Saturday, 26 October 2013

Floating Clouds (1955)

Patty gets the boot! To start with an update on my fitness, the cast has finally been removed after nearly seven weeks, but the ankle is not quite oven-ready. So I have been given a surgical boot, a knee-high non-fashion item, which looks like it is more suitable for walking on the moon. I go back to the hospital in a few weeks for the next lot of prognoses. Meanwhile I am able to shuffle about (only with support let it be said) which is not quite the same as walking on the earth or the moon.

Mikio Naruse is one of the least-known in the West major Japanese directors, unlike his equally talented peers Mizoguchi, Ozu, and Kurosawa. From humble beginnings, he joined a film studio in 1920 as a prop man and worked his way up to directing ten years later. His career spanned 37 years and 91 films, but I must admit to having seen only one of his movies ("When a Woman Ascends the Stairs" - 1960) before this week, although several others were languishing on my famous 'must see' list. Like buses, you wait for one for a long time, and then two arrive together -- the above-captioned film and l954's "Late Chrysanthemums", both of which received television airings within the last week. So now I have seen three and wonder why he is so little known, as his films are both beautifully constructed and socially relevant.

Not for him the Japan of pomp and samurai; during Naruse's peak years (post World War II) he focuses on the depression, disappointments, and hand-to-mouth struggle of a defeated country and the wide-spread ill-treatment of its women. The radiant actress Hideko Takamine who starred in 17 Naruse films plays the young woman who, after being raped by her uncle, takes a wartime secretarial job on a sunny island in Indo-China. There she begins an affair with a married government forestry expert, Masayuki Mori, who promises that he will divorce his wife on their return to Japan and marry her. After Japan surrenders and they are separately repatriated, she seeks him out to discover that he has little intention of leaving his long-suffering wife. Destitute, cold, and hungry, unable to find work, Takamine becomes the mistress of an American G.I., but Mori doesn't baulk at finding her to borrow money and to perhaps spend the night.

It is soon apparent that she is hopelessly in love with him, whereas he is unable to resist both drink and any young, available flesh. The years march on, and even after his wife dies and she falls pregnant, he does not seek to regularise their relationship. She endures indignity after indignity, including having to live with the ex-rapist uncle, who now has a lucrative side-line in phony faith-healing. She steals some 300,000 yen from his 'church' and offers both the cash and herself to the faithless Mori, discovering that he has accepted a two-year forestry contract on a remote and rainy island. She begs to go with him, if only for a few months, promising to finally give him up. 'You'll be happy when I leave', she says; 'There are women everywhere' is his half-joking reply. He adds that romance died when the war ended and that they are now too old to live on dreams. However when she falls ill and finally does leave him, he begins to comprehend what indeed he has spurned and lost. As the end title has it:
     "The life of a flower is so brief, yet it must suffer much grief".

With his unobtrusive camera and minimal sets, the film is still far from static, and one becomes deeply concerned about these flawed, yet interesting characters. The lovely music by Ichiro Saito helps to rouse our emotions, from his incorporation of 'The Internationale' to an oriental rendering of "Auld Lang Syne" as the boat departs for their final rainy world.

"Late Chrysanthemums", a reworking of a 1937 film by Mizoguchi, traces the fates and largely miserable lives of four aging ex-geishas in the years following the war. One is a lonely and hard-faced money-lender, one an incorrigible drunkard, and the other two lead typically hardscrabble lives, watching the ungrateful children they have sacrificed to raise marching off to more comfortable futures. It's far from a feel-good film, but beautifully rendered and another fine example of Naruse's concerns. 
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