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Flowers of Tokyo: Two Early Talkies from Mikio Naruse

Wife Be Like a Rose (Mikio Naruse, 1935)


One of this year’s programs at the Cinema Ritrovato consists of early Japanese talkies. It’s the follow-up to “Japan Talks!” from last edition. I’ll only discuss one director featured in the program whose films have always made me wistful and content. I first discovered the few remaining silent films of Japanese director Mikio Naruse during the 2005 Giornate del Cinema Muto. I remember being particularly struck by the eloquence of his mise-en-scène, especially by his clever and effective use of camera movement – like the dolly-ins on characters’ faces at dramatic highpoints or the aperture framings (from the outside looking in) that capture the domestic scenes in all their coziness and contentment, but also hint at a smothering and tense flipside. The humanity and subtlety of his stories as well as the fine performances of his actors were equally notable. Like Kenji Mizoguchi (or Max Ophüls for that matter), Naruse has a strong interest in female protagonists and in stories favoring the female experience and point of view over that of other characters.

This year in Bologna, I was lucky enough to attend the packed screenings of two of his earliest remaining talkies: Futarizuma: Tsuma yo bara no yo ni or Wife Be Like a Rose(alternatively titled Two Wives) from 1935, and Sakasu Goningumi or Five men in the Circus, also from 1935. Wife, be like a Rose treads further on a path Naruse was familiar with from his silent days, as it is another woman’s story. It’s about the two wives of the same husband (one his legal wife, the other his mistress) but favors the viewpoint of the husband’s legitimate daughter, the sensitive and good-natured Kimiko. The film is a subtle commentary on marriage, love, duty, loyalty, and sacrifice and ends with a surprising affirmation of the possibility of a separation.

Kimiko and her mother live in Tokyo, abandoned by a husband and father who has left to make his fortune outside of the city. Kimiko’s mother has turned to writing poetry and finds comfort in pouring her heartache and exquisite suffering into the haikus she frequently publishes. Unable to see her mother suffer any longer, Kimiko decides to go and fetch her father in the country. When she arrives in the small village where her father has been digging for gold all these years, she discovers his “other” life. She meets his other ‘wife,’ Oyuki (a former Geisha), another grown daughter about her age and a kid son. Kimiko is shocked by the betrayal but soon realizes that her father’s other family needs him even more than she does and that she cannot claim him for herself. Yet on the journey back to Tokyo in the company of her father who buys her sweets (which we know is from the money given to him by Oyuki because he is penniless himself), she changes her mind and decides to keep her father to herself. It is at this point in the film that the story’s structure switches from a straight chronological tale to a voice-over and flashback. The flashback and voice-over by Kimiko explain how she realizes that her selfish desire to keep her father to herself and her mother does not quite match reality. It is important that Kimiko tells us about it all because, unlike her parents, she is not self-involved and can see the love triangle from all perspectives.

Kimiko notices how her parents are clearly ill at ease in each other’s company and how they treat each other as strangers would. The love her mother has been writing about has clearly been a literary, idealized love. The framing of the family in a restaurant after a “happy” family outing, which places the father and mother and daughter in separate window frames, informs us that Kimoko and her mother belong to a different world than the slacking father. Despite the fact that Kimiko’s mother bursts into tears when she is left anew, we can presume that the pain and humiliation will provide further ‘inspiration’ for her lovesick poems. Naruse is not being cruel or ironic here, just subtly perceptive of the conflicting tendencies of the human heart. Wife Be Like a Rose is truly a classic.

Five men in the Circus enjoyed its European premiere in Bologna and proved another, slightly smaller, pleasure. Like Wife Be Like a Rose, it was made at PCL, a studio that wanted to put all the possibilities of the new sound technology to good and ubiquitous use. Five Men in the Circus could be described as something of a ‘backstage circus film’ where the different kinds of music we are treated to – from funny songs, to brass band music, to classical violin – nicely reflect the various colorful personalities of the characters in the film. While the protagonists of Five Men in the Circus are five male street artists, Naruse does not overlook the plight of the two female characters (daughters of the circus director and performers in the show) and in fact the heart of the film again lies with them (or with one girl in particular). One of the daughters reflects on her life on the road and tries to come to terms with her conflicting desires and with the prospect of her probable future. Naruse’s low camera angles, his frequent cutting between singles, two-shots, or more distant framings show us different sides of the characters in space (a little dance, someone said to me) as well as the different perspectives on the hard choices or facts of life they are facing. As in real life the film offers no conclusion, but instead just reflects on the bends and forks in the road and on its protagonists, forever on the move.