The Cinema of Naruse Mikio: Women and Japanese Modernity

Catherine Russell,
The Cinema of Naruse Mikio: Women and Japanese Modernity.
Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-8223-4312-7
US$47.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Duke University Press)

In the last two decades of the twentieth century, the great breakthrough for film historians was the increased availability of films made before 1910. In the new century, the availability of Japanese films of the studio period is shaping as the most exciting new area to be opened up for scholarship. Catherine Russell’s study of Naruse is a significant addition for non-Japanese scholars in their knowledge of a filmmaker who has hitherto been known in the west for a small sampling of a career which lasted almost forty years and produced 89 films as a director for, first Shochiku, and then Toho. As Naruse’s reputation was for working in “women’s films” this study is particularly important for taking us in close detail into new areas of genre in the Japanese cinema and opening up work in those genres for social analysis.

Russell, who teaches at Concordia University in Montreal, starts out by locating her approach to a director study within debates over the auteur theory. Her take on auteurism is to deflect attention away from “evaluative classification” (p. xi) by demonstrating that “auteurism can also be a means of moving beyond interpretation to a more historically based method of analysis” (p. 20). This historical analysis will be a broadly “cultural history,” (p. xii) specifically the issue of “how this cinema participates in and contributes to Japanese modernity as a cultural movement” (p. xiii). The cultural history in which Russell is interested is therefore a large scale, epochal one in keeping with the work of writers such as Miriam Hansen and Tom Gunning. Naruse is evoked as a “case study or sample of a complex historical-cultural formation” (p. 27).

Hansen’s category, vernacular modernism, gets an extensive work-out once again in this book, as Russell’s is part of a growing movement in American film studies which is attempting to wrest modernism away from high-art movements and re-position popular cinema as a major response to the changing social conditions of Japanese modernity. Foremost among the author’s intellectual authorities is Walter Benjamin, who is cited over twenty times in the text on subjects ranging from boredom to women’s fashion. Where a quote from Barthes once carried the day as indisputable evidence, Benjamin has clearly inherited this mantle during the past decade.

After an introduction which reviews existing literature on Naruse and sets the theoretical agenda for the study, Russell’s method is to work chronologically through the director’s oeuvre. Her periodisation breaks his career into six sections: a silent period, a post-Shochiku period in the 1930s at the P.C.L. studio, his wartime work, an Occupation period, and then distinctive periods in the 1950s and 1960s where his reputation peaks and then declines. Russell works methodically through the 67 of Naruse’s films that are still known to exist (a pretty good survival rate when you compare it Mizoguchi and Ozu) and provides a detailed overview of Naruse’s career and the major influences and contexts which were important to the creation of his films. In the course of her analysis, she makes extensive use of the work of cultural historian Harry Harootunian as well as foregrounding and bouncing ideas off historians of Japanese cinema such as Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano, Darrell Davis and Matsuhiro Yoshimoto.

Russell’s orientation towards Japanese cinema is culturalist rather formalist – in the sense that she shares little of the interest of authors such as Noël Burch or David Bordwell in valuing filmmakers for arriving at distinctive systems of formal representation. While she is constantly attentive to form, sprinkling her analyses with references to Naruse’s patterns of staging, lighting and cutting, there is no sustained and detailed concentration on these elements of style. Russell’s culturalist assumptions mean that she is more oriented towards an understanding of ways that Naruse was representative of his socio-historical moment rather than how he departed from it in unique ways.

Her interest in Naruse is premised on the ways that he brings together melodrama with increasingly realist techniques. The latter are, for Russell, strongly allied with modernity in a Japanese context. Her reading of the films of the early 1930s lays stress on Naruse’s adaptation of shinpa melodrama to produce a distinctive response to Japanese modernity. This is a period in which Naruse’s films display an ostentatious stylistics. Russell reads the rapid cutting and disjunctive camera movements to be found in many of these films through a Jonathan Crary type of observation that they are devices which register “modernity as a series of perceptual and experiential shocks” (p. 70). The contention that cinema is a language of modernity rings most hollow here with its reliance on these type of large generalisations which I suspect are not well equipped to deal with the ways that films (not to mention the social world) are subject to some much internal variety and to constant, small scale change. Modernity becomes a theme which Russell invokes to tell a story of overarching continuity which prevails over potential challenges when she writes of “a film culture which carried on the project of articulating the sensorial experience of modernity” despite the pressures exerted by militarist imperialism and then western occupation (p. 172).

Set against this large scale and generalised level of explanation, though, is a richly detailed and nuanced reading of the smaller scale, or middle level, explanatory frameworks such as genre and the relation of films and the film industry to a variety of social influences. The study of Japanese cinema often seems to be a study of the intertwined and inter-nested genres and cycles which critics and audiences delight in identifying. This book makes an important contribution to our understanding of these films by situating them in relation to genres such as the shoshimin-eiga (films about ordinary people), the josei-eiga (the women’s film), the home drama, the o-namida chodai eiga (“tears please” film), the tsuma-mono (wife film) and a host of other generic influences.

In her reading of individual films, Russell’s most serious attentions are given to the thematic analysis of narrative and genre and the ways that they “enact a critique of Japanese society” (p.xiii). Her attitudes to Naruse’s films are “based to the extent to which the films expose the contradictions of everyday life, their representations of women’s roles in family and society, and the narrative construction of women’s agency and subjectivity” (p.xiii). The claim which provides a through-line of unity to her analysis is that during the course of Naruse’s career “one can trace the emergence of a modern Japanese female subjectivity, which is to say, a mode of being in the world that is female, modern and Japanese” (p. 26).

Russell characterises her work as part of a movement to re-orient feminist film criticism away from an overly determinist psychoanalytical basis to one whose theoretical grounding is in anthropology. While the abandonment of psychoanalysis is welcome, there are no very convincing theoretical reasons advanced for this other than that “the psychoanalytic paradigm does not seem to be particularly pertinent to the subject-effects of these films” (p.32). To the extent that evidence is provided for this claim, it is through the observation that elements of domestic architecture, as well as mismatching eyelines, are consistently used to create a degree of distance between the spectator and the representation in order to create a more observational mode of viewing.

Russell finally gives us a sense of Naruse as a tragic figure, or rather a chronicler of tragedy, whose films are increasingly concerned with a way that modernity has not delivered on its early and energetic (even if this energy was chaotic) promises, especially for Japanese women.

With the increasing availability of Naruse’s films on subtitled dvds, this book is wonderfully timely. It kept me shuttling back and forth between her pages and my dvd player. If her explanatory framework of modernity is a broad and general one, Russell’s work makes up for this by its methodical attention to the scope of a career which is situated in one of the world’s most consistently rich film industries during some of its most productive and socially tumultuous periods.

Mike Walsh,
Flinders University, South Australia.

Created on: Saturday, 19 December 2009

About the Author

Mike Walsh

About the Author

Mike Walsh

Mike Walsh is Senior Lecturer in Screen and Media at Flinders University. He holds a PhD from the Communication Arts Department of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a contributing editor to national arts magazine RealTime and Metro.View all posts by Mike Walsh →