The Discreet Bourgeois

Possessed by an urgency to make sure all this stuff I love doesn't just disappear

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Have You Tried Mikio Naruse?

Mikio Naruse

To celebrate the Akira Kurosawa centennial in 2010, TCM showed almost all of his films.  This appealed mightily to my completist personality, so I taped and watched them all.  I had previously seen some of his famous jidaigeki (historical) films such as Rashomon, Throne of Blood and Seven Samurai, but I had never seen any of his gendaigeki (contemporary) films. Stray Dog, Ikiru and especially High and Low were revelations.

I loaded up my Netflix queue with the Kurosawas that TCM did not show, and in the process became a full-fledged Japanese film obsessive.  I was familiar with Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi films, so I followed up my Kurosawa study with as many of their films as I could find.  Whenever I would add a film by one of these masters to my queue, Netflix would make its inevitable ‘If you liked {fill in film name}, why not try ……..’  The film that kept popping up as a suggestion was When A Woman Ascends The Stairs by Mikio Naruse, a director then unknown to me.  The title sounded ghastly so I kept putting it off until it arrived one day in a wonderful Criterion edition.  I watched it and was astounded.  In fact, I watched it twice in a row, the second time with Donald Richie commentary.

When A Woman Ascends The Stairs tells the story of a ‘mama’ or manager of a nightclub in the Ginza district of Tokyo. The main character, Keiko is relatively young, but is beginning to realize that her days in this profession might be numbered.  We watch her work to find financial and emotional security, before the inevitable day that she is ‘too old’.   This film was my introduction to the luminous Hideko Takamine, who is Naruse’s muse the way Setsuko Hara and Kinuyo Tanaka fill that role for Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, respectively.

hideko takamine

The film combined the restrained sense of Ozu and the feminist sensibility of Mizoguchi and the grittiness of Kurosawa’s gendaideki films, but it was something else again.  After watching it several more times, I was hungry to see as much Naruse as I could.  I was stymied because all that was available in Region 1 format besides When A Woman Ascends The Stairs were Silent Naruse, which I devoured immediately.

The trail for more Naruse went cold until, miraculously, the University of Chicago’s Doc Films had an 11-week series spotlighting the collaboration of Naruse and Takamine.  I was in heaven. Every week was a revelation.  I was amazed and frustrated that such wonderful films were unavailable to the  general public (at least, unavailable to the general public in Region 1!).

Please don’t be annoyed if I recommend a few of these hard-to-see films.  I do have copies of all of them, so you are more than welcome to stop by my place and watch them with me.

1- Lightning (Inazuma)  – 1952


Based on a novel by Fumiko Hayashi, an author that Naruse often turned to, Lightning tells the story of how Kiyoko (Hideko Takamine) subtly but definitively extricates herself from her highly dysfunctional family and finds an idyllic life on her own. The move from her crazy family’s home to an almost magical apartment of her own, next-door to an angelic brother and sister, is depicted so richly.  I love this film

2- Flowing (Nagareru) – 1956


Takamine plays the daughter of the owner of geisha house that is slowly going out of business.  The mother is played by legendary Isuzu Yamada, best known as the terrifying Lady Macbeth equivalent in Throne of Blood. Kinuyo Tanaka is also on hand to provide a Greek chorus for the action.

The unwillingness of the mother and her geisha to come to terms with the fact that the house’s days are numbered, makes for an experience as wrenching as Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard.  A moving film.  Takamine has more of a secondary role here.  The film belongs to Yamada.

3- Daughters, Wives and a Mother (Musume, Tsuma, Haha) – 1960.

This film came out the same year as When A Woman Ascends The Stairs. It is similar in richness and it is in color. The film shows the slow dissolution of a once prosperous family through the negligence and selfishness of the children. The end is heartbreaking. Ozu’s muse Setsuko Hara plays an atypically passive character and Takamine has a small role as a daughter-in-law.  There is one particularly funny scene that comes at the most emotional part of the film.  It involves eating crackers.  That’s all I’m going to say.

So,  please try Naruse.  Some of the other films might be hard to track down but you have no excuse not to see (and love) When A Woman Ascends The Stairs.