Where Forgotten Films Dwell

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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

CMBA BLOGATHON PART ONE: はたらくー家 (The Whole Family Works)

Directed by Mikio Naruse

In a cramped dining room, a large family huddles and dines in the late evening. Ishimura, the unemployed father, retires for the night to drink away his problems. Even though he has nine children and almost no money to feed them with, Ishimura always keeps his sake cup full. And why wouldn’t he? Life is hard. Japan is mired in a devastating depression as a result of the Sino-Japanese War. His sons all work meaningless and monotonous tasks at a local factory. His daughters have no ambitions other than to be married off to rich suitors. His wife, once beautiful enough that Ishimura was compelled to have nine children with her, is becoming bloated with age and sour of disposition. But at least there is routine. Ishimura drinks, his wife stays at home and tends the house, and his sons toil for the war effort. In their own way, the whole family works.

Such is the state of affairs within Ishimura’s household in this curious wartime effort by legendary Japanese director Mikio Naruse. Widely considered to be the unofficial fourth godfather of Japanese cinema (the other three being Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, and Kenji Mizoguchi), Naruse was a tireless creator, directing 89 films during an almost 40 year career. His films were characterized by leisurely and relaxed pacing and a focus on mono no aware, or, “an awareness of the transience of things, and a gentle sadness at their passing.” Much like his contemporary Ozu, Naruse frequently made films about Japanese families. But whereas Ozu would focus primarily on the middle-class, Naruse chose to explore the lives of the poor and disenfranchised. While Ozu was busy dissecting concepts of filial piety, familial loyalty, and tradition in the face of progress, Naruse would busy himself with the harsh realities of life, such as how to make money and how to keep food on the table.

His film The Whole Family Works centers on a conflict between Ishimura and his eldest son Kiichi. Kiichi does not want to waste away in a factory. Inspired by his encouraging teacher Mr. Washio, Kiichi begs his father to allow him to stop working for five years and study to become an electrician. He argues that although the family will have to suffer for five years to support him, it will be worth it when he can provide the family with extra money once he gets his license.

Both Ishimura and his wife refuse to let him stop working. Ishimura’s wife argues that without his factory salary, they will not be able to eat. Ishimura seems to disagree because he is afraid of the idea of change. Although his family lives a difficult life, Ishimura enjoys the status quo. Without all of his sons working, he would have to seek employment again. And then how would he enjoy his permanent vacation? Of course, Ishimura never says any of this out loud. But watch closely during the scene where Kiichi initially confronts him. His body movements, his motions, and his excuses speak volumes.

The Whole Family Works is an unusual outing for Naruse. Whereas his other films focus on traditional, immediate problems such as monetary crises, this film seems to depict a struggle between the forces of modernism and traditionalism. Kiichi represents the new generation, full of bright ideas concerning the future. Ishimura represents the established way of things and conservatism. After all, the family could quite conceivably survive for five years without the extra salary. It is the violation of familial piety and parental devotion that seems to bother and trouble Ishimura and his wife. Such a film is even more unusual when it is considered within its historical subtext. During 1939, Japan was heavily involved in World War Two and Imperial censors were cracking down on cinematic content like never before. Films that even hinted at dissension within society were quelled and removed. Wives were not even allowed to be shown weeping for their husbands going off to war. Instead, they were supposed to be depicted as cheerfully wishing them well as they went off to fight the good fight. So one wonders how this film was approved and made in the first place?

However it was made, the film survives and represents an interesting time of transition for Naruse between his earlier expressionist work to his later, simpler, almost minimalistic work. There are two moments in particular that seem boldly out of place for those who are familiar with his later work. The first is a scene where a group of children playing war games abruptly transitions to scenes of actual warfare. Such a bold edit seems more reminiscent of Soviet cinematic theorists and not a relaxed Japanese director. The second is one of the final scenes where Kiichi confronts Ishimura in front of his family and begs him again for the opportunity to go to school. As the argument brews and grows more intense, Naruse makes several cuts to a thunderstorm outside.

But the fact remains that The Whole Family Works is a fascinating film from one of Japan’s true cinematic masters. While it doesn’t rank with his more famous films, it still deserves recognition as an important stepping stone in Naruse’s career. It was partially through the lessons learned and mistakes made in The Whole Family Works that Naruse became the cinematic genius that he was.

Stay tuned for Part Two of my Entry to the CMBA's 1939 Blogathon!!

Editor's Note: Sorry that it took so long to get this article up. I recently got a new computer and I've been trying to figure it out. Also, I'll try to post this video on youtube as soon as possible.



  1. This is a masterful review. It makes me want to see this film. I'm unfamiliar with this director. Have you seen The Lower Depths from Kurosawa? Which is the best film from Naruse?

  2. I have seen ALL of Kurosawa's directorial efforts.

    "The Lower Depths" is pretty good. I liked it more than Renoir's take on the story.

    As for Naruse...hmm....I'd say "When a Woman Ascends a Staircase," or "Floating Clouds."

    Thanks for the compliment! I've got another review by the same director coming up later today for the blogathon.

  3. You have made me quite excited to see this contemporary exploration of a culture on the brink of massive change told through family relations. I am looking forward to the Naruse experience.

  4. As well you should be! As I mentioned, Naruse was usually concerned with more immediate and material conflicts within families. But this film seems to have been ghost-directed by Ozu in its examination of familial bonds under the fires of modernity and progress.

  5. This was a terrific review of a film I didn't know (and I know at least a little about Japanese cinema). Wow, 89 films in 40 years...that's incredible! (That said, Miike is pretty prolific among current Japanese filmmakers.) The importance of family appears to be a recurring motif in many Japanese films...even samurai movies such as the Lone Wolf & Cub series. Thanks for enlightening me about a film I need to look for.

  6. Wonderful review to a movie I have never heard of before. I definitetly will add this to my growing list of films to see from 1939.

  7. Thanks so much for this excellent post - it's great how this blogathon is giving such a broad, international scope to 1939 movies outside the narrow Hollywood context, and also to see how cinema around the world was being influenced by the momentous history taking place that eventful year. I'm very familiar w/Kurosawa, but not with Naruse - I'll definitely check out his work. Looking forward to your 2nd post.

  8. Thank you for including this selection in a celebration of 1939 films. Your description of mono no aware as “an awareness of the transience of things, and a gentle sadness at their passing” touches on an element in our collective celebration of a year in filmmaking. We sometimes forget that while 1939 was a “golden year” in Hollywood filmmaking, it was often a brutal year in world events and such memories could only be tinted with a gentle sadness. Your comment regarding Imperial censorship, “[W]ives were not even allowed to be shown weeping for their husbands going off to war. Instead, they were supposed to be depicted as cheerfully wishing them well as they went off to fight the good fight.” reminds me of a similar sentiment in Masaki Kobayashi's The Human Condition. I am of course familiar with the films of Kurosawa and Ozu, and I have recently seen many of Shimizu Hiroshi’s prewar films, but Mikio Naruse’s film recalls the novels of Yasunari Kawabata, which are filled with poignant musings on life’s transience. I wonder if you have had an opportunity to see Humanity and Paper Balloons, which was directed by Sadao Yamanaka, and can you recommend the film?

  9. @Rick29

    89 films IS impressive. But if you really want a work horse...check out Masahiro Makino. He made around 230 films in about 65 years!

    Thank you for your kind words. It's amazing how little known Naruse is in the West. Personally...he's not my favorite Japanese director...but even I can't deny his superb craftsmanship.

  10. I am familiar with Kurosawa's work and have been tempted to dive in Ozu but this filmmaker I am totally unaware of. Glad to see some foreign films getting attention! This is excellent!

  11. @Dawn

    Well, thank you! Good luck seeing it, though...I don't think that it has ever been released in the West. It's a miracle that I found a copy that I could download. But don't worry! I'll be uploading the entire film on my blog's youtube channel in the next few days!

  12. @Grand Old Movies

    Well, I'm glad that you'll be sticking around for round two! I chose these two films because I wanted to review something outside of the established Hollywood tradition. When I first started looking, wikipedia only had one Japanese movie listed for 1939. But with some additional digging, I found a list of about seven or eight Japanese films from that year. However, I initially couldn't find them ANYWHERE!! Then, by the grace of God, I found two of them.

    The rest is history.

    Thanks for reading!

  13. @whistlinggypsy

    Thank you for reading! To be honest...I took the definition of mono no aware off wikipedia...Don't get me wrong! I knew what it was and how it was utilized by Japanese directors! But I couldn't quite express it in words...

    What you said about the historical context surrounding 1939 is also true. It is certainly prevalent in "The Whole Family Works." But it is even MORE obvious in the film that I have selected for part two. I'm curious to hear your thoughts on my review of it.

    And, yes, I have seen "Humanity and Paper Balloons." It was magnificent. If you have a chance, find it and watch it as soon as possible!

  14. Oh, Nathanael,
    I was so intrigued after seeing which film you chose that I read as much as possible about it.
    Your blog and your fabulous writing skills have opened my eyes to a genre that I've admittedly never explored.

    Thank You and Kudos for such a wonderful review on Hataraku ikka.

  15. @John

    Thanks, man! Yeah...I noticed that the blogathon was pretty Hollywood-heavy. That's one of the main reasons why I wanted to do two Japanese films.

    I'm glad that you want to explore Naruse after reading this review. There are many phenomenal Japanese directors who remain unheard of in the West...directors like Naruse, Susumu Hani, and Masahiro Shinoda. One of the reasons why I started this blog was to bring attention to such amazing artists. Check out my blog to learn more about them!

  16. @Page

    Your words are so moving! Thank you! I hope that you will stick around for my second 1939 review! I'll be posting it in a few minutes...

  17. Nathanael,
    I'll be right here for part two now that I have those lengthy photo reviews out of the way! Ha Ha Thanks again buddy!

  18. Nate, much as I enjoy reading and writing about classic Hollywood films, I'm really enjoying the variety in this 1939 Blogathon, including your moving review of THE WHOLE FAMILY WORKS. It's easy to forget that there's more to Japanese cinema than Kurasawa and Ozu, brilliant though they are. (My husband, Vinnie, says, "But don't knock the giant robots!" :-)) You write about Naruse's slice of life with such sensitivity and gravitas. Well-done, my friend!

  19. Hey...I like some of those giant robots!

    Thanks for you compliments!

    I hope that you will like part 2, as well!

  20. Nathanel, I am embarrassed to say that I did not even know Japan had a sophisticated film industry in 1939. I'm not that well-versed in foreign film at all, really, and your very insightful and well-written article has me intrigued about Naruse and his work. I think I would like him, since character studies and stories about the daily life of people are my favorite kind of movie.

    The simplest stories are often the most profound in theme. The relationship and tension between father and son, the family's struggle to keep above water could all translate to any family in any country. You give the movie a great place in your descriptions of what was going on in Japan when it was made. Fascinating historoy!

    I hope I can find this movie -- is it difficult to get hold of? First I'll try trusty Netflix, and hope it is there. Excellent review and choice of movie -- such a wonderful contribution to the blogathon!

  21. @ClassiBecky

    Japan has had a sophisticated film industry since the early 20th century...it's just that most of the films from that early era have either never survived or have never been seen outside of Japan. Therefore, Japan is a goldmine of undiscovered classics like the works of Naruse.

    You can probably get one or two of his more well known works via Netflix. I know for a fact that the Criterion Collection has several Naruse titles available for purchase in the West.

    However, the two Naruse films that I wrote about are almost impossible to find in the West. That's why I will be posting them on youtube. When I do, I'll post a new blog entry with a link to it. So stick around!

  22. Fantastic! I will definitely watch them on YouTube. I will be eagerly waiting for your announcement when it is accomplished!

  23. It might be a day or two...I'm still trying to figure out how to do it on my new computer.

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