Silent Naruse: Eclipse Series 26
Flunky, Work Hard/No Blood Relation/Apart from You/Every-Night Dreams/Street Without End
Directed by Mikio Naruse
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 28/79/60/65/88 minutes
Audio: silent/Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo
MSRP: $ 44.95
Release Date: March 22, 2011
Review Date: March 21, 2011
Japanese families struggling against the debilitating effects of the Great Depression are the focus of these five silent films by the legendary Japanese filmmaker Mikio Naruse. As he did so often in his films, the director mixes light domestic comedy (often with a man-child as the head of the household) with definite melodramatic plot threads usually involving injured or dying children and focusing on women as the real strength of the Japanese family. Though Naruse made over twenty silent films, the five movies contained in this latest Eclipse box set are the only surviving films from this early part of his prolific career.
Flunky, Word Hard - 3/5
Okabe (Isamu Yamaguchi) is an insurance salesman who’s having a difficult time making ends meet so he can give his family the things they need and deserve. His biggest hope is appealing to the head of a neighborhood family with five uninsured children, but his son Susumu (Seichi Kato) gets into fights with some of this family’s children, and it’s up to Okabe to find a way to appeal to the family and not lose his son’s love. Meanwhile, a rival insurance salesman (Tokio Seki) has his sights set on the same family.
The lightest (and briefest) of the Naruse works in this set, the slapstick comedy as Okabe is constantly ending up with egg on his face will remind you a bit of a Blondie comic strip with its sweet-natured father constantly under attack from all sides. The melodramatic injured child climactic passages are irritating intrusions into the fun scenes which have preceded it, but it’s likely Naruse was merely giving audiences both smiles and tears for their price of admission. There’s a burst of imaginative split-screen montage near the end as the father remembers good and bad moments from what we’ve witnessed. Isamu Yamaguchi seems to be having lots of fun as the put-upon father who shirks lesser responsibilities much as his son might do.
No Blood Relation – 3/5
Movie star Tamae Kiyooka (Yoshiko Okada) returns to Japan after six years in America looking to be reunited with her ex-husband (Shinyo Nara) and child Shigeko (Hisako Kojima) after having abandoned them six years earlier for her career. But Shigeko loves the only mother she’s ever known, her father’s new wife Masako (Yukiko Tsukuba) who likewise considers Shigeko her own daughter. When her father is thrown into debtor’s prison and her mother is away at work in a department store, she is abducted by her movie star mother, but Shigeko stubbornly refuses to take to this “new” mother and demands to be returned to her real mother.
Naruse’s female-centered melodramas seem to begin with this effort as two mothers struggle for the favor of the child they both claim. The depth of emotions and the director’s focus on them is hard to miss since the film is overloaded with a series of dolly shots which zero in on the faces of all of the primary characters at pivotal emotional moments. In fact, they’re so overused as to become cliché before the film is over (they’re in abundance in the next film in this set as well but not quite to such a point that they lose effectiveness). The humor in the film is mostly provided by the movie star’s two male flunkies who do her bidding, but the struggles between the two women who occupy different social strata give the film its primary impetus.
Apart from You – 3.5/5
Yoshio (Akio Isono), a young student, has lately been ditching classes to tag along with a rough street gang because he’s embarrassed and disgusted by his mother's (Mitsuko Yoshikawa) having to work as a geisha as their only means of support. She’s aware that she’s getting too old to be able to carry on much longer but begs her younger fellow geisha Terugiku (Sumiko Mizukubo) to help bring her son back to the right path of living. Terugiku, however, has her own problems dealing with her own repressed anger at her family for forcing her into the geisha life in order to support them and fearful that they have similar plans for her younger sister (Yoko Fujita).
A noble melodrama with an underbelly of sweetness, Apart from You is a lovely film filled with interesting characters and containing fewer of the plot contrivances that weighed down somewhat the two previous films. True, the rebellious son comes around possibly a bit too quickly for comfort, but who could blame him with the quietly supportive qualities of the fetching Sumiko Mizukubo by his side? Naruse both directed and wrote this classy film which doesn’t waste a second of its running time with unnecessary comic flourishes or an overcrowded cast of characters.
Every-Night Dreams – 3/5
Young mother Omitsu (Sumiko Kurishima) must support herself and her young son Fumio (Teruko Kojima) as a geisha after her husband (Tatsuo Saito) abandoned them three years earlier. Now he’s returned and wants a second chance. Omitsu is the most popular geisha in the house and has had numerous propositions to be set up in style especially by a captain (Takeshi Sakamoto) who’s very interested in her, but she decides to give her husband another chance. In the depressed economy, however, he finds getting a job so his wife can leave the geisha house to be an almost impossible task. When their son is hit by a car, their monetary situation grows even more desperate.
Naruse has recycled plot strands from all of the previous films in this collection including the unhappy geisha, the abandoned family, and the child hit by a moving vehicle in the film’s last third, and he’s arranged them unimaginatively. He continues to resort for that overused dollying technique, his cinematic equivalent to exclamation points, but there is no denying that the leading performers do exude a charisma that makes these clichéd characters retain the audience’s concentration and rooting interest. The ending reaches a defiant bleakness that must have seemed expressly right for 1933 in the depths of the depression.
Street Without End – 3/5
Quiet, polite, lovely Sugiko (Setsuko Shinobu) works as a waitress and is proud she’s able to maintain an apartment and support her out of work brother (Aiko Isono). After being told she is being considered for a job in the movies, she’s hit by a car driven by the wealthy Hiroshi Yamanouchi (Hikaru Yamanouchi), and her movie chance goes instead to her friend Kesako (Chiyoko Katori). Rather than be bitter about her missed opportunity, she’s happy for her friend and is later surprised when the guilt-ridden Hiroshi proposes marriage. After their wedding, she goes to live at the family estate where Hiroshi’s haughty mother (Fumiko Katsuragi) and despicable sister (Noboko Wakaba) constantly look down on her formerly lower social status and won’t let her forget that she is and always will be beneath them in rank. Sugiko is miserable living this way, but her husband can’t bring himself to cut his ties to his mother and sister despite their not giving his wife a chance to show how completely worthy of their family she is.
The script by Tomizo Ikeda (based on a novel by Kitamura) could have served as a basis for any number of Joan Crawford movies from this same period where she played the shop girl who marries above her station and spends the rest of the film proving she’s as good or better than any of the upper echelon society members who are constantly putting her down. Setsuko Shinobu’s Sugiko easily has the audience in the palm of her dainty hand, but she is perhaps a bit too good to be true holding her temper and not standing up for herself much sooner than she inevitably does (she’s seen by her in-laws walking along the street with her brother, but they assume she’s cheating on her husband with another man and thus given the cold shoulder by them once she returns home). Thankfully, Naruse has rid himself of his dollying fetish using the technique only once at a crucial moment in the story, and elsewhere he’s scattered symbolic imagery a little heavy handedly amid the narrative to comment on dramatic scenes we’ve just seen.
All of the films have been framed at 1.33:1. They all contain white subtitles under the Japanese intertitles which are very easy to read.
Flunky, Word Hard - 2/5
The oldest of the films in the set, the film is in pretty dire shape with terrible film damage prominent especially in the opening five to ten minutes and the rest a bit better but filled with scratches, dirt, and debris pretty much constantly. The film’s sharpness is only average at best, and the grayscale rendering is likewise mediocre, the blacks registering more of a dull gray. As the film is so brief, there is only one chapter.
No Blood Relation – 2.5/5
The damage to the print used for this transfer is less than in the previous movie, but it’s still present and thus picture quality is only marginally better than in the prior film. Grayscale isn’t much improved from before nor is sharpness any better, but the fact that the movie exists at all is probably something of a miracle. The film has been divided into 13 chapters.
Apart from You – 3/5
Picture quality here is another step up from the previous films. Sharpness is finally edging into above average territory, and the grayscale is also more appealing is still not wonderful. There are still plenty of scratches and speckles throughout, but print damage isn’t a problem here. The film has been divided into 7 chapters.
Every-Night Dreams – 2.5/5
Though once again print damage isn’t a major concern here, the mixture of indoor and outdoor photography is very inconsistent. All of the outdoor scenes have a milky contrast and softness that’s pretty unappealing, but the interior shooting produces a much more vivid picture with better sharpness and a more accurate grayscale. The film has been divided into 8 chapters.
Street Without End – 3/5
Once again, outdoor photography seems less sharp than that done on interior sets, but the difference between the two is less glaring in this instance. There are plenty of scratches, speckles, and debris but less print damage than in other films in this set. Grayscale isn’t notably more distinct here than in the earlier films, but it’s certainly no worse. The movie has been divided into 14 chapters.
all films - 4/5
The viewer is given the choice of watching the films with no music accompaniment or with a music score supplied in Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo by musicians Robin Holcomb and Wayne Horvitz. The music has been nicely recorded and is suitably matched to the on-screen action.
Eclipse releases typically have no bonus features on the disc, but each slimline case in the set (there are three of them) contains interesting critical and biographical essays by Michael Koresky.
3/5 (not an average)
These five silent features by noted Japanese filmmaker Mikio Naruse may not make you forget even the early efforts of masters like Kurosawa or Ozu, but they offer some interesting glimpses at the final years of the silent cinema in Japan which viewers with interest in that period will want to sample.