Mikio Naruse is one of the least known of Japan's early master directors, both in the West and in Japan, yet he created some of the most moving, darkly beautiful works in Japanese cinema. Like Kenji Mizoguchi, Naruse showed an uncanny understanding for the psychology of women. Like Yasujiro Ozu, he preferred subtle shifts of character over broad strokes of plot. Unlike either of these early greats, however, Naruse's vision of humanity was much darker and more clinical. He stripped all vestiges of hope or acceptance from his films, what remains is only a willful struggle to endure. His relentlessly negative view of human existence has resulted in Naruse's often being labeled a nihilist.
Born in Tokyo, in 1905, Naruse was the youngest of three sons of a desperately poor embroiderer. Although he excelled in elementary school, his family could not afford to further his education. He was instead enrolled in a two-year technical school. There, he spent virtually all of his free time reading borrowed books from the library. Soon after he graduated in 1920, his father died. At age 15, Naruse had no choice but to work. He found employment at the newly founded Shochiku company as a prop man. During this same time, Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu rose, within three years, from lowly apprentices to directors. Excessively modest and painfully shy, Naruse rose through the studio's ranks more slowly. After eight years as an assistant director to Heinosuke Gosho and Yoshinobu Ikeda, he got the chance to direct an uncharacteristic slapstick comedy called Chambara Fufu.
Naruse reached his creative peak in the early '50s, working primarily, like Ozu, in the genre of domestic drama or shomen-geki. His films are populated with proud, willful women who find themselves searching for dignity in desperate circumstances, only to find false promises and continuing degradation. Unlike typical Ozu heroines who are both trusting and innocent, Naruse's characters are stubborn, experienced, and self-aware. They are women who knowingly enter doomed relationships, as in Ukigumo; barmaids who struggle to support their children, as in Ginza Gensho; or aged geishas who try to resist a decline into prostitution, as in Nagareru. Yet they continue to struggle and endure in spite of their bleak prospects. While Ozu punctuates his films with long static shots that invoke a sense of transcendence, Naruse shoots his actors close-up in confined spaces. His claustrophobic aesthetic seems to deny the possibility, not just of transcendence, but even of communication or happiness. Such Naruse masterpieces as Meshi, Mother, Late Chrysanthemums, and Ukigumo rely on subtle changes of expression to create brilliantly nuanced studies of these remarkable and desperate women.