From 12 through 29 January 2017 the EYE Film Institute introduces Mikio Naruse to The Netherlands by showing 14 of his films. This Japanese filmmaker is an “unknown master of Japanese Cinema,” as EYE denominates him. After watching two of his films, now I understand why they titled this event like that. Naruse’s works are as astonishing as the works of Ozu and Kurosawa, which makes him one of the greatest Japanese filmmakers.
The evening started with an introduction by professor Ivo Smits (Leiden University), who passionately told the audience that although the day was delightful in Amsterdam, we wouldn’t regret sitting inside watching the films: Flunky, Work Hard! (1931, Koshiben ganbare) and Apart From You (1933, Kimi to wakarete), as we would also watch the performance of benshi (a voice actor), and was performed by Ichirō Kataoka. I must confess, the professor was right, as I did not regret one second of the show.
In Japan, because of the popularity of stem actors, sound cinema emerged a little bit later than in Europe. Besides the stem actor, the films were accompanied by live music. In the case of Flunky, Work Hard! and Apart From You, Ayumi Kamiya (piano), Yasumi Miyazawa (shamisen) and Masayoshi Tanaka (drums) performed live during these silent films. This was an extraordinary experience which I would recommend to everyone. Not only the perfection of the instruments make you forget that you are watching a silent film in Japanese (with some English intertitles), but the spectacular synchronized narration and powerful stories transport you to another era. Benshi and Naruse’s oeuvre d’art are genuine gems that should be valued and preserved.
These films reflected society of the 1930s and its modern time. In Flunky, Work Hard! and Apart From You, Naruse portrays the story of a family in financial difficulties, and the life of two geishas. In the former film, a father tries to sell insurance to a rich family. However, his son fights with one of the rich children. Consumed by ambition and financial stress, the father disregards his own child, which causes a tragic result. In the latter film, the difficult life of geishas is depicted, as geishas did not have the same meaning as in the era before the film. The films presents the transition from a high class and well-respected lady to be seen as a lower class. A mother faces challenges while supporting and rising her son. Luckily for her, another young geisha helps her to persuade her son to follow the right path. The young geisha falls in love with the boy. However, life at that time was hard and both have to say a heart-breaking good bye.
It’s fascinating to see that Naruse experimented with the camera and editing, which resulted in films that seem real, sincere, passionate, and interesting. The films didn’t feel distant – actually, everyone could understand what was going on because of his technique and narrative. Moreover, his dramatic zoom-ins and ‘dreamy’ sequences revealed more than any dialogue could have done. No wonder why Naruse is also known as the “master of tragic love”. These films reflect hard times and heart-breaking stories which were the result of modernity itself.
Discover this unknown master and watch his retrospective at the EYE before it’s too late – you won’t regret it! If you cannot make it to the event, it’s worth checking out his movies – revive Japan of the 1930s and Naruse’s genius.
Cover: Apart From You still (EYE https://www.eyefilm.nl/en/film/flunky-work-hard-apart-from-you)
Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with the EYE Film Institute. I paid for my own ticket, and this is my own opinion.