Ever since I first learned about Mikio Naruse—I remember very well: during my senior year in college, I happened upon an archived review of 1955’s Floating Clouds, which Vincent Canby of the New York Times described as the work of one of Japan’s best directors—I’ve been disheartened by the general lack of exposure this man’s films have received in the United States and the even scarcer availability of information pertaining to his life and legacy. As of the time of this writing, a mere six Naruse films have acquired stateside DVD releases; ten more are available through Criterion, but only in streaming format; and the number of comprehensive, book-length studies published in English on the director can be counted on one finger. And while my efforts in writing about Naruse over the last couple of years have been primarily out of pleasure, there has always been a certain (perhaps naïve) hope in the back of my mind that my writing about a lesser-known artist might encourage readers of this site to track down a few of his films or, at the very least, explore what Japanese cinema has to offer outside of Godzilla. I know not how successful my efforts have been, but surely to acknowledge these films for even a modicum of interested parties is of greater service than to not acknowledge them at all.
It is similarly for this reason that I took it upon myself to put together a guide on Naruse’s lost movies. (After all, if the extant films struggle to find an audience, how can interest in the non-surviving ones develop without someone shedding light on them?) Naruse directed eighty-nine pictures between 1930 and 1967. Of those eighty-nine, twenty-one have vanished. Nineteen herald from his brisk period of directing silent cinema, and the remaining two preceded what is generally acknowledged as his peak in the 1950s. All were part of a great director’s oeuvre and, as such, are worthy of investigation. This was my sentiment in researching and writing this article. I only hope my efforts will provide, at the very least, a good idea of what the missing films were about and what the experience of watching them might’ve been like. I also took great care to detail historical context—the circumstances under which the films were made and how some of them came to be lost—and hope this will be of interest as well.
And now, to extend my thanks to the authors and film historians whose individual research efforts into the lost films of Mikio Naruse made all of this possible. What you are about to read consists of data collected from various sources published in various countries—amassed and put together into a single document for easy accessibility. Everything is, unless directly quoted, my own words, but let it be known the truly hard work was carried out—decades ago, in most cases—by people far more authoritative than myself.
First and foremost, there’s Audie Bock, who, along with Catherine Russell, has done more to share information about Naruse with western audiences than any other American critic; her French language book on the director, simply titled Mikio Naruse, offered not only a guide as to the order and release dates of his films but also presented a window into how Japanese film critics responded to them at the time of their release. Russell’s colossal study on Naruse, The Cinema of Naruse Mikio: Women and Japanese Modernity, detailed the various career stages in which these films were made and was, in its own way, equally valuable. Another French book, Jean Narboni’s Mikio Naruse: The Uncertain Times, provided the backbone for almost all of the plot descriptions. I’ve praised, on many past occasions, Kyoko Hirano’s excellent Mr. Smith Goes to Tokyo: Japanese Cinema Under the Occupation, and I praise it once more, as her findings remained useful in contextualizing the Japanese film industry as it existed in the 1940s. Mark Schilling’s Shiro Kido: Cinema Shogun helped flesh out some context regarding Naruse’s relationship with Shochiku studio boss Shiro Kido. Major credit goes to Peter B. High’s The Imperial Screen: Japanese Film Culture in the Fifteen Years’ War, 1931-1945 for the lush information on 1945’s Until Victory Day, the one Toho film covered here. High’s book was an unexpected treasure in that it was not something I initially intended to use for this article; it just happened to be what I was reading in evenings before bed; and yet, it ended up containing the most information on the one film that, frankly, justifies this article’s presence here on Toho Kingdom in the first place. (A happy coincidence this happened to be my “for-fun” book at the same time I was conducting research.) A smattering of other resources were used to fill in certain details and are noted where applied.
Last but most certainly not least, I wish to thank my friend and colleague Erik Homenick, webmaster of akiraifukube.org, whose expertise on the French language provided authoritative translations of the more difficult material in the Bock and Narboni texts regarding the films Hard Times (1930), Until Victory Day (1945), and Delinquent Girl (1949).
Mikio Naruse came to P.C.L. (Photo Chemical Laboratory—the antecedent of Toho) in 1934, after a suffocating fourteen-year stint at rival film studio Shochiku, where he’d received less than stellar treatment. Right away, excitement began to build as people in both the creative and critical fields eagerly awaited his next project. For Naruse, pleasure came in realizing that his joining P.C.L. came with a nice bump in pay and that his producers had taken the liberty of acquiring for him the rights to a novel by esteemed author Yasunari Kawabata (which would serve as the basis for his 1935 film Three Sisters with Maiden Hearts). Also in Naruse’s favor and especially of interest to the critics was the fact that his changing studios also signified his transition from silent cinema to sound cinema. The director had never been given the chance to work with sound during his time at Shochiku, but he would work exclusively in this medium from here on out. He would also remain loyal to this studio, staying with them through their fateful August 1937 merge (in which P.C.L. consolidated with other filmmaking companies, the amalgamation christened Toho) and directed almost every single one of his subsequent movies under their banner. Though he occasionally made films for other companies such as Daiei and Shin-Toho, with one very slight exception in 1950*, he would never again return to the production house where his career had started; and in articulating the record, one can easily see why.
Examining the behind-the-scenes narrative of Naruse’s early career is both frustrating and fascinating. On the fascinating side, here was a director who, pretty early on, started leaving notable footprints within his industry. For one thing, he practically made a star out of actress Sumiko Mizukubo, introducing her to audiences with his 1932 film Moth-eaten Spring, itself chosen by Kinema Jumpo magazine as the sixth best Japanese film of the year**. In 1933, two more films—Every-Night Dreams and Apart from You—respectively occupied the #3 and #4 rankings on the same publication’s “Best Ten” list. Critics championed his rhythm and sensitivity. He befriended and was openly supported by colleagues at Shochiku. Later films saw him adapting respected novels; and in time, he was directing young starlets such as Kinuyo Tanaka and Sumiko Kurishima.
And yet—swinging to the frustrating side of the equation—despite all of the above mentioned accolades, he remained coldly regarded by the front office: an attitude which had seemingly and mercilessly been geared at him from the beginning. Naruse came to Shochiku in 1920 at a time when most employees at this particular studio could rise to director’s status within a few years (Yoshinobu Ikeda, for instance, made his first movie after a single year’s employment). But Naruse himself didn’t receive his sought-after promotion for, literally, a full decade. For ten agonizing years, he was confined, first to the prop department and later as an assistant (often to people who had joined the studio long after him), the stress of waiting while his colleagues continually advanced past him proving so unbearable that he came within inches of tendering his resignation. And when, at last, he moved into the director’s chair, it was at the insistence that he film a script written by studio boss Shiro Kido, the man solely responsible for stalling his promotion in the first place.
Ginza Cosmetics (1951) screenwriter Matsuo Kishi once voiced his suspicion that the head of the studio simply disliked Naruse on a personal level and that he may have intentionally made professional life difficult for him on this basis alone. And while no account in my recollection has ever proven genuine hostility, Kido certainly didn’t refrain from dismissing Naruse’s storytelling, labeling him a second-string Yasujiro Ozu (“We don’t need two Ozus,” he famously said). Unsurprisingly, and perhaps because of this, Kido regularly assigned Naruse material for which he was ill-suited; he shelved two completed films for months at a time; and, in what placed the proverbial final straw that broke the camel’s back, the studio boss declined Naruse’s request to adapt a Fumiko Hayashi novel he very much wanted to film. Add to all of this the fact that Naruse spent his entire tenure at Shochiku on a miserable pay grade of less than ¥100 a month and one can easily understand his wish to move to a company where his intelligence and talents might be respected.***
Having said that, it’s strangely—for lack of a better word—“expected” that the majority of Naruse’s missing films should come from his rather unhappy years directing at Shochiku.
The five silent Naruse movies that Criterion released in 2011 as part of their Eclipse series are the only such films of his which survive; the other nineteen he made fell victim to a cinematic holocaust that wiped out—it is estimated—96% of all Japanese silent films. Between poor preservation systems, catastrophic damage brought down upon the studios during the second world war, and additional factors****, the legacies of vintage Japanese cinema and the people who made it possible suffered irreparable harm. (As Donald Richie so eloquently wrote in The Japan Times in 2000, “Even in a medium where two-thirds of all silent cinema is lost […] the destruction of early Japanese cinema is extraordinary.”) As such, all that remains of the films under discussion are critical reviews, plot details, behind-the-scenes factoids, and the occasional comment from the director himself.
Mr. and Mrs. Swordplay
Release date: January 15, 1930
Running time: 21 min
Chaos momentarily erupts at the home of Hachiro Momogawa (Hisao Yoshitani) when a café waitress named Eiko (Nobuko Wakaba) shows up at the front door and asks to speak with his wife (Mitsuko Yoshikawa). Rash assumptions are forged and the two women engage in an intense scuffle. The trouble ends when Eiko reveals she merely came to collect the debt Hachiro still owes to the café. Hachiro’s wife, suddenly relieved, pays the money, and Hachiro himself settles his nerves by going to the movies. (The movie he sees, incidentally, is The Husband’s Fight, an actual Shochiku movie from the same time period.)
This burlesque comedy, set during the Japanese New Year, comes from a screenplay credited to Haruo Akaho (the penname of studio boss Shiro Kido). Naruse cast the actors immediately after receiving the script, scouted out locations the following day, and then proceeded to shoot the entire thing nonstop over a period of thirty-six hours, after which he promptly collapsed from exhaustion; editing was completed by his friend and mentor, Heinosuke Gosho. In his review for Kinema Jumpo, film critic Akira Okamura expressed reservations with the script but otherwise championed Mr. and Mrs. Swordplay as a very promising directorial debut.
Release date: February 14, 1930
Running time: 45 min
Otsuta Takeda (Mitsuko Takao) spends her days toiling in the fields near the small mountain town where her impoverished family resides. A routine existence…until the day the local teacher comes forward with his belief that Otsuta’s brother Keichi (Shoichi Kofujita) is a very bright student who should continue his studies after primary school. Unfortunately, the Takeda family is in such poor financial shape they cannot afford to pay for tuition. This doesn’t deter Otsuta, who takes it upon herself to move to the capital, where she can get a better job and start saving money for her brother’s schooling; also, she’s been harboring a desire to become a city-dweller like her childhood friend (Hatsuko Tsukioka), so this is an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. Keichi insists he’s fine with the status quo, but Otsuta’s made up her mind. The film ends with the sister boarding a train destined for Tokyo.
Naruse mentioned in a 1960 interview that this medium-length picture, released on Valentine’s Day thirty years earlier, exhibited a mature style comparable to that of his later work. His colleague, Yasujiro Ozu, was greatly impressed with Pure Love, proclaiming: “Someone who can do that well on only his second film has real directorial strength.”
Release date: May 2, 1930
Running time: 26 min
A man (Tatsuo Saito) and his son (Tomio Aoki) are out for a walk with their dog, Poochie, when the father starts contemplating whether their four-legged friend might be able to help them make some money. During their walk, they stumble upon an advertisement for dogs, and the father comes up with the idea of stealing and reselling other peoples’ pets for gain. They attempt to steal a puppy from an affluent home, only to get caught by the young girl of the family (Hiroko Kawasaki). The girl’s father (Takeshi Sakamoto) arrives on the scene and agrees to give the would-be crooks money if they leave them alone. After being reprimanded by his son, the father returns the cash, and the duo continues their journey down the street, penniless once more.
A Record of Shameless Newlyweds
Release date: August 29, 1930
Running time: 37min
In the late 1920s, a new comedic genre exploded within Japanese film. As Donald Richie and Joseph L. Anderson write in their book The Japanese Film – Art and Industry, “nonsense” comedies featured “little to no sense whatever, amusing happenings, one thing tacked onto the other, something ludicrous—though not often slapstick—for its own sake” and “[t]he characters cavorted and chased each other across the screen with very little regard for plot, characterization, or motive.” The genre instantly gained an audience thanks to “the vast number of naughtily erotic or purposely frivolous novels […] which, if it could not make full-scale tragedy out of the most minute of personal experiences, could at least create a comedy out of nothing at all.” In other words, these films capitalized on a taste already provoked by other forms of media.
Richie and Anderson categorize, in that same book, A Record of Shameless Newlyweds as a “nonsense sex comedy.” The story concerns Sabuko (Hisao Yoshitani), a blue-collar worker in a textile factory who falls in love with a woman named Aiko (Midori Matsuba). Too shy to confess his feelings, he asks his friend Yuji (Teruo Mori) to arrange a double-date with Aiko and one of her friends (Mariko Aoyama). While the group is out together, Yuji finds himself alone with Aiko and reveals to her his friend’s secret longing. But then, Aiko confesses she’s in love, too, but not with Sabuko; the man she loves is, in fact, Yuji. Upon learning the girl of his desires is infatuated with his friend, Sabuko runs away.
A Record of Shameless Newlyweds was actually the third movie Naruse directed—he shot it after Pure Love—but the studio withheld it from release for several months. Naruse himself considered it a failure and took full blame for ruining what he described as a very good script by Tadao Ikeda.
Love is Strength
Release date: August 29, 1930
Running time: 65min
Toshio (Ichiro Yuki), the son of a sensonarikin (a person of affluence who earned their fortune during wartime), is to marry Teruko (Hiroko Kawasaki) of the wealthy Yanagida family, their forthcoming matrimony having been arranged by their kin and not by affection for one another. Toshio leads a reckless and frivolous life, his spare time eaten up by booze, parties, and games. That is, until he happens to visit Café Showa and meets one of its waitresses, a pretty orphan named Chiyoko (Shizue Tatsuta). Smitten, he becomes inspired to take up a job in his father’s business and start leading a responsible life. A happy ending’s achieved when the Yanagida family agrees to adopt Chiyoko. She and Toshio are then permitted to marry, and Teruko weds her true love (Shin’ichiro Izawa).
Released on the same day as A Record of Shameless Newlyweds, this melodrama had also been shelved for some time, though it’s not clear whether Naruse started working on it before or after Hard Times. The picture opened to mixed and negative reviews.
It is also possible the reason these two films were shelved was because Shiro Kido often liked to shelve even quality work by fledgling directors in order to prevent them from becoming overly confident.
Now, Do Not Get Excited!
Release date: February 7, 1931
Running time: 15min
The title is in reference to one of the main characters: a sailor with a tendency to faint whenever he becomes nervous or excited. One day, when his ship is at port, our agitation-prone hero, Yokoyama (Tomio Yokoo), and his fellow mariner Sano (Eiran Yoshikawa) take leave and disembark into town. During their stopover, they witness a man purloining a woman’s handbag. Yokoyama chases after the thief while Sano stays behind to comfort—and seduce—the victim, quickly winning her over. Having failed to catch the thief, Yokoyama returns to the scene of the crime, whereupon he suddenly becomes agitated—envy to the core over his friend’s way with the ladies—and collapses, unconscious. Sano abandons his friend in favor of accompanying the woman to the bar where she works. Yokoyama regains consciousness and follows, running into the purse-snatcher along the way. After winning a scuffle with the thief, the victorious sailor finds himself surrounded by a plethora of women applauding his heroics…and he faints again. Sano puts his friend in a rickshaw and they return to the port, only to discover they overstayed their leave—the ship is leaving without them! The film ends with the two sailors hopping into a rowboat and frantically paddling after their ship.
Kinema Jumpo’s Jun’ichiro Tomota, who had given a mixed review to Love is Strength, labeled this offering one of the best-made “nonsense” comedies. In his review, Tomota further suggested the filmmakers might’ve been influenced by Hollywood comedies starring Sammy Cohen and Ted McNamara.
Screams from the Second Floor
Release date: May 29, 1931
Running time: 30min
In writing this picture (the first time he was allowed to shoot one of his own scripts*****), Naruse drew from his own experiences. At the time, he was living with a family of sushi proprietors, occupying the second floor over their shop (and, some years down the road, he would return to live with them, after the collapse of his first marriage). The protagonist of this picture is an unemployed man named Yagi (Isamu Yamaguchi), who resides on the second floor of a family somewhat better off than him. Because he has no money, Yagi earns his keep performing mundane chores: shopping, babysitting, etc. Eventually, he finds work and leaves the house but is quickly begged to come back after Mr. Hosokawa (Hisao Yoshitani) receives a letter of dismissal from his company. Much of the story focuses on tension between Yagi and Hosokawa’s wife (Nobuko Wakaba), who doesn’t want a non-paying guest in the house.
Fickleness Gets on the Train
Release date: August 15, 1931
Running time: 32min
Struggling with creative block and unable to find work, a painter named Murayama (Isamu Yamaguchi) decides to take his wife (Tomoki Naniwa) and their son (Masao Hayama) on a trip. Their destination: the fishing village where his in-laws live. On the train ride over, they run into an office worker and his wife. Engaging in conversation, Murayama and his spouse conjure up a fantasy, bragging about an affluent lifestyle they do not have, trying to impress their fellow passengers. Unbeknownst to them at the time, their companions, in telling their own “story,” are doing the same thing. The couples exchange lies, making one another envious of luxuries that, in reality, none of them possess. By chance, they meet again in the aforementioned fishing village, whereupon everyone realizes the fickleness of everyone’s dishonesty. And then, as though karma’s seeking to rub salt in the wound, Murayama’s turned away by his in-laws as they already have a tenant and cannot accommodate any other guests at the time. Dejected and disappointed, the painter and his family hop on the first train back to Tokyo.
The Strength of a Mustache
Release date: October 16, 1931
Running time: 32min
Naruse’s penultimate film of 1931 bears certain similarities to Ozu’s The Lady and the Beard from the same year in that the narrative comically focuses on facial hair and how it affects one’s social image and relation to others. In this case, Kato (Ken’ichi Miyajima) is a working class father who boasts a very fine mustache—an adornment which draws admiration from his son and envy from his boss (Reiko Tani). After his employer fails to grow comparably chic facial hair, Kato’s ordered to shave or else lose his job—and then he loses his job anyway after his son gets into a fight with the boss’s son. To remedy the situation, Kato strips his upper lip of hair and presents to the boss a “miracle lotion.” With this, the boss succeeds in growing some nice whiskers, and Kato gets his job back—though his son no longer reveres him like he used to.
According to Audie Bock’s book on Naruse, the script originally called for a different ending. As initially penned, the boss was to return the “miracle lotion” to Kato rather than accepting it. No explanation is given as to why the studio opted to change this denouement, though Kinema Jumpo reviewer Shigeru Wadayama felt it lessened the impact of the ending (he otherwise championed the film, comparing it to Flunky! Work Hard).
Under the Neighbor’s Roof
Release date: November 28, 1931
Running time: 34min
Another “nonsense” comedy, this time about mutual assumptions of adultery between a married couple. After catching her husband buying a shawl, Hamako (Tomoko Naniwa) assumes the item being purchased is for her spouse’s pretty secretary (Masako Kiyokawa) and moves out in a huff. In turn, the husband, Aoyama (Shigeru Ogura), suspects his wife’s up to some philandering of her own, as the apartment building she moves into is the same one occupied by his colleague, Machida (Kan Ikki); he even climbs onto the roof of the building to keep an eye on them. In the end, the couple reconciles and Hamako returns home.
Ladies, Be Careful of Your Sleeves
Release date: January 29, 1932
Running time: 28min
An unmarried office worker named Tabe (Kenji Oyama), who’s a little on the hefty side, has a habit of slipping love letters into the sleeves of women he finds attractive. But sometimes the letters end up in the hands of people for whom they were not intended, leading to hysterical results. Tabe’s antics take a turn for the humiliating when one of the letters finds its way into his boss’s daughter’s purse. Immediately fearful of losing his job, he makes a vain effort to get the letter back, crashing into a statue in the process. Giving up, he goes home, only to find a woman waiting for him. But instead of the boss’s pretty daughter, it’s an unsightly typist (Shizue Heito); she, too, accidentally received one of his love letters, and now she’s moved into his apartment. The film ends with Tabe envisioning the years ahead, right up to his funeral.
Eiga Hyoron magazine critic Shun’ichi Sugimoto described this film as one of the best of the “nonsense” genre.
Crying to the Blue Sky
Release date: March 10, 1932
Running time: 53min
Reuniting with the screenwriter of Pure Love (Ayame Mizushima), Naruse once again tells a story about a bond between brother and sister, albeit this one concludes with a tragic finish. Kikue (Mitsuko Takao) and her younger brother Eiichi (Hideo Sugawara) have lived with their uncle (Shoichi Nodera) since the death of their parents. One day, Kikue decides to leave for Tokyo to find work. Eiichi asks his elder sister to bring him back a gift: a toy airplane. She agrees. Some time after his sister’s departure, Eiichi falls into the river while fighting with another boy and comes down with a deadly case of pneumonia. In Tokyo, Kikue receives a telegram that her brother’s prognosis is not good; she quickly buys the model airplane he asked for and hurries home—but it’s too late. With her brother dead and her heart broken, the dejected sister somberly walks to the river, sets the toy upon the water’s surface, and watches as it’s carried away by the current.
Release date: April 15, 1932
Running time: 39min
Yamano (Shigeru Ogura) is a poor office worker who cannot afford to buy his son the toy kite he wants. One day, he and his wife (Tomoko Naniwa) receive an unexpected visit from a couple who’ve invited themselves over for dinner. To get them to leave, they lie, claiming to be in the process of housecleaning—and scramble to cancel the food they’d asked be delivered to their address. Later on, their son, Shin’ichi, is pushed into a puddle by another boy. While cleaning his clothes, the parents think back to much happier times: when they were newlyweds, frolicking on the beach, dragging sand between their fingers. (All they have now is cold ash in the stove—perhaps a crude metaphor for the way poverty has diminished their passion.) The film ends with the couple encouraging their son to become someone important—someone great!—and thereby avoid a life in poverty.
Naruse compared this to his earlier Flunky! Work Hard. Shigeru Wadayama, writing in Kinema Jumpo, showered the film with glowing comments, describing it as a “psychological nonsense film” done to perfection. Less enthusiastic was Eiga Hyoron’s Shun’ichi Sugimoto, who deemed the movie too similar to Ozu’s I Was Born, But… (1932). The box office was in this film’s favor, and Naruse moved on to direct what just might’ve been the first great movie of his career.
Release date: May 27, 1932
Running time: 103min
After the success of Be Great!, Naruse was entrusted to adapt a novel by respected author Kan Kikuchi and, with this promotion, scored a number of career milestones. In addition to being able to adapt something by an esteemed writer, he was permitted for the first time to shoot a picture of feature length (everything he’d made up to this point consisted of shorts and medium-length productions). And the film—in what was also a first for the director—was saluted by Kinema Jumpo in their annual “Best Ten” list, ranking at #6. Printed some months earlier in the same magazine was a review by Fuyuhiko Kitagawa, who applauded Naruse’s success with a “difficult adaptation,” his capturing the psychology of the young bourgeois, the Soviet-influenced editing, and the direction of the actors.
Speaking of which, Moth-eaten Spring also marked the screen debut and essentially made a star of Sumiko Mizukubo, an actress whose career spanned a mere three years but which nonetheless granted her the opportunity to work with a number of Japan’s finest directors. In addition to three more collaborations with Naruse, she acted under the guidance of such people as Hiroshi Shimizu, Yasujiro Shimazu, Heinosuke Gosho, Hiroshi Inagaki, and Yoshinobu Ikeda. She also had a sizable role in Ozu’s excellent Dragnet Girl (1933), as the record store girl of whom the shadier characters are universally enamored. (Image of Mizukubo, in the Ozu film, seen to the left.)
In Moth-eaten Spring, Mizukubo plays the youngest of three sisters in a family saddled with an uncertain future. The father’s poor business practices have wrecked their financial stability, and his attempt to bribe an official results in him becoming incarcerated and, later, committing suicide. The loss of their parent affects the three daughters in different ways. Kazuko (Kinuko Wakamizu), the eldest, calls off her engagement in order to assume responsibility for the entire family. The middle daughter, Kumiko (Yumeko Aizome), sinks into a state of depression when her fiancé hears of the suicide and breaks up with her. As for Kasumi (Sumiko Mizukubo), the youngest, she takes a job to help make ends meet and later becomes engaged to the nephew of a businessman. Learning about her sibling’s engagement exacerbates Kasumi’s state of mind and she attempts to seduce Kazuko’s former lover. But the young man, still in love with Kazuko, rejects her advances.
Release date: August 26, 1932
Running time: 56min
Based on an award-winning novel by Ryuji Nagami (who also penned the screenplay), this project was brought to Naruse’s attention by Kogo Noda, Ozu’s regular co-screenwriter. The director described it as a combination of the various genres he’d worked with and furthermore labeled the finished product his best film up to that point. In terms of a narrative, it certainly shares much in common with Naruse’s best-known movies: divides between upper and lower classes, issues pertaining to money, a denouement in which the main character doesn’t receive the happiness she wanted but tries to endure life all the same, etc.
Sumiko Mizukubo, who’d exploded into popularity after the release of Moth-eaten Spring, is promoted to lead. Here, she plays Mieko, a young woman whose life changes after she’s invited to accompany rich student Mizushima (Koji Kaga) to an upper class party. At the get-together, Mieko proves a rousing success with the boys and a source of jealousy for the other girls. The next day, two of the girls show up at Mieko’s workplace, sneering at her—and on their way out, they leave her a tip (a practice virtually unheard of in Japan, even to this day—and which can be interpreted as an insult). Mieko later learns Mizushima is to wed a girl his father has chosen for him; and when she gets home that night, her mother and uncle announce they’ve arranged a match for her as well. Surrendering to their will and giving up the man she loves, Mieko allows time and society to take their course. The film ends with her boarding a Tokyo-bound train, her hair now arranged in the marumage (the knotted hairstyle identified with married women in Japan).
Kinema Jumpo’s Shigeru Wadayama praised Naruse’s editing and his sympathy for the lower class, though he was turned off by the “excessive sadness” of the picture’s finale.
The Scenery of Tokyo with Cake
Release date: 1932
Running time: Unknown
Little is known about this advertisement film other than it was produced for the still-extant snack food company Meiji Seika. Whether Naruse used crew and equipment from Shochiku or if Meiji Seika provided everything for him remains unknown.
My Bride’s Hairstyle
Release date: September 21, 1933
Running time: 75min
A light comedy written for Sumiko Mizukubo, My Bride’s Hairstyle was met with approval from studio head Shiro Kido, who deemed it one of Naruse’s “greatest achievements.” A rare compliment, and one perhaps explainable in that this particular movie seemed to possess little in the way of semblance to Naruse’s last few films. The happy ending, for instance, is completely unlike the sad—even tragic—denouements found in Every-Night Dreams and Chocolate Girl. In any case, the studio boss’s affinity was not shared by Naruse himself. To him, My Bride’s Hairstyle was a big wad of mediocrity and not something he looked back on very fondly. Kinema Jumpo’s Tadahisa Murakami reciprocated this sentiment when he panned the film, blaming Kido for relegating a poor subject to such a talented and capable (and proven) director.
Mizukubo plays Toshiko, the love interest of Matsui (Mitsugu Fujii), who has been infatuated with her since they were children and who finds himself close to her again when he becomes employed at her workplace. Unfortunately for him, the boss of the company also has designs on Toshiko. Because their employer has been deliberately making things difficult for Matsui, both he and Toshiko agree to quit the company together. But love and roses ever after has not been ascertained yet: Toshiko’s parents want her to return home and marry a suitor of their choice. While on a picnic, Matsui notices Toshiko’s styled her hair in the marumage: seemingly a sign he’s going to lose her. In the end, though, he lands a good job and is permitted to marry the woman of his dreams. Matsui and Toshiko live happily ever after.
Release date: December 7, 1933
Running time: 107min
Now in the twilight of his Shochiku years, Naruse was granted the chance to work with Kinuyo Tanaka (already one of the major stars of Japanese cinema). Given his feelings that the project was not his kind of film and much closer to the melodramas Yasujiro Ozu and Hiroshi Shimizu specialized in, Naruse tried to make it stand out by employing techniques influenced by veteran craftsman Hotei Nomura. (Shiro Kido labeled Two Eyes a “big film.”)
Yoshiko (Kinuyo Tanaka) and Naeko (Yumeko Aizome), the daughters of political rivals, have maintained their friendship in spite of the bad blood between their fathers—and in spite of the fact that they’re in love with the same man. Both women are infatuated with Sunaga (Joji Oka), but since they don’t want to jeopardize their friendship, they mutually agree not to pursue him. That is, until the day Naeko discovers that Sunaga has romantic feelings for Yoshiko—at which point she conjures up a story that her friend’s already betrothed. Meantime, Yoshiko’s father is ordered to pay a fine for attempted bribery and, lacking the capital, instructs his daughter to marry the son of a rich family. Unwilling to take the fall for her father’s lawbreaking, Yoshiko leaves home, taking a job in sales—at the same company, it so happens, where Sunaga works. Both of them are chosen to model for a pretend wedding at the store and are subsequently spotted by Naeko, who confuses the mock ceremony for the real thing. Yoshiko learns her father has been jailed, and the daughter reluctantly agrees to marry the rich suitor in order to spare her father of prison time. But when she returns home, she discovers Naeko has already married the young man, leaving her and Sunaga free to be together.
The film was based on a novel by Masao Kume, which Kinema Jumpo’s Fuyuhiko Kitagawa deemed well beneath the author’s usual standards and certainly beneath Naruse’s, as he expressed in his vicious, hostility-laden review. The critic wasn’t enthused with Naruse’s Nomura-inspired techniques, either, passing off bits of frantic camera movement intended to emphasize emotion. In the end, Kitagawa only commended the performances by Tanaka and Oka and offered his hope that Naruse would return to filming original scripts and find something closer in quality to Apart from You and Every-Night Dreams.
Happy New Year!
Release date: December 21, 1933
Running time: Unknown
Naruse’s penultimate silent film, of which there seems to be no extant information.
On April 26 of the following year, the director released his last picture for Shochiku, the dull and mediocre Street without End (1934), which survives today. Filmed from a script that no one at the studio wanted to touch, the project had been accepted by Naruse on the condition that he would be allowed to make whatever he wanted for his next movie. Alas—and not unexpectedly—Shiro Kido didn’t uphold his end of the bargain, denying Naruse the chance to adapt Fumiko Hayashi’s novel Fallen Woman, and the director made his fateful move to P.C.L. that same year. Interviewed decades later on the subject by Audie Bock, Kido denied having ever held any personal grudge against Naruse and even admitted he shouldn’t have let him leave the studio—though he nonetheless claimed he’d never cared much for Naruse’s aesthetic.
Film censorship had played a role in Japan since the early 20th century; although, in the beginning, it was mostly implemented in policing foreign imports (and usually to gauge respect for the Imperial House). The prime example of this practice concerns the French film The Reign of King Louis XVI (1905) and what needed to be done to get it shown in Japanese theaters. When the picture came to Japan in 1908, it was initially banned due to a key scene in which the common people rose up in arms against their king. Even though the sequence depicted French townsfolk rebelling against French monarchs, authorities in Japan did not like the idea of popular entertainment showing rebellion against royalty of any kind; what if such a scene inspired radicals to attempt something similar against the Emperor? In the end, due to pressure from exhibitors to show the film in some capacity, reworked dialogue (read aloud by benshi******) and a new title—The Curious Story of North America: The Cave King—sufficiently changed things up so that the French monarchs became American bandits and the film was passed for distribution. The domineering interest, in these days, was to preserve a very pure image of Japan and avoid provoking subversive thinking. And it was this sort of censorship that was maintained and then expanded when, on April 15, 1939, the government set the Film Law loose on the motion picture industry.
Provoked by the Sino-Japan Incident of 1937 and modeled after the Spitzenorganisation der Filmwirstchaft program of Nazi Germany, the Film Law set out not only to keep the Emperor’s image pure but to also “promote the quality of film and the sound development of the film industry so that films can contribute to the nation’s cultural development.” Essentially outlawed was anything that “might hamper the enlightenment and propaganda basic to the exercise of national policy.”
Conditions intensified with the rise of World War II; and in 1940, the Ministry of Affairs implemented a new set of censorship rules. Slice-of-life films promoting individual happiness were banned, to be replaced by stories embodying feudalistic values (read: absolute loyalty to the government). Movies showcasing industrial productivity fell into favor. Comedians and satirists received instructions to tone down their act. And, most notably, the government sought to advocate the making of “national movies of healthy entertainment value with themes showing persons ready to serve.” From this came a slew of jingoistic national policy films, including Yutaka Abe’s Flaming Sky (1940), Eiichi Koishi’s Soaring Passion (1941), Kajiro Yamamoto’s The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya (1942), and Kunio Watanabe’s Toward the Decisive Battle in the Sky (1943). Films which essentially came to represent Japanese populist cinema in the early 1940s due to their sheer quantity and the profits they reaped.*******
Of course, movies on other subjects were still possible, provided they operated within certain parameters. In regards to Naruse, he for the most part managed to avoid making propaganda, though some of his films in the late 1930s and early ‘40s contained little glimpses of Japan’s political climate. His 1939 film Sincerity concludes with one of the characters receiving a draft notice. In A Face from the Past (1941), parents recognize their son as one of the soldiers in a military newsreel. More overt politicization appeared in Shanghai Moon (1941), a film which still exists (albeit in fragmented form) and stars Isuzu Yamada as a terrorist who infiltrates a pro-Japan propaganda radio station, cannot bring herself to kill its occupants, and is done away with by her fellow terrorists.
Yet another case of unambiguous propaganda appeared in Naruse’s Until Victory Day, his last movie before the surrender of Japan to the Allied Powers; the only film in his Toho repertoire which, it seems, has vanished from the face of the earth.
Until Victory Day
Release date: January 25, 1945
Running time: 59min
Well before the release of this film, it had become unmistakably clear Japan would end up on the losing side of the war. A reality that was steadily making itself felt within the entertainment industry. Film stock was running short on supply. Nearly one thousand movie theaters either ceased operation, converted into facilities for other uses, or perished completely in the Allied air raids. Studio structures endured damage, sound stages reduced in number, budgets shrank, and it wasn’t unheard of for editors to drop what they were doing in the sudden arrival of an attack and rush to the shelter with all the footage they could carry. So rather than turn out huge, special effects-laden projects like The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya, the studios, still under the control of the government, opted to make small-scale movies with nationalistic and jingoistic themes. (Akira Kurosawa’s The Most Beautiful, about patriots employed in a war factory, functioned as a replacement project for a fighter pilot movie which had recently fallen through.) In addition, comedians were still welcome to employ restricted doses of their personalities for the screen—especially in feel-good entertainments that supported the military, or movies designed specifically to entertain soldiers. Films of the latter category could sometimes attain funding from the militarists themselves, as was the case with Mikio Naruse’s Until Victory Day.
Described by its director as a project utterly lacking narrative coherency and made for the purpose of amusing troops on the front, this comedy venture had been funded by the Imperial Japanese Navy, allowing Toho to take a breather in terms of expenses. The sheer ridiculousness of the plot was described in Nihon Eiga magazine: “A scientist invents an ‘entertainment bomb.’ When it explodes, various kinds of acts and comedy routines come popping out. The ‘bomb’ is detonated in front of soldiers and sailors on a lonely South Sea island, bringing unexpected joy to their hearts.” Originally, the film was to be directed by Tadashi Imai, but a conscription notice and a summons to the front prevented him from taking the job (one wonders, therefore, if he was among the soldiers who saw this movie while on duty overseas).
Perhaps to give the target audience a sense of home, Toho went the distance in cramming Until Victory Day with recognizable faces. In addition to comedians Ken’ichi Enomoto (better known by his stage name, Enoken) and Roppa Furukawa, the entertainers who came out of the rocket included well-known actresses such as Isuzu Yamada, Setsuko Hara, Hideko Takamine, and Yukiko Todokori. Another familiar presence was former benshi Musei Tokugawa, who reflected the general attitude toward the picture in an interview many years later: “[Y]ou could actually feel the approach of [Japan’s] inevitable defeat in the utter imbecility of the storyline. The fact that it had been directly commissioned by the navy made it all the more pathetic.”
The circumstances under which Until Victory Day and many other Japanese national policy films became lost were as diverse as they were devastating. A sizable number vanished in the same poor preservation systems and the same firebombing raids responsible for whittling down Japan’s silent cinema legacy. Others were confiscated and subsequently destroyed by the victorious Allied Forces. Still others were lost when film studios, perhaps anticipating censorship from the Americans, exterminated copies of various films in their possession. Toho, for example, burned every last trace of the 1945 film I Believe I Am Being Followed. Unless a copy was hidden in secret and has yet to turn up, this particular film is gone forever, wiped away by its own creators.
Of course, not every nationalistic film extant in Japan at the time was obliterated. In some cases, the Americans chose to collect certain films rather than destroy them and send them to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. for study and preservation. In other cases, studio staffers stowed away copies until such a time when the films could be shown again. (Toho’s studio boss, Iwao Mori, assigned a select few employees to bury prints of eight national policy films until the Americans vacated. The interred reels were never discovered by the occupying forces, and the films survived to be run again.) But it appears such favorable circumstances did not befall Until Victory Day. It remains classified as a lost film. Over the years, I’ve come across scant rumors on the internet claiming about fifteen minutes of the picture still exist today; but these sources, lacking corroboration, don’t offer much in the way of hope or credibility.
The final missing film in Naruse’s oeuvre comes from an era in which Toho was experiencing intense political unrest. In the early years of the occupation, when the Americans first set out to “westernize” and “democratize” the Land of the Rising Sun, organized labor was heartily encouraged to the Japanese (the hope being that encouraging working class people to demand better perks from their employers would help weed out allegiance-oriented sentiments prevalent during the war—see my article on Kurosawa’s Those Who Make Tomorrow for more detail). And seeing as how Toho possessed the strongest labor union among the studios, theirs was naturally the one which took the most noteworthy actions.
Between the years of 1946 and 1948, the unionists at Toho conducted a total of three strikes, resulting in a few positive changes (such as increased wages) and a vast quantity of negative consequences. Over the course of these events, most of the major stars under contact left the studio, alternate unions came into existence, the short-lived and incompetently managed Shin-Toho was formed, fewer Toho movies were produced, and in what constituted the third and final strike, the studio shut down completely for 134 days. For more than a third of the year, unionists occupied the studio grounds, holding off their employers and the police with, among other things, barbed wire and firehoses. In the end, it required the presence of the United States military—a dispatch of troops, three aircraft, and seven tanks—to coerce the unionists to yield.
Naruse’s participation in this tumultuous chapter seems to have been minimal. He did join an “Artist’s Group” demanding the resignation of Toho’s anticommunist executives but apart from that kept a low profile, became an independent director, and took work wherever he could find it. He made no movies in 1948, instead directing for the stage, and the few films he directed shortly thereafter were produced by other production companies. One of those companies was Toyoko Eiga, for whom he made the last movie under discussion.
Studio: Toyoko Eiga
Release date: March 29, 1949
Running time: 72min
The story concerns a pair of schoolgirls, Eiko (Yoshiko Kuga) and Tamie (Michiko Aizome). Tamie, the daughter of an English teacher, passes her exams and takes a job in an insurance company; Eiko, the daughter of a single parent, flunks out and begins the life of a delinquent, hanging around bars with a dubious class of people. Tamie, whose life has become dull and drab, feels a surge of envy for her schoolmate’s newfound lifestyle. Both girls experience an assortment of troubles related to men and money, and by the end, Tamie realizes her “boring” life wasn’t so bad after all.
This was Naruse’s only movie released in 1949. Despite attaining commercial success, the film was panned by film critics. Naruse himself knew from the start that his talents were not suited for this kind of film; he’d taken the job for the money. Audie Bock’s book on the director contains the following remark: “Certainly, nobody would have been able to make a good film based on a vulgar erotic novel like [Tajiro] Tamura’s.”
After Delinquent Girl, Naruse took on the assignment of Conduct Report on Professor Ishinaka (1950), which he made for Shin-Toho, before coming back to Toho that same year with The Angry Street. And despite the occasional future job for another production house, he was more or less back to being a company man. A great many of his best films—Repast (1951), Sound of the Mountain (1954), Floating Clouds (1955), Sudden Rain (1956), When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960), Lonely Lane (1962), Yearning (1964), Two in the Shadow (1967), etc.—would be produced by Toho and, thankfully, none of these pictures have been obliterated by forces of any kind. One does not have to settle for plot synopses and reviews in trying to understand these later pictures; each and every one survives to be sought out and analyzed—and enjoyed—today.
** To achieve a ranking on this publication’s annual “Best Ten” list was considered a major accomplishment. Most prestigious was the #1 ranking, also known as the “Best One.” As Donald Richie and Joseph L. Anderson wrote in The Japanese Film – Art and Industry: “There is nothing quite like it in the West. Japanese critics poll to select the ten best films of the year and their choice has the greatest influence, not only in critical circles but also among the public and within the industry itself. It is an award relatively untouched by commercial consideration and is, therefore, highly respected.” During his lifetime, fourteen of Naruse’s films appeared on the magazine’s “Best Ten” list, and two of them—Wife! Be Like a Rose (1935) and Floating Clouds (1955)—garnered the coveted “Best One” prize.
*** According to Audie Bock’s book Japanese Film Directors, while Naruse was at Shochiku, his monthly pay grade roughly equated, at the time, to $365. Although the higher pay offered by P.C.L. makes sense as further reason for Naruse wishing to leave Shochiku, he insisted his departure was not due to “economic reasons.” Rather, he stated: “The number one reason was: I just wanted to get out. At Shochiku, I was low man on the totem pole and I didn’t know if I’d be allowed to shoot a talkie. So I moved to P.C.L. What was my impression of P.C.L. and Shochiku? At Shochiku, they allowed me to shoot. At P.C.L., they asked me to shoot.”
**** Even though Naruse’s directing career began after this event and was not directly affected by it, the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 played a major role in the destruction of vintage Japanese cinema.
***** In the ten years prior to becoming a director, Naruse continually wrote and submitted screenplays to the front office, knowing Shiro Kido usually determined promotions according to scriptwriting. Unsurprisingly, none of these early scripts of his were approved. Screenwriter Matsuo Kishi speculated Kido might not have even bothered to read them due to (he suspected) a personal disliking of Naruse.
****** In the days of silent film in Japan, movies—domestic and foreign imports alike—were very often narrated live by performers called benshi. Many of these performers became famous and, in a sense, became the starring attractions, more so than the on-camera actors, the directors, and sometimes even the movies themselves.
******* The prime example is Kajiro Yamamoto’s The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya, which cost a whopping $380,000 to produce, featured an infamous recreation of the attack on Pearl Harbor (with special effects by Eiji Tsuburaya), quickly recouped its costs, and was saluted by Kinema Jumpo as the “Best One” in their annual “Best Ten” list. Its success resulted in Yamamoto later directing Colonel Kato’s Falcon Squadron, itself the first big hit of 1944.