Floating Clouds (Mikio Naruse) BFI Blu Ray


Mikio Naruse’s 1955 film Floating Clouds is held in great esteem in Japan.  It’s at number 3 in a poll of their best films ever made.  Mainly because it’s an achingly powerful picture of a mournful relationship set against the aftermath of WW2 when a shattered and humiliated Japan was trying to emerge out of economic ruin and, although occupied by the Americans, attempting to grope towards a new identity.

What’s fascinating is that Floating Cloud’s pessimism never allows a sense of renewal to happen.  For it’s both a move towards an uncertain future always being pulled back to a difficult, though more stable, even lyrical, past for the two lovers: and these essentially ill fitted lovers don’t live happily enough in the present.

Both Yukiko and Kengo have to bear the symbolic ‘burden’ of representing not merely unhappy lovers, who can’t re-ignite their briefly held joy experienced in French Indochina, but two opposed directions for the state of a ruined Japan.

Yukiko (Hideko Takamine) is expatriated from French Indochina.  She was working as a secretary for a forestry project of the Japanese wartime government and had an affair with Kengo (Masyuki Mori) one of the engineers on the project.  In Tokyo, Yukiko discovers Kengo – a married man who had promised to divorce his wife Kuniko for Yukiko.  Their affair is renewed but Kengo will not leave his ill wife.  And Kengo is an incorrigible womaniser who cheats on Yukiko.  He has an affair with Osei.  Then Yukiko gets pregnant from Kengo, followed by an abortion.

Shen learns that Kengo’s wife has died.  Yukiko, in bad health, accompanies Kengo to his new job on Yakushima Island that endures a wretched rainy climate.

To summarise the plot of Floating Cloud’s makes it sound a doom laden and fatalistic film.  And I have to admit that half way through I wondered why Yukiko didn’t leave this irresponsible man.  But despicable though Kengo’s actions are he’s never violent towards her.  He clings to her.  She clings to him.  There is too much self-harm blighting the affection of this relationship.  Neither can move forward and change, which creates a frustrating and tempestuous situation.

Hideo Takamine was one of Japan’s greatest actors and she magnificently excels herself.  Her absolutely devoted and intense love for her repressed lover is conveyed with astonishing power and conviction.  It’s a heartbreaking performance.  The core of the film is hers.  And Naruse knows it.  Her every disappointment and momentary joy shadows the film’s journey in what is a bleak analysis of both unrequited love and, on Masuyki Mori’s side, unexpressed emotion.

Naruse never allows Floating Clouds to topple into a melodramatic soap opera.  The subtle austerity of his direction is commanding, honest and true.  Floating Clouds contains much exquisite editing, poignant dissolves, dense compositions and the constant physical act of the walking of Naruse’s searching lovers – what correct roads to freedom can they take? All this striving is expressed through Hideo Takamine and Masuyuki Mori’s wonderful acting to redeem Floating Clouds’s negation and make it a wholly involving, and at times great film.  Unforgettable.

Alan Price©2024.