In the early months of 1969, actress Hideko Takamine journeyed to the home of film director Mikio Naruse, with whom she’d made seventeen movies over the course of twenty-five years. Naruse had been fighting a losing battle with cancer for some time and had recently decided not to be hospitalized again. Perhaps realizing her chances to say goodbye were running out, Takamine paid him a visit and was surprised to find the director talkative and cheery, forthcoming and humorous—the total opposite of the shy, reticent person who’d made such gems as Floating Clouds (1955), When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960), and Lonely Lane (1962).
In thinking back on their time working together, Takamine wrote, “[Naruse] was a person whose refusal to talk was downright malicious. Even during the shooting of a picture, he would never say if something was good or bad, interesting or trite. He was a completely unresponsive director [and] there was never an instance in which he gave me any acting instructions.” Another frequent star in these films, Tatsuya Nakadai, had the same experience, saying, “He was the most difficult director I ever worked for. He never said a word. A real nihilist.” On the set of Untamed in 1957, Takamine finally mustered the courage to ask Naruse for guidance on how to play her character, to which he just answered: “It’ll be over before you know it.”
Hideko Takamine and Tatsuya Nakadai in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960)
These types of recollections were not unshared. Even with the crew, Mikio Naruse tended to be very closed in and antisocial. He’d only prepare one copy of his continuity script and furthermore refused to show it to anyone; when, on rare occasion, someone managed to peek at the forbidden document, he promptly changed the shooting schedule—so that a scene originally to be filmed in eight shots was suddenly completed in just three. Assistants were not to call him “teacher,” and he didn’t even permit them to light his cigarettes, preferring to walk by himself to the studio cafeteria when he ran out of matches.
Of course, not every anecdote was negative. Former assistant Kihachi Okamoto recalled getting a thankful handshake from Naruse on the set of Floating Clouds; and after Okamoto started his own directorial career, Naruse met him with some encouraging advice. “You should stick to your own ideas. If you run from left to right and back again to suit the changing times, the results will be hollow.” Still, the dominant impression from those who knew Naruse was that of a pessimist reluctant to open up to anyone. Hence, Takamine was understandably caught off guard when, on that earlier mentioned 1969 day, she found him in an upbeat, chatty mood. Naruse knew plenty about unhappiness—his father died when he was fifteen; his first marriage ended in divorce; he’d spent much of his life entrenched in poverty—and yet it was in his last few months, when he was fated to endure a slow, painful death, that he at last came out of his shell.
Hideko Takamine and her director on the set of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960)
During their visit, Takamine encouraged her colleague to get well and return to work. She was on her way out the door when Naruse suddenly called her back. “That,” he said. “You know, what we promised. We’ve got to do that, too.” Takamine knew immediately what he was referring to.
Three years earlier, they’d been walking together on the Toho lot, having just finished a scene on the film Hit and Run (1966). Perhaps inspired by their working on a picture loaded with elaborate bourgeoisie sets and noisy scenes of bumper-to-bumper traffic, the usually silent Naruse said: “Hide-chan? Someday, I want [to make a film] with no sets, no color, just a single white curtain as a backdrop. I’d like to show nothing but the drama itself, unfolding before a white backdrop with no impediments…. When I do this, will you act in it for me?”
Takamine doubted such a project could’ve been made at Toho, but in it she recognized Naruse’s dedication to his craft and was honored that he wanted her to be in his dream project. “[E]ven if it was just flattery,” she recalled, “to have been asked […] was for me an honor far beyond what I deserve, a kind of providential good fortune.” After being reminded of this conversation, she told the terminally ill director they would make that movie someday before fleeing from his house, on the verge of tears. “My heart filled with pain, for he was showing me the extraordinary devotion he had for his work, and I had to fight the impulse to throw my arms around him and hug him.” A few months later, Naruse lost his battle with cancer, passing away on July 2, 1969.
In what must’ve been surprising for some, Hideko Takamine was absent at the director’s funeral; and not once in the remaining forty-one years of her own life did she ever visit his grave. As she explained in the 1980s, Takamine did not want her final memory of Naruse to be a stone in a cemetery or him lying in a casket. The image she wanted to hold onto was “that of the healthy-looking face with the gentle smile that I saw when I visited his house in Seijo [District, Tokyo]. […] If I say he lives on in my heart, there is no need for me to trek shamelessly to his grave to make certain of his death.” In closing her remembrances, she pictured Naruse and his friend Yasujiro Ozu (who also died of cancer in the ‘60s) chatting in the world beyond about the de-evolution of Japanese cinema.
An interesting coincidence. A few years back, it dawned on me that the story of Naruse’s passing bears a curious resemblance to the final act of Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952). In both cases, there’s 1) a taciturn man who, after learning he’s sick with cancer, undergoes a change in demeanor, and 2) a funeral with a certain female guest who never showed up. Pure coincidence, of course. Kurosawa, who’d worked under Naruse during his assistant director days, made Ikiru long before his senior was diagnosed with cancer—and there are a multitude of differences between Naruse and Takashi Shimura’s protagonist, differences between Hideko Takamine and the young girl played by Miki Odagiri, etc. But this nonetheless lingers in my mind as an eerie case where certain aspects of life almost seemed to imitate art.
Bock, Audie. Japanese Film Directors. New York: Kodansha International, Ltd., 1978
Bock, Audie (ed.). Mikio Naruse: A Master of Japanese Cinema. Chicago: The Film Center, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 1984