On the Hulu Channel: Mikio Naruse’s Scattered Clouds

And so it has come to this – the final film in our Naruse On Hulu series (which I’ve just now titled, by the by). It’s been a long, often-repetitive, but never not interesting immersion in a type of cinema at which, a few years ago, I’d have barely glanced. So for those of you who still look  askance  at the Sight & Sound Top 50, wondering who the hell actually loves these films, your taste may too one day change. And what better way to nudge that along than with a little Mikio Naruse, in this case the final film he made before dying two years later at the age of 63, bringing to a close a career that spanned thirty-seven years and a stunning eighty-nine films.

Scattered Clouds (1967) has one of the most arresting loglines of any of Naruse’s films on Hulu – a woman finds herself attracted to the man who killed her husband in an accident. So if the quasi-incestuous relationship in  Yearning  wasn’t risqué enough for you, well, here you are, but know that the real meat of this isn’t capitalize upon until the last half-hour or so. Even by Naruse’s standards, it’s a slow build, with screenwriter Nobuo Yamada (who Criterion fans might know from his work on Kurahara’s  The Warped Ones and  I Hate But Love, and Nomura’s  A Colt is My Passport) forced to find ways for two people who would never want to see each other to constantly run into one another. The scenes themselves often play beautifully, but the subtext that Naruse wrought so movingly from similar encounters in  Yearning  are, here, less revealing and sort of flailing in their dramatics, often resorting to drunkenness to motivate the characters forward.

Moreover, I wonder if the film might have benefitted from someone more in tune with the tawdry sexuality of its premise. By Naruse’s standards, this is a fairly indecent affair, insofar as his characters actually *gasp* kiss, but given that there’s little emotional reason for these two to be drawn to one another, it’s a little suspicious that there’s so little sexuality in their sexual attraction.

Nevertheless, it hits on some of the issues of estrangement and longing that Naruse wrings so well from his actors, and through his cinema. In her book,  The Cinema of Naruse Mikio: Women and Japanese Modernity, Catherine Russell characterizes Yumiko’s attraction to Mishima as a desire for the western way of living through a more “western” man. She notes that Mishima exhibits a gentlemanly quality, widely present in American and European films of the time, while the other men in the film (even her husband, who we only meet briefly) regard her as little more than a source of amusement. Even her clothing and hairdo look closer to  Last Year at Marienbad  than  Floating Weeds.

Scattered Clouds  was one of only a handful of films Naruse shot in color (I counted five, using IMDb), a format he reportedly loathed but which, by the late sixties, was increasingly becoming a commercial necessity. I’m not familiar with his other color works, but he acclimates himself wonderfully here. It’s a naturalistic approach, situating many of the scenes in outdoor environments, letting the lush greens and browns come through, and expertly communicating changes in weather (which, as the title indicates, serve an important narrative and thematic function). He creates some very striking compositions and lovely vistas that extend the film’s thematic concerns gracefully and unforcefully. The last shot alone speaks to everything the film is about.

And presented in HD on Criterion’s Hulu channel, I think one would be hard-pressed to complain. I can put up with a lot of problems in a black-and-white transfer, but it’s ridiculously easy to mess up a color film, particularly for a streaming set-up. That said, this looked rather extraordinary, presenting a sharp, clear picture with a very strong color palette (taking into account that Naruse is working with a purposefully muted one). There isn’t much grain present, but there is some, surprisingly enough, and a nice flickering reminds one of the film’s celluloid roots. The screencaps here don’t totally do it justice.  Scattered Clouds  is presented in its original, spectacularly anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

Should Criterion give this the Blu-bump (coinin’ phrases!), it would be interesting to take Catherine Russell’s read of Yumiko’s motivations further, perhaps in a visual essay discussing some of the American films that were seen by and popular among Japanese audiences. Needless the say, the film would look stunning given that extra boost as well, but for now, Naruse fans can just relish having this on HD quality in their own homes. What an age in which we live.

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Scott Nye

Scott Nye loved movies so much, he spent four years at Emerson College earning a career-free degree in Media Studies. Now living in Los Angeles, he's trying to put that to some sort of use. OFCS member, film writer, day-tripper.