October 17, 2013
Apart From You – Japan, 1933
There’s a moment in Mikio Naruse’s silent film Apart From You in which a geisha looks at herself a mirror, notices something that will hinder her professionally, and asks a younger geisha to remove it. The item in question is a grey hair, and as the younger geisha sifts through her mentor’s long mostly black hair, she gently plucks greyer ones out and set them aside. It is obvious that there are more this time around, and the older geisha can only sigh at the passage of time and mention what is already apparent, that she is getting old. She seems well aware of what the grey hairs means for her job. Soon her customers will likely stop coming, drawn instead to the next generation of young beautiful geishas, young women who fill men’s heads with fantasies that run the gambit from lustful to downright romantic. It is a hard life, one which apparently doesn’t pay as much as geisha legends might otherwise suggest.
The older geisha is named Kikue (Mitsuko Yoshikawa), and she is mother to a teenage son, Yoshio (Akio Isono), who is not yet ready for adulthood, yet clearly not a child anymore either. Interestingly, there is no mention in the film of Yoshio’s father, and it is therefore possible that he was one of Kikue’s customers years earlier. Early on in the film, we learn that Kikue is torn between leaving her profession or sticking with it just long enough for Yoshio to get a proper education. The dilemma is compounded by the fact that Yoshio has gotten involved with the wrong crowd and forsaken his education, for the simple reason that he despises his mother’s profession and wants nothing to do with her. Still, in one of the movie’s most tender moments, we see Kikue put what little coins she has in her son’s wallet and then cover his feet with a blanket. It is clear that she wishes she could do more. What parent doesn’t?
With Apart From You, Naruse draws his viewers’ attention to matters having to do with mothers and society. It is telling that of the men we see in the film, only one of them is genuinely decent, and even he has to be steered back on the right course. Also worth noting is that the central character in the film is neither Kikue nor her son, but Shôkiku, the younger geisha with both a heart of gold and a rather cruel destiny. Played by the stunning Sumiko Mizukubo, she is the epitome of decency, loyalty, and kindness. She makes it her mission to save Yoshio, a task that would be much easier were she in another profession.
Apart From You is a moving film that demonstrates once again Naruse’s eye for detail, his respect for female characters, and his ability to get powerful performances from his cast. However, the film’s potential is hampered by its occasional color-by-numbers plot and the abruptness of a key character’s change of heart. One of Naruse’s most interesting camera techniques involves moving the camera toward an actor at critical and often emotional moments. The effect is jarring. It is as if the camera is a person’s words hitting them in the face or their cold stare piercing the space between them. Naruse also uses different camera angles during key moments to show the madhouse that the geisha house can become, as well as long shots to establish the lecherous gazes of some of the house’s clients. These moments, along with earlier ones involving a geisha who has gone slightly mad and an older geisha staring at a copy of Derby World, a gambling pamphlet, clearly demonstrate the fates that may await geishas. The film is therefore quite a departure from 2005’s Memoirs of a Geisha, and, I suspect a much truer portrait of the realities that real-life geishas faced. (on DVD as part of Eclipse’s Silent Naruse box set)
*Apart From You is silent with English intertitles.