The second Naruse Mikio screening at the National Media Museum this week provided an interesting comparison with When A Woman Ascends the Stairs. The same two stars, Takamine Hideko and Masayuki Mori were the leads in Floating Clouds (Japan 1955) and the focus was again on a ‘suffering’ woman in a melodrama, but there were also some striking differences.

First Floating Clouds was shot in Academy ratio, 1.33:1. Naruse does not have a distinctive visual style and the change of screen size should not be too significant, but for me the ‘Scope film seemed much more coherent in its use of framing and composition. Floating Clouds was quite conventionally shot and perhaps it was the rather abrupt edits marking shifts in time periods (i.e. character’s memories) that made it feel less coherent. Many of the scenes in small houses and narrow alleys in Tokyo were reminiscent of Ozu’s Tokyo Story. However, where Ozu’s camera often stays at the eye level of a child or someone kneeling on a tatami mat, Naruse simply follows the characters — when they are in a traditional room, the camera is low level but at other times it rises with them.

Floating Clouds has the attention to social detail that I’m coming to realise is a Naruse trait. The story deals with a couple returning to Japan after the war has ended from their posting with a forestry team in Indo-China (presumably Vietnam). The misery of the Occupation and the struggle to survive economically and morally provides the context for an abortive romance. Unlike When A Woman Ascends The Stairs, written by Kikushima Ryuzo, responsible for many of Kurosawa’s scripts, Floating Clouds is an adaptation of a novel by the very popular Hayashi Fumiko. In fact, Floating Clouds was the fifth Naruse film based on Ms Hayashi’s novels. Perhaps then Floating Clouds is more like the norm for Naruse? When I got to see Late Chrysanthemums (Japan 1954) just a few days later, this naive assumption was soon discarded.

In the pub after the screening someone suggested that the film was ‘Bressonian’ and that seems like a good reference. Whereas Floating Clouds is a fairly conventional melodrama in terms of structure and presentation, Late Chrysanthemums, based on three short stories by Hayashi, is almost a pure character piece with little plot but a lot of opportunity to reflect on the lives of ageing geisha. Four women in early middle age, like four flowers whose bloom is fading, struggle to make ends meet. Or at least three of them do. The fourth has become a moneylender (and property speculator), but money can’t buy her happiness and she is disappointed to find that men only want to borrow money. This film seemed linked, thematically and structurally, more to When A Woman Ascends the Stairs. Once again, we get the detail of everyday life in Tokyo. If anything, there are even more scenes of money changing hands. Aesthetically, the film seems more fluent and coherent than Floating Clouds, which now seems much more of a genre piece.

The two earlier films did make me think about Ozu. They show ordinary families in ordinary settings (although Ozu’s families are perhaps more genteel). There are plenty of Ozu railway scenes. Neither Ozu or Naruse got commercial releases in the UK in the 1950s and in retrospect it’s not difficult to see why. Mizoguchi and Kurosawa offered films that were at once more ‘exotic’, more exciting, more expressionist and more obviously ‘humanist’. Naruse’s films do require an appreciation of the day to day nuances of Japanese cultural life. Late Chrysanthemums also refers to memories of Manchuria (and rather surprisingly, to the prospect of going to Korea) — some knowledge of Japanese imperialism is required to fully appreciate these references. I’m not sure I would have appreciated Naruse when I was younger and when i was even more ignorant of Japanese culture.

I’m glad I saw these films and I’ll look out for the DVD titles that are already published.