I always feel like my coverage of certain countries, certain directors and certain genres to be incomplete. When I learn about a director, I go through the process of research where I add his films to my list of movies to see and then when I get to them, I always feel stupid for not seeing them first instead of watching Futurama episodes for the millionth time. This of course could be said about Mikio Naruse. He was a prolific Japanese director who directed small intimate dramas mostly about women trying to make it in the world. He is not as famous as Kurosawa or Ozu, but he is important for the influence that he had on several modern directors and what he did to promote the melodrama. He elevated this much maligned genre into a subtle, sophisticated look at domestic life. This is the first film of his that I have seen and I can’t wait to get my hands on many more.
The story of this film involves a widow trying to make it as a cocktail girl. Cocktail girls are women who entertain rich men in a lounge type setting without taking off their clothes or anything. They are like modern-day geishas. Many women during this time (and still even in the U.S.) make a lot of money and support themselves through this type of entertainment. However you can only do it for a certain time, before you either get married or open up a bar of your own. Our widow is at this age and this crossroads in her life. She wants to keep her independence while also being financially stable. She scorns other girls’ attempts to snare their johns into their possession and resists becoming a mistress in order to own her own bar. She tries several different ways to either get out or promote herself, all of which fail. Every time she gets close to getting what she needs, I wait with bated breath as the time marches slowly on towards the end. She is a heartbreaking character that elicits tons of sympathy from the audience. However she is a complex character and Naruse is not afraid to show that. Several times throughout the film, she becomes selfish and mean to the people around her. During those times, the sympathy does not lay with her,the inflictor, but with the inflicted. But then the scene changes and she ascends those stairs again to go back to the reviled club and you are with her again.
This film is full of great shots and wonderful performances, but the story is what matters most and what is handled with the most care. Every shot is necessary, every look is essential to tell this story in a convincing manner. This film stays with you as you contemplate modern-day situations for women that are a lot like her. It is interesting to see how different it looks, but how little it has actually changed over the years.