Essay on Naruse's Ukigumo

The other victim in Ukigumo (Floating Clouds)

Edan Corkill

It takes the best part of the movie's two-hour running time, and about ten years in the characters' lives, but at the end of director Mikio Naruse's Ukigumo (Floating Clouds, 1955), former government official Kengo Tomioka (Masayuki Mori) finally displays affection towards his long-time lover Yukiko Koda (Hideko Takamine). Even then, however, the emotional display is half forced upon him by strangers who assume the pair is married and it is short lived, as Koda (Hideko Takamine) is rapidly succumbing to a life-threatening illness.

Why does Tomioka take so long to requite Koda's love?

In elegant flashbacks, Naruse shows how the two first meet in Vietnam during the Japanese occupation of the country in the 1940s. He is a bureaucrat with the forestry ministry and she is a young staffer with the same. They have an affair. He promises to leave his wife for her, but after the war he reneges on the deal.

Nevertheless Koda sees Tomioka as her only hope for happiness, so she decides their occasional one-night encounters are worth the risk of eking out a solitary existence in the post-war capital. Along the way Naruse submits her to a wide range of post-war experiences each fascinating and moving for a contemporary viewer. She seeks out security in the embrace of a young U.S. serviceman, steals money from her rich uncle (who's struck it rich by establishing his own religion) and goes through a complicated abortion.

Tomioka's refusal to settle down with Koda is understandable while his wife is alive. It becomes odd, however, when the wife dies. Instead of taking up with Koda, Tomioka turns to other women.

Naruse's film has been described as a tale of Koda's tenacious love. That tenacity is either seen as foolish, admirable, or the result of a forced hand in difficult circumstances. It is also interesting to consider what the film says about Tomioka.

It is only after he moves to Yakushima, and begrudgingly (at first) lets her tag along, that he starts displaying any real affection towards her. Along the way, people start referring to her as his wife, and he doesn't correct them.

Could it be that it is only after leaving Tokyo that Tomioka is able to escape what he sees as his own shameful past? Sent by his nation to an unforgiving land, he had succumbed to adultery. Perhaps he interprets his subsequent misfortunes (not only did his wife die, but he ultimately lost his job) as punishments for that initial blunder? If so, it would make sense that he is cold towards the woman with whom it all started. And he would be especially cold while living in the rapidly developing Tokyo, where every day would serve as a painful reminder of his own inability to advance. On leaving the city, however, and on venturing again to a remote and forest-covered land (this time Yakushima, not Vietnam), it would make sense that he is finally able to give expression to his feelings for her.

Ukigumo isn't just about a hapless but tenacious woman battling through life in post-war Japan. It is also a tale of how the emotional upheaval of war ultimately destroyed the life of a man who didn't even fight in it.

(Floating Clouds, 1955)

Director :Mikio Naruse
Writers :Fumiko Hayashi (novel),Yôko Mizuki (adaptation)
Producer :Sanezumi Fujimoto
Cinematography :Masao Tamai
Production Design :Satoshi Chuko
Film Editing :Hideshi Ohi
Lighting :Chôshirô Ishii
Original Music :Ichirô Saitô
Sound recordist :Hisashi Shimonaga
Chief Assistant Director :Kihachi Okamoto
Cast :Hideko Takamine, Masayuki Mori, Chieko Nakakita, Mariko Okada, Isao Yamagata, Daisuke Katô and others

1955/JAPAN/123min./Black and White/1 : 1.33/Mono/Toho Company