Thursday, November 21, 2013

Review - Street Without End

November 21, 2013

Street Without End – Japan, 1934

Mikio Naruse’s final silent film Street Without End is a moving look at the transformative power of fate and a particularly sharp critique of Japanese values. It is a further testament to Naruse’s skills as both director and storyteller. With the film, Naruse continues his examination of interesting and strong female characters. Previously Naruse’s films confined themselves to just one or two of these characters; here, he presents audiences with four of them – two from lower economic backgrounds and two from the upper class, and it is truly amazing just how richly developed each character is. The first two characters work as waitresses in a restaurant frequented by its fair share of love-struck repeat customers, many of whom stretch their necks to get fleeting glances of their favorite waitresses and whose faces become showcases of joy when they see them up close. We’ve all known places and people like this, and the film’s early scenes will undoubtedly made some viewers recall certain cafés from their youth and particular waiters or waitresses whom they hoped to get a glimpse of from afar.

The film’s primary character is Sugiko Shima (Setsuko Shinobu), a young woman who seems to have everything going for her. She is an optimistic woman who has a love for both life and the people in her life. She seems to have accepted that while life can sometimes be a struggle, one can still enjoy it by remaining positive and true to yourself. Towards the beginning of the film, she is presented with two rather intriguing possibilities: marriage or a career in movies. There is a slight implication that she can’t have both of them. Her roommate and co-worker is Kesako (Chiyoko Katori). She is also somewhat cheerful, yet she places too great of an importance on money, and she is frustrated by the limitations that not being wealthy has inflicted upon her. In one scene, she finds a small purse on the ground and is visibly frustrated at not finding any money in it. However, we also detect a hint of embarrassment in her for having had this reaction. It is as if her true natural is wrestling with the part of her that wants security and wealth regardless of the cost.

Sugiko’s life is permanently changed when she is hit by a car while on her way to see her boyfriend, Machio Harado (Ichiro Yuki), and likely accept his proposal of marriage. After she is released from the hospital, she has a hard time getting in touch of him, and eventually she learns that he has returned to his hometown and married a woman of his family’s choosing. His actions are the result of a tragic misunderstanding. Sugiko also learns that in the days following her accident, the agents that offered to make her “the next big thing” turned their attention to Kesako, who jumped at the opportunity for fame and fortune. It is not clear if they approached her or she approached them. In a more formulaic film, Sugiko would hold a grudge against her career-stealing friend, but Naruse doesn’t follow this time-honored pattern. Instead, Sugiko simpy smiles and earnestly wishes her friend well in her career without exhibiting even the slightest hint of malice or envy.

Fortunately for Sugiko, Hiroshi Yamanouchi (KikaruYamanouchi), the man whose car struck her, has developed quite an affection for her, and he is quite wealthy. The question is: Does she love him back? Naruse would probably answer yes. If she does, however, it is a love that she grows into and not one that comes right away. It is more likely that she likes him a little and sees him as enabling her to help her brother fulfill his dreams. In other words, she places other people’s needs over her own happiness. This is one of the reasons Sugiko’s brother, played by Naruse regular Akio Isono, implores her to “consider her feelings more.” After all, it is not just Hiroshi that she would have to contend with if she married him. There is also his mother and sister, who may not be as accepting or understanding as Hiroshi. However, Sugiko brushes aside these concerns. “I trust in his love for me.” Unfortunately, that trust proves to be misplaced.

It is through Sugiko and Hiroshi’s romance that the film turns its attention to the classism and discrimination that existed – and probably still exists to a certain extent – in Japan towards those who were not born into wealth or prestige. We see the disapproving look of her mother-in-law (Ayako Katsuragi) and witness her stinging remarks, many of which implore Sugiko to act like someone from the upper class. Harsher still is Hiroshi’s sister Takako (Nobuko Wakaba), who is not above referencing Sugiko’s former job or making outrageous accusations of infidelity. It is clear that the two of them have no intention of ever accepting Sugiko as an equal member of the family. At the same time, Naruse presents us with a parallel variation of this theme, this one involving Kesako and a poor, eccentric artist that is in love with her. Accepting him would mean accepting a life she fears, yet it might also mean finally finding true contentment.

Unlike previous films, Naruse makes the environment the characters are in a part of the story. First, Naruse begins his film with a series of shots of buildings - some old and some new, some impressive and some rundown. The impression is that they are all a part of the whole. He is presenting his viewers with everyday life, for this is what we see on an average street. Towards the end of the film, he returns to these images, and they give the impression that externally nothing has really changed. Another interesting technique can be seen in an early scene between Sugiko and her boyfriend. In between their exchanges, Naruse cuts to images of operating streetlights set against dark night views. The effect is powerful. Theirs is a conversation being held in secret, away from the prying eyes of those who would disapprove or seek to block them. In other words, they are occurring in a world in which not everyone is completely free to make a decision, a world in which love may be less important than name and class.

Street Without End is a compelling film replete with fully-realized characters that are as imperfect as the rest of us. The film suggests that we are all in a way pursuing safety and prestige. For some, that prestige comes as a result of having possessions, achieving fame, or maintaining your pedigree. For others, it is through being able to do what you love. The film demonstrates that pursuing something for the wrong reason can lead to disaster and unhappiness. However, the film is not pessimistic. It suggests that one’s fate can be reversed, providing you find the inner strength to walk away. And it shows that it is possible to go back, while simultaneously acknowledging that what you go back to will not be exactly what you left behind. Life progresses and changes, even though the buildings and businesses on your street may remain the same. (on DVD as part of Eclipse’s Silent Naruse box set)

3 and a half stars

*Street Without End is silent with English intertitles.

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