Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Notes on Iwashigumo (Summer Clouds) by Mikio Naruse, Japan. 1958

It is said that Mikio Naruse never really liked using Cinema Scope. There might have been a commercial pressure to use this format from up to the late 1950s. Nevertheless, I can´t agree with him, one of his first films in Cinema Scope proofs that this spectacular format can be also used for these family dramas which are only existent in Japanese Cinema. One of the main characters (as far as we can speak in a shomingeki film about a main character at all) is a young war widow who has a son. At the beginning she is interviewed by a journalist who is interested in the life of farmers. Very soon she begins a love  affair with him. This affair is rather subtle indicated but how so much masters of Japanese cinema, there is no need for more. Her elder brother wants to marry off his children. But most of them resist and insisting to live their own life. Marriages in the films by Naruse or Ozu are always affecting the economical structure the families are living in. The seeming event less stories of a film by Naruse or Ozu enfold itself scene by scene. The intensity of these films seem to come from Nowhere. As a matter of fact, the Japanese colour films from the 1950s and especially the films by Naruse and Ozu are some of the most beautiful ever made. The very Japanese obsession to create cinematic images about every day life with all its small and big events goes with a strange chemistry with the magic beauty cinema can as well evoke. Surely I will probably never be able to give a  proper synopsis of this film with all the details of the family structure, but my memory is full of moments which follow me into my dreams. There is for example a mesmerizing moment when the young widow walks with the journalist on the beach of the sea. The landscape the persons are moving in becomes an eternal big screen, almost an image for the long oppressed longing of a young widow. Both is present, the effort to give an idea about the dry self-determination working life the widowed farmer´s wife leads but also the beauty of Naruse´s magic cinema scope images. The Japanese definition of realism and cinema was never an abstract ideological one. It was always materialized with the whole apparatus, cinema can offer. Especially Ozu and Naruse were always put in context with the cinema of the 1960s, among them directors like Antonioni. Both, Ozu and Naruse were already modernists in the 1930s. Of course a film like Iwashigumo can be very moving - yes-  even let me use the word entertaining but never in a contradiction to its strange analytical character.
There are scenes when the characters are interacting with each other, sometimes arguing. But there is always the freedom that our eyes can escape through a small door or a window which leads to the eternity of the world. And if Iwashigumo is also a film about, the unique concept of cinema, Ozu, Naruse and in another kind Shimazu or Shimizu have created is always as well a cinema of the self-determination of the audience how and how much it will be engaged with the film. Ironically the films by Ozu and Naruse deal mostly with social constraints, to watch them is for me always a sense of freedom.

As prosaic this seeming event less life of the protagonists are in Iwashigumo, there are some accesses to a deeper understanding. For example the classmate of the young widow who runs a restaurant: if they meet, only a few hints are enough to give an idea of a life time of these characters which exists far beyond the 125 minutes long running time of this film. These so-called eventless moments, I could watch for hours with the same joy I watch a Hitchcock film again and again.

Once when the widow and the journalist walk again through the landscape, we see in the far background a passing rail bus. It is one of this small connections between the fiction of this film with the whole universe. And Iwashigumo is full of these small connections. And if he liked it or not, it was probably Naruse who opened the shomingeki film up for the use of the more opulent cinema scope format.
As this film is also about agriculture, it reminds me in an idea I had long time ago about this specific kind of Japanese cinema. The fiction is literally planted on the soil of reality beyond film. Therefore the film´s fiction is always traceable to the reality outside the screen. Very early in the 1930s Naruse´s friend Ozu recognized that it was a big mistake that his company Shochiku considered Naruse only as an unnecessary “second Ozu”. That was as well an underestimation of the many different facets this movement around Ozu, Shimizu, Shimazu and Naruse offered not only to Japanese but also to world cinema.

Even though Naruse and Ozu earned relatively early in their careers the reputation as artists, most of their films were as well very popular and it is very likely that the audience of their films recognized themselves a lot during the time these films were released.

One reason, I consider Iwashigumo as one of my favorite films by Naruse is the final scene: The young widow finally accepts that her short love affair with the reporter was only a short illusion very likely to the memory of her late husband with whom she spent only a few years. At the end we see her stubbornly working on the rice field. It is a tiring physical work to earn her living. In the background the wonderful summer clouds like a far shadow of a fading idea of happiness. This female character we followed through more than 2 hours film is now almost as anonymous as most of the audience who must have watched this film in the late 1950s. And I can only guess how this film will look on a huge curved screen as one of the finest coloured cinema scope films in Japanese film history.

Rüdiger Tomczak