Mikio Naruse is one of the key early directors of Japanese cinema, having made his directorial debut with Mr and Mrs Swordplay in 1930 (a silent film, now sadly lost) and continuing to direct through to his death in 1969. While other noteworthy directors like Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa managed to develop strong international profiles and reputations, Naruse never quite developed the same level of fame. His most famous works were likely Late Chrysanthemums (1954) and Floating Clouds (1955).
Naruse’s speciality was shomin-geki, Japanese contemporary dramas about ordinary people’s struggles. His fans tend to praise either his earlier and more energetic melodramas or his later, more mature works. In the middle is Ginza Cosmetics; a 1951 post-war drama starring Kinuyo Tanaka. (I suspect the title may be more appropriately named Ginza Make-up, referring to both the literal and figurative masks its protagonist must wear when working as a geisha).
Tanaka plays Yukiko, a single mother who works as a geisha in Tokyo’s Ginza district while trying to raise her young son. Her attempt is made difficult by society’s disapproval of her job, as well as the challenge of remaining in the profession as she hits 40 years old.
An interesting element of Naruse’s films is how often he chose to focus not only about Japan’s working classes but also about the role of women in society. His career is peppered with strong realist dramas featuring female protagonists and presenting a deeply sympathic portrait of their struggles in a male-dominated society. Ginza Cosmetics is no different.
Tanaka delivers some strong and effective acting here, and builds audience sympathy through her experience. Whether it is her struggle to make ends meet, or to be a good and responsible mother, or even in a close encounter with a sexually harassing admirer, Tanaka’s troubles are played in a very realistic and easy-to-identify manner. She is also situated in a critical phase of Japanese history. Released only six years after Japan’s defeat in the Second World War, it presents a Tokyo with a distinct lack of eligible men of a certain age – almost every man with whom Yukiko interacts is an undergraduate student or a late middle-aged man. For women expected to marry in their prime – what eligible bachelors are they hoping to find? Issues of unemployment and economic ruin also frame the film’s narrative. By the end of the decade Japanese cinema would come to represent golden years of growing industry and wealth. At this stage they are still crawling through the wreckage.
When described like this it all sounds more than a little maudlin and depressing. Naruse peppers his social drama with moments of lightness and even outright comedy – a drunken university’s students attempt to sing traditional ballads stands as a particular comic highlight. There is a strong sense of humanity soaked throughout.
Fans of Naruse tend to praise his earlier and more energetic melodramas or his more mature latter works. The series of films in-between – including Ginza Cosmetics – tend to get overlooked. While it is true that films like this are not Naruse’s absolute best work, they still reveal a sensitive film director with a strong insight on the social issues of his time.