Two more silent Mikio Naruse films, both from 1933. Every-Night Dreams is currently the more acclaimed of this pair, perhaps because it’s story and feel is closer to some of the social realist Hollywood films or melodramas of roughly the same period (albeit while remaining distinctly Japanese).
It is a film which attempts to present and probe at the most elemental of philosophical, moral and ethical dilemmas (“is it right to steal to save a child, how should one think of an act of suicide in an unjust and tormenting world, how much should one sacrifice of themselves for another etc etc”) as freshly and directly as possible. Mostly it succeeds. There’s something somewhat overly schematic about the film (the narrative and structure are very much familiar from previous Naruse and Ozu silent pictures reviewed on this blog), but it is redeemed by the power of Naruse’s film-making, his ability to create images pungent with feeling and his expert handling of rhythm which, together with the occasional forays into the dreamlike seediness of the dockside bars, means the work sometimes has the feel of a tone poem or an attempt at crafting a contemporary fable, entirely and endlessly relevant and as simultaneously simple and complex as needed. Naruse relies upon pushing his early style (rapid push-ins, bursts of jagged montage inspired by the Russians, elaborate tracking shots) to the fore and to extremes and the result is a mostly intriguing and moving mixture of the classical and the modern, the traditional and the avant-garde, the eternal and the momentary.
Of all the silent-era Naruse films I have seen so far Apart From You the one I like most; in fact I’d go so far as to call it a minor masterpiece (minor, here, is not an insult or condescension; think of Farber and the perils of major white elephant art). Naruse’s style, story (or, again fable) and tone more beautifully coalesce than in any other of the silent works I’ve seen; the effect is immediate, poised, pungent and poignant; as in the best of Jacques Demy this is a film of immaculate and inescapable regrets, disappointments, compromises, wistful wisdoms, flickering hopes and half-formed dreams. The compositions are more measured than in Every-Night Dreams or Flunky, Work Hard, the push-ins are used more sparingly and are thus more effective in creating flashes and fissures of psychological revelation and effect and the montage treads more delicately between the freewheeling and the serene. While some late overtly melodramatic flourishes threaten to topple this film so crucially determined by and reliant upon its balance for much of its run time, Naruse manages to right himself and offer us an ending as innocently and yet knowingly simple and sad as a parting kiss upon the cheek. Naruse, finally and thankfully, remembers that this is a film of sighs rather than screams.
Apart From You is an early glimmer of the Naruse to come (Every-Night Dreams is too, but to a lesser extent due to its stronger focus on male anxieties and shortcomings), the more familiar film-maker of the post-war years who somewhat resembles the Max Ophuls of Le Plaisir (amongst others) in his presentation of the pleasure business as a trap which constricts and corrodes those caught up in it. Already we see in this film his themes of the geisha longing desperately and vainly for escape, the family torn asunder (if it was ever stable at all) by the realities of this life and the frequent economic hardships which necessitate and yet still accompany it, the way in which people are thoughtlessly used, cast aside and shamed in the pursuit of selfish gratifications. Naruse was perhaps arriving, very beautifully, at himself.