Mikio Naruse has often been attributed to the defining directorial triumvirate of early Japanese cinema; consisting of himself, Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi. Despite this illustrious comparison, the works of Naruse have remained relatively inaccessible and unknown to audiences both inside and outside of Japan.
Apart From You is Naruse’s 20th film, made during his most successful era of silent film. The story’s modest scope is serviced by a small principal cast consisting mainly of three characters. Kikue (Mitsuko Yoshikawa) is an ageing geisha who works hard supporting her son who seems to be gradually distancing himself from her. On top of this she feels her favourite client slipping away to the lures of younger geishas. The son, Yoshio (Akio Isono), a bit embarrassed by his mother’s profession starts mixing it up with the wrong crowd. The dazzling Sumiko Mizukobo, who was equally dazzling in Ozu’s Dragnet Girl in the same year, plays Terugiku — a younger geisha and a neighbourly friend of Kikue who decides to help out the situation.
Naruse has created a very memorable and visually accomplished silent film which requires very little of its infrequent intertitling. The story is a very sombre one, but is still immersed in a sense of hopefulness and redemption. Like many of Mizoguchi’s films, the story is centred around the plight of women but is thankfully free of the preachy heavy-handedness that seem to plague a number of Mizoguchi’s oeuvre. The film itself appears to consist of two distinct acts. The first section deals with the mother’s plight as she tries to communicate with her son. This culminates in a very effective emotional climax, though the sentimentality seems abruptly strong for what the scene was building towards. The second act finds the son being invited to Terugiku’s family house in a nearby seaside town. There the son is confronted with the poverty and struggle within the young geisha’s family, which then becomes a reflection of his own situation. This second act proves to be quite a powerful one with a particularly memorable contrasting of the poverty with the idyllic seaside country town.
There were few detractions in this grand piece of cinema. Akio Isono’s performance as the son was a little lacklustre, besides also looking way too old for a school kid. The choice of numerous sudden dolly zooms to actors’ faces as a way of establishing a dramatic moment did become slightly irritating, but otherwise the film is a great achievement in early cinema.