Director: Mikio Naruse
Screenplay: Yoko Mizuki
Based on a Novel by: Fumiko Hayashi
Starring: Hideko Takamine, Masayuki Mori, Mariko Okada, Isao Yamagata, Chieko Nakakita, Daisuke Katô, Mayuri Mokushô
Country: Japan
Running Time: 123 min
Year: 1955
BBFC Certificate: 12

Mikio Naruse is considered one of the great masters of Japanese cinema, sitting alongside Yasujirō Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi and Akira Kurosawa, particularly in his home country where his films have won several major awards and been selected among the greatest Japanese films of all time. He remains less popular than those towering figures in the West though, despite still being highly regarded by the critics that do pay him attention.

Perhaps due to this, and the fact that Naruse’s often austere films are less audience-friendly than, say the grand spectacle of Kurosawa’s epics, the director’s work hasn’t been as readily available to watch in the UK. We got a couple of lovely boxsets from the BFI and Eureka in the 2000’s but these mustn’t have sold very well as they have so far never been expanded upon or upgraded to Blu-ray.

Thankfully, the BFI have finally picked up the baton and are bringing Naruse into the HD age in the form of Floating Clouds on Blu-ray. The 4K brigade might be scoffing that they should be covering the UHD base too, but Naruse on Blu-ray is enough to make me incredibly happy, particularly as I missed out on getting the earlier BFI DVD set that included the film (it’s still knocking around on eBay these days but usually at a greatly inflated price).

Needless to say, I got hold of a screener copy of the disc and my thoughts follow.

Floating Clouds is a drama set in the aftermath of World War II. The story centres on Yukiko (Hideko Takamine), a woman who returns to a devastated Tokyo after working in French Indochina.

SOURCE CREDIT – “British Film Institute”

Yukiko seeks out Kengo Tomioka (Masayuki Mori), a former colleague with whom she had a wartime affair. Fueled by promises of a new life together, she rekindles the romance. However, Tomioka remains married to his sickly wife Kuniko (Chieko Nakakita), leaving Yukiko trapped in a hopeless entanglement.

Struggling to survive in a war-torn economy, Yukiko resorts to becoming an American soldier’s mistress and later even living with her brother-in-law Sugio Iba (Isao Yamagata) who had sexually abused her in the past. Throughout all of this, Yukiko continues to pursue Tomioka, despite his cruel, womanising ways keeping her forever at arm’s length.

Floating Clouds is a bleak exploration of how many people living in Japan felt lost following the war. On top of the difficulties of living in a time of poverty with a sense of defeat hanging over the nation’s head, it looks at those who were repatriated and forced back to a Japan that is no longer like that they left previously. These themes helped the film connect deeply with its local audience and might explain why it’s one of the director’s most popular and celebrated titles in Japan.

The doom and gloom of the film made it harder for me to enjoy though, I must admit. Naruse’s films are never a barrel of laughs, but the other couple of titles of his I’ve seen have had at least glimmers of hope or humour to cling onto, whereas here we’re presented with a relentless downward spiral.

Adrian Martin talks about the unusual narrative style of the film that has more of a serialised feel, with the story taking sharp turns throughout and no clear arc taking place. This might explain why I didn’t warm to the film, though I also have a notable dislike of masochistic/toxic relationship narratives.

There’s a repeated cyclical nature to the narrative though that perfectly fits the desperate on-and-off nature of the central relationship. Whilst I found it a difficult watch, I was still engrossed in the story, aided by its construction.

Indeed, even if I didn’t find watching Floating Clouds a pleasurable experience, I could easily admire its qualities as a work directed by a master filmmaker.

Naruse is less ‘showy’ than Ozu and Mizoguchi, who tackled similar subject matter and are famous for going against standard technical approaches and staging complex long shots, respectively. However, Naruse’s filmmaking is beautifully elegant, preferring simplicity over stylistic flourishes.

Perhaps most notably, there are some cleverly devised and beautifully executed match cuts between scenes, as the film jumps between time periods and locations. The story is often told by these cuts through the sharp contrasts shown.

The film looks gorgeous too. The flashbacks in Indochina are brightly lit and idyllic, whilst the scenes in post-war Tokyo are grey and gloomy. Wonderful use is made of doorways, windows and other pieces of architecture to frame characters. Locations are well utilised too, which was unusual for Naruse, who tended to stick to studio sets.

The performances here are excellent – subtle and nuanced. Tomioko can be a detestable character at times, but Masayuki Mori’s performance displays enough guilt to keep him from becoming unbearable or unforgivable. His actions did keep me from getting fully invested in the character though. Hideko Takamine’s Yukiko is much more sympathetic, aided by another powerful but understated performance.

Surprisingly though, given the strong performances, it’s widely reported that Naruse was pretty non-communicative on set. Catherine Russell, in her talk on the director included on this disc, suggests that it may be Naruse’s meticulous planning and clever editing that helped get the best out of his cast.

Indeed, the strength of the performances comes largely from glances, body language and reactions rather than line deliveries. This is another aspect of the skilful editing in Naruse’s films as much as it is a testament to the strength of acting in them. He (and/or his editor, Eiji Ooi) knows that there is greater power in how eyes or body language respond to events than in the dialogue that explains or discusses them.

The film was based on a novel by Fumiko Hayashi, whom Naruse adapted on several occasions. Some subplots and details have been excised, as is the norm for adaptations, but these are often hinted at in glances and brief exchanges, so they’re not entirely lost. This shows how carefully planned such subtleties are in the director’s films.

Another technique Naruse famously utilised was to follow characters walking and use this expressively. This is clearly demonstrated in Floating Clouds through a few scenes following Yukiko and Tomioka during different periods of their ill-fated relationship. The body language in these and the positioning of the characters tell us everything we need to know about where the characters currently stand in the grander scheme of things.

The music is quite interesting too. It has quite a Hollywood sound to it, with fairly lush orchestration. It tends to have an ‘exotic’ flavour though in the theme surrounding the Yukiko and Tomioka couple, bringing to mind our protagonists’ past in the more tropical Indochina.

SOURCE CREDIT – “British Film Institute”

Also worth mentioning is how the film tackles some subjects that would be too taboo for Hollywood at the time, or at least in featuring so many in one film. You’ve got sex, adultery, abortion, rape, suicide, the works. It’s rarely graphically depicted but the topics are openly discussed with only a little masking of the ‘gory’ details. This gives the film a weight and naturalism unheard of in most mainstream American films of the 50s, as well as keeping it feeling modern and relatable, these near-70 years later.

Overall, whilst Floating Clouds was a little too glum for my tastes and focussed on a relationship I struggled to connect with, it’s impossible to deny the masterful craftsmanship behind the film. It’s a beautiful work of cinematic artistry, even if I didn’t warm to the tale it told.

Film:

Floating Clouds is out on 1st July on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by the BFI. The 4K restoration is stunning – crisp and clean, with perfect tonal balance. It sounds great for a film from that era too, particularly the music.

SPECIAL FEATURES

– Newly restored and presented in High Definition
– Newly recorded audio commentary by writer and film critic Adrian Martin
– Mikio Naruse: Auteur as Salaryman (2016, 73 mins, audio): academic Catherine Russell, an expert in the cinema of Naruse, assesses the director’s career. Recorded at BFI Southbank
– Freda Freiberg on Floating Clouds (2007, 10 mins)
– Paul Willemen on Floating Clouds (2007, 7 mins)
– Floating Clouds selected scenes commentary (2007, 10 mins): cinema historian Freda – Freiberg examines a key sequence from Floating Clouds
– ***First pressing only*** Illustrated booklet with a new writing on the film by Catherine Russell, previously published essays by Adrian Martin and Freda Freiberg, notes on the special features and credits.

Adrian Martin provides a commentary. He discusses Naruse’s techniques and qualities as the film plays out. It’s a deep analysis that helps you greatly appreciate Naruse’s mastery of the medium. I particularly enjoyed hearing about how he used cinematic techniques to fill in the gaps left out when adapting the original novel.

There’s also a ‘feature-length’ talk by Catherine Russell about Naruse’s work in general. It’s a detailed and intelligent discussion that makes for a valuable addition to the set, particularly for those who are new to the director. It’s capped off with a Q&A too, which delves further into thoughts on the director.

Paul Willeman provides a short but thought-provoking analysis of the film’s themes. This is a must-watch for anyone who doesn’t have the time to sit through the commentary or Russell’s talk.

Freda Freiberg provides a short 10-minute selected scene commentary where she breaks down Naruse’s discreet, economic visual storytelling. In a separate piece, she also talks about the feminist aspects of the film. She describes how, like me, she was a little put off by the actions of the protagonists at first but has since grown to appreciate the hidden depths beneath them.

In the booklet, most of these contributors reappear to provide essays. Catherine Russell discusses how the film reflects the problems faced by the Japanese people following their defeat in WWII and the subsequent US occupation. Adrian Martin writes about the journeys and walking scenes prevalent and vital in Naruse’s films. Freda Freiberg explores the reasons why Naruse might often be considered a step down from the other Japanese greats – Ozu, Mizoguchi and Kurosawa, but why that assessment might be unjust.

So, the BFI have done Naruse justice with his first UK Blu-ray release. The disc is stacked with first-rate extras and a superb booklet. Let’s hope it’s the first of many.

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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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