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about the writer

Chris Fujiwara is a writer, film critic, journalist, and editor. He is the author of Jerry Lewis (University of Illinois Press, 2009), The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger (Faber & Faber, 2007) and Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000) and the editor of Defining Moments in Movies (Cassell, 2007) and Peter Watkins (Jeonju International Film Festival, 2008).

Passing through the Image: Takamine Hideko
By Chris Fujiwara

Takamine Hideko

In a book of pictures of her, most of them show her smiling: tenderly, hopefully, charmingly, generously.

In the last shot of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Onna ga kaidan wo agaru toki, 1960), Naruse presents her smile as a product. We have been made to understand just how much effort goes into putting this smile in place. Just before this, we see a body in fragments, shots of feet; separately, from another place, comes the voice, confidential, calm, a woman thinking aloud to herself somewhere else, in some scene where the camera can't go.

In this and other films, Takamine Hideko's voice is that of a woman who wants to have a normal life. The voice makes no demand, it doesn't beg. It simply states, as if listing the ingredients of a recipe or the week's expenses. It comes from a place where such a thing as a normal life would be possible, and it carries the expectation of that life into this mixed life of cinema: part reflection of the reality of the lives of Japanese women from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s (Takamine's peak period), part "reality of the reflection" of the desires that viewers, at different times all over the world, bring to filmed images of human beings.

Calmly and without resentment the voice accuses the world of the film. We accept the voice as our delegate; the voice is claiming, for all of us, the right to a different life. Claiming it as an exile can make a claim, patiently, factually.

In Naruse's Lightning (Inazuma, 1952) and Flowing (Nagareru, 1956), Takamine plays daughters who must make a different life from the lives their mothers made. When they start to understand this, they stop complaining and pitying themselves, stop asking "Why?" to their mothers, as in "Why was I born?", "Why did my father leave me?", "Why do I have to be alive?" Takamine's characters realize that they are already older than their mothers; they, the daughters, are the future, with its new knowledge and new burdens; the mothers belong to the past and will remain there, just images and nothing more, forever protected from what the younger generation, which has passed through the image, will have to know and be responsible for. Takamine's gaze in these films is the gaze of someone who is already faraway, in the future, but who is also caring for the images of the past.

Takamine plays a wife in Naruse's Daughters, Wives, and a Mother (Musume tsuma haha, 1960), a mistress in his As a Wife, As a Woman (Tsuma toshite onna toshite, 1961), a widow in his Yearning (Midareru, 1964). Each of these characters gives the impression of being someone who is doing just what she is supposed to do, playing a part she has studied and prepared for and that she knows very well, someone in other words who has the technique down of being. If you have the technique down, you are in a position to do the best you can. When things don't work out, it's not because of anything you've done or failed to do.

Floating Clouds (Ukigumo, 1955) is a special case among Takamine's performances and among Naruse's films. In the obituaries for Takamine in Japan, it was sometimes the only Naruse film mentioned. (Other titles usually noted were three Kinoshita Keisuke films: Carmen Comes Home [Karumen kokyo ni kaeru, 1951], Times of Joy and Sorrow [Yorokobi mo kanashimi mo ikutoshitsuki, 1957], and, of course, Twenty-four Eyes [Nijuushi no hitomi, 1954], probably the most beloved of all classic Japanese films, among the Japanese.) In her other films for Naruse, Takamine is someone who must deal with the conditions of personhood in cinema: being seen, being on display, having to play a role, having to go on, and assuming the great burden of knowing about all these things. Takamine's character in Floating Clouds transcends these conditions. Not for her any more is the problem of being seen; her only questions are where to go and when to die.

Floating Clouds Floating Clouds

The narrative of Floating Clouds (based on Hayashi Fumiko's novel) is finished when it begins, already completely written at the time of the opening scenes. Though filled with displacements, the narrative is motionless. An entire relationship is already told in the first looks we see exchanged between Yukiko (Takamine) and her lover, Tomioka (Mori Masayuki) — his brusque, embarrassed acknowledgment; the smile and look of pleasure with which she greets him and keeps watching him (offscreen) from the doorway as he prepares to join her outside — and in the way he starts out in front of her down the lane, while she falls in place behind him. Everything that will happen in the film is already foretold by this writing of bodies and looks. As they walk, she holds her two hands in front of her body, at her belly, in a sign of amenability but also as if she were holding something in; she clutches a scarf, which she twists as she talks to him. He thrusts his right hand into his clothes protectively. He never looks at her, but looks forward; she sometimes looks up at him. Her face registers each of his phrases; his is impassive, though uneasy. Only Yukiko, smiling up at him, tries to conquer their dejection; only she has a range of moods in her face, while he remains expressionless.

Floating Clouds Floating Clouds

They turn toward each other and stop, then Tomioka (returning to his house to change his clothes) strides off screen. Yukiko settles beside a low stone wall for a wait of uncertain duration. This shot dissolves to a flashback of Yukiko, in a light-colored dress, descending the stairs of the house where she is staying in Indochina — the first of the swift, effortless moves with which Naruse will go up and down the ladder of time during the early sequences of Floating Clouds.

Floating Clouds Floating Clouds

In When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, ordinary life is a continual escape from death, and death is considered an accident that happens to other people. Floating Clouds is a course of estrangement from ordinary life, which has become broken, and whose illusions are no longer tenable; in this film of almost science-fiction-like abstraction, ordinary life itself is the accident that happens to other people; nothing can happen any more to Yukiko and Tomioka. When a Woman Ascends the Stairs shows the cost to a person of having to reconstruct, over and over again, the image of a being who is both equal to the world and at the service of the world. Time goes on and wears people down, but it is not seen or spoken of. The smiling, shining Yukiko of the flashbacks in Floating Clouds is an image that vanishes before the eyes of the one who sees it, an image of real beauty, offered to death, but the image is magically always available, no effort is needed to bring it forth, it denies time and is outside the world.

Chris Fujiwara

Takamine Hideko




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issue #7 (1.2011)


bullet. Blake Edwards
bullet. Pierre Léon
bullet. Film School
bullet. Takamine Hideko
bullet. Serbis
bullet. The Time That Remains
bullet. Viennale 2010
bullet. Punk Slash! Musicals