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Friday, February 17, 2017

Mikio Naruse | 夜ごとの夢 Yogoto no yume (Every-Night Dreams)

the weak and the strong
by Douglas Messerli

Tadao Ikeda (screenplay, based on a story by Mikio Naruse, Mikio Naruse (director) 夜ごとの夢Yogoto no yume (Every-Night Dreams) / 1933

Japanese directors Mikio Naruse and Kenji Mizoguchi created, as I have stated previously, a sub-genre dealing with women suffering financial destitution who have forced to works as prostitutes. Omitsu (Sumiko Kurishima) in Naruse’s famed silent from from 1933 is just such a woman, whose husband having abandoned her, has been forced to work at a Ginza bar catering to sailors in order to support her son, Fumio (the charming Teruko Kojima).

       As the movie opens, she is returning from a trip of what was evidently several weeks. Although it is never explained where she has been, we clearly perceive that she has probably gone away with client on a sexual tryst. In her absence Fumio has been cared for by the kind unnamed elderly couple (Jun Arai and Mitsuko Yoshikawa) who also rent her a room, and think of the child almost as a grandson. 
       Fumio is delighted by his mother’s return, and asks if she has brought him a present. She apologizes, but explains she will soon bring him another “toy,” even though it is clear she has so little money that everything she makes goes for food and rent; she is forced to attempt to borrow on her “salary” from the mean-spirited proprietress of the bar where she works. A seedy denizen of that bar, a Captain (Takeshi Sakamoto) intercedes, providing her with the money, but obviously expecting favors in return.

       Like the hostess featured in Naruse’s wonderful film of three decades later, When a Woman Descends the Stairs, it is obvious that Omitsu is a skilled worker, who is popular with the men, but who would also prefer to be free from her work living simply as a loving mother.
      The neighbor encourages her to find a regular job or to marry a man who provide for her, but it is also clear that Omitsu sees herself as a fallen woman for whom there is no other choices left. At several times, she excuses herself from the sexual advances of clients by describing herself as a “old hag.” It is, after all, the depression era when choices for working women, as Naruse makes clear, were few.

       Suddenly into this stew of repressed desires and dreams comes Omitsu’s former husband, Mizuhara, a handsome but frail individual who regrets his previous choices, and is desperate to simply see his son. At first, Omitsu, still hurt by his abonnement, absolutely rejects him. She argues that his behavior alone has helped her to be hard and strong; pleading and tears no longer affect her. Indeed, if there is any one “theme” of this film it is her inner strength and her determination that her young son to grow up to be an equally “strong” man. 
        Yet when, accidently, Fumio enters the room during their conversation, and she sees the immediate bond between the two, Omitsu displays her own weakness; she still loves the man who has failed her, who can find no new employment. As Mizuhara, himself, puts it, he has “no luck with work.” Most of the available jobs demand hard labor, and his thin, almost sickly frame, immediately disqualifies him from those jobs.

        His wife allows him back into her life if for no other reason that he can play the doting father, and, with few illusions, even if he might wish to he be able to free her from her nightly role as a kind of geisha—the only traditionally dressed woman in the jazz-and-dance loving bar. Naruse is particularly wonderful in presenting the lively life of the bar and conveying to us, through the language of the silent screen, just how bifurcated Omitsu’s life is between her precious day hours with her son and her free-wheeling night life.

      The director also begins to build up, through subtle directorial moments, the very precariousness of Fumio’s life, positing the child, at one point, on a huge concrete tube as he watches his father clumsily playing baseball with slightly older children. In this marvelous scene, we not only recognize that Mizuhara is still a child at heart, unable to even participate in the adult world wherein he might protect his son, but observe, in the strange positioning of the child, just how dangerous Fumio’s young life is; and, of necessity, we can foresee that he will suffer some sort of disaster.

      Hit by a car, Fumio survives nonetheless, but the needed hospital care spirals his already poverty-stricken family into a situation from which they can never escape. Since Mizuhara has failed at finding a job, even though he vaguely attempts to find one, it is clear that Omitsu will have to give in the demands of the much-hated Captain.

     But, even worse, determining to take his share of the responsibility, Mizuhara commits a robbery, attempting to reward Omitsu with the money not only to live up to his patriarchal duties, but to protect the life of his beloved son. 
      If as an immoral woman, Omitsu is strong, as a mother she is highly moral, and will not except his stolen gains, insisting that he turn himself into police, and serve out what ever sentence they may invoke. Recognizing that he has failed yet again, Mizuhara determines to leave, if nothing else than to allow Omitsu to support her son in a way that does involve in his criminal behavior.
      He leaves her, but this time forever, by drowning himself in the nearby ocean, and, even worse, with his punishing act of writing a desperate suicide note. His wife returns to her suffering son to answer his questions as to where he father has gone, by angrily declaiming him as a coward, a weakling and again instructing her son to grow up to be strong. She will certainly have to be, since she clearly will never find salvation from the life she hates.

      Along with Ozu’s silent works, this film is perhaps one of the most-loved silent films of Japan cinematic history. And one can see why. Naruse reveals an unforgiving world, not only for women, but for men who cannot live up to how the society might determine to define them. No loving society can ever survive on a dichotomy of the weak and the strong; even the resilient Omitsu knows that, but has no choice but to reiterate that cultural lie. Surely, we realize, Fumio will also suffer for its absurd demands.

Orange, California, February 17, 2017

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