Finding women between the frames 

By Karen Herland

As a feminist film scholar of representations of women and modernity, Catherine Russell's publication of a book on a male filmmaker whose entire body of work was produced in Japanese, a language she does not speak, may seem mystifying.

Hoshi Yuriko and Takamine Hideko in <em>A Woman’s Story</em>, 1963 Magnifying glass

Hoshi Yuriko and Takamine Hideko in A Woman’s Story, 1963

"The films are quite remarkable," said Russell of how her initial expectation of viewing a handful of available prints turned into an odyssey tracking down the 67 available films of the 89 Naruse Mikio made. "The women tend to be strong characters, they don't die or get raped."

Naruse's films span nearly four decades, starting in 1930. As she writes in her preface to The Cinema of Naruse Mikio: Women and Japanese Modernity, Russell chose to use the cinema of Naruse to chart Japan's "headlong rush into modernity and the flight from the anxious memory of the Pacific war and its traumatic aftermath." Because of his dedication to films about women and for female audiences, Naruse’s cinema offers a unique picture of the changing gender roles during this period.

She said in a recent interview that she was interested in the potential for revolution and change charted in the films. "Women [in the films] understand gender inequalities, but they are not contested."

Russell received a fellowship from the Japan Foundation, founded to foster cultural exchange, to travel to Japan in 1997. "I had only seen one film before the trip, and I was quite excited because I knew the Japan Foundation archive had 16 subtitled prints." However, the archive staff at the National Film Centre was not equipped to deal with requests to screen the works.

When Russell was finally able to view some films with a handful of other researchers who had made similar requests, "the undergraduate student who was translating for me was too shy to speak in front of the others."

Although stories can be conveyed through staging and presentation, the language gap was a problem. "I didn't just want to see only the subtitled prints that somebody else decided were worth seeing." Russell spent a decade collecting available films in electronic form.

Eventually, two different elements helped to bring the project together. Japan's national broadcaster, NHK, aired Naruse's entire works, and a Japanese contact started mailing her bootleg tapes of the broadcasts.

Two years ago, Russell also began working with Guy Yasko, an American translator who was able to both transcribe the scripts of unsubtitled films, and the texts of contemporary criticism written about Naruse in Japan.

"The further back you go, the fewer people understand the language," Russell said of the major shifts that the Japanese language has experienced since the ’30s. Even so, Russell admits that the dialogue itself is not very complex. "It's mostly 'I love you', 'I hate you', 'my son got run over by a train'."

What is unique, was Naruse's point of view and his very sophisticated editing techniques that have brought him recognition as an important director of Japanese cinema. Although he is considered to be Japan’s “number four” director, there has been remarkably little written about him. Russell attributes this in part to the way that his style is very similar to American cinema, and he was not considered “Japanese” enough for Orientalist film criticism.

"The book is not only the first book in English on the Japanese film director, but also, arguably the first 'feminist' approach to Japanese cinema," said Film Studies Chair Peter Rist.

Russell is also pleased with the extensive screen captures she collected for the book. She was able to take advantage of fairly recent technology in ways that allowed the illustrations to convey the complexity of Naruse's editing.

The Cinema of Naruse Mikio was published by Duke University Press and was launched on Sept. 26.


Concordia University