In Pursuit of the Sacred –
Naruse Mikio’s Artists

March 16, 2021, 5:31pm

by Kiki Fung

A master of Japanese cinema on par with Ozu Yasujiro, Mizoguchi Kenji and Kurosawa Akira, Naruse Mikio (1905-1969) remains underappreciated outside of Japan. This may, in part, be attributed to the inaccessibility of his films: besides a number of well-known post-war titles, the majority of Naruse’s more than eighty feature films have not been widely available with English subtitles. On the other hand, perhaps, unlike his renowned peers, Naruse’s films are cherished for their delicate emotions, rather than demonstrating an obvious Oriental impression that might appeal to international viewers.

In an essay discussing South Korean maverick director Kim Ki-young’s breakthrough into the international scene, Chris Berry touches on “the functioning of the international festival circuit” and offers great insight on the potential reason for the lack of interest in certain type of realist films: “In order to break into that circuit, it would be necessary for a film or group of films to appear with characteristics which helped to establish a distinctive and appealing image as a new product, defined in national and auteur terms”, and “realism is such a basic staple of the cinema that it is difficult for it to precipitate a breakthrough of the type required by a relatively unknown cinema without the realism itself being distinctive in some way.”[1] These arguments could well apply to Naruse’s cinema. Even today, there is still a tendency for the more stylised, genre-leaning Asian films to be programmed over more understated, drama-driven films.

With impressive visual fluidity and sublime smoothness in narrative flow, Naruse often completely immerses his viewers in the story without making them aware of transitions, hence it has been argued that Naruse has an invisible style. The truth is that he preferred to use mise-en-scene to accentuate the story without being visibly manipulative. His intuitive use of spaces, movements, and gestures are more understated and less obvious than, for example, Mizoguchi’s long take or Ozu’s tatami shots; but if one looks closely, there are certainly visual patterns and style that Naruse employed throughout his entire career.

Much of the discourse on Naruse centres around his portrayal of feminine and domestic themes. Catherine Russell, in The Cinema of Naruse Mikio, discusses the representation of modernity and Westernisation. A study of a group of his films about art and artists, however, reveals that at one point at his career, Naruse was clearly treading in a direction towards “The Way of Drama”, all the while refining his intuitive filmmaking that deserves much deeper appreciation.

Articulating Through Space: The Actress and the Poet

Long before his peak in the mid-1950s, Naruse’s lauded productivity started in 1935, when he made his first sound film, Three Sisters with Maiden Hearts, closely followed by Wife! Be Like a Rose!, the first Japanese sound film released in the US. The lead actress in the latter and three other Naruse films in 1935, Chiba Sachiko, would soon become his wife, although their marriage only lasted for three years. Naruse made a total of five films in this year; among them, The Actress and the Poet and Five Men in a Circus marked the beginning of a series of films about art and artists.

The Actress and the Poet (1935), dir. Mikio Naruse

The Actress and the Poet has a special place in Naruse’s oeuvre, being at once the prototype of the domestic drama that he proceeded to refine over many variations; and also, the first of many films where Naruse muses on acting and performance. Adapted from a play, the film observes the domestic life of a married couple: Geppu (Uruki Hiroshi) is a songwriter who earns considerably less than his wife, Chieko (Chiba Sachiko), a rising theatre actress. Brilliantly using space as a metaphor, Naruse evokes the tension between the couple who lives in a modest two-storey house. The upper floor offers a relaxed living space free of furniture or household appliances, where Chieko entertains her fellow actors. On the ground floor, however, Geppu is confined to a domestic space cluttered with kitchenware and living-room furniture. The reversed gender roles, and their brittle interactions, are delicately articulated through their spatial relationship.

Largely a light comedy, the film also touches on the intersection of art and life. When Chieko and Geppu rehearse a play about a couple’s quarrel, it is mistaken as a real fight. Later, the couple engages in a real fight; coincidentally, the situation is so similar to the play that they argue using the exact same dialogue. This time, however, it is mistaken for a rehearsal.  The comical contrast between rehearsal and reality highlights the irony of life informing art and vice versa.

Naruse’s pre-war films embody an optimism that is often absent in the post-war films. The couple ultimately reconciles, and the film ends where it begins; but the upper floor is now occupied by their friend while Chieko and Geppu share the domestic space; once more, the changes in their relationship are reflected in spatial terms.

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960), dir. Mikio Naruse

Naruse’s directorial conception of space as a meaningful device is consistent throughout his career. For example, in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960), made almost a quarter of a century later, the boundaries between the open spaces and private spaces (the office in the Ginza bar, and the Bar Mama-san’s bedroom, which is only separated from the living room with a curtain) are very clearly defined, with actions and exchanges happening in their appropriate, designated places. An intrusion of space also symbolises an intrusion into her private life, which leads to the Mama-san breaking down.  

Revered Japanese film critic Hasumi Shigehiko observes Naruse’s use of space as a representation of the “positioned relationships the director wanted to capture on the screen rather than being a reproduction of a certain architecture style in Japan”,[2] noting the key to appreciating Naruse’s interior space.

The Actress and the Poet anticipated a later series of domestic dramas about the nuanced psychology of married couples. In films such as Meishi (1951), Wife (1953), Sound of the Mountain (1954), Sudden Rain (1956) and A Wife’s Heart (1956), the living space is also the visualisation of the characters’ inner lives.

The “Turning Around”: Five Men in the Circus

Also made in 1935, Five Men in the Circus follows a group of travelling Jinta players hired to take the place of a group of circus performers who are on strike. Filmed on location in Izu, the film recalls Kawabata Yasunari’s 1926 novella The Dancing Girl of Izu. Replete with fine details about the off-stage lives of performers, the story is a rich, complex microcosm of the wider world, each player having his own follies or regrets. “None of us do Jinta because we like it,” exclaims the small drum player over drinks, to which a bar hostess responds, “None of us work as hostesses because we like it.” And yet, they play into their roles – such is Naruse’s sympathetic observation of the ordinary people.

Chiyoko, the circus manager’s daughter, and Kokichi, the violinist, develop feelings for each other, yet the group must continue on with their journey. As they bid farewell in the final scene, Chiyoko walks away from Kokichi, after a few steps, she stops, turns around, and waves goodbye. This seemingly simple “turning around” shot is an iconic Naruse moment, one that takes on a life of its own, and would return in many other films.

Floating Clouds (1955), dir. Mikio Naruse

The most memorable (if also heartbreaking) “turning around” moment in Naruse’s filmography would be Floating Clouds (1955). When Yukiko (Takamine Hideko) is dying in her bed, an image comes up in Tomioka (Masayuki Mori)’s mind: A young and exuberant Yukiko walks deep into the forest, supposedly in Vietnam where they first met; in the course of her walk, she stops, turns around, and looks back several times. In The Flow of the Evening (1960), Aya (Yamada Isuzu) falls in love with the same young man as her daughter. Unable to find a solution, she decides to leave and throws herself into an abyss of uncertainty, in pursuit of something that can be as much happiness as it is tragedy. In the ending sequence, Naruse employs a similar shot-sequence: before leaving the house: Aya turns to look at the kitchen – there life goes on as usual; the camera then follows her from behind as she leaves; as soon as she walks out, she stops and turns around, seemingly to catch one last look at what she is about to leave behind.

How can one express, in cinematic terms, the conflicting feelings of wanting to hold on to the present, and the certainty that it is impossible to do so? And the tension between these contradicting, irreconcilable sentiments? Here is the answer from Naruse, a director who planned transitions around gazes, postures and movements: a moment of suspension, a moment of lingering.

In Five Men in the Circus, Chiyoko’s turning around is obviously directed at Kokichi. But it is more ambiguous in the other two films.In Floating Clouds, there is no way of telling whether the image of Yukiko is Tomioka’s recollection or imagination; in The Flow of the Evening, Aya is leaving unannounced, her gaze cannot have been directed at anyone in particular. Who are they looking at, then? Would it not be the audience? At such a moment Naruse connects the audience with the characters, as if conveying a message to us through them. Suddenly, we are made aware that this is coming to an end; no matter how hard we wish to hold on to it, we can only try to have one last grasp at the moment as the characters do. This is Naruse’s intuitive filmmaking at its most sacred and intimate.

A Wife’s Heart (1956), Mikio Naruse

In the middle of A Wife’s Heart, a sublime, subtle film about unspeakable feelings between the married Kiyoko (Takamine Hideko) and her friend’s brother, Kenkichi (Mifune Toshiro), Kiyoko is invited to stay for dinner with the siblings. As a wife, however, she must return to her home. Walking out of their house, the narrative stalls and lingers with Kiyoko at the entryway. This powerful pause intensifies the emotion that fills up the screen – without ever alluding to it. Every time she moves forward a little, Kenkichi follows and asks again if she really is leaving; and each time, turning around and smiling is the only response she can offer. 

A Performer and His Art: Tochuken Kumoemon and Travelling Actors

If The Actress and the Poet and Five Men in a Circus are about lives off-stage, Tochuken Kumoemon (1936) and Travelling Actors (1940), see Naruse’s performers pointedly giving statements about their art. 

In Tochuken Kumoemon, Tochuken (Tsukigata Ryunosuke) and his wife, Chidori (Chiba Sachiko) are renowned Naniwabushi performers on tour. Their marriage disintegrates when Tochuken leaves Chidori for a geisha. The three-way relationship reveals that Naruse was consciously thinking about the interplay between art and love: Tochuken and his wife as fellow performers are also competitors, the wife accuses him of loving her as a performer rather than a woman. For Tochuken, the inspiration only comes from the geisha – he proclaims that he “takes all her youth and innocence” into his performances. Rather unpolished, Tochuken Kumoemon is nonethelessinteresting as a predecessor to the more sophisticated Tsuruhachi and Tsurujiro (1938), also about a performing duo.

In Travelling Actors, Hyoroku is a Kabuki player who plays the front leg of a horse. Obviously playing a minor role, he is nonetheless proud of his years of observing and imitating the horses, to the point where he is performing even when he is not performing – in one scene when he is at leisure, the camera shows him moving his leg and the editing associates it with the movement of a horse’s leg. When the horse head costume is damaged, Hyoroku refuses to play in a compromised costume. This respect for professionalism is not to be taken lightly.

It is interesting to note that one can see traces of Tochuken’s philandering in Tomioka in Floating Clouds. The way Tochuken rushes to Chidori’s deathbed to express his regrets looks very much like an early sketch of the final scene in Floating Clouds. In a sacred moment between lovers, both men ask to be left alone with the deceased. But Tochuken is unable to divorce his reaction from his art – he expresses his regret through singing. Floating Clouds presents a much more humanised and redeeming farewell, when Tomioka gently applies lipstick to Yukiko’s face, before breaking down in tears.

With a progression in the depth of a performer’s consciousness of his art, these films paved the way to Naruse’s three masterpieces about the classical art and the artists: Tsuruhachi and Tsurujiro, The Song Lantern, and The Way of Drama (1944).

Towards the Transcendental: Three Masterpieces

In Japan, the Second Sino-Japanese war prompted the emergence of war films in the mid-1930s. With the film law established in 1939, comedies, shomin-geki, films that highlight individual happiness, or films that promote materialistic pleasures were restricted, whilst scripts were censored[3]. Naruse was not interested in the trend of making war films or propaganda. Just as Mizoguchi Kenji worked his way around the restrictions with The Story of the Late Chrysanthemum (1939), Naruse also found his voice in a series of films.

Tsuruhachi and Tsurujiro (1938), dir. Mikio Naruse

In Tsuruhachi and Tsurujiro, the eponymous duo performs shinnai;combining sanmisen with singing, their shows are extremely popular and accomplished. While they also appear to be perfectly matched romantically, quarrels set them apart, and their last attempt to perform together only leads to an inevitable end.

The film features one of Naruse’s most beautiful location scenes. Much of the film takes place indoors – the theatre, the backstage of theatres, or houses. Yet a very important moment in the story takes place on location: after a very successful performance, the theatre operators create an opportunity for Tsurujiro (Hasegawa Kazuo) to be alone with Tsuruhachi (Yamada Isuzu). As the pair walk in a forest by the lake, Tsurujiro surrenders his pride and confesses his love for Tsuruhachi.

Tsuruhachi and Tsurujiro (1938), dir. Mikio Naruse

The significance of an outdoor space is obvious in films such as Floating Clouds, Sound of the Mountain, or Yearning (1964), in which a place outside of the home provides a window for Naruse’s characters to be more relaxed about their tense, repressed emotions, even to confide intimate feelings. Naruse made use of such spaces as early as in Tsuruhachi and Tsurujiro. Outside of his usual surroundings,Tsurujiro is no longer an egotistical singer who picks on Tsuruhachi’s samisen performance; he becomes a gentle, sincere man who admits that he is always in love in Tsuruhachi.

In this confession scene, the constant motioning and turning of the two characters, and the perpetual change of position, keep this dialogue-heavy scene interesting; more importantly, Naruse’s intuitive use of mise-en-scene helps to articulate the subtle change of vibrations between the two of them without drawing attention to any stylised effect.

In the film, Tsurujiro initiates three quarrels, each time after the duo’s performances. The nature of the disputes changes (or progresses) with the maturity of Tsurujiro’s character, from out of ego, to out of jealousy, and finally out of love. In their very last quarrel, Tsurujiro fakes a criticism of Tsuruhachi’s performance to prevent her from giving up her marriage (with another man) for art.

One may regard the ending as rather patriarchal. But given the context of the time it is set (or even when it was made), it may be unreasonable to judge the film on contemporary feminist terms. Naruse’s purpose is not to be misunderstood as portraying a man’s decision-making on behalf of a woman, and thereby denying her the opportunity to make a sacrifice for art. Tsurujiro’s decision reflects an understanding of the materialistic world he has acquired through years of hardship. On the other hand, even when Tsurujiro has matured with a big heart, there is still a flaw in his character that prevents the lovers from being together – this brings us to the film’s central theme, one that will recur through subsequent films: doomed love.

Beyond love, Tsuruhachi and Tsurujiro is undoubtedly a discourse on “what makes art”. Throughout the film, the audience is posed the question of whether love makes art or art makes love. Is the greatness of their art a result of their mutual attraction, or do they fall in love because they are completely in tune with their art?

Adapted from the novel of the same title by Izumi Kyoko, The Song Lantern also depicts a transcendental moment in an outdoor space. The arrogance of prodigious Noh actor, Kitahachi (Hanayagi Shotaro) leads to the suicide of a Noh master; as a result, Kitahachi is disowned by his adopted father. On learning that the late Noh master’s daughter, Osode (Yamada Isuzu), has been struggling with grief, Kitahachi works to redeem his mistakes by passing the best of his skills on to her.

The Song Lantern (1943), dir. Mikio Naruse

Kitahaci asks Osode to meet him in the forest in Suzumiga Fall. The beautiful crane shots set the place apart from the rest of the film, picturing an environment that is exquisitely natural and otherworldly; a spiritual quality emerges through the scattered trees and the penetrating sunlight. In a place that stands outside of time and space, Kitahachi begins his coaching of dance movements. A mix of complex feelings is transmitted through art and only art, as their bodies move: regret, gratitude, affection, even admiration. A sort of synchronisation is quietly taking place – is this not a most sacred and sublime of Naruse’s moments, that is also infused with eroticism?

This scene is very much in tune with the confession scene in Tsuruhachi and Tsurujiro. In discussing Naruse’s art, Hasumi uses the term “rich simplicity”. As the greatest of films are also the most simplistic, he argues that the nature of Naruse’s simplicity could come down to “a man and a woman”. And yet, the simplicity produces richness – a richness that comes from the vibration that fills up the screen: “this richness in simplicity is something that comes into existence only in an exclusive space which emerges when a couple meets in the light of the extraordinary” [4] – Hasumi’s reflection on Floating Clouds is equally applicable to Tsuruhachi and Tsurujiro and The Song Lantern. In fact, he identifies within all three films a pattern of “encounter”, “meeting again” and “parting” as he contemplates Naruse’s formal and stylistic signature. [5]

Although Naruse moved on to different directions after the war, and his later films are more rooted in the present reality, this “scared moment” would manifest itself in many of his other films about, “a man and a woman”, as Hasumi put it.

Bringing Hasegawa Kazuo and Yamada Isuzu together again, The Way of Drama takes the artist theme to another level. Daiei, the manager of the Kazo kabuki theatre in Osaka, believes there is only one way to refine his best, albeit complacent actor, Shinzo (Hasegawa Kazuo): to separate him from his lover, Omitsu (Yamada Isuzu), and to arrange for him to learn about humility and life in a Tokyo theatre, where Shinzo indeed matures through pain and harsh reality. When Daiei’s business is at risk, Shinzo returns to give a magnificent performance for him, and reunites with Omitsu.

Whilst the theme of how suffering can change an actorin The Way of Drama appears to resemble Mizoguchi’s The Story of the Late Chrysanthemum, the former is distinctively ‘Narusean’ in that it is also concerned with the position of the patron of the art, and the true value of art, as it portrays the social reality of the time. Chris Fujiwara brilliantly described the difference between the two masters, “if Mizoguchi’s long-take travelling shots show time in perpetual flow […] Naruse’s varied and distinctive rhythms, created by the careful counterposing of look with look and movement with movement, highlight the cruel exhilaration of being jostled in the present moment.”[6]

The Way of Drama (1944), dir. Mikio Naruse

In The Way of Drama, perfecting one’s art means enduring the pain of solitude, and expanding one’s horizon beyond his comfort zone. But the presence of Daiei and the philosophy he embodies is just as important as that of Shinzo’s. Made during World War Two and set against the First Sino-Japanese War, the film reflects upon the popularity of nationalistic war drama through Daiei, who does not shy away from his critique of the trend. Upon seeing one of those plays put on by his peer, he bluntly says that theatre producers “should not be too optimistic about the victory of war” and “should not incite people too much”. A true patron of art for art’s sake, Daiei refuses to present those “showy” plays even though his business is suffering, to the point where both actors and the theatre owner turn their back on him. “The Way of Drama” is tackled from multiple perspectives, including that of a theatre manager’s, adding a new layer to Naruse’s hitherto preoccupation with the artists. And it is a position that Naruse, with his own resistance against nationalistic films, might well identify with.

These three masterpieces form a cycle that begins with performing the art, followed by passing on the art, and finally perfecting and respecting the art.

While pleading with Omistu, also a performer in her own right, to leave Shinzo, Daiei asks for a singing performance. Omitsu insists on putting on her artist costume even though it is only a private performance. For her, this ritual is “not for the audience, but for myself.”

Flowing (1956), dir. Mikio Naruse

Rather than exoticizing or fetishizing the features of classical art, Naruse paid respect to the dignity one holds for one’s art and professionalism. Years later, in 1956, he channels this respect again in Flowing, a masterpiece about the plight of a house of geishas and their maid in a declining geisha house. Flowing features a magnificent ensemble cast that includes the most prominent of Japanese actresses: Kurishima Sumiko, Tanaka Kinuyo, Yamada Isuzu, Sugimura Haruko, Takamine Hideko and Okada Mariko. Yamada plays the geisha house mistress who shelters her girls while maintaining a strong conviction in the dying art. Set in contemporary time, Flowing is a reminiscence and lament for a bygone era. Not only is the trade is going downhill, but the mistress is also alienated by her daughter who is cynical about the mother’s profession and aspires for a modern path, symbolised by her time with the sewing machine. Amid the change of time and trend, Yamada as the mistress maintains her composure while practicing her art and goes on with her training of a new generation of geishas. At the end of the film, the rhythm of her samisen is cut to match with the sound of the sewing machine her daughter is operating upstairs – a disheartening juxtaposition, but most understated. Life must go on, even if it means we can only go with the flow…

Hasumi writes, “…at a critical moment, … Naruse would fill the screen with hot tension, and minute vibrations would appear in every corner of the screen.”[7] What forms the vibration? It has to emanate from the performers. In almost all of Naruse’s films, the actors come together and respond to each other’s gaze and gestures with such incredible credibility and precision that one is bound to be astonished at Naruse’s skill, especially when he is known to be a man of very few words when it comes to instruction. All well versed in the classical art, Hasegawa, Yamada and Hanayagi endowed their performances with a formal beauty that is central to the success of the three masterpieces about artists. But beyond that, in other shomin-geki or films in contemporary settings, Naruse extracted very natural, understated performances that are perfectly compatible with the emotional tone of the films. Not only that, he brought the actors together, and inspired their instinctive reactions to the timing and rhythm of the films. One may say that Naruse’s cinema is truly that of the actors, the vibrations, and the sacred moments.

Note: This essay is developed from the writer’s research in association with the 12-film programme she curated for Hong Kong International Film Festival’s Cine Fan in 2019, “Life is but an Illusion: The Cinema of Naruse Mikio”; part of which was dedicated to Naruse’s films about the arts.


[1] Chris Berry, ‘Introducing “Mr. Monster”: Kim Ki-young and the Critical Economy of the Globalised Art-House Cinema’, in Post-Colonial Classics of Korean Cinema, ed. Chungmoo Choi (Irvine: Korean Film Festival Committee, University of California, 1998), pp.39-47

[2] Hasumi Shigehiko, ‘Mikio Naruse or Double Signature’, in Mikio Naruse (eds Hasumi Shigehiki and Yamane Sadao), San Sebastian: Festival Internacional de Cine de San Sebastian, 1998, p.68

[3] Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie, The Japanese Film: Art and Industry (Expanded Edition), New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1982, p.129

[4] Hasumi, ibid, p.73

[5] Hasumi, ibid, p.61-87

[6] Chris Fujiwara, ‘Caught’, in Film Comment, edition September – October 2005, p.59

[7] Hasumi, ibid, p.62


About the Author

Kiki Fung is a Programme Consultant for Hong Kong International Film Festival and Advisor for The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts’ School of Film & Television. She was the former Head Programmer for Australia’s Brisbane International Film Festival and Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival, and has guest-curated for the Brisbane Festival and Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Before moving to Australia in 2010, she served at the Hong Kong Film Archive for seven years in areas of publication editing, venue management and program coordination during which she also assisted in editing a number of publications on Hong Kong Cinema. She is a member of the Hong Kong Film Critics Society. Her recent essays have been published in Wong Ain Ling’s The Cinema of Wong Kar-wai and HKIFF Society’s Naruse Mikio, 110th Anniversary (both in Chinese).