Directed by Mikio Naruse
What is he supposed to say? What can he say to the grieving family that he ripped asunder? Though the courts may have found him not guilty, he can hardly cope with the guilt of his actions. So against the advice of his colleagues, he attends the wake. After bowing to the portrait of the deceased, he turns to the man’s family.
“Mrs. Eda...I am Shiro Mishima, of Meiji Commercial. I’m very sorry about the accident.”
The father balks indignantly. “You? Are you the driver? Are you the one who killed my son?" Silence. Yes, Mishima was the driver who, while entertaining company guests, accidentally ran over Hiroshi Eda. But he didn't just kill Hiroshi that fateful day, he destroyed the happy plans he had made with his wife Yumiko to move to the United States and start a new life. Now Yumiko is merely an expectant widow. As Mishima is quickly escorted from the wake by a colleague, she blasts him with a look filled with all the hatred, contempt, and impotent fury that her soul can muster.
So begins Mikio Naruse's Scattered Clouds, a melodrama of impossible love that marked the end of one of Japan's greatest filmmakers. In two years Naruse, director of 87 feature films, would be dead. Though usually overshadowed by contemporaries like Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi, Naruse gained a reputation over four decades of work as one of the definitive early Japanese filmmakers. And if Scattered Clouds was his curtain call, it stands as nothing less than his apotheosis.
After the wake, Yumiko and Mishima coincidentally end up in the same small town in rural Japan. Yumiko’s name (and inheritance) was revoked by her family, forcing her to move in with her sister Ayako who runs a country hotel. Meiji Commercial, seeking to avoid further scandal, unknowingly transfers Mishima to the same location. It is the kind of twist that can only occur in the most extravagant of melodrama. Yet for Naruse, who devoted much of his career directing shomin-geki, or films about the lower middle classes (particularly concerning women facing incredible adversity), such a development serves as a dramatic catalyst instead of as a convenient method to further the plot.
Indeed, Naruse’s protagonists frequently retreat to the countryside where they discover great insights into their own personal struggles. In Floating Clouds (1955), an obsessed woman follows the object of her affection to the countryside after he is transferred. In Yearning (1964), the roles are reversed: a young woman is pursued by her brother-in-law to Northern Japan after she romantically rejects him. But in these films, the movement to the countryside precedes the rejection of affections. In the end, both the woman from Floating Clouds and the brother-in-law from Yearning are abandoned. But the opposite occurs in Scattered Clouds: the movement to the countryside serves as the impetus for Yumiko and Mishima to fall in love. And if not for a cruel twist of fate, we could fully believe that they could have lived happily ever after.
At first, Yumiko is understandably distant from Mishima. Both have been terribly wounded: Mishima by his inconsolable guilt and Yumiko by the loss of her future. But they slowly become drawn to each other. Visits to Ayako’s inn lead to lunches which in turn lead to afternoons spent together in the countryside. During one outing, Mishima catches a fever and Yumiko spends the night taking care of him. As Mishima fades in and out of consciousness, he repeatedly tries to convince Yumiko that he is better and that she should leave. It is here that we see the true brilliance behind Naruse’s restrained direction: as Mishima suffers and Yumiko stands vigil, their internal emotional turmoil is expressed by the sounds of a terrible thunderstorm. Though frequently experimental in his early years, by his later career Naruse had developed a very subdued style, utilizing simplistic frame compositions and unobtrusive filming/editing techniques. His sparse screenplays relied chiefly on the actors’ abilities to physically emote their unspoken emotions. Therefore, the physical inaction of the actors juxtaposed with the violence of the storm outside results in a scene of overwhelming power.
But in the end their love can never be. News comes that Meiji Commercial is transferring Mishima to Pakistan for a minimum of three years. Mishima tries to convince Yumiko to come with him. But just before they can leave, they witness a car accident almost identical to the one that killed Hiroshi. In that moment, they realize deep inside themselves that their love if futile. The film ends with them sharing a meal at an inn. Mishima says that he will sing her a local song that supposedly will bring happiness to whoever hears it. As he sings, Yumiko gently weeps. And then, the film ends.
While some may find such an anti-climax jarring, it is essential to understanding Naruse’s work. Naruse once mentioned of his characters that “if they move even a little they quickly hit the wall. From the youngest age, I have thought that the world we live in betrays us; this thought still remains with me.” Such ingrained pessimism makes sense when examined from the perspective of Naruse’s life: his parents died when he was young, he struggled his whole life against poverty, and he was often delegated to thankless jobs while working for major studios. Through his films, Naruse evoked feelings and emotions inaccessible to most filmmakers...and audiences. As Michael Koresky once wrote: “[Naruse’s] stories are inhabited by people, generally women, imprisoned in their domestic and professional circumstances by the status quo, and hinge on tragic accidents and other twists of fate...[They are] reflections of everyday life, with vivid material presence and indelible figures who remain outwardly serene even as battles rage within. Naruse’s characters’ acquiescence to the way things are exemplifies the Japanese term mono no aware, which describes a resignation to life’s sadness.”
Let me leave you with one final story. While Naruse was near-death, he expressed his desire to make “a film to be shot with only white curtain backdrops, no real sets, no exteriors, all concentration on the nuances of human movement expressing feeling carved down to the quick.” Naruse never got to make that film. But then again, he rarely got what he wanted. Much like his protagonists, he was cheated out of his dream at the last minute. But such is life.
Such is life...