SUDDEN RAIN: THE FILMS OF JAPANESE MASTER MIKIO NARUSE a retrospective at Cinematheque Ontario (Art Gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas West), January 13 to February 26. $5.50-$10.10. 416-968-FILM, www.bell.ca/cinematheque. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
If you're struggling to pay off those holiday bills, watching a Mikio Naruse film might not help you forget your troubles. Money figures prominently in the Japanese director's work. His characters are often adding up sums, worrying about rent, employment or just the price of a bowl of noodle soup.
This focus on small, seemingly banal details, combined with Naruse's concentration on the lives of entrapped women, may explain why his work is less well known than that of other masters of Japanese film, namely Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi. Less well known here, that is. He's revered in Japan - Kurosawa once admitted that Naruse was his favourite director - and also in France.
So it's definitely worth catching the second half of the massive Cinematheque retrospective of the master, celebrating the centenary of his birth, on through February 26. (His films aren't well represented on video and DVD, another reason to catch these screenings.)
Naruse, who grew up in poverty and died in 1969, specialized in "shomin-geki," or "home movies," works that look unsentimentally at lower-middle-class domestic life.
A small detail early in 1956's Sudden Rain (February 25, 6:30 pm) is telling. Ryotaro (Shuji Sano) berates his wife, Fumiko (Setsuko Hara, familiar from Ozu's films), for having cut out recipes from the newspaper he's reading. She counters that she can't afford the ingredients to make those recipes.
It's an intimate moment of domestic strife, instantly familiar to most audiences. But it contains the seeds of the couple's destruction, as they slowly begin to question their compatibility after four years of marriage. When the situation is repeated near the end of the film, there are no words. So much has happened in the intervening days to change things.
The weather can change suddenly, as the title implies, but Naruse is aware of the clouds that cause that rain. (It's no accident that four of his films include the word "clouds" in their titles.)
Domestic details build up, slowly increasing the pressure. Fumiko's niece complains about her new husband, and Ryotaro gives her some advice about men after selfishly eating Fumiko's noodles. Fumiko befriends a stray dog. (Why? Perhaps because the couple is childless, something that's never discussed.) Ryotaro checks out the young new wife living next door, and later tells Fumiko to change her personality. Piano music tinkles in the background throughout, a constant reminder of Fumiko's sacrifice of her budding music career.
Taken individually, these details might seem trivial. But Naruse interweaves them into a subtle, devastating look at relationships that should be required viewing for any new couple.
He worked repeatedly with the same group of actors, including Hara (who plays another trapped housewife in the classic Repast , screening January 13, 6:30 pm).
But his most frequent muse was Hideko Takamine, who appeared in more than a dozen of his films. In 1941's Hideko The Bus Conductress (February 19, 1 pm), the 17-year-old Takamine plays a girl who works on a dilapidated bus that's quickly losing business to a more modern bus company. After she and the bus driver (Kurosawa regular Kamatari Fujiwara) come up with a scheme to keep the clientele entertained with a sightseeing commentary, the greedy bus owner makes some changes
At 53 minutes, it's a brief, slight, bittersweet work, punctuated with bits of dark humour and anti-authoritarian spirit, both underappreciated qualities in Naruse's work.
Takamine is youthful and radiant as the optimistic bus conductress, but this performance hardly prepares you for her bravura turn as writer Fumiko Hayashi in 1962's Her Lonely Lane , aka A Wanderer's Notebook (January 14, 6:30 pm).
Hayashi was Naruse's favourite writer; he filmed six of her works, including this autobiographical account of her life of poverty, lousy relationships and disciplined writing. As a portrait of the artist as a young (and then not-so-young) writer, the film is equal to Jane Campion's An Angel At My Table.
In 1920s Tokyo, Hayashi takes on one exhausting job after another - peddlar, toy painter, bar hostess - to pay her rent and send money back to her mother in the country. In the few detailed scenes about her work in a teahouse, Naruse tells you more about life in Japan than Memoirs Of A Geisha does in its entirety.
When Hayashi hooks up with a circle of poets, things are equally brutal. The self-absorbed male writers expect her to do their chores and then criticize her for exploiting her poverty in her writing. She faces competition from her female peers.
The only selfless person she knows is a widower who's half in love with her and lends her money whenever she's in need. Their final scene together aches with sadness and regret.
Takamine's performance is astonishing. Hayashi's hardships are etched in her worried face, gnarled up in her terrible posture.
The actor and director don't romanticize poverty. Neither do they glamorize the artist's life. They understand that lasting art, like everything else in life, comes with a pricetag.