What a man of keen, compassionate observation Japanese film maker Mikio Naruse was. And what an eye he had for the crucial detail: a little boy, squirming during a serious family conference and absent-mindedly plastering a straw from a tatami mat onto his forehead; or in another film, a writer, revealing his casual nature by burning a hole with a cigarette in his tatami (and then trying to hide the hole with an ashtray); or, in still another film, another little boy expressing his devotion to his errant, long-absent father by sticking paper over the hole in the bottom of the father's shoe.
Ironically, the first film to be shown this week in UCLA's Naruse retrospective (Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in Melnitz Theater), "The Whole Family Works" (1939), is something of a departure for the late director. As the title suggests, the characters of this picture are lower-middle class, Naruse's usual milieu, but for once the central figure is male--and, for once, Naruse's ending is upbeat.
Sunao Tokunaga's story, which Naruse adapted, is simplicity itself: the growing determination of the 22-year-old eldest son (Akira Ubukata) of a Tokyo factory worker (Musei Tokunaga) to leave home to seek a better life. Naruse expresses the utmost caring for one and all as the son's resolve is met with an array of reactions within his family in which the father must finally weigh what is best for his eldest son against what is best for his wife and other sons in their daily struggle to make ends meet.
Between her teens and middle age, Hideko Takamine made 17 films with Naruse, a number of which helped establish her as one of the finest actresses in the Japanese cinema. Their earliest collaboration, "Hideko, the Bus Conductor" (1941), screens after "The Whole Family Works."
As a conductor for a ramshackle rural bus line, Takamine and a driver (Kamatari Fujiwara, later a Kurosawa regular) get their indifferent boss to agree to allow her to deliver a spiel, guided-tour style, in the hope of increasing business, and they even get a writer to knock off a script for them. The film is light and slight, as befitting the Shirley Temple of Japan, as Takamine was then known; but watch out, for this is a Naruse film.
Sunday's Naruse program is composed of two exquisite silents, "Nightly Dreams" (1933) and "Street Without End" (1934). The first is Zolaesque in the desperation of the predicament of its heroine, a pretty barmaid (Sumikoi Kurishima) at a rough dockside tavern, struggling to support her beloved little boy and herself and dismayed (to put it mildly) at the return of her ineffectual husband (Tatsuo Saito), a slight, handsome man, as doomed and poetic as any character created by Tennessee Williams.
If "Nightly Dreams" recalls Josef von Sternberg's "The Salvation Hunters" in its naturalism, "Street Without End" is a woman's picture--as it might have been made by Ibsen. Setsuko Shinobu is a pretty Ginza tearoom waitress who marries a handsome man (Akio Isono) as weak as he is rich and aristocratic and is treated hatefully by her husband's imperious mother and troublemaking sister. But, like the eldest son in "The Whole Family Works," Shinobu slowly gathers resolve.
Yugoslav director Branko Ivanda will appear in person at Melnitz on Thursday at 7:30 p.m., along with his "Court-Martial" (1978), a bleakly comic nightmare of a movie set in an ancient castle in Dalmatia occupied in 1943 by a crazed, sadistic Italian commandant (Pero Kvrgic) who has summoned a hapless, terrified Yugoslav attorney (Ivica Vidovic) to rubber-stamp the execution of a group of his countrymen. "Court-Martial" is a relentless although compelling skewering of collaborators, ending with a bravura finish. (But be prepared for hideous intimations of torture and prolonged sieges of humiliation.)