Early 2007 saw the introduction of both the Eclipse line of DVDs (with the first release, Early Bergman) and the work of Mikio Naruse (with his late-career masterpiece, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs) into the Criterion Collection. Four years later these two threads have intertwined with last week’s release of Eclipse Series 26: Silent Naruse. It’s another amazing set that perfectly exemplify what makes the Eclipse Series such a distinctive and trustworthy source of new discovery for the adventurous cinephile. These exquisitely rare and fascinating films have been captured on DVD for the first time ever, and offer another angle in which fans of Japanese cinema can observe the development of one of that nation’s most celebrated, but also neglected, film making talents. Mikio Naruse hearkens from the same Golden Age of Japanese film as Yasjiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, though his work has been much more difficult to find, here in the USA at least. But it looks like Criterion is doing their best to give Naruse the exposure and accolades he deserves. Due to a very busy weekend and the recent arrival of a preview copy of the set, I only had time to watch and review one movie, the earliest and shortest of the five titles gathered here, which represent all that survives of the two dozen silents that he made in the 1920s and 30s. It’s a lively half-hour morality tale titled Flunky, Work Hard.
Let me begin this review with a caveat – this is actually the first Naruse film I’ve ever seen. A Woman Ascends the Stairs is coming up fairly soon in my queue over at Criterion Reflections but I just haven’t taken the time to watch it ahead of its spot on my list. And since I prefer watching a director’s career develop in chronological order anyway, this is an ideal first acquaintance with Naruse, offering an example of his early for-hire work before he developed his distinctive melodramatic style focused mainly on female characters.
Given the brevity of the story and the randomly coincidental nature of Flunky, Work Hard‘s existence, I can’t make the case that this was a particularly pivotal or major entry into Naruse’s canon. It was his ninth film, with the eight that preceded it and three more that followed this one all lost to the ravages of time. I don’t have any insights as to how popular this short subject was, but it probably served as a second- or third-billed title on a matinee or evening marquee. As is the case with some of Ozu’s early silents of similar antiquity, the degree of damage evident on this DVD leads me to believe that Criterion had to work with the only extant print of Flunky, Work Hard, and there are a few moments where I wondered if the film simply crumbled into dust the moment it cleared through the digital processing machine. However, the poor image quality lends the film an almost sacred fragility, adding a layer of marvel that this 80 year old relic has managed to make it into the 21st century to compensate for all the fades, blotches and jarring edits that we have to put up with.
Flunky, Work Hard pulls the audience in by starting out as an amusing family comedy, with timeless elements like smartass kids back-talking to their befuddled dads while long-suffering moms patiently endure the bickering and meager resources that their under-employed husbands are able to provide the family. Okabe is the low-ranking insurance salesman referred to in the title, and we get a few laughs watching his feeble attempts to evade the rent collector and, a bit later on, stake out potentially lucrative turf with a rival peddler of policies, as they both have their eye on an affluent housewife with five little brats in need of whole life coverage.
What starts out as a humorous bit of slapstick subtly shifts into a revealing exercise in class consciousness as Okabe’s mounting efforts to impress his would-be client (including a degrading bit of clowning around to win her children’s favor) push him so far into sucking up to wealthy benefactors that his relationship with his own son Susumu begins to suffer.
Susumu is a scrappy kid, struggling to make friends as they’re all aware of his family’s poverty and getting into frequent fistfights as a result. Any parent of a young brawler can easily relate to the kind of stress that comes from learning that your son just gave his peer a black eye, but when the flare-ups with neighborhood kids threaten your earnings potential, as is the case with Okabe, the anxiety becomes all the more poignant. More humor ensues as we observe the spectacle of a guy who can’t even manage his own conflicts with competitors without tossing in a few shoves try to admonish his boy about excessive fighting.
The father-son tensions lead to a brief but tragic falling-out between the two, as Dad puts himself into a servile position for the sake of his job and neglects the needs of his son. The delusional but convenient rationale that fathers often use to relieve their guilt, that they’re all about their work so that the family can live in material comfort, is shown up here as we see Okabe go groveling back to his client while Susumu runs away distraught from his father’s wishy-washy discipline. Within a few minutes, we learn the sad outcome of that botched encounter: Susumu gets hit by a train ( a motif used nearly 30 years later by Ozu in Tokyo Twilight, and perhaps by many others before or since.)
As Flunky, Work Hard completes its transition from heartfelt comedy to slightly maudlin tear-jerker, one should keep in mind that Naruse was almost certainly following orders, producing the kind of mass audience entertainment that the studio chiefs ordered up. But what came as a very pleasant and enjoyable surprise (which I suppose I’m about to mildly spoil here, though I’m only providing still images) is the extent to which Naruse incorporates some adventurous, creative visual effects. He uses them to punctuate the crisis of conscience that Okabe experiences when his foolish preoccupations are revealed to him. The techniques are relatively crude, but I really appreciate Naruse’s willingness to step off the beaten track and startle his audience with unconventional editing and photographic tricks.
Based simply on what I saw in Flunky, Work Hard, it’s truly a shame that more of his early films are apparently lost forever. Though this is by all measures a minor work, one of four films that Naruse cranked out in 1931 on a pay-as-you-go basis, a distinctive artist’s touch is already evident. I’m eager to explore further to see what additional delights await me in this latest intriguing offering from the Eclipse Series.