Among cinephiles, a trio of Japanese directors reside among the giants of world cinema: Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, and Kenji Mizoguchi. All three have been prominently exhibited in the US, and growing numbers of their films are available on DVD here as well. There is a fourth master, however, whose work is rarely seen in the US and who thus is often omitted when Japanese films are discussed: Mikio Naruse.
Prior to the this weekend, the last Naruse retrospective in New York occurred more than 20 years ago; such was the ardor with which it was received that the Museum of Modern Art actually ran the program twice. That said, though, Naruse is something of a difficult director to love, and it is with good reason that his films are only shown here in groups: his power, which can be unclear after a single film, grows exponentially the more you see. Lacking the action of Kurosawa and the dignified austerity of Ozu and Mizoguchi, Naruse’s films almost always focus on Japan’s lower classes and are often shocking in their modernity. Even when viewed today, there is an immediacy to his characters and their worlds that resonates immediately with the viewer.