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Kimiko in New York

Kiyoaki Okubo

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1. Suzanne Schermann, Naruse Mikio: Nichijo no kirameki [Mikio Naruse: The Splendor of Daily Life] (Kinema Junpo Sha, 1996), p. 82.





In 1937, Mikio Naruse’s Wife! Be Like a Rose! (Tsuma yo, bara no yo ni) was shown in New York’s Filmarte Theater under the title of Kimiko. It was the first Japanese sound film to be shown commercially outside of Japan. This story is interesting — if for no other reason than it involved Naruse, who was not blessed with an international reputation during his lifetime. In fact, it is the 1983 Retrospective of his work at the Locarno Film Festival that is generally thought to have cemented his international reputation, rather than the 1937 showing of Kimiko in New York – which, to put it bluntly, is treated almost as if it were a stain upon his record.

One cannot ignore the pioneering nature of Kimiko’s showing in New York. But if that is the case, why is it that Akira Kurosawa’s Grand Prix for Rashomon (1950) at the Venice Film Festival is almost always mentioned, but Naruse’s Kimiko’s run in New York almost never? The reason is quite simple: Kimiko received terrible reviews, and its run ended a week after opening because it was a box-office failure. Suzanne Schermann has examined the reviews of Kimiko in the New York Times and conjectured that the ‘merciless reviews’ it received were ‘one reason why Japanese dramas depicting modern life were not exported for a very long time.’ (1) If that is the case, Kimiko was a not only a stain on Naruse’s record, but also an obstacle to the international distribution of Japanese cinema.

What should we make of this? We often attribute the discrepancies between past and present critical opinion to bad luck. Yes, the timing for Kimiko was bad, and the screening was ‘ahead of its time’. Movies are often received coldly in their day. Yet, even if we complain about this coldness, we unconsciously use that same discrepancy as evidence of the superiority of our critical faculties. What is truly unfortunate in all this is that the tacit agreement between past and present has prevented an examination of the precise events and details of Kimiko’s New York run. Why was the decision made to plunge into this season of Kimiko without any real connections in the American distribution network? And what were the criticisms of Kimiko? Who were the critics that disparaged it? Schermann mentions Frank S. Nugent – a name which seems oddly familiar ...

Wife! Be Like a Rose! and Kimiko

Wife! Be Like a Rose! opened in Japan on 15 August 1935. Kimiko opened in New York on 12 April 1937. What transpired during this almost two year period? A round-table discussion entitled ‘Talking about Tourist and Export Films’, which appeared in the August 1939 edition of the movie magazine Eiga hyoron [Film Review], provides a clue. A certain Iwao Yokota, who was Chief of Operations at the International Tourism Bureau, provides many details about what transpired before, during and after the New York run of Kimiko. According to Yokota’s account, Wife! Be Like a Rose! was screened not as a money-making venture, but for educational purposes.






2. Film Review, August 1939, p. 65.

  There is a person in Chicago named Herbert Greene, who is affiliated with the University of Chicago. He had started something called the Educational Film Cooperative which took good films from abroad, and lent them out to schools, universities and clubs, either in the original 35mm or reduced to 16mm. The cooperative had begun several years before, and eventually Greene wanted to show a Japanese film. He asked Jigoro Kano’s son, who was studying at the University of Chicago at the time, to choose a film when he went home for summer break. This is why that the film was chosen. (2)  


  Details about Herbert Greene are scarce, but we know more about Jigoro Kano. He was the founder of Kodokan judo (the orthodox, mainstream school of judo) and a member of Japan’s original Olympic Committee. From looking at various records, it is almost certain that of Kano’s three sons, the one who was studying abroad in the mid ‘30s was the youngest, Riho Kano. However, just why Greene would entrust the son of a judo teacher with the task of selecting a film remains unclear. After the war, Riho worked for Kyodo News wire service. He became known for collecting materials on Shoeki Shohei for the diplomat-historian Herbert Norman. One has to conclude that Riho didn’t seem to have much connection to either judo or film. In all probability, he was asked to choose a film by an American teacher he respected and simply chose one on his own discretion. This is merely conjecture, but the reason why he chose Wife! Be Like a Rose! was probably because of Kinema Junpo’s best ten list. Kinema Junpo chose Wife! Be Like a Rose! as the best Japanese film of 1935.  




3. Ibid.

  Then Mr Greene said it would be a shame simply to stick it in his film library, and begin lending it out. He said we should send it out into the market by showing it in a New York theatre. He came to visit me in New York from Chicago and we saw a preview. There were several people from New York movie theatres at the screening, the purpose of which was to show the film to potential buyers. In the end, a New York theatre by the name of the Filmarte decided to show the film. (3)  


  The Filmarte Theater was an up-market theatre specialising in foreign films. It had shown Un Carnet de bal (1937), La Grande illusion (1937) and Mayerling (1936). The International Tourism Bureau seems to have put a great deal of effort into preparing Wife! Be Like a Rose! for its American release: struggling to put together English subtitles from the script, which was mimeographed on straw paper, changing the title, re-editing the film to remove parts which an American audience might not understand. Yokota speaks in great detail about this process. I will discuss his good-intentioned efforts later but, for now, I draw your attention to his testimony to the effect that the reaction of the audience at the film’s opening was anything but negative. The advance screenings given to magazine and newspaper film reviewers had spread the word about Kimiko. It is clear from Yokota’s comments that the publicity campaign which had included The New York Times, The New York Herald-Tribune and The New Yorker had its desired effect.  



4. Ibid. p. 66.

  We gave out tickets to the premiere to many people. That night, there were men who came in tuxedos and women in evening gowns, and the theatre was full. Kimiko seems to have quite an effect on the audience that night. The audience was quiet and some of the women were crying. I thought that it had had quite an impact on them. (4)  



Sadly, Yokota’s optimistic assessment did not hold up. But even so — and even if this is only a personal impression of the event — it allows us to record the reception on Kimiko’s opening night in New York as something more than a stain on the honour of Naruse. Yet, if the reception at the premiere was good, why was the film’s run cut short a week later? To answer that question, we will have to summon the next witnesses.

Frank S. Nugent and Mark Van Doren

It was the second night of Kimiko’s run in New York, 13 April 1937. A review of Kimiko written by an Irish-American reporter appeared in The New York Times. This short and sharp review cut Kimiko’s life short.


5. It was in fact a play.




6. Frank S. Nugent, ‘Kimiko’, The New York Times (13 April 1937), p. 31.

  Kimiko, based on Minoru Nakano’s novel Two Wives, (5) is more to be recommended for its novelty than its quality. It is a curious hybrid of East and West, with something of the best and worst features of each. It apes the Hollywood technique, but rather crudely. [...] The picture is repetitive, and awkwardly contrived. It has a distressing habit of stumbling over the threshold of each new scene; its fade-outs and dissolves are awkwardly amateur. Yet it has a certain sturdy honesty in the resolution of its problem and the performances are expert. (6)  

7. Tag Gallagher, John Ford: The Man and His Films (University of California Press, 1986), pp. 246-247.


It is time to examine the career of a powerful critic. Those of us who share the history of post-WWII cinema may remember Nugent more as a screenwriter. This is because Twentieth Century Fox producer Darryl F. Zanuck pulled him into screenwriting in the ‘40s. It was rumoured that Nugent’s move into filmwriting happened less because of Nugent’s talents as a writer than because Zanuck was exasperated with his harsh reviews of Fox pictures – in other words, that Nugent’s change of profession was a sort of payoff to keep his mouth shut. Tag Gallagher has told the story of Nugent’s move to screenwriting. (7) In any case, Nugent’s name is familiar to us because we have seen it rolling by in the credits of so many John Ford films: eleven, in fact, starting with the first of his cavalry trilogy, Fort Apache (1948).

It is not enough simply to be angry with Nugent’s relentlessly harsh review and the baldfaced anti-Asian racism of the statement ‘aping Hollywood’. Let us take another look at the process by which Kimiko came to be shown in New York. There is a need to take a larger, more historical perspective on these events. Nugent’s comments are of two kinds: first, that the linking of scenes was clumsy; and second, that the material, tools and techniques used to make the film lack a harmony between East and West.




In relation to the claim about editing, we should remember that the film was re-edited for its New York run. Wife! Be Like a Rose! ran about seventy minutes, but scenes which were deemed too difficult for American audiences, totalling about twenty minutes, were cut. I have not seen the American version and I do not know the precise differences. However, from Yokota’s account we do know that the scene in which Kamatari Fujiwara sings was cut. There is no record of Naruse having participated in the re-editing; I suspect it was done by the International Tourism Bureau. The editing was certainly done with the best of intentions, but there is a high probability that it greatly detracted from the aesthetic integrity of Naruse’s film. After all, Naruse edited his films with the utmost care.

Nugent’s second point is more complicated. This is because it is connected to the general issue of how Japan and Asia were depicted in American films of the ‘30s. Let us look at some positive reviews of Kimiko that used the film as an opportunity to reflect upon these general issues. I am thinking specifically of Mark Van Doren’s review in The Nation.

Allow me to introduce Mark Van Doren, who was a Pulitzer Prize winning poet, and a Professor at Columbia University for many years – it is said that Stanley Kubrick attended his lectures on literature. Van Doren was one of America’s great scholars, with an extensive knowledge of literature — but not necessarily film. We can even catch a glimpse of him in the film about his son, Charles Van Doren: Quiz Show (1994), concerning the cheating scandal on the television quiz show 21, where Ralph Fiennes plays the younger Van Doren and British actor Paul Scofield plays Mark Van Doren, giving his character a very dignified manner. I was taken aback by the apparent incongruity of a character in a Robert Redford movie writing a review of a Naruse film — just as I was taken aback to learn that one of John Ford’s screenwriters had savaged the same film.

I would say that Van Doren’s review is less a review than a light essay. In the last part of this essay, Van Doren writes about Frank Borzage’s History is Made at Night (1937), and only about half of his piece is devoted to Kimiko. Perhaps the piece was little more than a University Professor’s off-hours amusement. But, nonetheless, it is worth examing.





8. Mark Van Doren, ‘Japanese Triangle’, The Nation (10 April 1937), p. 419.

  The first five minutes of Kimiko are startling. The streets of Tokyo look like the streets of Detroit, and the people going up and down them look exactly like the people we see every day except they are a trifle shorter. Even the first interior is familiar — a very ‘modern’ sort of office which a girl in a grey suit is preparing to leave at the end of her day’s work so that she may meet a young man, also in a grey suit, downstairs at the corner. The two of them step briskly along, quarrelling and making up as if they were natives of Hollywood, then quarrelling again and refusing to walk together. (8)  



Van Doren’s naive surprise that a Japanese film resembles Hollywood is succinctly registered in the phrase ‘as if they were natives of Hollywood’. This positive evaluation has the effect of relativising his review, which up to now has tended to be seen as something absolute. At the same time, we should not overlook the fact that Van Doren’s positive review also brings into relief the doxa which Nugent represents – the doxa which did not allow the American cinema scene of the period to accept Kimiko.

According to Van Doren, although Kimiko’s characters were born and live in a small country in Asia, they look just like ‘natives of Hollywood’. On the other hand, for Nugent, they are ‘half-breeds’, something that he cannot stand. Here it is important to remember that, in American movies of the time, Asia was always received only through a kind of translation. For example, in the same year of 1937, the most highly praised Hollywood film was Sidney A. Franklin’s screen adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. When you see The Good Earth today, it is immediately obvious that, despite being adapted from a roman-fleuve set in China, there are no Chinese in the film at all. All of the main characters are actors of European descent who are made to look Chinese via make-up and costume. For the America of the ‘30s, Asia was a product of the imagination, something to be concocted from Western bodies and Eastern costumes. In Kimiko the arrangement of bodies and costumes is reversed: Eastern bodies wear Western dress in a modern drama. Kimiko is, in every sense, the diametric opposite of The Good Earth; it is safe to say that it greatly exceeded the boundaries of ‘30s Hollywood cinema. Would it even be possible to discuss The Good Earth as a hybrid of East and West today? That it did not allow such deep emotions is indicative of the peculiarity of the image of Asia in American cinema of the time. It just might be that Nugent was too thoroughly steeped in the America cinema of the ‘30s to appreciate what he saw, and that it was Van Doren, maintaining a certain distance from cinema and simply and plainly giving his opinions, who could see the film cinematically.

That said, is it right to praise Van Doren’s review simply because he was less prejudiced than Nugent? There were many other statements of defence of Kimiko besides Van Doren’s; there is no reason to privilege his without looking at them. For example, The New Yorker and the National Board of Review Magazine both argued that the film had value as a corrective to the ready-made images of Asia that were common at the time.




9. National Board of Review Magazine (April 1937), pp. 16-17.

  [What is most interesting is] how few differences there are between East and West. [...] The foreignness of the appearances becomes negligible almost immediately. The circulation of this film in America would be educative in the best sense. Not as propaganda, but as corrective of misconceptions and prejudices. (9)  


  With this, it could be said that Herbert Greene’s original intent in bringing Wife! Be Like a Rose! to America as educational material was realised. However, what makes Van Doren’s review especially notable in this context is that, above the liberalness of his stance towards something Asian, he saw through to the essential characteristics of Naruse’s film aesthetic. Van Doren writes that the poem which Kimiko’s mother reads gave him the first sense of foreignness that he had while watching it. Nevertheless, one stops at the line ‘the certainty that this film contains a new experiencs for us’, which belongs to a different level than such accidental differences.  








10. Van Doren, ‘Japanese Triangle’, p. 419.

  But the conviction a little later on that the film contains a new experience for us comes from something more important than any such accident of detail. It comes from the whole management of the story. Not from the story itself, which is about a man, his wife and his mistress. It is the management, the emphasis that makes the difference; and I can suggest this difference best by saying that each element of the narrative is presented with a simplicity and a seriousness, and a certainty of effect which reminds us of something too frequently forgotten in the movies, namely, that economy is power. Mikio Naruse, the director, needs no crowds of people, no cascades of scenery, no whirlpools of significant objects in order to convince us that his story is important. He evidently believes it is; and is content, whether in Tokyo or in the remote province where Kimiko goes to find her father, to tell it with the fewest possible strokes. The result is one of the most moving films I know, and one for which there can be no better words than that it should be seen. (10)  






11. Akira Kurosawa, Gama no abura: jiden no yo na mono [Something Like an Autobiography] (Iwanami shoten, 1984), pp. 239-240.

12. Edward Yang, ‘Generosity – The Invincible Invisible Style: On Naruse Mikio’, in Shigehiko Hasumi and Sadao Yamane (eds.)., Mikio Naruse (San Sebàstian, 1998), pp. 153-157.


What is the ‘whole management of the story’ that Van Doren emphasises? What does ‘economy is power’ mean? What Van Doren is emphasising here is not the interior as expressed by the Image, but the formal aspect of the emphases and arrangement of the narrative (or katari). In other words, the crucial element is not what is related, but how it is related. This is the type of clear perspective that a reviewer who is also a famous poet brings to his job.

It would be a mistake to say that Van Doren is overvaluing the spectacle here. In the final analysis, story is still important. Van Doren is saying that Kimiko is worth our attention because it shows us the story without appeal to an excessive visual sensibility. Recall Kurosawa’s observations about Naruse’s careful editing: ‘Naruse strings together many short cuts, but when they are seen together, they do not seem to be separate at all, but part of one long cut. They are superbly put together and the seams are not at all noticeable.’ (11) Or Edward Yang’s essay in which he analyses the last scene of Midareru (Yearning, 1964), a film which rejects talkiness, and attempts to summarise Naruse’s oeuvre in the phrase ‘unlimited gentleness and generosity’. (12) To be more precise, I would call what others have termed Naruse’s aesthetic of ‘the least number of strokes’ the traceless trace.

By going back over the historical traces left by Kimiko, I think the truth of its unluckiness has become evident. It is not that it was unjustly ignored in the ‘30s. Even if American cinema of the time was prejudiced against Asia, the cinematic opinion of the times was was not all mistaken. Rather, what is truly unlucky is that, even while there were discussions which took into account the true qualities of Naruse’s work, these evaluations were forgotten.


13. Mikio Naruse, ‘The Dragon’s Lair’, in Kindai Eiga [Modern Film] (Studio F Sha, 1935), pp. 26-27.









Mikio Naruse and John Ford

Van Doren called Wife! Be Like a Rose! a story ‘about a man and his wife and mistress’. Kimiko, played by Chiba Sachiko, lives in the city with her mother. Her parents have been separated for many years. Because of his work, Kimiko’s father lives in a small mountain village in Nagano. He has built another family with another woman, with whom he has even had a child. Angered by her decadent father, stout-hearted Kimiko goes into action, travelling to the country in place of her indecisive mother. She proceeds to the country and tries to win back her father from his mistress. However, she loses the will to carry out her original plan in the face of the mistress’ sincerity. Kimiko succeeds in bringing her father back to the city, but cannot stop him from returning to the countryside once again. In the end, her plans do not succeed.

Naruse often made films in which one character makes a long journey to meet another character, or in which a couple leave a familiar place to go and live in the anonymous city. Of course, in the majority of his films, Naruse did not write the screenplays, and it might be argued that, even if the contents of his films share a common theme, this is only a coincidence. Nevertheless, a short story called ‘The Dragon’s Lair’ (‘Ryûgû’), which he sent to a fanzine, is about a young girl who goes to visit her far-off mother. (13) The story shows that this theme was close to Naruse’s heart. His films are certainly not ‘road movies’, but one should not overlook the fact that the theme of travelling great distances is often an important motive device in his narratives. Think here of how Ukigumo (Floating Clouds, 1955), which begins in Indochina and ends in Yakushima by way of a hot spring in Ikaho, is made up of traces of an intermittent journey.

However, almost everyone who has enjoyed Naruse’s work will remember that special sparkle when a character steps outdoors. The strange scenery of the landfill in Aki tachinu (Approach of Autumn, 1960) or the spa in Tsuruhachi and Tsurujiro (1938) make us wonder why they are so wonderful each time we see these films. I cannot consider the occasional, striking appearance of the motif of making a journey homeward to see far-off parents to be mere coincidence. It first appears with Mizukubo Sumiko in Kimi to wakarete (Apart from You, 1933) going back to her countrified fishing village, continues with Hara Setsuko going back to Tokyo in Meshi (Repast, 1951) and, in later years, with Takamine Hideko making a journey in Yearning and Tsukasa Yôko doing the same in Midaregumo (Scattered Clouds, 1967).

Wife! Be Like a Rose! also follows this pattern of Naruse narratives in which someone goes to see a far-away parent. There was a movie very much like it made in the 1960s. The setting has been changed from the mountains of Nagano to the Polynesian archipelago and, for some reason, in place of the friend of the father there are two unruly, quarrelsome men. The stout-hearted daughter comes from Boston to visit her father, who has married a Polynesian woman. However, the daughter gradually softens her attitude towards her father’s South Seas lifestyle, and her plans to bring her father back to Boston eventually fail. The biggest difference between this film and Wife! Be Like a Rose! is that the daughter gives up her life in the city to marry one of her father’s wild-hearted friends.

I am speaking here not of the official remake of Wife! Be Like a Rose!, Asano Masao’s Koi ni mezameru koro (When Love Awakens, 1969), but John Ford’s Donovan’s Reef (1963). In Ford’s movie, Elizabeth Allen plays the daughter and Jack Warden the father. The tough guys are played by John Wayne and Lee Marvin. James Edward Grant and Frank Nugent are given writing credits. This was the last Ford film that Nugent worked on, but it is nonetheless a surprise to see his name.



14. Andrew Sinclair, John Ford (Dial Press, 1979), p. 205.

15. Joseph McBride, Searching for John Ford: A Life (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003), p. 639.



16. Shigehiko Hasumi, ‘Privilège des victimes: revoir Rio Grande’, Trafic, no. 56 (Winter 2005), pp. 99-106.


There is little basis for accusing Nugent of having stolen the plot of Donovan’s Reef from Kimiko. In Ford’s movie, the daughter visits her father not out of sympathy for her mother, but because she needs to see if he is fit to inherit the majority of shares in the family shipping business. Edmund Beloin is given shared credit for the original story, so it is quite difficult to discern just how much Nugent contributed to the project. According to Andrew Sinclair’s Ford biography, the original script had only about ten pages and little more than the opening fight between Wayne and Marvin; it was Nugent who turned it into a complete script. (14) On the other hand, Joseph McBride’s biography claims that Nugent’s input came only at the very end of the process. (15) Moreover, although his name does not appear on the credits, James Michener (the author of South Pacific) was a direct influence on the film.

It is also a fact that Ford often used the plot device of a woman visiting a far-off man. In Rio Grande (1950) the mother (played by Maureen O’Hara) goes to visit her son (Claude Jarman Jr.) in a US Cavalry camp. As Shigehiko Hasumi has detailed, the motif of rescuing someone who has been captured is often repeated in Ford’s œuvre, and this motif belongs more to Ford than Naruse. (16) Nevertheless, whereas Rio Grande shows a mother visiting her son, Donovan’s Reef has a daughter visiting her father. Why is it that the same pattern, only with the genders and generations reversed in Rio Grande, has been used in these three films? Could it be that Nugent consciously remembered the film he had savaged twenty-five years earlier? Or could he have been guided by his unconscious memories, unwittingly recreating Kimiko? In any case, the only facts we have are that the same person who criticised Kimiko so harshly also helped write the screenplay for Donovan’s Reef.


17. Shigehiko Hasumi and Koichi Yamada, Kizudarake no Eigashi: UFA kara Hollywood made (Chuo Bunko, 2001), pp. 121-129.










But let us expand our imaginations. In their Kizudarake no eigashi, Shigehiko Hasumi and Koichi Yamada discuss the crazy idea of the last scene of The Long Voyage Home (1940) leading into the opening scene of Donovan’s Reef. (17) In the last scene of the The Long Voyage Home, Thomas Mitchell is a prisoner on the Amindra, a ‘ship from hell’, which is torpedoed by an enemy ship. Hasumi and Yamada imagine that the ship doesn’t sink but sails straight ahead with Mitchell turning into Lee Marvin (!), until they arrive at the tropical paradise where John Wayne is waiting for them. In this manner, the two friends run into each other again after twenty-three years. But would it not be possible to also read this story as a revenge tale, in which a high-spirited daughter tries to win back her father after twenty-six years? Chiba Sachiko becomes Elizabeth Allen and visits her father, played by Jack Warden. It is possible to find other traces of Wife! Be Like a Rose! in Donovan’s Reef. For example, although the island is in French Polynesia, for some reason Warden’s children have Japanese-style rooms – complete with tatami mats – and his wife wears a kimono when she meets Allen. These details can make us believe for a moment that Ford’s story flows into Naruse’s and that the two have miraculously melded into one.

The characterisation of Ford as the ‘master of the Western’ and Naruse as the ‘master of the women’s film’ is no longer interesting. Isn’t it about time we free ourselves from these twentieth century clichés? If we take the common motif of both directors to be a woman travels great distances, and recognise that both motifs are mixed together in Donovan’s Reef, we can rescue these works from old assumptions – and discover new ways of reading film history.



  Translated from Japanese by Guy Yasko. Adapted from essays that previously appeared in Shigehiko Hasumi & Sadao Yamane (eds.), Naruse Mikio no sekai e [Into the World of Mikio Naruse] (Japan: Chikuma Shobo, 2005), pp. 183-198; and Iconics: Japanese Journal of Image and Sciences, no. 73 (November 2004).  

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© Kiyoaki Okubo and Rouge December 2006. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.
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