top of page

The Portrayal Of Women in Mikio Naruse’s films | Tasnim Nazifa & Arghya Dey

Tasnim Nazifa & Arghya Dey

When it comes to Japanese filmmakers, very few people are aware of Mikio Naruse and his incredible contribution to the portrayal of women in film history, even though his works are no less artistically striking than the films of Yasujiro Ozu or Akira Kurosawa or Mizoguchi. He seems to have been paid less than his deserved due of attention by both film critics and cinema enthusiasts. Perhaps it is because they found his films to possess an extremely conventional style. Philip Lopate notes, “Naruse seems to lack a characteristic identifiable arty trademark.” In actuality, his films are profound realistic documentation of the trials of women. His is a cinema of ordinary people with ordinary problems where the women are stoic, courageous, unselfish figures with unparalleled potential for resilience. Kurosawa aptly makes the observation that Naruse’s films flow like “a deep river with a quiet surface disguising a fast-raging current underneath”.

 While watching Naruse’s works, one is aware of the existence of the male gaze and the societal notions of feminine purity in the backdrop. These two concepts are especially prominent in the son’s disgust of his geisha-mother in Apart From You or the husband’s neglect of his child-like wife in favour of a more vivacious woman in The Sound of the Mountain. Women in his works are often helpless individuals floundering in an economic and emotional mess, being picked up, used, and thrown away by the male members as it suits their fancy. Their circumstance (livelihood, physical wellbeing, emotional stability) as a wife or a working woman depends on their beauty and vigour and vivaciousness in bed.

 But while these films are exclusively about women and their sufferings in a male-dominated world, these do not form an accusatory anti-patriarchy commentary but rather an unblinking and unwavering observation of the experiences of being a woman in such a world. Naruse wants to portray the social truth as it is, rather than paint mythical female beings with the powers to not only withstand but also defeat the inherent sexism in society. He holds a mirror to society’s sexist face but does so passively, without explicit criticism against the oppression of the women, without manipulating the plot to utopian ends. He beautifully balances the instinct of survival and the desire for approval in his female characters.

Apart From You focuses on three individuals, Kikue, the middle-aged geisha with fast dwindling beauty, her teenaged son Yoshio, and her friend Terugiku, the equally beautiful and thoughtful young geisha. We learn that Yoshio is ashamed of his mother’s profession but this feeling of shame is a recent acquisition. At his impressionable age, Yoshio’s idea of purity and vulgarity has begun to be affected by the societal idea that looked upon the geishas and prostitutes as parasites of carnal instincts, who feed on human depravity while indulging in the luxury of their services. Moody, awkward, and alienated, Yoshio plays truant and turns to a gang of petty criminals almost as if to punish his mother for her profession as a geisha. The irony is in Yoshio’s disgust of his mother’s profession while he himself beats up and steals from people in the streets.

Apart From You (1933)

However, her son’s displeasure with her is not the last of Kikue’s worries. She is ageing and fears the loss of her affluent patron. This financial tension paired with the sudden estrangement of her son takes a toll on her mind and leads to a bout of drunken violence against the old patron. This event affects the mother-son relationship as Terugiku intervenes and takes Yoshio with her on a trip to her home, where he is confronted with the nobility of sacrificing oneself to a lifetime of prostitution for the sake of supporting one’s family. It is here that Yoshio falls in love with the young geisha. But Naruse forces one to wonder how long the love would last after the fragile sheen of beauty is lost to hard times and old age. The fact that it is Terugiku who, by taking him on a trip to her home, makes Yoshio realize how his ‘disreputable’ mother makes a better parent than her own alcoholic and abusive father, who plans to sell his younger daughter to a life of geisha-hood so he would not have to work, shows a man’s inability to imagine himself in a woman’s position. A change comes over in Yoshio after this. He is no longer moody. He abandons the life of a small-time criminal but is later beaten up by his former group as a punishment when Terugiku saves him. But the young geisha is injured in the process. As she recuperates in the hospital, she reveals to Yoshio that she must leave Tokyo for a job with higher pay so as to save her younger sister from the fate she has been tied to. This is a typical quality in women in Naruse’s works; even when they are surrounded by constraints and misfortune, they are capable of carving out a place of their own, of leaving their mark, of transcending their limitations. The last scene is immensely heartbreaking as Terugiku departs for a distant land in search for better opportunities; it seems almost unreasonable to expect a brighter future for her.

Naruse approaches the status of woman in her professional or personal life, be it as a geisha or as a bar hostess (in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs) or as a wife (in The Sound of the Mountain), from the perspective of the male-gaze. They are as successful as the male-gaze allows them to be and for as long as it allows them to be. The scene of Kikue yanking out the grey hair strands from her head in front of a mirror is Naruse’s brilliant way of telling us that a defeated woman is painfully transforming herself to fit into the male-fantasy. “Bars in the daytime are like women without makeup,” says Keiko or Mama, the unusually respected bar-hostess of a fashionable bar, in the first scenes of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. This ‘makeup’ is not merely the small cosmetic alterations women make, it is the disposition, the pose, and the masks they wear to please and attract the male-gaze. When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, often regarded as his magnum opus, is a slideshow of these masks. Keiko reveals that she abhors ascending the stairs that lead up to the main bar — the stairs symbolically operate as a passage to a dominating male order, a place where one is constantly aware and subjected to the gaze. In The Sound of the Mountain, we find a similar theme. Kikuko (played by the ever-brilliant Satsuko Hara) goes through a marriage that has nothing in it for her; the only thing keeping their marriage from being a relationship between a housemaid and her master is Kikuko’s bright and heartfelt smiles. The indifferent husband comes home late and drunk, leaving a trail of clothes on the floor for his wife to tidy up in the middle of the night. He reveals no tenderness towards her when she is sick. His coldness towards her is due to his virile sexual appetite that Kikuko is unable to satisfy, so he keeps a mistress and does not make much of an attempt to keep it a secret. Though this is essentially a family drama, Naruse zooms in and fixes his attention on the treatment of women at the hands of men and the society as a whole, and their affectation from that treatment.

The Sound of the Mountain (1954)

Naruse’s films are known for their stark cynicism. It is impossible to see his films without the light of his own turbulent personal life that was marred by loss and struggle — the early deaths of his parents, his poverty and subsequent loneliness, and the ten years he laboured as a prop assistant while being continuously denied promotion by Shochiku’s formidable erstwhile head of production, Shiro Kido. One cannot help but draw parallels between his films and the works of the Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata. Both of their respective works have been heavily influenced by their personal struggles. (Interestingly, The Sound of the Mountain is an adaptation of Kawabata’s novel of the same name). Naruse famously remarked of his female characters, “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; the thought still remains with me.”

When A Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960)

However, all things considered, it would be inaccurate to brand Naruse’s heroines as weak or incapable of making a stand. In his films, the women seize moments of triumph, though it is not always necessary that the moments relieve them of their pain.


1) Alexander Jacoby, Mikio Naruse, Issue 26, Senses Of Cinema, 2003 2) Micheal Kerpan, Apart From You, Issue 39, Senses Of Cinema, 2006 3) Michael Koresky, Silent Naruse, The Criterion Collection, 2011 4) Catherine Russell, Women’s Stories in Post-War Japan

bottom of page