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FLOATING CLOUDS (UKIGUMO) (director: Mikio Naruse; screenwriters: from the novel by Fumiko Hayashi/Yoko Mizuki; cinematographer: Masao Tamai; editor: Hideshi Ohi; music: Ichirô Saitô; cast:Takamine Hideko (Yukiko Koda), Mori Masayuki (Kengo Tomioka), Okada Mariko (Osei Mukai), Yamagata Isao (Sugio Iba), Nakakita Chieko (Kuniko Tomioka), Katō Daisuke (Seikichi Mukai), Roy James (American soldier); Runtime: 118; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Sanezumi Fujimoto; Criterion Collection; 1955-Japan-in Japanese with English subtitles)
“The lights-out melodrama might be the master filmmaker’s best film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The great Japanese director Mikio Naruse’s (“When A Woman Ascends The Stairs”/”Late Chrysanthemums”/”Two in the Shadow”) somber melodrama is hauntingly about a sensitive woman who falls hopelessly in love, suffers greatly when her love is not returned and is humiliated by how the men in her life treat her as a sexual object while ignoring her inner plight. It’s excellently scripted by Yoko Mizuki from the novel by the female author Fumiko Hayashi. The film uses flashbacks to give us the background story and show the couple’s passion when they fell in love during WWII and how with the defeat of Japan they both have difficulty adjusting to the new materialistic democratic society– the man relates the end of the war to the end of his dreams of love and the woman still wants to have her romantic dream realized but can’t adjust to her new poverty.

In Japanese-occupied French Indochina, in Dalat, during the war, a young woman named Yukiko Koda (Takamine Hideko) ends up serving her country in a forestry unit as an office worker, as she runs away from a bad relationship from an amoral cousin named Iba (Yamagata Isao) back home who raped her and is still pursuing her. In Dalat, Yukiko meets the older, dour, womanizing married co-worker Tomioka (Mori Masayuki), who is a field worker for his country’s Forest Ministry. They have a steamy affair, but when the war ends he returns to his invalid wife and a string of jobs that don’t work out. When she visits him in his home and professes her love for him, he tells her he can’t leave his wife and refuses to rekindle their love affair. The embittered Tomioka can’t face living in the new Japan and can’t move forward with his life, and therefore has nothing to offer the pining young impoverished woman. Yukiko can’t stop loving him, despite realizing he’s not trustworthy. She next moves into the squalid red-light district in Tokyo and to survive becomes a prostitute, and is supported by an American GI (Roy James, incidentally the only man in the film who treats her with kindness).

Warning: spoiler alert in next paragraph.

Yukiko’ self-inflicted suffering will lead to the tragic conclusion, whereby she continues to pour her heart out to the emotionally rejecting Tomioka. He coldly plays with her self-sacrifices, until he finally relents and takes her to the faraway southern island of Yakushima, where he starts a new job for the timber industry. The island has no doctor to treat the ailing Yukiko and upon getting there dies from an unnamed illness and a broken heart. After her death, the spiritually bankrupt Tomioka realizes he made a mistake by not loving her and is just as much a heel as the con man boorish schemer Iba and the jealous innkeeper (Katō Daisuke) he met at a seaside resort who killed his barmaid wife Osei (Okada Mariko) in a rage. Tomioka couldn’t resist having an affair with Osei , even if Yukiko was aware of it.

It opens on a bleak day in November 1946, showing war-weary Japanese repatriates from Vietnam disembarking from a Japanese port to be resettled after the war and ends in the rain when the dispirited heroine dies alone on a rugged island while her lover is on the mountains looking to advance his career.

In the last shot Naruse hits us with his knock-out shot, as the lights-out melodrama might be the master filmmaker’s best film.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”