Happy 112th Birthday, Mikio Naruse!

Director and screenwriter Mikio Naruse was born 112 years today in Tokyo, Japan. Naruse isn’t as well-known as some other directors of classic Japanese cinema, such as Yazujiro Ozu, Akira Kurosawa, and Kenji Mizoguchi, but we are great admirers of his quiet, well-crafted family dramas and the compelling women who are so often at the center of them (not to mention the remarkable actresses who played them). 誕生日おめでとう、成瀬巳喜男、どこにおしています… (Happy birthday, Mikio Naruse, wherever you may be…)

Here are 10 things you should know about Mikio Naruse…

Naruse in the Wee Hours

“MikioWe are devotees of classic Japanese cinema, from the 1920s into the ‘60s. There are many great directors of that era, a number of whom are familiar names here in the US: Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi. But our personal favorite (it’s a close race with Kurosawa) is Mikio Naruse, whose directing career spanned nearly 40 years, from the silent era into the late 1960s.

Naruse made quiet, leisurely paced movies, pictures about (mostly) middle- and lower-class families and especially the women who keep those families afloat in the face of challenges and obstacles.

In 2005, NYC’s Film Forum ran a month-long Naruse retrospective that included some 35+ films. We had never seen one of his movies before, but we were interested in learning about him, so we made it a point to see the first film in the retrospective, followed quickly by the second, the third and most of the rest. (Over the course of that month, we missed just one movie, a film that was shown just once, at a time when I had to be at work.)

And at the end of that month-long retrospective, we were commiserating with a Film Forum employee who’d seen most of the movies, too, and we wondered together: How often could one see more than thirty films by a single director over a span of just four weeks and be sorry to see the retrospective end? How many directors’ work could stand up to that sort of total immersion and leave one wanting more?

Not many, we figure. So it’s with no hesitation at all that we recommend to you the two Naruse films that Turner Classic Movies is airing late tonight. Ginza Cosmetics (1951), which airs at 2:45 am ET, is the story of a young mother who is struggling to raise her young son while working as a geisha, and Wife (1955), which follows at 4:15 am, is about a couple that is struggling after ten years of marriage. The wife feels her husband isn’t a good provider and the husband is tempted by the prospect of a fresh start with an ex-colleague, a widow with a small child.

Set those DVRs, friends.

Goodbye to Another Glorious Gal: Isuzu Yamada

We’re a little late in noting the passing of the great Japanese actress Isuzu Yamada, who died at the age of 95 on July 9th.

Ms. Yamada’s career was an impressive one, spanning more than seventy years over eight decades and including work in classical and contemporary theatre, motion pictures and television.

In the cinema, Ms. Yamada worked with the greatest directors Japanese cinema has produced, including Mikio Naruse, Yasujiro Ozu, Akira Kurosawa, and Kenji Mizoguchi.

Film critic Pauline Kael wrote of Yamada’s work in Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, “There may never been a more chilling Lady Macbeth.”

Peter M. Grilli, president of the Japan Society of Boston, told The Washington Post, “[Yamada] was always the tough girl in movies. If I had to compare her to an American actress, I’d say she was a combination of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford—a very tough, self-aware, aggressive personality.”

For Cladrite readers who may not be familiar with Ms. Yamada’s work, Netflix offers seven of Ms. Yamada’s pictures, spanning a 48-year period.

For more on Ms. Yamada’s life and career, check out the obits at the Washington Post and the New York Times.

Five dazzling divas

Any movie buff in the tri-state area with even the slightest interest in classic Japanese cinema should plan on spending a good deal of time on Houston Street the the next three weeks.

Beginning Friday, April 1, Film Forum will be presenting a don’t-miss opportunity to immerse oneself in pictures made by the greatest Japanese film directors of the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s and starring five of Japan’s most acclaimed actresses: Kinuyo Tanaka, Isuzu Yamada, Machiko Kyo, Setsuko Hara, and Hideko Takamine.

image-Kinuyo Tanaka Image-Isusu Yamada Image-Machiko Kyo Image-Setsuko Hara Image-Hideko Takamine

This quintet of amazing actresses are being feted by Film Forum with a retrospective that features films by such giants as Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Keisuke Kinoshita, and Mikio Naruse.

The festival’s highlights are too numerous to cite, but we are especially fond of Takamine’s work, and she was best known for her work with the great Naruse, who, along with Kurosawa, ranks as our favorite Japanese director, but honestly, you could make your way to Film Forum on a daily basis throughout the retrospective and experience no regrets.

But if you can make only a few bills, we recommend the Naruse double-bill of Yearning (1964, Takamine) and Repast (1951, Hara) on Tuesday, April 5; Naruse’s Okaasan (Mother, 1952, Tanaka), the double bill on Saturday, April 9, of Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950, Kyo) and Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1953, Tanaka); Ozu’s Tokyo Story on Sunday, April 10, and Monday, April 11 (1953, Hara); Naruse’s Flowing (1956, Yamada, Takamine, Tanaka) on Tuesday, April 12; and … well, honestly, it’s a pointless exercise to try to recommend particular highlights. The entire retrospective is worth experiencing.

Clear your schedule, buy a Film Forum membership (you’ll save on admission), and save us a seat on the aisle, please.