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Tuesday, November 19, 2013


The two films included on this disk in Criterion’s silent film 3-pack from Japanese director Mikio Naruse (the feature-length women’s drama NO BLOOD RELATION and the largely comic three-reeler KOSHIBEN GANBARE/FLUNKY, WORK HARD!/’31 [excellent title!]), are his earliest surviving efforts, and still have the feel of apprentice work. In both film technique & story construction, there’s a show-offy, 20-something quality Naruse would soon leave behind. (At least, judging by STREET WITHOUT END/’34, also included in the set.) The short, a neat piece of comedy about two struggling insurance salesmen who’ll do anything to make a sale, uses the financial pressures of depression era Japanese suburban life to underpin the gags, but just barely survives a jumpy editing style and a Soviet-style montage-of-attraction flourish that appears out of the blue at the climax. It's fun to watch, but it sticks out in quite the wrong way.

Mikio Naruse - circa '32

There are similar missteps in the feature-length film, especially in Naruse’s addiction to fast tracking shots that push in to the action. Effective when used sparingly, here they never stop coming. Still, what an interesting piece of women’s magazine fiction this is. A Japanese actress returns from Hollywood, rich and hoping to find the child she deserted six years ago. Her kid’s doing well with a beloved step-mother, but the father's business is headed toward bankruptcy and his cold-hearted mother is more than willing to grant child custody to the rich actress if she’ll save the business . . . as well as her plush life style. Sounds plenty lively, but even better is a sidebar plot involving the actress’s venal brother, a con man with a wily assistant, who makes his living running swindles. It’s a disappointment when we find out, after the lively prologue, that these two are secondary figures in the drama. And its odd to see both the short & the feature toss a kid in harms way to facilitate dramatic endings. Fascinating stuff, though. And there's so much more Naruse left that has yet to show up Stateside, even with half his output now considered lost.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: It seems ungrateful to complain about Criterion's release of these rarities, who else would bother? But the new music scores accompanying these films are disappointing. Too sober for the short subject; too stolid for the feature. With the feature, you can always play & repeat Manuel De Falla’s NIGHTS IN THE GARDENS OF SPAIN as background music; mysteriously, it works on every non-comic silent film ever made, though no one knows why. But the short needs something jazzy going on to support the slightly desperate comedy, before switching gears for the dramatic ending. You’re on your own for this one.

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