Evening Stream

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Dan Sallitt

Dec 22, 2008, 5:26:12 PM12/22/08
to NaruseRetro, meke...@kerpan.com
I had forgotten that Naruse's 1960 EVENING STREAM is an auteurist
guessing game. Naruse and Yuzo Kawashima share directing credit,
without any clear indication of who directed what. But the two aren't
trying to make a seamless film: their styles collide instead of
blend. In her book JAPANESE FILM DIRECTORS, Audie Bock says, "Naruse
filmed all of the older generation scenes and the Japanese restaurant
scenes, while Kawashima did the younger generation and the geisha
house scenes." This breakdown looks quite right to me, and with a
little acclimation I felt that I was able to grok the directorial
transitions. I believe that Naruse did all the scenes with the
mentally unstable ex-husband of one of the geisha, even though this
character interacted exclusively with the younger generation; and I
also think Naruse had dibs on the scenes with the crippled restaurant
cook. It looks as if the directors divided their work along the
aforementioned lines even within scenes and locations. For instance,
there's a single traveling shot, of the young geisha walking down a
hospital corridor to visit the cook, that looks like Kawashima to me;
but when they enter the cook's hospital room, Naruse seems to take
over. Likewise, the opening pool scene is dominated by Kawashima's
exaggerated comic style; but I'm guessing that Naruse did the brief
poolside shots with Takashi Shimura and his cohort, and with Yoko
Tsukasa and her friend. This schema gives more than half the film to
Naruse; and, as Jean Narboni observes in the October 2008 Cahiers du
Cinema, EVENING STREAM feels more and more like a Naruse film as it
goes along.

The easiest way to tell when Naruse takes over the film is that
everyone starts to seem a little discontent! I'm exaggerating a bit,
but the effect is quite conspicuous. It has a lot to do with acting,
but also with the way Naruse tends to neutralize active, happy
behavior by containing it in a larger still frame, sometimes including
more subdued performances in the same composition. By contrast,
Kawashima has an essentially exuberant directorial temperament, even
when the subject matter goes dark. And he certainly enjoys bending
the space to accommodate his demonstrative performances: he doesn't
mind crowding the foreground or reframing with the actors' energy, and
to this end he sometimes uses shorter lenses than Naruse. Neither
director flourishes his style too disruptively, but the differences
are made apparent by continual juxtaposition.

I was quite surprised that this strange division of labor didn't stop
me from liking the film quite a bit - it's certainly my favorite so
far of the newly subtitled (in French) films shown this year on Ciné
Cinéma Classic. The story centers on an uncomfortable love triangle -
mother and daughter in love with the same brooding, incomplete male -
that is sprung on us nearly at the halfway point. (Isuzu Yamada gives
a surprisingly gentle and vulnerable performance as the mother, in a
role that could have been played for melodramatic threat.) The
climactic mother-daughter confrontation is played down – or rather,
its energy is transferred to the parallel plot thread with the
unstable ex-husband, which culminates in what may be the most
frightening scene in any Naruse film (and a hint of what Naruse might
have been like as an action director). The love triangle collapses
instead of detonates, as Naruse undermines the appeal of the male love
object (who begins the film as a romantic figure) and embarks on a
long anticlimax of uncomfortable but inevitable reconciliation and
compromise. And then there’s a final dark plot twist in the last
minute or two: an unusual move for Naruse, but then Yamada’s character
is much less willing than most Naruse heroines to let everyday life
absorb her.

At first Kawashima (NOT LONG AFTER LEAVING SHINAGAWA) seems broad and
unnuanced compared with Naruse, but his style has its charms: his
exaggeration has a droll, knowing edge, and he’s able to absorb
serious dramatic material without breaking his comic stride. It’s
certainly odd to put a separate director in charge of the comic
relief, and yet perhaps no more disruptive than the idea of having
comic relief in the first place. To my surprise, the end result feels
fairly coherent, even though the transitions between directors are far
from smooth.
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