“Happiness is a concept that was invented in the modern world,” remarks a character in Mikio Naruse's 1952 film Lightning; the irony is that, more than any of the great Japanese directors whose equal he was—Mizoguchi, Ozu, and Kurosawa—Naruse's world is the modern world. It's just not very happy.
Kurosawa once characterized Naruse's style as being “like a great river with a calm surface and a raging current in its depths.” Naruse's melodramas are character studies revealed in gestures, plots unfolding in a glance. Raised in poverty, he was drawn to those who live on the edge of society's comforts—whether emotional or economic—and so it is not surprising that his abiding subject is women, from the stultifying oppression of marriage to the tarnished rituals of the anachronistic geisha. The novelist Fumiko Hayashi was his favorite source for plots epitomizing his own vision that modern women are offered only illusory freedom. Audie Bock, who championed this relatively unheralded director years ago in her book Japanese Film Directors and in a monograph, writes of the “condition of trapped awareness” in Naruse's women. It is this awareness that gave actresses like Hideko Takamine, Kinuyo Tanaka, and Setsuko Hara a chance to show their depth.
On the occasion of the centenary of this marvelous director, we are pleased to bring back many PFA favorites along with films we have never had the opportunity to see. This is a chance to look at Naruse's work for its freshness—its genius at narrative construction, its visual style, its sophisticated and surprising humor—along with the themes of desire and escape that will never grow old.