Like a voice from the past or from a faraway country, Mikio Naruse’s searingly lovely “Floating Clouds” (Fox International) speaks in accents that might first seem distant or strange. But gradually the passion beneath its surface surges up, shocking us into recognition.

“Floating Clouds”--quietly eloquent, immaculately crafted--is a 1955 film long regarded as one of the greatest in the history of the Japanese cinema (and now receiving its first general local release). In Japan it was a favorite of critics, the public and most of Naruse’s colleagues. It represents the long-neglected master at the peak of his craft and art. In the lead role--a classic portrayal of a woman obsessively in love with an unworthy man--Hideko Takamine gave her most unforgettable performance.

Like much of Naruse’s great work in the 1950s and ‘60s, it has a continuity as seamless as life itself. But the life it shows is dark, bleak. Based on Fumiko Hayashi’s novel, the film is set in post-World War II Japan, and it deals with a populace as scattered, drifting and buffeted as the clouds of the title.


The central couple, Yukiko (Takamine) and Tomioka (Masayuki Mori, of “Rashomon” and “Ugetsu”), met during the war at a Vietnam forestry mission. For Tomioka, it was one of many casual seductions; for Yukiko, obviously, it was much more. Tomioka, as Mori plays him, seduces by insults, masks his emotions and affects a weary callousness. Yukiko at first is seemingly shy, vulnerable as a spring day. His barbs pierce her heart, and she succumbs to him like a flower bursting open.

One of the ironies of “Floating Clouds” is that we barely even see--except for brief moments, in flashback--that time of “happiness” in Vietnam. Instead, we see the war’s aftermath, the turmoil and poverty of late-’40s Tokyo--and, for Yukiko, one crushing disappointment after another. Her lover is both married and a compulsive philanderer; Japan, in its postwar convulsions, has barely a place for either of them. Outside, the streets have a a melancholy vitality (Naruse’s evocation of the postwar mood is superb, created by discreet glimpses around the edges). Life has little hope to offer, but one Yukiko seizes is that Tomioka’s love can be regained.

Much of the powerful effect of “Floating Clouds” comes from a paradox. Though Yukiko’s posture seems abject, she is in fact far tougher than he. Their outer and inner aspects are profoundly different. On the surface, Tomioka is callous and cold, but beneath it, vulnerable and tender, a weakling who cannot survive as well as she.

There is a lonely, dogged heroism about Yukiko’s struggle. In a sense, both of them are trapped in traditional imagery--the brusque, cynical and unapproachable male; the submissive female, worshipful unto death--that contradicts their true characters (possibly he flees her because he feels unworthy). These undercurrents are the source of the story’s true pathos and tragedy, and audiences who follow only the surface may foolishly dismiss “Floating Clouds” as an obvious tear-jerker with retrograde sexual stereotypes.

Like many Naruse characters, Yukiko and Tomioka are walled in. Trapped in society and in themselves, playing too well their demanded cultural roles, they are helpless when the culture collapses: chained to their rituals and damned by their dreams.

Naruse’s greatness as a director--and he is the peer of Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi--comes from unobtrusive virtues. He is a master of construction, detail, editorial rhythm; of understated emotions and unsparing glimpses of life and people as they are.

One moment of astonishing poignancy and beauty in “Floating Clouds” is its justly celebrated last scene. It’s tempting to say that if Naruse’s last tableau does not make you cry, your heart has withered. But tears don’t always supply a true measure. Let’s leave it at this: “Floating Clouds” is a film masterpiece on obsessive love to set beside Ophuls’ “Letter From an Unknown Woman” and Truffaut’s “The Story of Adele H.” It is a “woman’s story” that far transcends that limiting definition.


An East-West Classics release of a Toho Company production. Director Mikio Naruse. Script Yoko Mizuki. Camera Masao Tamai. Art direction Satoshi Chuko. Music Ichiro Saito. With Hideko Takamine, Masayuki Mori, Mariko Okada, Isao Yamagata, Daisuke Kato.

Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes.

Times-rated: Mature.