In this weeks instalment of Eastern Premise Jason Julier takes Naruse, and Three Sisters with Maiden Hearts. Apologies for the lack of illustrations with this piece. 

The arrival of sound opened up new avenues for Japanese filmmakers when it was embraced in the early 1930’s following its initial debut in 1931. Slowly, but surely, the major directors migrated towards this medium, grasping the vehicle for this new frontier and learning from their mistakes as they went along. While Yasujiro Ozu may have been steadfast in his reluctance to move away from silent films until 1936 with Hitori Musuko (The Only Son), he was not alone with Mikio Naruse similarly slow out of the blocks.

Both of these fantastic directors possess many similarities in methodology and content, yet Naruse still remains overlooked and underappreciated; in fact he is often referred to as the poor man’s Ozu. He was a seasoned, studio director that never engaged with the independent sector and instead was content to pick up his annual salary. A perfect company man he delivered on time and on budget, taking on whatever projects he was handed.  This means his filmography whilst spanning almost 4 decades is of variable quality and includes films that were not an ideal fit for his style despite his best intensions. Most his pre-war work is particularly splendid and captivating with the post-war contingent offering some highlights, mostly throughout the 1950’s.

Otomegokoro sannin musume or Three Sisters with Maiden Hearts was released in 1935 and not only marked the first Naruse film with sound but was his debut piece for the P.C.L. Studio, having left the mighty Shochiku. The move was necessary as Naruse had become trapped within the remit of the studio for slapstick and melodrama. Whilst films from this early period confirm his excellent timing and comic talent, Naruse was inspired by novels and always wanted to be a writer himself. Unfortunately his family could not afford to put him through the required classes and a disappointed Naruse found employment as a studio prop man. He may have failed to match his own literarily ambitions yet Naruse instead took this craft and interest and channelled it into his new career.

Based on the Wife, Be Like a Rose novel by Yasunari Kawabata, it is an ideal template for a director that would be forever associated with a brand of cold pessimism and focus on the troubles of the ordinary Japanese, often women. Three Sisters is fascinating to behold; even at these early stages an understanding and style is developing. Not only visually but with his handling of the script and the inclusion of sound is a brave move with the initial segment of the film heavily featuring the traditional sound of shamisen songs. His confidence is apparent from the way a song is carried across the urban landscape from children to the shamisen players and onto manual workers who tap their tools in rhythm to the tune. Three Sisters with Maiden Hearts is a poignant film as it marks the transition from silent to sound film and possesses strong silent traits and still has a fresh quality that is not completely overwhelmed by the Naruse pessimism.

The use of song is important during initial proceedings as we are introduced to a family of shamisen players. A shamisen is a three-stringed Japanese musical instrument that is plucked; the nearest Western equivalent would be a banjo. These traditional instruments are often played by Geisha and in the film we meet an exclusively all female family who are taught the discipline by their controlling mother. Finances are tight with only 1 of her 3 eldest daughters out on the streets working the local bars and establishments with her shamisen playing. The eldest daughter, O-Ren, has departed from the household after finding herself a man and is involved with some dubious street criminals. The youngest of the trio, Chieko, looks set to follow having shunned her tuition to become a dancing girl in a musical show and has fallen in love with a local restaurateur.

Naruse shows the migration of traditional Japanese ways towards more Western tastes. The middle daughter, O-Some, is the solitary shamisen player and we see her predicament early on and Japan in general, as she is forced out of a café after the introduction of a music box. Of the trio, mother Hahaoya is unflinching is her criticism of O-Some’s playing and we can presume has never recovered from her other siblings rebuttals. For O-Some it is clear she cares for all members of her family no matter what they force or expect her to do. This is a burden that she carries throughout the film as she tries to please all sides. The ending is typical Naruse and still has a powerful, heart wrenching quality even today that must have stunned audiences back in 1935.

The budget limitations and inexperience of sound recording are very evident during the film’s swift running time. What is identifiable is the skilful editing that Naruse would become appreciated for most notably by Akira Kurosawa who worked with the director as an assistant later in the 1930’s. The majority of his filmography remains out of circulation and Eastern Premise can only hope that this situation improves as more discover this director. Masters of Cinema put together a fabulous box set of his later films that included a lavish book and the BFI has also released a 3 DVD set of his most publicised works.  Sadly the MoC box set is now out of print and fetches ridiculous prices as it did not sell well. We can only hope that the pessimism around Naruse gives way to new interest and increased sales to warrant further releases.