Mikio Naruse, once one of the most championed of Japanese filmmakers, is today incredibly overshadowed by the names Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, and Kenji Mizoguchi — among others. His work is largely unknown outside of the circles of die-hard cinema fans, and even within that group he is mainly known among those who primarily focus their interests into Japanese cinema. This is a shame because his work shines a light on aspects of his contemporary Japan which are elsewhere unseen. Naruse loved to turn his films toward what would probably be called “melodrama” in America. His films, much like those of Kenji Mizoguchi, oftentimes focused on the plight of women in (then) contemporary Japan. However, there is a very fine difference between Naruse and Mizoguchi. Mizoguchi’s films were very human, but very socially and politically motivated. Naruse’s films lean more into the realm of what would be called melodrama in America. The American equivalent of Naruse might (and that’s a very strong might) be Leo McCarey, but it’s difficult to make such comparisons across cultural lines as thick as those between America and Japan. At times the plot seems forced, there are peculiar and odd questions regarding situations that take place, and sometimes the actions of the characters feel forced. Nonetheless, I was engrossed in the plot and curious as to how it would play out.
No Blood Relation seems to be a commentary on fame and culture a mother abandoning her children specifically) at first, but upon further inspection actually seems to promote that a mother should have a singular dedication. The film concerns a young girl named Shigeko, who was abandoned after birth by her mother (who moved to America to become a movie star). The young girl’s father remarried and his new wife raised the girl as her own daughter. Years later, when the child was five or six, the birth mother returned to Japan wishing to take custody of her daughter. She goes and speaks to her ex-husband, who refuses her claim of the child, and then essentially kidnaps the child. While I’ll admit to being completely ignorant of Japanese custody laws, I high doubt that a recently returned, but previously long-absent, mother could simply grab her child off of the street and there not be any legal repercussions. But, perhaps that is a subtle detail of the film that I am missing because of my western eyes. It can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference between plot contrivances and cultural barriers.
When the film began I assumed the returning mother had experienced a change of heart (which was partially true?) and that her relationship with the child would be victimized by the adoptive-mother because she had pursued a life of fame. It turns out, however, that she becomes the villain to the adoptive mother. My assumption was that the film would look at a mother’s battle to reclaim her child and I was correct, but I had the roles reversed. The little girl, Shigeko, clearly wishes to remain with the mother that has raised her. It seemed strange watching it that all of the palpable conflict in the film was between the birth mother and her child, yet realistically that probably makes the most sense.
The other thing is a side character, a friend of the formerly absent mother, who was clearly intended to serve as comic relief in an otherwise drab film. He moves and acts like a Japanese Charlie Chaplin with pratfalls, tricks, gags, and funny faces. One of the best scenes in the whole film, however, involves him. At one point he gets into a fist fight with another character, falls to the ground, and bobbles his head around while standing on all fours. This shot is then match-cut to Shigeko holding a bobble-headed Bengal tiger. It’s one of a number of clever shots and editing tricks used throughout the film. Narratively the film seems nothing remarkable or incredibly special, but Naruse’s clever and playful use of editing and camera technique is incredibly revealing. Of the twenty-four silent films Naruse made in 1930-1934 , only five remain. No Blood Relations is from the middle of that grouping of films, which makes it difficult to fit into his overall body of work since many of the films surrounding it are lost (many Japanese films were destroyed after WWII).
When compared to a director like Yasujiro Ozu, Naruse’s camera technique is radical. He uses whip-pans, quick cuts, axial cuts, and a looming and moving camera. This influence clearly shows in the work of Akira Kurosawa (Kurosawa worked as Naruse’s assistant director for many years before helming his own films), and makes Naruse a clear contemporary and like-minded (from a technical standpoint) artist as Sadao Yamanaka. This film is nothing incredibly special from a narrative standpoint, but is incredibly revealing of Naruse as an artist and individual filmmaker. No Blood Relation, on a surface level, seems no great cinematic revelation, but with only the slightest look a bit deep one will find an artist working within a simple melodrama and pushing himself from a technical standpoint.
Silent film is one of my favorite styles of film. Japanese silent films, however, were special and I’ve never had the pleasure of experiencing one as it was intended. Japanese silent films were accompanied by additional narration provided by a “benshi.” Each theater would have its own benshi, and a family would oftentimes choose the movie theater they went to based upon the benshi that they preferred. The tradition of the benshi was such an integral one to the Japanese movie-going experience that silent filmmaking continued there after it had ended in the west. This is evidence of the Japanese taking something, assimilating it into their culture, and make it uniquely their own. It’s a shame that the benshi tradition is rare today, and it makes watching a Japanese silent film feel almost like a half experience.
But the point was to talk about No Blood Relation, not silent film history. However, if you’re interested, here is a silent film with narration. It’s not exactly the same thing, but it will approximate and give a general idea of what the benshi did.