Life is But an Illusion: The Cinema of Naruse Mikio

A master director lauded for his delicate women films, Naruse Mikio (1905-69) fathomed a woman’s companion is, ultimately, solitude. Most exquisitely encrypted by Takamine Hideko’s tragic death in Floating Clouds (1955), his “quiet blows to the heart” also vibrated through Yamada Isuzu’s shamisen. A towering star of the Japanese screen, she brought poise and toughness to her roles as a notable musician, a fledgling Noh dancer or a proud geisha, under Naruse’s quietly devastating camera that captures the dichotomy between artistic excellence and elusive love.

Celebrated for his realist dramas of domestic life, and his sympathetic portraits of hard-luck women, Naruse’s sensitivity to the struggles of the ordinary people is imbued with his own strife in life and filmmaking. Looking through the translucent sliding door of married couples expose the illusion of family coherence, he offered cherished space for the discontented wives to express their emotions, and profound respect for their courageous attempt to extricate from life’s hardship and oppressive relationships.

At a time when Japan experienced upheavals of war as well as societal and ideological change, Naruse’s cinema reflected his aptitude to move with the fashion of the times, representing women’s transformation in the modern milieu. Freeing herself from shattered marital promise, breaking off an exploitative relationship, or even whaling away her cheating husbands, these women are disillusioned, yet hopeful, resilient and energetic, and makers of their own destiny.

Twelve of Naruse’s classic works are housed under the roof of three creative themes – “Love / Art”, “Wife / Puzzle” and “Time / Change” – each representing his specialties in the precise delineation of artistic reflection, marital dilemmas and social vicissitudes.

Artists find their inspiration in love, but creative difference sets lovers apart. As to the collaboration between Naruse Mikio and Yamada Isuzu, what makes their art great – love or solitude?

Is marital love like fine wine, getting better with time; or like bad vinegar, turning sour as time goes by? The sweet and the bitter of being a wife, all in Naruse’s delicate cinema.

Floating clouds, sudden rain. In the river of time, one gesture, or one moment is all it takes for Naruse to evoke how women live and feel, in these chronicles of upheaval in modern Japan.