Director: Mikio Naruse
Screenwriter: Yoko Mizuki. Based on the novel by Fumiko Hayashi
Cast: Hideko Takamine, Masayuki Mori, Mariko Okada
Run Time: 2 Hours and 3 Minutes
Availability: Streaming on Hulu Plus. No Digital Rental or Purchase. Only home video release is a Region 2 British DVD, and it’s out of print and quite expensive.
Filmmaker Mikio Naruse remains relatively unknown outside his native Japan, despite being a contemporary of Golden Age directors such as Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi and Akira Kurosawa. After watching this weeks film I can understand why. “Floating Clouds” from 1955 is Naruse’s most popular film, and is considered to be his masterpiece as well as one of the great Japanese films. For me, it suffers from the same problem as “Gone With the Wind.” There is an interesting story that is bogged down by an annoying, melodramatic romance. If “Floating Clouds” is representative of Naruse’s best, then it makes sense his work has not received the attention that Ozu’s or Mizoguchi’s has.
During World War II, a secretary named Yukiko Koda (Hideko Takamine) and a forester named Kengo Tomioka (Masayuki Mori) are sent to Da Lat in Vietnam to manage that countries forests. The two meet, have a fling, and when the war ends they return to Japan. Yukiko follows Tomioka back home to Tokyo, as he promised her he would divorce his wife and marry her. Tomioka has a change of heart, and decides to stay with his wife. As if that heartbreak and confusion wasn’t enough, the two find they are not adjusting well to post-war life. Tomioka leaves the government and goes into the lumber business, which he finds is not his strong suit. Yukiko goes into prostitution for a while. From time to time, the two meet up to talk about their hardships and discuss the good old days. However, this is not enough for Yukiko who still hopes to end up with Tomioko.
In my review of “Gone With the Wind,” I mentioned that the most interesting and compelling part of the film is Scarlett’s journey to rebuild her life after loosing everything. The most interesting aspect of “Floating Clouds” is its theme of rebuilding and assimilating to society after the war. That is what the film should have focused on. What makes the potential of the story even more interesting is that Yukiko and Tomioko were not soldiers, and seeing the process of adjusting to normal life from a non-combatant’s perspective would be extremely interesting. While the film brings up this struggle, it’s not the main focus of the story. It turns into a generic love story with Yukikio trying to win Tomioka’s heart, and melodrama is not the strong suit of this film. Sequences meant to be heartbreaking, I found laughable. Takamine performers her role well most of the film, but whenever she started crying, I was reminded of that episode of “Arrested Development” where Lindsay Bluth (Portia de Rossi) tries to cry, and her brother Michael (Jason Bateman) points out how fake it looks. Not only do we have a romance sabotaging what could be an interesting story, we have a fairly poor romance at that. However to be fair, the film was an adaptation of a popular Japanese novel, so Mabuse had permitters he needed to work within.
From a directing perspective, it’s a well-put together film. Credit needs to be given to cinematographer Masao Tamai and the production design. The environment and mood created looks and feels how I imagine a post World War II Japan would be. The Tokyo they use is not the sprawling metropolis you see today, but looks like a town in an Akira Kurosawa samurai film. Keep in mind, this came out ten years after World War II, so it is a very strong possibility that Tokyo might have looked like how it’s portrayed in this movie. Not much information is available about the film, so I don’t know if this was filmed on location or on a set. The other sets are also beautiful as well, particularly the mountain town the two visit for New Years. I like the the contrast between the brightly lit flashback sequences and the dimly lit present scenes. Stylistically, it is very similar to the films of Ozu. The camera work is static and the pace is slow.
Post World War II, there was a movement in Italian cinema known as neo-realism. These films showcased the struggles and hardships of working class people adapting to life after the war. Had the film gone in that direction, it might be more well-known and Naruse might be considered as important as Ozu or Kurosawa. There is a reason why Italian filmmakers like Vittorio De Seca and Roberto Rossellini are still taught in film schools while Naruse remains hardly a footnote in Japanese film history. Not only were those films important at the time, they still resonate today.
I don’t feel that “Floating Clouds” deserves a spot on the list of greatest films of all time. It’s an experience I don’t think I will revisit anytime. Only people who may appreciate this film are those with a strong foundation and knowledge of Japanese cinema. For those that want to get into Japanese cinema, I would avoid this and check out the films of Ozu, Mizoguchi or Kurosawa first. Those are the landmark directors. Another problem with “Floating Clouds” is its availability. Hulu Plus is the only viable option to view it. The DVD is out of print and quite pricey.
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