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April 19, 2011

Silent Naruse - Disc 1

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Flunky, Work Hard/Koshiben ganbare
Mikio Naruse - 1931

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No Blood Relation/Nasanu naka
Mikio Naruse - 1931
Eclipse Region 1 DVD

What is certain about seeing Mikio Naruse's earliest existing films is that the themes he would visit in his better known films were already well established. Both Flunky, Work Hard and No Blood Relation are about the sticky and fragile ties of love, money, happiness and family. As in his later films, Naruse also makes use of traveling shots, the camera slightly ahead of his characters as they walk from one one place to another, although the background is level in these earlier films, unlike the latter shots with their downward tilting bridges and roads. The two films have victims of the need for speed, with characters seriously injured by a train, a car and even a bicycle.

Flunky, Work Hard is considered something of an anomaly in Naruse's career being centered on a male character. I would counter that even a film like When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is also a study of modes of masculinity in the form of Hideko Takamine's suitors. In this earlier film, Naruse's financially struggling insurance salesman, Okabe, is looking to make a sale with the matron of a large, well to do, family. Not only does Okabe's wife complain about living in poverty, but their son has been getting into fights with other neighborhood boys, wanting to play with their model airplanes. The father, who tries to dole out sage advice regarding fighting with the other boys, proves an ineffective example when he comes to blows with a rival insurance salesman.

The rival salesman is something of a shock to see because with his small stature and buck teeth, he unintentionally anticipates the stereotypical "Jap" of World War II movies. Naruse makes use of various dramatic contrasts with Okabe's small, rented house, with its traditional Japanese design compared to his client's large, western style home. Okabe wears a kimono at home, and an ill fitting suit when at work. His family is in kimonos, while the better off neighbors are in western dress.

The two films here also show Naruse's penchant for framing devices. Shooting through picture frames is frequent in both films. In Flunky, Work Hard, Naruse also makes use of some very large pipes laying in a field where the boys play. In No Blood Relation, there is also a mirror shot when Yoshiko Okada looks in a mirror. What makes these visual motifs of interest is that they were eventually abandoned by Naruse in favor of a less ornamental visual style.

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Naruse also employs dolly shots with the camera moving towards his actors for dramatic emphasis, something not seen in the later films. These shots are used frequently in No Blood Relation, most notably when Yoshiko Okada first tries to reclaim the six year old daughter she left as a baby. Naruse alternates between shots of the woman with her mistaken assumptions about her daughter, and the girl who yells, "Kidnapper!", "Liar!", and, "Dummy!" while running back home.

In her study of Naruse, Catherine Russell notes that No Blood Relation was based on a play, that was previously filmed in 1909. This is the kind of film where the story telling outweighs the story which was considered cliched by 1932. It takes a very big gulp just to swallow the premise of a Japanese woman who runs away from home and becomes a big Hollywood star. Not to mention that when the film takes place, they were making nothing but talkies in Hollywood and Sessue Hayakawa, who was a star in silent era Hollywood, had returned to Japan that year.

Even though the story is about two women fighting over one little girl, it is a couple of guys that really makes No Blood Relation fun to watch. One is Joji Oka, best remembered as the male lead in Ozu's crime drama Dragnet Girl. Tall, handsome, unshaven, ready to take charge when things go wrong for his sister, the woman who raised the young girl, Oka has charisma to spare in the kind of role that Naruse would give to Tatsuya Nakadai in the latter part of his career. Shozaburo Abe provides comic relief as the incompetent thug and sidekick to Ichiro Yuki, who plays the gangster brother of the Hollywood star. This would be tough guy almost knocks himself out trying out a pair of boxing gloves.

Knockabout comedy is also something that one doesn't readily associate with Mikio Naruse. For that and the visual play, there's enough reason to see the earliest examples of what the filmmaker would retain as recurring elements over the next thirty-five years.

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Posted by peter at April 19, 2011 07:13 AM