Dancing Girl

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Dan Sallitt

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Jun 26, 2010, 1:53:55 PM6/26/10
to NaruseRetro, meke...@kerpan.com
An earlier thread on this movie is now closed:

http://groups.google.com/group/naruseretro/browse_thread/thread/c277474406ead4c1

Released between GINZA COSMETICS and REPAST in 1951, right at the
generally acknowledged beginning of Naruse's greatest period, this
unheralded movie turns out to a major work: not without problems, but
with an intensity of expression that shows Naruse's renewed ambition
after 15 years of living by his wits. Like Naruse's 1954 SOUND OF THE
MOUNTAIN, DANCING GIRL is based on a novel by Yasunari Kawabata, and
each of the two films hints at an underlying, quivering melodrama that
periodically pushes at the troubled but mundane surface of family
life. In DANCING GIRL, the marriage between a writer (Sô Yamamura)
and a ballet instructor (Mieko Takamine) has been poisoned by the
wife's long-time love for another (Hiroshi Nihon'yanagi). The
family's nearly grown children (Mariko Okada - in her screen debut -
and Akihiko Katayama) are visibly frayed and beginning to malfunction
after decades of domestic conflict. Naruse drives the story with
unexpected cuts to one family member warily watching the others,
expecting no good to come of any interaction, waiting for a long-
deferred big bang.

As with SOUND OF THE MOUNTAIN, the suppressed melodrama of DANCING
GIRL's story seems to inspire Naruse to a more pictorial and abstract
visual style. From the first scene (a mysterious crisis in the raked
seats of a ballet hall) to the last (combining camera moves and
cutting to integrate the interior and exterior of the family house),
the film is extraordinarily beautiful, with compositions that are
slightly less functional and slightly more commentative than in most
Naruse films. At times Naruse almost seems to be passing from
modernism back to classicism - as in the scene where Okada confirms
her commitment to dance as she and her boyfriend (Isao Kimura) sit
above the rapids of a river. The inclusion of several ballet
performances of moderate length, which could have been an anomalous
element, feels compatible with the overall tone of hidden emotion
breeding aestheticism.

Like many Naruse films, DANCING GIRL pivots on a central scene that
outdoes our expectations of how violent and emotional the characters
are likely to be. Often that scene comes late in the film and
crystallizes the characters' states of being; here, the nodal scene is
the family's explosion, with Yamamura flaunting a bitterness which
seems to have transformed over the years into evil, and both children
breaking silence to expose the extent of the marital rift. Naruse and
scenarist Kaneto Shindô structure this scene as a series of successive
startling revelations, giving the sense that the repression on which
the film has so far depended is shattered, with no obvious way to pull
the story back together.

The brutality and enmity between husband and wife are never
counterbalanced by any demonstration of a bond, or even a civilized
discussion; and yet DANCING GIRL ends with a suggestion that the
marital ties might be renewed. In itself, the pictorial and abstract
ending is quite affecting, with Naruse making rare use of crane
shots. Still, I question the outcome of the story. The Wikipedia
article on Kawabata says: "Kawabata left many of his stories
apparently unfinished, sometimes to the annoyance of readers and
reviewers, but this goes hand to hand with his aesthetics of art for
art's sake, leaving outside any sentimentalism, or morality, that an
ending would give to any book. This was done intentionally, as
Kawabata felt that vignettes of incidents along the way were far more
important than conclusions." The ending of Naruse's adaptation of
SOUND OF THE MOUNTAIN was quite different from the ending of
Kawabata's book, and in that case too I was unsatisfied with the
film's climax (see http://groups.google.com/group/naruseretro/msg/77fc2ece793b1d9d
for my reaction).

Notwithstanding my reservations about the dramatic development, and
milder reservations about an odd compression of events that seems the
result of paring down a complicated novel, DANCING GIRL needs to be
added to the Naruse canon.
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