A brass band plays off-key, parading lazily through rural towns. Against the open night sky, acrobats dangle perilously without nets. “People will laugh if you fall,” the ringmaster tells them. Two sisters, halfway between ballerinas and clowns, struggle to define their lives.
The film is 1935’s Sakasu Gonin-Gumi, or Five Men in the Circus, and this post is for the At the Circus Blogathon hosted by SerendipitousAnachronisms and Crítica Retro.
I know it’s been a hell of a November so far – incidentally, if you want to marry a Canadian girl for immigration purposes, I’d probably do it for a working Hulu account – and I picked a total downer of a movie for this blogathon. So… maybe read about this movie now and then watch it at a later time? Or read about it at a later time. Blog posts don’t expire or anything. They’re not cream.
Also, before I really get going, I’m going to shamelessly plug Serendipitous Anachronisms and Crítica Retro. Both of them have amazing content, perceptive writing, and truckloads of historical information, so they’re definitely worth visiting repeatedly and subscribing to. Love to them for hosting this event, and love to them in general for being Summer and Lê. (Embarrassingly, I’ve always thought of Crítica Retro as my blog’s “cousin” because of our similar titles.)
Okay! Let’s take a trip to pre-war Japan, and the lyrical melancholy of Mikio Naruse!
It’s often bemoaned by fans of 20th century Japanese cinema that Naruse isn’t better known in the west. Despite the retrospectives and festivals that spotlight his work, he remains largely undiscussed, especially when compared to his contemporaries Yasujirō Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi.
Part of this has to do with what used to be considered marketable internationally and what didn’t. Men’s films, like Kurosawa’s famous samurai epics and gritty crime dramas, were considered bankable while women’s films and low-key dramas were considered “too Japanese” for export. This second category is, of course, what Naruse specialized in. (Fun fact: Kurosawa apprenticed with Naruse, but a lot of people ignore this because no samurai = no lasting influence.)
Though his films were very popular in Japan during his lifetime, his company man attitude and lack of interest in auteur theory made him a figure of little appeal to contemporary western critics. He was sort of like a Howard Hawks or Douglas Sirk in that respect.
Interestingly, Naruse’s 1935 breakthrough Wife! Be Like a Rose! was the first Japanese talkie to receive an American theatrical release. It didn’t do well at all. Probably because it’s about the unfairness of Geisha culture and the pressure children put on their parents to maintain family reputations, and America was more into screwball comedies at that time. It was the 30’s. People didn’t need to go to the movies to get depressed, they could just stay home and think about their lives.
Five Men in the Circus was the immediate follow-up to Wife! Be Like a Rose! and never got an international release.
It tells the story of a dismally untalented five-man brass band, a group that’s been picking up work here and there advertising for hot springs and local festivals and the like. In between gigs, they steal hotel toiletries and wish they were back in Tokyo. Their next paycheck is supposed to come from playing the fanfare for a rural athletic meet, but when the meet is postponed, they find themselves in a bind.
Word comes to them of a circus set up in a nearby town, and they decide to head over and see if the big top needs some really terrible musicians. (Spoiler: They do not.)
At the circus, we’re introduced to the ringmaster’s two daughters, and it’s here that the Naruse touch is most evident.
Naruse’s films have very few technical signatures, in terms of what we recognize as directorial artistic flourish. He was obsessed with making the camera feel invisible, so there’s none of that Citizen Kane cameraman-in-the-trees style of innovation in his work. There are a few shots at wide, vertiginous angles in order to capture the sensation of looking upwards at acrobats, but even that’s crafted to feel as organic to the audience as possible. His whole technical aim was to create the illusion of one, continuous shot throughout the story. Kind of like a book with no chapters.
Where you can really see his thumbprint – again more like Howard Hawks than anyone else I can think of – is in recurring narrative themes. For Naruse, that meant women. His female characters weren’t accessories to a masculine narrative, nor were they prizes for deeds well done; they were dynamic and human, and more often than not, torn between two conflicting expectations within Japanese society. These characters don’t win, because they can’t win, and this inevitable loss forms the heart of the Mikio Naruse tragedy, but there’s always a flicker of optimism.
For a Naruse character, dignity is the hardest thing to hold on to, but the only thing worth keeping.
It’s a simple but powerful underlying theme, particularly in his later, more self-assured stories like 1959’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs.
Five Men in the Circus sets itself apart from his usual films by being ensemble led, and by weaving its tragi-comic outlook through a variety of seemingly unresolved subplots. (I’ve mentioned before that I really enjoy unresolved stories; but if they drive you nuts, opt for a later Naruse comedy called Travelling Actors. It’s about two guys in a Kabuki troupe who dress up in a horse costume re-evaluating their lives after learning they’re being replaced with a real horse. It’s unexpectedly poignant and also very, very silly.) Most notable is the violinist who gets his dreams crushed because he won’t listen to circus wisdom about demographics. Rural audiences don’t like European classic music, they like tunes with some pep.
The story is based on a novel that had a lot of then-popular crude humour, especially in regard to periphery female characters. It makes for a vivid contrast between what films were expected to do in 1930’s Japan and what filmmakers like Naruse wanted them to be able to say.
"None of us play this music because we like it," one of the band members sulks as he drinks at an inn.
"None of us are bar hostesses because we like it," his server replies, pouring his next sake with her job-required simpering smile.
So, yeah. Five Men in the Circus might not be the best movie to watch while you’re feeling cruddy, but I hope this post has inspired you to check out the work of Mikio Naruse! And if you already knew him from his films of the 1950’s, or the collection of his silent films released by Criterion, then I hope this has encouraged you to check out some stuff from his middle-period!
And go look at everyone else’s circus posts! They’ll cheer you up!