Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 28 November 2007
Source Wild Side DVD
Categories Flowing: The Films of Mikio Naruse
Short is the life of flowers, Infinite their sorrows
So reads the epigraph that concludes Floating Clouds, expressing sentiments that seem characteristic of Naruse’s despondent world-view, life as a series of incessant struggles and bitter defeats. But in other respects Floating Clouds is a very uncharacteristic Naruse film. It’s his one film (I recklessly claim, on the basis of having seen a mere dozen of his output of 88 films over 37 years) that ends, where everything in the film dies, on a note of full-blown tragedy. It’s also, of any of his films, his single defining masterpiece.
To get a sense of the distinctiveness of Floating Clouds’ tragic ending, compare it, for a moment, with a slightly later film, Yearning. Like Floating Clouds, the later film stars Naruse’s favoured actress, the great Hideko Takamine, this time as Reiko, a widow romantically pursued through the length of the film by her brother-in-law Koji, alternately responding to him and rejecting him. You could say that the film does end tragically with the off-screen death of Koji – whether accident or suicide is left unclear – but the effect is very different from Floating Clouds’ ending. In Yearning’s remarkable last few minutes the camera follows Reiko’s desperate, hopeless attempts to catch up with Koji’s body being carried through the streets of a small mountain town. The film abruptly ends, as Koji’s body disappears from view, with a final stunning close-up of Reiko, frozen in her tracks.
In a sense, this final shot drains the tragedy from the film—and consider how the melodrama inherent in Koji’s death is kept always at a distance from us, first through the death itself occurring off-screen, then through the way the body is literally carried off in long shot out of the frame—leaving stasis and irresolution. The depth of the emotional shock on Reiko is clear, but the precise contours of her thoughts and feelings (does she feel any guilt? regret? remorse?) are left ambiguous, as is the further development of the plot. What is she going to do next? In this respect, the unresolved aspect to Yearning’s story links it to the tentative, ambiguous, or unresolved endings of so many other Naruse films.
Floating Clouds, on the other hand, makes perfectly clear the loss, devastation, guilt, and regret that the tragedy leaves the survivor. There’s no sense of any open-endedness, that the story has a life or can in any way continue beyond the limits set by the conclusion of the film. In the final medium shot from behind of Tomioka bent over the body of Yumiko, in total collapse, we are witness to how Tomioka’s spiritual death follows Yumiko’s physical one.
The world of Floating Clouds is the sombre one of devastated post-War Japan, a world of frustrations and disappointments, betrayals and broken promises, blighted hopes and failures. The film opens with a dark-toned image of returning refugees, among them Yumiko, who is then shown proceeding over a rundown urban landscape to track down her married lover Tomioka.
Yumiko’s past relationship with Tomioka—they became lovers in Dalat in Japanese-occupied Indochina—is only gradually revealed through a series of brightly-lit lyrical flashbacks that Naruse visually contrasts with the dark tones of the film’s present. Single movements will cross time between past and present to underline the loss of Yumiko’s naïve innocence and hopes for the future. So, the comment of Tomioka’s Dalat colleague that he is “a man you can trust” is followed by a shot of Tomioka approaching in the gloom of the present; or, from a bright exterior shot in Dalat looking over Tomioka’s shoulder at Yumiko’s face as he leans forward to kiss her we cut to a shot, in the darkened tawdry hotel room of the present, taken from behind Yumiko’s head as the movement to a kiss is completed.
In the Dalat flashbacks Tomioka’s nature as a serial philanderer is wordlessly indicated through the looks cast by the Vietnamese servant woman, a clear indication that she is already Tomioka’s lover when Yumiko first arrives in Dalat dressed in her virginal white. Tomioka’s weakness, his inability to resist falling into other subsequent relations—with the young wife Orie and the even younger bar girl—and the constant sliding decline in his professional and financial fortunes, puts him in line with the many other weak unworthy males of Naruse’s cinema.
But this shouldn’t overlook the strength of the emotional and sexual connection between the two. It’s true that the greater commitment to this love does come from Yumiko and the extra trials that she must bear—her rape by her cousin Iba prior to her time in Indochina, and her drift into prostitution subsequent to her return to Japan and Tomioka’s neglect of her—offer a wider context of the suffering that a woman must endure from men, something that increasingly embitters Yumiko. Yet Tomioka is never really the object of any proto-feminist critique; the pain of their relationship comes from the swinging back and forth between the two, the way their needs and feelings so rarely coincide.
Most of the time it’s Yumiko who maintains the memories of their time together in Dalat as central to their existence, and it’s Tomioka who draws a line between present and past, resigning himself despondently to the way his life has narrowed down to a drab and miserable struggle. But Tomioka too can fantasise about Dalat (“we should have stayed, we could have been happy together”), and in one scene late in the film their roles even reverse as Yumiko declares that she has stopped dreaming of Dalat (“That’s the way life is”) whereas Tomioka simply says, “I still dream of it.”
This to-and-fro movement between the two is the dynamic of their relationship, repeated again and again in individual scenes. Take, as one fine example, the scene where Tomioka visits Yumiko in the tenement shack she lives in as a prostitute. The emotional bond between them is there but their sense of the betrayals of life keeps that bond at a distance. Tomioka swings from envy to self-pity and then to a desperate need for Yumiko. Yumiko turns resentful and angry, but after she drives him away, she runs out to find him again—inevitably, without success, as he has vanished into the night.
Yumiko and Tomioka’s needs and desires, the quality of their feelings for one another never coincide. Even the fantasy of a lovers’ double suicide, while shared, is conjured up by each of them at different times. Instead, the film charts the inevitable ebb and flow of their lives, as they separate and come together yet again; and this ever-returning movement is reinforced by the major musical theme of the film, a mournful Bolero-like tune whose rolling, circling quality perfectly encapsulates the fate of the two lovers.
It’s true that Tomioka is unworthy of Yumiko’s love. He’s a weak, selfish, untrustworthy, and self-pitying man (it is, incidentally, a magnificent performance by Masayuki Mori)—even at the end, as he and the invalid Yumiko prepare to travel to the distant southern island of Yakushima, it’s clear in one scene that he is contemplating abandoning her. But they do stay together, and the emotional movement of the last section of the film is to lead Tomioka to a comprehension of the value of the woman with whom his life has been entwined. As the images of Yumiko in their Dalat past return to haunt him, he collapses, weeping: alone and bereft, his loss is total. And it’s the restraint with which Naruse handles this final image, holding back at a distance from behind Tomioka, that heightens the real emotional force to this ending.
Wife! Be Like a Rose!1935
Older Brother, Younger Sister1953
The Sound of the Mountain1954
When a Woman Ascends the Stairs1960