“Amour fou in post-war Tokyo, with Hideko Takamine – in neurotic playing of almost painful intensity – as a woman who sacrifices everything to follow weak and unstable lover Masayuki Mori. The director’s biggest commercial success and Kinema Jumpo “Best One” – even Ozu raved about it to his diary.”
So states the entry for Mikio Naruse’s Ukigumo (Floating Clouds, 1955) in the program for the Film Forum’s 5 Japanese Divas retrospective that ran from April 1st through April 22nd. And though the film has racked up a plethora of accolades, having won a Blue Ribbon Award for Best Film as well as several prizes for the cast and crew during the Mainichi Film Concours, Floating Clouds really does live up to all the hype. No easy task since Naruse is a well-established master of Japanese cinema with a career that stretches back to the 1930’s and a bevy of masterpieces under his belt by the time of his death in 1969.
Focusing his camera on women as Mizoguchi did and the dissolution of the family as Ozu did, what separates Mikio Naruse’s brand of cinema is his obsessive concern with mundane ephemera like money and a visual style akin to documentary realism, evident in Floating Clouds by Naruse”s use of newsreel footage of repatriated soldiers coming home spliced with studio footage of an emotionally broken Hideko Takamine plus extras taking their first steps onto Japanese soil. Then, of course, is the attention paid to fetishistically capturing the back alleyways and bombed out shantytowns that were ubiquitous with early postwar Japan, a feat not equaled until Kinji Fukasaku’s run of jitsuroku-eiga pictures during the 1970’s. This blending of harsh reality with the dictates of narrative storytelling help to elevate what could have been just a cheap melodrama into high tragedy.
Adapted by Naruse from a novel by his favorite author, Fumiko Hayashi, and starring Takamine, who ultimately ended up starring in over a dozen Naruse films, Floating Clouds is typical of a Hayashi-adapted film in that a strong-willed woman suffers, and ultimately dies, because of her blind devotion to a man who neither loved or cared about her. Set during the immediate postwar years, the film deals with the prescient theme of identity and finding meaning in a society utterly devastated by war. Just as Japan had to redefine itself as a nation after its defeat in the Pacific War, Yukiko Koda (Takamine) must find her place in this new social order where English is a prerequisite for anyone applying for a job and the flood of American soldiers means an easy life for any woman willing to share their bed. Although Yukiko’s financial woes are great and this pursuit of material casino online wealth distracts her for a time from the burden of the past she shared with Kengo Tomioka (Masayuki Mori) during the war, she ultimately finds nothing substantially satisfying about financial prosperity, a topic that later Japanese filmmakers would address after the optimism of the postwar economic boom withered into placid discord.
Running throughout the film’s 123-minute runtime is the motif of wandering or “floating” from one place to another. Yukiko and Kengo go to several inns together or, due to Kengo’s constant restlessness, Yukiko is perpetually trailing after him. Constantly chasing after each other, it’s stating the obvious to say that the both of them have a co-dependent relationship. Living off of a happy past they shared in Indochina, Naruse constantly inserts flashbacks of their relationship in Dalat with the present day action and Ichiro Saito’s score borrows heavily from exotic Southeast Asian melodies. Yukiko takes every abuse and humiliation that Kengo throws at her and though she hates him, she just doesn’t seem to have the strength to completely break away from Kengo, a man she loves more for the happy past he represents rather than the future she should be preparing for. Though, in Yukiko”s defense, after having every belief you”ve held be upturned by an unjust war that was instigated and lost by men, Yukiko may be attracted to Kengo”s effeminate and fickle nature which stands in counterpoint to stereotypical portrayals of the masculine Japanese male.
If popular thought dictates that Mizoguchi was a director of women’s pictures, Kurosawa an action film stylist, and Ozu was a master tofu-maker of family dramas, then I think it only appropriate to label Naruse as a noir poet, not so much in the sense of visual style, but in the themes and subject matter that he deals with. Just as noir films in America at that time mined the urban underbelly, in Floating Clouds, Naruse stakes his story on schemers, adulterous wives, and scorned men driven to murder, no character in a Narusean drama could ever be mistaken as heroic. Visually, cinematographer Masao Tamai uses the stock-in-trade look of “Venetian blind” lighting to frame Kengo and Yukiko in several scenes, highlighting that both are prisoners of their shared past and chained together by a tragic future that they cannot escape from. Then, of course, is Kengo who is obviously the male equivalent of a femme fatale. Responsible for the deaths of at least three women by the end of the picture, wherever Kengo goes it seems he cuts a vicious path seemingly able to draw a variety of women towards him and then casually dumping them when he’s had enough of their company.
By the end of the tragic affair, Yukiko, Kengo, and we the audience are completely drained of all emotion. With all of their bridges burnt, they run off to a secluded and constantly rainy island, and yet even with no chance for Kengo to escape her, Yukiko’s paranoia keeps her constantly on the alert believing Kengo to be plotting yet another escape attempt. By this time though it’s far too late for either to make a clean break from each other, they both know that death is the only way out for either of them. It is quite ironic then for Kengo and Yukiko that the happiest moment in their lives, a time when their idealistic brand of love was born and could exist, was during the War. Kengo’s tearful denouement over Yukiko’s lifeless body is a bittersweet ending in that now their relationship can exist in the only place it could thrive, as part of a broken nation”s idealized past.