Floating Clouds is a film by Mikio Naruse describing Japan’s uncertain post-war situation via two lovers, played by Hideko Takamine and Masayuki Mori. The story is told by comparing these two lovers’ situations with each other before and after the War.
The film shares thematic similarities with Naruse’s later film When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, partly because of its shared lead actor Takamine. I briefly discussed both here.
The film uses the narrative construct of comparing the two characters’ past, counterintuitively luxurious, war life in French Indochina with their survivalist post-war life in Japan. We can see above not only the environmental differences for Takamine’s character Yukiko but also her affected world outlook.
In comparison, her lover Kengo (played by Mori) may remain fundamentally unchanged. This proves one of the tension points of their difficult relationship.
Via time-shifting we see Yukiko and Kengo’s first meeting, an obvious physical attraction. If only we never had to get to know one another!
Yukiko and—already married—Kengo’s further meeting, this time with words exchanged. Yukiko never gets over her devotion to Kengo and until the end he never gets over his ability to, perhaps superficially to him, put her down. This behaviour sets the tone for their ongoing relationship
Returning to before and after comparisons, for better or worse for richer or poorer. Does Yukiko and Kengo’s difficult post-war relationship negate the value of their loving war relationship? Most of us are not able to make such clear environmental comparisons in our relationships.
These two frames also highlight the two characters being constantly on the move, but they’re always walking nowhere not somewhere. There’s no escaping this figurative commentary on societies who have to deal with the aftermath of war.
My favourite scene is necessarily difficult to tell through my frame grabs, however at twenty-four frames per second it’s perfectly and seamlessly executed. Yukiko and Kengo’s loving first kiss begins in French Indochina and ends in Japan, the juxtaposition of hope and reality cuts like a knife.
During this scene Kengo makes perhaps his most reflective comment, ‘the past is only a memory’, an unwillingness to acknowledge their present should be informed by their past.
While both characters are finding their way in difficult times and share personality traits, such as bitterness at their new life due to the inconvenience of war’s end, many of us will be rooting for Yukiko.
As mentioned earlier, Kengo’s underlying behaviour seems consistent whatever his environment. Here he leaves his friend and Yukiko at the dinner table to bathe with his friend’s wife (‘We’ll be right back!’). Kengo is emotionally stoic but leaves a trail of emotional destruction in his wake.
Yukiko is not without alternate male companionship, with similar levels of exploitation to Kenjo but with a more perfunctory endpoint. Here she meets with a companion from a previous abusive relationship, their new relationship being a financial not carnal necessity.
Cause and effect. Situational changes elevate Yukiko and Kengo’s relationship from one of mutual to equal dependence. On offer of work in a climate unsuitable for Yukiko’s consumption affected health, neither can leave the other. Yukiko and her doctor offer each other an unrequited knowing glance of her fate on her departure.
Towards the film’s end we return to its beginning, including Kengo’s ‘the past is only a memory’ comment. With Yukiko in dire straits, despite his comment, Kengo paints lipstick on her face to transport himself outside of his present into his past. The careful shooting (not in the least the lighting) makes this scene enchanting rather than ghoulish.
These final moments are the only moments we’re left in no doubt Kengo can ever leave, what we expect to be, the love of his life.
It’s difficult to compare and impossible to conflate different nations’ social situations, but as a Briton—without discounting later works from the likes of Ken Loach—I wonder if my nation has such treasured documenters of its immediate post-war social situation.
A splendid film, understandably one of the most respected not only of Naruse’s but of Japanese cinema’s works.