Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Phillip Lopate—Mikio Naruse and "Wife! Be Like A Rose"

Earlier this year the Pacific Film Archives ran the touring Mikio Naruse retrospective organized by James Quandt of Cinematheque Ontario. I caught two—Flowing and Floating Clouds. I very much enjoyed the drunken geisha dance in Flowing—it made me laugh outloud in delight—but despite my best intentions, during Floating Clouds I felt like an animal caught in a trap willing to gnaw off his foot just to get away!! I didn't return to see any of the further entries in the Naruse restrospective and I felt guilty about it. What kind of film commentarian had I become that I couldn't learn to appreciate Mikio Naruse?!

So when as part of its Readings on Cinema series PFA recently invited Phillip Lopate to speak about his new book American Movie Critics: An Anthology From the Silents Until Now and offered, further, a screening of Mikio Naruse's Wife! Be Like A Rose with Lopate's introductory remarks, I thought, "Okay, we will try again."

After discussing his anthology and entertaining questions on it for a bit, Lopate turned to the screening at hand, offering just a little bit about "Micky" (as he affectionately calls Naruse) and a few things about Wife! Be Like A Rose. "Having gone through two entire series of Naruse films, first in the 80s and then more recently," Lopate commented, "I'm struck by how—this is the worst word you can use about a filmmaker, but I'm going to use it—how literary Naruse is. How his films feel like novels. He himself had wanted to be a novelist, to study literature, but because of family problems, money problems, he had to drop out [of school] and become a prop man in a Japanese studio." Naruse's interest in writing persisted, and in Wife! Be Like A Rose, for instance, one of the characters is a haiku poetess.

Another Naruse film, Anzukko, is also about a writer, a poet, and Lopate discussed the wonderful "collaboration" Naruse had with Fumiko Hayashi, a great Japanese woman novelist and short story writer. Actually, Lopate qualified, they hadn't really collaborated, she had written all these books, and Naruse just adapted one book after the other; Hayashi had already died before the first film was released. But Naruse was always very interested in the woman's point of view as well as literature. Lopate praised Naruse's beautiful adaptation of Yasunari Kawabata's Sound of the Mountain. As the PFA notes for the touring series highlighted: "The novelist Fumiko Hayashi was his favorite source for plots epitomizing his own vision that modern women are offered only illusory freedom. Audie Bock, who championed this relatively unheralded director years ago in her book Japanese Film Directors and in a monograph, writes of the 'condition of trapped awareness' in Naruse's women. It is this awareness that gave actresses like Hideko Takamine, Kinuyo Tanaka, and Setsuko Hara a chance to show their depth."

"One of the things I love about his movies," Lopate offered, "is that they edge away from redemption, they refuse transcendence. In that, there is also something kind of novelistic. Sometimes the endings have something inconclusive about them, not always. Audie Bock has said that there are no happy endings in Naruse but there are some incredibly enlightening defeats."

But, Lopate quickly added, Naruse also had a comic streak, one might say a wise streak. Lopate explained that sometimes people write about Naruse and they use words like "bleak" and "pessimistic", but when he watches Naruse's films, he's "always enlivened" and doesn't experience Naruse "as a downer." Partly because Lopate does think there is this odd sense of humor in Naruse wherein he shows how people want something. Naruse himself said "people move a little and then they hit a wall." They want something, Lopate amplified, Naruse "shows them wanting it, he shows them deluded that they can get it, then he pulls the rug out from under them. There's something kind of comic in their sense of denial but also in their stoicism and in their resilience. In many ways Naruse characters have a great deal of dignity because they don't expect happiness, but they keep plugging along." Wife! Be Like A Rose is probably lighter and more intentionally comic than most of Naruse's films, something of an anomaly. "And you should know that he married a young ingénue after the film," Lopate told us, "and had a miserable marriage. It really fed his art, y'know."

After the film—which I rather enjoyed!—Lopate returned to the podium and quipped, "Did I say that was a light film? Questions? Comments?"

He was asked if he knew if Criterion was going to be putting out any of the Naruse movies on dvd? Lopate responded that he had been urging them to. "I've done a lot of work for Criterion over the last few years. And I know that it's in negotiation. I would love to see a box set of Naruse." He announced that he would be doing the commentary for Sound of the Mountain, but through another company. Criterion is very aware of Naruse, however, and negotiating for the box set.

Lopate added: "This movie, by the way, was made in 1935. Part of the charm of it, for me, is that it's right on the cusp between silent and sound. You have that strange whirring noise of the microphone starting up."

Lopate was asked to say something about Naruse's directorial style, how he gets such sensitive performances from his actors, and to also say something about Naruse's involvement with the set direction?

"As I said in my essay about him," Lopate answered, "he doesn't have a signature visual style that's very easy to pinpoint in the sense that Mizoguchi has the flowing tracking shots, or Ozu has the tatami mat shot [sorry Acquarello, just reporting!] or Kurosawa has this kind of vigorous energy. His films are very often interior but, as you can see, he opens them up, there's usually a sense of the city life in his films. He wants you to feel that people, as he said, will hit a wall quickly so there's always this feeling of the narrowness of the interiors, the narrowness of the alleys. As far as his directing of acting is concerned, I think he really was interested mostly in the psychology of character, it's his dominant interest. Hideko Takamine—who is the great Japanese actress who worked with him so often—said that he didn't give very much instruction at all. She asked him, 'How do I play this role?' and he would say, 'It'll be over before you know it.' " Lopate's audience laughed. "Which reminds me a little bit about that story of Ingrid Bergman talking to Alfred Hitchcock, asking, 'What do I do? How do I find my motivation?' And Hitchcock said, 'Ingrid, it's only a movie.' " More laughter.

Returning to the question at hand, Lopate continued: "Naruse was silent and glum. He wasn't like Lubitsch who imitated the way that every line was to be done. He didn't give direction. He chose actors who he trusted. That's why he had to have a crew of people that he could depend upon, a troupe you might say—like Hideko Takamine . . . and those people—and once he chose you, you kind of floundered around until you found the part. My sense is that by withholding instruction he forced the actors into a sense of their own solitude and into their desperation that was so important to the Naruse vision of life. I think he gave off a force field that was very Narusean and if you came into contact with it, you understood." Lopate suggested that the solitary poet at the end of Wife! Be Like A Rose was, in a way, a stand-in for Naruse.

Lopate further pointed out: "But there's also that beautiful daughter looking at her mother, which is very similar to the ending of Mother, of Okasan. The child trying to understand the parent. Filled with sympathy and knowing that there's always going to be this divide between parent and child."

Lopate concluded: "What I love about this movie is this sense—and in Naruse in general—that people can only do what they can do. They're not superheroes. They try but, y'know, life breaks them in certain ways. They're not evil. They can only do what they're going to do."

One fellow in the audience stated that he had heard Naruse was something of a cad toward women, which was surprising given Naruse's sensitive treatment of them in his films. Lopate was asked if he had any information on that.

"I don't think he was a cad to women but I wasn't under the bed, so I'm not sure," Lopate answered. "There's a story which I put in my essay about him. He would go out to eat in restaurants, usually working class restaurants. Even though he was a director, he didn't make that much money. Most of his social conversation was reserved for the waitresses who brought him the food and there was one waitress who was in love with him and he did not reciprocate her infatuation and she committed suicide. I don't know if that's being a cad. He was just being typically silent and withdrawn. Which will drive some people—not just women—crazy."

Another fellow likened the thumbing the taxi scene in Wife! Be Like A Rose with Capra's It Happened One Night. He wanted to know how a Japanese audience would have understood that reference?

"The Japanese directors of that period of the 30s," Lopate responded, "were very interested in Hollywood movies. All of them were watching Capra and Ford and early sound films. Sound came in later in Japan than it did in most countries. But there definitely is a Capra-esque feeling here. If he didn't see It Happened One Night, he surely saw somebody thumbing a ride. But I think it was It Happened One Night."

"What is and was Naruse's reputation in Japan when he was making the films and now?" one woman wanted to know. Lopate stated: "Wife! Be like A Rose was pretty much the first Japanese film that was released in America that showed in New York. It was a popular film." At first Naruse was making a lot of movies for the same studio that produced Ozu and they said, "We don't need two Ozus here." Even though his films are very different from Ozu, he was considered "the poor man's Ozu."

"One thing he was able to do," Lopate described, "was to bring in a film on time and under budget. So he basically continued to make films even in bad times. Of course, World War II was a terrible period. But, once he hit his greatest period, which was the 1950s, then I think there was much more of an appreciation." During the early 60s when a package of Japanese films toured America, When A Woman Ascends the Stairs was included, so even then he was considered an important Japanese director. "I think now he's still considered one of the big four: Ozu, Mizoguchi, Kurosawa, Naruse. I don't think he was ever hugely popular but he was respected."

Lopate was asked to speak about the influences and inspirations on Naruse's editing process? He offered: "Kurosawa thought that Naruse was the master editor. Kurosawa compared it to a strong river current that's taking everything. He'll do some movements with the camera, he'll do very short shots sometimes during long dialogue scenes. But he keeps you off balance I feel like, y'know? He keeps you questioning, y'know? Instead of resolving things, his editing is often forcing you to think about something. That's also where I feel he's like a novelist who's commenting on something, with the way he edits a scene. Puzzles. You feel this question mark. In this particular film, for instance, it's all about shifting sympathies. Who's going to get the major sympathy? And in the end, of course, everybody is fairly sympathetic. And he can only do that by this kind of destabilizing editing system."

08/21/07 UPDATE: At Rouge, Kiyoaki Okubo conducts a fascinating reception study of Wife! Be Like A Rose when it was shown in New York’s Filmarte Theater under the title of Kimiko. It was the first Japanese sound film to be shown commercially outside of Japan and didn't fare too well.