Sunday, October 2, 2011

REVIEW: Street Without End

限りなき舗道 (Kagirinaki hodo)

Released: 1934


Mikio Naruse

Setsuko Shinobu

Hikaru Yamanouchi
Chiyoko Katori
Shinichi Himori
Nobuko Wakaba

Running time: 88 min.

Reviewed by Nicholas Vroman

The opening day of the PIA Film Festival highlighted a screening of Mikio Naruse’s last silent film” Street Without End.” It was screened in program with Ernst Lubitsch’s delightful 1926 silent “So This is Paris” – an appropriate pairing as Naruse quotes a Lubitsch film within “Street Without End.” With live piano accompaniment by silent film specialist Mie Yanashita, an added dimension was added to the screening. Too bad there wasn’t a benshi!

Mikio Naruse cut his teeth at Shochiku, finally getting his first directorial gig in 1930. Butting heads regularly with producer Shiro Kido, in 1933 he took on “Street Without End,” the less than promising but popular novel by Komatsu Kitamura with the deal that he would get more artistic freedom on his next project. Kido reneged on his promise and Naruse moved on to Photo Chemical Laboratories (PCL), a fledgling production company that would soon become more famous as Toho. At PCL, with considerably more artistic freedom, his career soon began to flower with critical and commercial successes. “Street Without End” was not only his last film for Shochiku, but also his last silent film. It was also one of the first of his masterpieces.

Despite the somewhat farfetched melodramatic plot, Naruse carefully constructed a touching drama of woman caught under the weight of societal mores. Naruse’s signature theme, the plight of women in Japan, is apparent in this early work. The impeccable use of mise-en-scene countered by flourishes of Eisenstein style editing show a young director in full command of film grammar. Creative cutaways and the generally low-key approach of the actors show Naruse exploring new ideas of how to structure drama. The smart use of tracking shots and beautifully composed shots by cinematographer Suketaro Inokai serve the film impeccably.

The film opens with a set of stunning images of 1930’s Ginza. The modern, bustling, electrified neighborhood is where Sugiko (Setsuko Shinobu) has come to find work. She waits tables at a moderne diner, the Compal Café. Here’s where the new, lower class, urban workers start in the new Japan. Caught between a marriage proposal from Harada (Ichiro Yuki), her self-serving boyfriend (he wants to get out of an arranged marriage) and the offer of some film touts to be groomed as a new star, she absent-mindedly steps off a curb into an oncoming car. The driver is Hiroshi Yamanouchi (Hikaru Yamanouchi), the well-heeled scion of a bourgeois family. As he rushes to the hospital with her, boyfriend Harada sees her in the arms of another man in the passing taxi and assumes the worst. He will soon disappear into his arranged marriage. Sugiko recovers quickly and is soon courted by Hiroshi. In a mix of true love, a sense of duty and a way to assert himself against his domineering mother (Ayako Katusragi) and sister (Nobuko Wakaba) he proposes to her under the looming presence of Mount Fuji. Sugiko warily accepts and finds herself in an oppressive household. Unaccepted by the unrelenting harpies and barely defended by her new husband, she endures gracefully. Hiroshi falls into drinking and womanizing and Sugiko finally asserts herself and leaves. Hiroshi continues on his drunken escapades getting into a major car accident. Implored to come back to the family, she comes to his bedside, delivering her final statement, accusing mom – and the system – of guilt in the tragedy. As she leaves the hospital room, Hiroshi dies. The film ends with Sugiko back at the café, a little wiser and world-weary. A long shot of her staring quietly leaves an enigmatic denouement.

Amidst this thick plot are a couple of subplots that build on the themes. One involves her savvy co-worker and roommate Kesako (Chiyoko Katori) and her clueless artist boyfriend Shinkichi (Shinichi Himori). She ends up taking the acting job that Sugiko didn’t, only to find it completely unsatisfying. The other subplot is the arrival of her brother Koichi (Akio Isono) to the big city. His desire for making it is to learn how to drive. And he actually succeeds. But in the light of Hiroshi’s ill fate with driving, there are ominous overtones.

The pleasures of “Street Without End” are myriad. The street shooting alone remains an indispensible document of 1930s Japan. The neon lit buildings, the electric power lines, the new trains and new fashions serve as backdrops and signifiers for a changing society. But from Naruse’s point of view, the changes are merely on the surface. Much of the second act of the film takes place in the confines of the Yamnouchi family residence. Unlike the new Ginza or even the simple, small apartments where Sugiko, Kesako and Shinkichi live, the Yamanouchi house is shot from low angles highlighting the oppressive ceilings and roof beams. Often the restless camera shows Sugiko in the background, her husband, sister-in-law and mother-in-law commanding the foreground space and confining her literally in the frame.

One startling sequence opens with the incongruous image of Maurice Chevalier in Ernst Lubitsch’s “The Smiling Lieutenant”. A quick cut reveals Sugiko and Hiroshi in the movie theater. Chevalier’s light romancing contrasts starkly with the state of the newly married couple.

But there are also moments and sequences of lightness and beauty. Early in the film, Sugiko and Harada walk through the dark city streets where he proposes to her. She remains reticent. But the sequence is built with a gentle dynamic framed in compositions foregrounding moon-like street lamps and the arcs of bridges and overpasses. The mood is magical. The shots continually reframe the couple, gently highlighting the shifting emotions, moods and feelings of each.

One intertitle emphatically declares Naruse’s declaration on the state of things. In translation it says, “Even today, feudalistic notions of family crush the pure love of young people in Japan.” He cuts from the intertitle to Kesako in the dressing room of a studio and her Shinkichi, now a set painter. Some comic business ensues with Shinkichi before Naruse cuts to the Sugiko’s travails in the Yamanouchi household. A subtle jab at the feudalistic film industry seems to be operating by the placement of the movie set scene.

“Street Without End” is of its time, yet its recent rediscovery show it to be still cogent, particularly within the context of Naruse’s oeuvre and revelatory in his impeccable story telling and consistently inventive and brilliant use of camera and editing.

“Street Without End” is available on DVD in Criterion’s Eclipse Series 26: Silent Naruse.

Read more by Nicholas Vroman at his blog

No comments: