Flunky, Work Hard (1931, Mikio Naruse)

Twenty-eight minutes in length, Flunky, Work Hard is the earliest surviving work by Japanese master Mikio Naruse, made just one year after his debut.
If Passing Fancy by Ozu belongs to the proletarian-focused cinema on the 1930’s, then Flunky, Work Hard belongs to that tradition too while also straddling a more experimental vein in the cinema of the time or, to be more precise, the cinema of the silent era; the playfulness and invention in montage, prismatic effects, superimpositions, split-screen, insertion and digression suggests the influence of silent masters and theorists like Eisenstein, Vertov, Murnau, Epstein etc. (how many of these films Naruse saw I could not find out, but modern cinephiles will certainly be put in mind of them), while also recalling some of the impish mischief and poetry of Naruse’s contemporary Jean Vigo. It reflects a young man at the beginning of his career simply enjoying himself, finding happiness in the technical (and emotional) possibilities of his craft and his medium, unable to shoot a father and a son walking together without capturing them in a beautiful, brief and almost tactile tracking shot through long grass and heather, or filming them talking from as many different (and striking) set-ups as possible. There’s a simultaneous precision and casual offhandness to these effects that’s reminiscent of the early nouvelle vague shorts, and there’s a similar joy to be found in the sense of freedom, the idea of taking a small, ordinary story and making it indubitably, irretrievably cinematic.

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Screwball comedy mixes with pathos, Naruse displaying a simple affection for the working-class and the smallest details of their milieu, and a simple frustration with the walls against which they bump, the circumstances and systems of poverty and property that force them to sell their dignity in pursuit of survival and which alienate them from their family. Shiro Kido, the head of the Shochiku studio to which Naruse belonged at the time, favoured these comedies and sunny populist dramas of the koshiben (low wage-earners) at work and leisure, optimism and suffering and he must have counted his lucky stars knowing that at this point in time in Naruse and Ozu he had two film-makers of both the lightest touch and the weightiest materiality, two men capable of letting their films float in the breeze like the clothes of the koshiben’s wife on the washing line before bringing it all back home with the quiet, sensitive and devastating force of a poet in the most intimate yet generous of contemplations.

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