Monday, January 9, 2012

The films of Mikio Naruse and Hideko Takamine

Posted By on 01.09.12 at 02:00 PM

Hideko Takamine
  • Hideko Takamine
Tonight, Doc Films begins their series of films directed by Mikio Naruse and starring the actress Hideko Takamine with the 1952 drama Lightning. It’s one of the most important film series in town, as eight of the nine features on the program are not officially available on DVD in the United States, and there hasn’t been a substantial Naruse series in Chicago since the Gene Siskel Film Center hosted one six years ago. Longtime readers of the Reader should recognize his name: our first two senior film critics Dave Kehr and Jonathan Rosenbaum are both big fans (there’s an excellent piece on Naruse in Kehr’s book When Movies Mattered and you can read a fine essay by Rosenbaum here) and many other critics consider him an equal to Japanese masters like Kenji Mizoguchi, Akira Kurosawa, and Yasujiro Ozu.

Naruse might be closest to Ozu in his choice of subject matter, as he returned most frequently to domestic stories and romances. But his films are much darker, focusing on working-class characters and the unfortunate. Naruse’s outright pessimism could make for upsetting films, but he possessed a deep sense of empathy that was no less powerful, as evidenced by the rich performances he regularly received from actors. Takamine was Naruse’s most gifted collaborator, and one of the most consistent too: they made 17 films together in just over two decades. Last week I spoke with Doc Films programmer Edo Choi about these films and about the work entailed in bringing them to Chicago.


Ben Sachs: Who put this series together?

Edo Choi: It was mainly me and [local experimental video artist] Kyle Canterbury. Kyle really loves Naruse—as do I—and I was thinking of doing a Hideko Takamine series because she just died last December. We started talking about it in February.

BS: Did you get any assistance in procuring the films?

EC: The University of Chicago has a Center for East Asian Studies, and within that Center, each of the major Asian countries have their representative board. Those boards have some funds available for programs like this or other cultural events. Whenever we do a Chinese or Japanese or Korean series, we’ve gotten some funding from the Center for East Asian Studies. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to afford them. Mostly it’s because of international shipping, which is outrageous, and foreign rights holders who have unrealistic ideas of what cinemas in America—or anywhere—can pay.

BS: Who are some of these print holders?

EC: Janus Films [which is based in New York] has rights to about half of what we’re showing, but they don’t have any prints. So we have to get all our prints through the Japan Foundation, which is also based in New York, but the prints are at their Tokyo office. For the ones that weren’t [owned] by Janus, we had to clear rights with Kadokawa, who owns all the titles that were formerly owned by Daiei Studios... It can be a pain in the ass to put these programs together, but it’s not like it demands much intelligence. It just demands persistence. And you’ve got to tread carefully with foreign-rights holders who think you’re out to bamboozle them—especially because there’s already a language barrier much of the time. You have to be very careful and clear [when talking to them].

BS: Changing the subject to Naruse himself, while the guy was clearly a master, he’s never had the same kind of following in the United States as, say, Yasujiro Ozu. Why do you think that is?

EC: Oh, man, I don’t know! There’s been a lot of discussion about this. Since the 80s, there’s been a major Naruse retrospective in the US at least every ten years. But each time, it doesn’t seem to have much of a lasting impact... It might have something to do with the fact Ozu had a signature style where Naruse didn’t, really. Filmmaking doesn’t get more “trademarked” than Ozu.

BS: But after you see two or three films by Naruse, you feel a definite worldview, and it’s very pessimistic.

EC: Yes, but it always grows out of these everyday settings. It’s natural. With Naruse, it’s about the cumulative effect of all these shots. I’m thinking of something like Flowing (1956) [which screens in the Doc series on January 30—ed.], which has tons of characters and all this action that Naruse weaves together. Of course, Ozu plays with tons of characters as well, but he keeps them all in this distinct regimentation. It’s a little more obvious, and it lends itself better to a kind of film school analysis. Ozu is also more of a happy filmmaker, especially in his later films, while Naruse...

BS: ...has got to be one of the unhappiest of all filmmakers.

EC: I’d agree with that. Donald Richie once wrote... here, I’ll look it up, “He lacks, to be sure, that hope which is the higher wisdom and which animates the greatest art, including that of Ozu. Because of this, his world remains a narrow one and his art, by definition, not transcendental. At the same time, given Naruse’s skill, devotion, and honesty, the world he creates through film remains both profoundly troubling and deeply moving.” I don’t really agree with the assumption that Ozu is better; when his films are sad, they’re sad in a wistful, ironic way. They don’t overwhelm you [like Naruse’s].

Mikio Naruse
  • Mikio Naruse

BS: Do you have a favorite in the series?

EC: Flowing. It’s just one of my favorite movies of all time. It feels like it’s addressing the way people live today [and] their peculiar kinds of resignation and bitterness—but also [their] endurance. His characters just embody the drudgery of life under capitalism.

BS: Is that something you identify with?

EC: Well, I’m much more privileged than most of Naruse’s characters, but I see the world that I live in in his films. And Naruse has an extraordinary way of letting that world speak for itself. He has a vision, but it grows out of a feeling for the locations that he uses, which usually feel so lived-in... And, in a way, what feels so insightful about his work is that the drudgery assumes the level of something universal, even cosmic.

BS: Because it’s shaping every character’s life, in a way.

EC: Yeah. Like in Sound of the Mountain (1954), there’s a scene of this rainstorm, and Setsuko Hara puts her hand out of the window, trying to get the attention of her house cat. She has this look on her face that’s very worried and vulnerable... And the rain isn’t symbolic of anything—it isn’t symbolic of her cheating husband or anything as trite as that—it’s just part of everyday life. It’s another one of these threatening, uncomfortable events.

BS: Could you say a few words about Hideko Takamine?

EC: I was talking about resignation being an important emotion running through Naruse’s films. And I don’t think there was another actress who was in accord with that feeling as much as she was. But it wasn’t passive resignation with her—it was an angry, bitter resignation. You definitely get that in Lightning, which is really extraordinary. I mean, you have this girl who just feels totally stifled by her family and wants better for herself than what her mother’s had... Then there’s her great performance in Floating Clouds (1955) [which screens on January 16], where she’s this totally marginalized victim of the fallout after the Second World War and the economic depression that came afterwards. And all this history registers in her physical presence. On the one hand, she has this frail and tiny frame—and this delicate, girlish face... She seems almost too delicate to be bunched into these situations, and yet she is.

BS: Your heart really goes out to her.

EC: And she has this great way of moving—she slouches a lot. In distinction to someone like Setsuko Hara, who has something angelic about her, Hideko Takamine has a human individuality that you can’t ignore.

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