Floating Clouds (1955): Capturing Japan’s Post-War Zeitgeist

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The Odyssey to finally get to Mikio Naruse has been a long and arduous one. I must admit, like many before me, his name carries none of the recognition we commonly lavish upon Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi, and a select few. So, for the longest time, there was no pursuit. His name was totally unknown.

However, as you begin to familiarize yourself with Japanese cinema (and I must admit to still being a relative novice), there are certain names that you keep coming back to. Masaki Kobayashi and Kon Ichikawa fall right behind the illustrious trifecta. Certainly, you have the Japanese New Wave directors like Shohei Imamura, Nagisa Oshima, Masahiro Shinoda, and Hiroshi Teshigahara.

However, for some reason, I just could not stop thinking about Mikio Naruse. It seemed like I was always being reminded of him. Whether it was Kurosawa praising his writing or Hirokazu Kore-eda saying his style was more akin to the lineage of Naruse and not Ozu. Again, it reflects an oversight on many film aficionados. We do not pay Naruse much respect because, frankly, there’s not much access to his work in America.

In fact, because I am so fortunate to come of age as a cinema lover in a world that is so globalized, with content so accessible, it is not a form of helplessness that I have felt too often. It’s not simply a matter of his film’s being hard to come by; it felt like only a few were readily available.

This absence of his work made it all the more imperative to reach him. Finally, I can attest to dipping into his filmography and finding myself deeply fortunate to have made his acquaintance. If it’s allowable to use a German word to describe a Japanese condition, Floating Clouds captures the zeitgeist of Japan in the aftermath of WWII.

The film’s structure feels as fluid as its title. It trusts the audience to follow along without voiceover cues of any kind, drifting in and out of the present and flashbacks set before the war had ended. This is the fashion in which we get to know our two “destitute expatriates” now reunited in 1946.

They met for the first time in Indochina. It’s a world we can contrast with another romance like Red Dust. An outpost out in the forests of Asian proves a far more bearable place to pass the war.  If you recall, the earlier film is made by the red hot chemistry between Clark Gable and Jean Harlow (and with Mary Astor).

Except in such a patriarchal society, like Japan, it always seems to be the man who has the say. Tomioka (Masayuki Mori) begins his acquaintance with Yukiko (Hideko Takamine) with slight jabs at her, all but solidifying his gruff character for the entirety of the film. These rocky foundations give way to passionate romance and Naruse does something dynamic by cutting right between a kiss in the past to one in the present. So much has changed and yet nothing at all. Much of Floating Clouds is about this reconciling this past with the present.

The pensive serenity is one of the unifying hallmarks of the picture. This is another point of departure with a Hollywood romance like Red Dust. This, paradoxically, feels like a grand statement — choosing a tranquil path in a medium that is so often filled with noise and a world full of constant turbulence.

Even in considering his countrymen, Kurosawa is often more dynamic in composition and action. Thus, it seems most obvious to contrast Naruse with Ozu. However, whereas Ozu heralds his presence within the frames through the meticulous craftsmanship and attention to detail, you do not necessarily see this to the same degree in Floating Clouds.

It is stripped down to a near Verite approach, which still cannot be mistaken for shoddy work. In fact, it boasts beautiful interludes between two people on par with a picture like Late Spring. It’s not a perfectly ordered fabrication of reality where human drama plays out. The spaces feel rich with the impoverished and worn layers of Japan as it lay. The people are much the same, unadorned yet imbued with truth.

Hideko Takamine is extraordinary for how she is able to manage a spectrum of emotions — exuding an inner strength and individuality — while still giving way to honest feelings of regret. She can be the adulterer, the nagging lover, the broken heart, all of the above , as they cycle through time.

No less important is Masayuki Mori as he acts as her perfect counterpoint. He gives her nothing, or at least very little. Every potentially thoughtful action is dismissed and any form of commitment is avoided doggedly. There is even so much about their preferred temperaments putting them at odds. It seems like circumstance and they’re own interactions together all but destined them to part ways and move on with life. He returns to his wife “nobly,” while she is supported by the brother-in-law who formerly took advantage of her. Every relationship is riddled with these personal dilemmas.

There is another brief snapshot that resonated with me — both in its mild humor and how it proved indicative of the times — when Yukiko is walking down a street alone. In the periphery, we see what looks to be a Japanese woman with an American G.I. He seems to be at least a head taller than everyone else. Then, almost on cue there comes a voice, speaking my native tongue: English.

It’s a second G.I. looking for a date, and he affably asks her in broken, bastardized Japanese (rather like what I’m capable of speaking), if she’s alone and where she’s going. She simply smiles and moves on, either to brush him off or resign herself to a superficial evening of companionship. He exists as more of an archetype than a fully defined character even given that his name is “Joe.”

However, what it provides is a fascinating counterpoint to what we are used to in our little universe, where everything commonly revolves around the western world, if not America. Pictures like House of Bamboo, Sayonara, Teahouse of the August Moon, they all give us a very specific and tailored experience.

It’s somewhat strange and fascinating to feel like the “other.” The soldier here is the sailor in Lola (1961) or the soldier in The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979). In fact, they all serve much the same function. They come to represent a different type of relationship and with it a diverging life, even if it’s only meant to be a momentary fleeting fancy. 

This is not a picture where we see the chaos and the bloodshed. After all, these two were the “lucky ones” stationed in Indochina. And yet we see the shadowy imprint of a former life involving suffering, poverty, and the ignominy of surrender. It doesn’t seem too farfetched to claim Floating Clouds somehow channeled the thoughts and feelings of a generation. The Best Years of Our Lives might be similar to a generation of Americans.

Consequently, as a viewer in this contemporary moment and an American on top of that, there is a realization of how much I take for granted in this story. I am more like the American soldier than I am this couple. It proves a humbling observation, carving a path toward some sense of empathy.

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 Eventually, her lover turns up again — still as brusque and egocentric as ever, looking around at her plain surroundings and commenting on how well she’s doing. These types of evasive, indirect proclamations are all she ever gets. So she’s hanging on his words, getting whisked this way and that with partial promises and empty hopes, never going anywhere. Later on, he has his eyes on the pretty young wife (Mariko Okada) of an acquaintance (even soaking in the public bath together). After all, in superficial terms, she is much more “desirable.”

To consider the American soldier again, he was on leave for two months before shipping home. Even in the short amount of time, he was overflowing with geniality. If we take Floating Clouds as indicative of all of Japanese society, it proves a telling portrait. There is no affection or sense of vulnerability within men. Endemic to the society and more so a holdover of the war. It’s not simply about women being overly emotional, though this is often the cultural expectation. More emphatically so, the men lack any type of emotion. They are ingrained with this stoic (sho ga nai) mentality.

There are numerous walk-and-talks, and the scenery and setup might as well be interchangeable, but the subtext and junctures in their lives are starkly different each time. So we have all these snippets wedged in between their life events as they orbit in and out of each other’s lives.

It’s easy enough to juxtapose it with Citizen Kanes dinner table scene where a relationship is seen crumbling in a matter of minutes. Stretched out as it is, within Floating Clouds, these walks continue this metaphor of progression. It is the progress of life, of a relationship, and of the world existing around us. Because while the steps might remain the same, the circumstances are different around every bend. Time marches on with each footfall.

It’s not about being ships in the night either — that they missed out on one another’s company — simply put, they are abrasive together. Their traits and identities are constantly causing them to attract and repel each other again and again.

The lasting image is a bent head, but this is not one of Ozu’s quiet forlorn scenes where a father has just made the honorable decision to give up his daughter. These are ugly, bitter tears. He is weeping. And this man, for the first time in his life, is providing physical acknowledgment of how much another individual human being meant to him. In a Hollywood picture, the action would be meaningful, but not unprecedented. In this movie, it feels heart-wrenching because we have yet to anything so transparent.

It’s an evocative final note in a work rarely prone to this kind of overt outpouring. It’s the cathartic release in a bittersweet tragedy. All we can do is bemoan the fact this man was never vulnerable enough to admit the depths of his love during life. Unfortunately, in this particular life, there is no resurrection.

4.5/5 Stars

An Autumn Afternoon (1962)

an_autumn_afternoon_filmposterThere’s something overwhelmingly soothing about Ozu, simultaneously slowing my pulse and calming my nerves. Yes, An Autumn Afternoon stands as his final film. Yes, he would sadly pass away the following year. But there’s a comfort to watching his films unfold — even his last one. The drama is everyday and somehow disarming and pleasant. We often take for granted that Ozu was not planning to end here. This was not supposed to be his last film. It just happened that way.

However, that is the way that the world turns and with such of an outcome we get one final candid view of the director at work — his confident and streamlined aesthetic that at this point is instantly recognizable. It’s not simply about content, though his film examines many of his usual preoccupations of years gone by. It’s really about the form.

His palette is by this point assured and at the same time vibrant and free. Everything is in its precise place, the colors bright and cheerful — a certain amount of authenticity married with simple visuals that take impeccable staging, facades, and a static camera to tell his narrative in a very particular way.

And he’s willing to break the rules of perspective that have forever been textbook Hollywood law and yet the way he does it is hardly off-putting. In fact, it’s rather reassuring. His figures always looking at us directly, carrying on conversations, sharing in pleasantries or even chortling together over some small trifle. And we get to be fully a part of that both the trivialities and the drama.

Still, I am constantly being drawn to different things around the edges of the screen. Distracted in a good way by various bottles placed throughout the frame, bowls placed in front of our figures, or Suntory logos that hang overhead. Important, certainly not, but still they mesmerize me for some unexplainable reason.

And I have long gotten over any amount of impatience in the pacing of Ozu. Shots of empty rooms. Seemingly pointless conversations. Eating and drinking. It’s all palatable. It’s more about savoring every little moment for what it is. Because that’s what Ozu was truly a master at capturing. So many people behind a camera can capture high drama with enough action, intrigue, and scandal. But it takes a fairly fearless individual to put a microscope (or a movie camera for that matter) up to the banality of life. Yet it’s the true irony, that it’s precisely in those places we kind find so much truth pertinent to our own existences.  Yes, it’s true.

Meals with friends. Family conversations. Husbands. Wives. Fathers. Daughters. Brothers. And so on. It’s no surprise that these are all things that Ozu looked at before and if he had continued making films he would have undoubtedly continued. The same social mores and familial relationships that while uniquely Japanese, still share enough with the rest of humanity to be oddly universal.

In this case, his favorite protagonist (Chishu Ryu) is a widower who lives with his grown daughter and son. It’s his buddies who chide him to let his daughter go so she can get married before she’s an old maid. And while in previous iterations Ozu looked deeply at the heartbreak, the emotional effects are slight. The daughter is relatively happy. The father is wistful but still resolved to live his life. The ever-changing aspects of life are felt but hardly earth-shattering. Instead, mankind is forced to continually wax and wane with the times. There is a time for a laughter, a time for tears, a time for work, a time for play, and so on.

Although the father-daughter relationship is the nucleus the film boasts a surprising depth of character. There are coworkers, old war acquaintances, former teachers, and the brother and sister-in-law. In fact, the venerable Mariko Okada is always one of my favorites in Ozu’s films and she picks up where she left off in Late Autumn with a certain spunkiness and vivacity.

If this must be our exit point from Ozu’s work, it’s a relatively easy place to leave. It’s a beautiful, warm portrait of modernity. Two old war buddies can assert that maybe it was for the best that the Allies won the war. A husband can really want a pair of golf clubs, though he doesn’t have the money to buy them. Old men can gather around a table for a party and joke about their old teachers. It’s a delectable slice of life.

4.5/5 Stars

Late Autumn (1960)

lateautumn1Yasujiro Ozu has the esteem of being christened “The Most Japanese Filmmaker.” It’s certainly a high honor, but at first, it can feel rather counter-intuitive because after all, such a great master of cinema cannot be considered average or a composite in the scheme of Japanese film history. And I don’t think that is what this title is trying to get at. The fact is that Ozu, over time, really experimented with the conventions written by classical western filmmakers and he built his own unique aesthetic that is quite evident later in his career. That being said, his film’s are very Japanese in the way they interact with and dissect the culture that he comes out of, and I think that is paramount to understanding and ultimately appreciating his work.

It’s no different with Late Autumn, Ozu’s penultimate film, a social-familial drama that shares a great deal of similarity to some of his earlier work. The fact is, he’s constantly returning to these ideas of marriage, family, generational differences, and the underlying etiquette that is so prevalent in Japan and Asian cultures in general. But of course, much of what he examines is universal and that’s what allows his films to remain timeless.

With Late Autumn, in particular, it’s easy to marvel at how the director frames his space because he seems to have tremendous spatial recognition. He’s confident in his aesthetics which he highlights with colors and axis lines, which are then further embellished with human subjects. Not many directors are brazen enough to show us an empty room, a hallway, or the mundane facade of a building, but Ozu is so self-assured in his composition. They are too long and occur too often to be establishing shots. He wants to continually convey to us the space that his characters inhabit and he’s meticulous. Everything is placed with pinpoint precision just the way he wants. And it shows.

On a basic level, Late Autumn can meld nicely with many of the director’s other works also based around the seasons. In this color installment, three adult men gather for the funeral of one of their mutual childhood friends. It’s a sad occasion as they wistfully remember the good old days when they were young and in love. But as a service to their deceased friend, they agree to find a husband for his sweet sunshine-faced daughter Ayako (Yoko Tsukasa). However, they also worry for his widower Akiko (Setsuko Hara), who is equally beautiful, since the years have been very good to her. What follows is the typical fumbling attempts at matchmaking, trading manners, and so on. When Mr. Mamiya inquires if he should ask for a young man’s picture and resume, we assume it’s a joke, but he’s quite serious.

What makes Autumn different than earlier classics like Late Spring or even Tokyo Story, is that it shows the next generation of young people.  The kids embrace the rockability of Elvis while reading Mickey Mouse cartoons. The young adults are folks who have grown up in the specter of WWII. They want to leave behind the world of useless honor and restraint.They speak their minds and show their discontent.

lateautumn2I enjoy the light touches of humor injected into this film because the three chums sit around the bar making observations with a bouncy score that seems more at home in a Tati comedy. Sometimes they’re genuinely trying to be funny, but more often it’s hilarious because they’re actually so dysfunctional. They take on this task of watching over their friend’s family with all seriousness, but they get sidetracked by their own desires and personal concerns. They stir up rumors, make waves, and ultimately cause a lot of trouble. Everything gets muddled and it’s the blunt and frank assertions of young Yuriko (Mariko Okada) that points out their failures. She sees how they have made a mess of things and calls them out for it. Perhaps it feels abrasive, but I think they like her for it and the audience does as well. She’s a reflection of this new generation that’s not looking to mince words or hide behind social etiquette. They’re fed up with that type of lifestyle. In fact, Yuriko is the one who says marriage is the worst. The ideal would be if love and marriage always went together, but they don’t.

lateautumn3Thus, although the relationship between Ayako and her mother takes center stage as the film progresses, Yuriko is extremely pivotal. It’s the lives of the first two women that are affected by the unintentional bungling of these men, but it is Yuriko, who signifies change for the better. In many ways, this story feels very similar to Late Spring in particular, but the interest is not so much in original ideas as it is in re-imagining ideas. It’s a film for the 1960s where men are slowly losing their vice-like grip and societal norms are changing as women move to the forefront. But what remains are the suggestion that it’s alright to push back against societal pressures, and interpersonal relationships are delicate flowers that must be cultivated with care. So easily they can be trampled and destroyed. It takes a certain type of person to acknowledge their own faults while persistently loving those around them.

This is the utmost compliment, but in many ways, Setsuko Hara reminds me a great deal of my own grandmother, a woman who radiated a genuine kindness that was apparent to everyone who walked through life alongside her. Bless their souls. Both of them.

4.5/5 Stars

Late Autumn: A Close Reading of a Japanese Auteur (2015)

lateautumn_1_originalYasujiro Ozu has the esteem of being christened “The Most Japanese Filmmaker.” It’s certainly a high honor, but at first it can feel rather counter-intuitive, because after all such a great master of cinema cannot be considered a composite or even representative of Japanese film history. And it doesn’t seem like that is what this name is trying to get at. In reality Ozu experimented with the conventions written by classical western filmmakers over time and out of those frameworks he built his own unique aesthetic. It’s quite evident especially in his later films. That being said, his films are very Japanese in the way they interact with and dissect the culture that he comes out of, and that is paramount to understanding and appreciating his work.

A prime example is Late Autumn, Ozu’s penultimate film, a social-familial drama that shares a great deal of similarity to some of his earlier storylines. The fact is he’s constantly returning to these ideas of marriage, family, generational differences, and the underlying etiquette that is so prevalent to Japan and Asian cultures in general. Yes, he takes on the everyday as his subject matter, but far from being mundane, it suggests that Ozu gets at the very fabric of Japanese society like few directors were ever able to. But of course, much of what he examines is universal and that’s part of what allows his films to remain timeless.

One scene that proves crucial in Late Autumn occurs when the radiant young beauty Ayako (Yoko Tsukasa) returns home to her mother in a huff. This scene is integral because she believes her mother is keeping secrets from her about getting remarried, and it threatens to drive a spike through their relationship.

As he often does, Ozu will use an extended establishing shot, in this case, the outside of the apartment, and he lingers on it for a time, as if to convey the space that his characters occupy. In fact, these type of sequence became so synonymous with the director they received the moniker “pillow shots.” Historians Bordwell and Thompson contend that we can “hardly consider these mere ‘establishing shots’ in the classical Hollywood usage, since many of them are more confusing than orientating” (6).

The following long shot is of young Ayako (Yoko Tsukasa) walking solemnly down a hallway, and it conveys her dismay even from a distance. Her downward gaze tells the full story as much as the muted colors on the walls around her. Next we are situated inside her home watching Ayako come into the space that she shares with her mother. However, the normally peaceful sanctuary is certain to be a place of conflict, at least this evening. What follows is a long shot peering in from the next room, once again suggesting the distance that has already been created between these characters. Akiko (Setsuko Hara) comes into the frame for the first time. What it does is create a space for the audience to observe this intimate scene while still maintaining a certain amount of space to analyze what is in front of us.

There is a medium shot of the mother sitting down and she begins to talk about something routine like the groceries she was buying at the local market. What follows is one of Ozu’s variations on the classic Hollywood shot-reverse shot formula, as mother and daughter trade comments. Ayako is facing away from the camera, sitting by the window sill. Understandably Akiko is oblivious about what happened earlier. How could she know what her daughter heard from Mr. Mamiya? We end up going back and forth between mother and daughter with Akiko facing the camera head on as if she’s talking directly to the audience. Her daughter is completely turned although she does finally turn around and accuse her mother of lying. There’s still a noticeable distance between them.

But the camera does another interesting thing during this climactic moment. It makes a move, ending up behind the daughter, looking over her shoulder. It’s still stationary, but Ozu has circulated through this world made of 360 degrees of movement. Thus, “Once this pattern of circular space is established, Ozu’s films use the same devices Hollywood does, but without the axis of action” (29). Essentially, he is not constrained by the 180 degrees of Hollywood filmmaking. Such a tactic allows him to elicit a different response and capture a different view in such an integral sequence. Because Ayako has just accused her mother of hiding her plans of marriage, and we know what she’s talking about, but if we look at Ayikko’s face we can tell she’s confused; certainly befuddled by it all.

Then, just like that Ayako gets up to leave and once more the camera shows a medium shot of the doorway. This time the mother gets up and questions her daughter, but really it’s directly to the audience once more. She doesn’t get an answer as her daughter leaves without a word, the door closing behind her. It’s seemingly such an everyday look at human interaction, but it’s full of so much meaning, so much emotion. A great deal of that is thanks to Ozu and how he situated his camera in reference to his two actors. Each works off the other in perfect unity to make this sequence simple but at the same time dynamic in its effectiveness. We care about these people and truly feel their hurt, because we are experiencing it alongside of them.

This scene really resonates because it feels like one of the first times we actually get to know these characters. Oftentimes we cannot judge people by how they interact when times are good. That especially rings true in a Japanese culture that often appears to hide behind manicured etiquette and demure smiles. True, all cultures do this in a sense, but it feels especially prevalent in Japan. It’s a nation where the whole is more important than the individual. You’re not to show how feeling out of respect for those around. However, it’s when there’s actually a source of conflict or pain that a person’s true character breaks through the guarded exterior. In this instance, Akiko no longer carries her ever-present grin, but instead it’s given way to a look of deep concern. Her daughter was equally bright-eyed most of the film, and now her brow is furrowed with frustration. These are not the character we first met, or perhaps this is the first time we have seen them for who they really are. They have shed the holistic mentality, and finally given way to their true self.

To Ozu’s credit, he sets up his scenes beautifully, optimizing the space in front of him and situating his camera in a way that is unobtrusive yet unique. It provides the perfect environment for examining his human subjects in their natural rhythms of life. It’s simple, it’s beautiful, and it’s ultimately very telling of the human condition.

R.I.P. Setsuko Hara