clearly has roots. With music we have the use of sound to express emotions that conventional language can't explain. Sounds have frequencies created by vibrations, and it's amazing to know that an emotion creates a vibration. Visual art, like painting, uses color shape, contour, etc., to stimulate the mind, to get it to find some quality in the image as well as seeing how the image 'resonates' with whomever is looking at it. Film has the burden of using all of these elements, and others, to be truly effective. I guess the point of all that was to show that a lot of work has to be done to make a truly great film. Why limit it to pure sensory overload or the depiction of imagined visuals for the sole purpose of seeing...images?

    Now, the other definition of fantasy you're talking about is more genre specific. Meaning, it is a 'type' of fantasy. Since you mentioned science fiction, I'll define the difference between 'real' science fiction and fantasy that hijacked the term 'science fiction' because of the comparable superficialities in both. An example of this is Star Wars. Star Wars is fantasy. It might have advanced technology, it might take place in space, but it's just fantasy. The 'real' science fiction exists to talk about the future of humankind, especially our relationship with technology. Philip K. Dick was well known for this. William Gibson writes for this very purpose. Most sci-fi films end up being fantasy and never nail the story telling of the books they're usually adapted from. Basically, the spectacle has more emphasis due to adaptive failures. Spectacle has always been the default function of film that serves to bring in money to distributors or theater owners. Point of all that, clearly there are a varying methods of telling a story, as well as the purpose of the story. Creative artists put a lot of effort into their work. (continued...)

  10. (continued...) Perhaps I'm trying to cover too much. I just find it interesting that you would think that the creative nature of cinema is somehow invalid when it comes to making a statement about life. It sounds like you don't respect art. How you could be commenting on this blog, much less stumbling upon it, as a person with this outlook is a bit surprising. To me, the whole point of art is to alter your perception, to get you to look at things differently. More importantly, it's utilizing different parts of your mind. No, I'm not talking about some hippie stoner outlook. I'm describing precisely what is happening when a person allows themselves to be immersed into art. Creativity isn't just a bunch of inner ramblings and pointless energy. It usually 'comes' from somewhere. It has an important resource. In fact, it is usually a response to a real life event.

    The really irritating part of all this is how you have to ignore all the major efforts that were put into making serious works of art to justify your stance. If cinema really turned out to be only about some fantasy, I doubt we would have it anymore. There would have been no point after awhile. In the 70's there was a huge boom in profound, brazen, boundary pushing cinema, and people flocked to the theaters because it meant something. It reflected the zeitgeist. All great films have been successful because of what the story means to a person viewing the film. Not to go, "Yay!! Explosions! YAY!!" Not that I don't enjoy feeling that way from time to time. If I want to feel that way, I'll usually watch porn. The kind of 'explosions' in porn that me me go 'yay' are radically different, however.

    Look, I love moving pictures as much as anyone else. However, I've noticed that when the style isn't the substance, but an element or vehicle for something more honest, I have always enjoyed it more. For example, 'Videodrome' embodies this very much. I'm sure Mark is going to agree with me. That film isn't about some guy shooting people with a bio-mechanical flesh gun that merge with his right hand, or some exploitation shocker made to get people to see a cheap thrill. It is about Max Renn digging deeper into a world that he has been selling to others but has never honestly delved into on his own. When he does, he begins to change and is used by the very people that manufactured this world. We get some S&M (That makes me go Yay!), some violence, etc. More importantly, for those of us who love cinema because we are natural born viewers (or voyeurs), we see a little bit of us in Max Renn. That's for another essay. (continued...)

  11. (continued...) The idea that a film can only be astonishing because of its visual content (or imagined universe) is a huge oversight. It bothers me to think that you can't find value in a story about human relationships, especially if it's well done and accurate. To me, if I'm going to 'see' something astonishing and incredible, it better be about something else than merely what is being presented. For me, to find out that a film that has a space battle was about nothing else than seeing a space battle...that worked when I was a teenager. Not so much anymore. I guess if you want to watch something as boring as sensory overload, then by all means go about doing that. Funny how something that is designed to be stimulating and entertaining, like a space battle, ends up being more boring to people who want viscera, emotion, provocation of thoughts. For once, it is safe to say that popular opinion (among cinefiles!) does not share your view. Even if people enjoy a shitty story, at least it's a story. More importantly, when they come across a story that grabs their heart, they realize that that is what they have always wanted: Deeply moving art.

    I don't think you know what you're advocating. Perhaps you're a young contrarian making snarky comments about something that you don't quite understand. You might find out you've just been fooling yourself. Please don't justify superfluous entertainment.

    Why don't we ignore the assumptions I have made about your character and let you explain yourself a bit more. Perhaps I'm missing your point?

  12. jervaise brooke hamsterOctober 15, 2010 at 2:37 AM

    So essentially you`re saying that my love (and lust) for Heather is merely a subjective fantasy, for instance do you think that i will ever see Heather in actual 3-di-girl-tional reality and spend all of eternity with her in paradise?.

  13. jervaise brooke hamsterOctober 19, 2010 at 1:39 PM

    Yeah but i still think that if it ain`t got monsters and robots its boring.