Back in the first half of the twentieth century, Japan had a studio system that was comparable in many ways to Hollywood. And just like in Hollywood, the Japanese studios churned out genre films by the dozens. These were films based on formulas that had proven appeal, using melodramatic plot lines that generally followed well-worn patterns. They were meant to be predictable.
But just like in Hollywood, there were directors working within the system who would take this conventional framework and somehow manage to make something that undermined the conventions. One of these directors was Mikio Naruse. Over a period of four decades he turned out scores genre films, primarily women’s pictures and family dramas. But within what seems like a fairly narrow range of subject matter, he was able to tell stories with tremendous depth and subtlety.
No Blood Relation is basically a Shirley Temple movie.* It has the same melodramatic plot centered on a cute little moppet who is taken away from the woman she believes to be her mother. But the complexity of the relationships and the depth of feeling takes No Blood Relation way farther than any movie Shirley Temple ever made.
Naruse focussed on women throughout his career, and here it’s the women who are at the heart of the story. We have Tamae, who years ago left her husband and her child to become a movie star. At the beginning of the film she returns to Japan to reclaim her daughter, Shigeko. But Tamae’s ex-husband has remarried, and his wife, Masako, has formed an unbreakable bond of love with her stepdaughter.
It’s the tension between these two women that makes the film compelling and powerful. Masako is a simple, humble housewife who is completely devoted to her stepdaughter. The character could have been an awful drag, but Yukiko Tsukuba plays it with such simplicity and clarity that she seems completely real. We don’t doubt that Shigeko is the center of her world, and it’s wrenching to see the child taken away from her. At the other end of the spectrum is Tamae, the woman who left her family to become a glamorous movie star. Many filmmakers would have made her a villain. Naruse makes her a smart, confident, complicated woman who’s been haunted by her decision to abandon her daughter. Yoshiko Okada digs into the role, keeping us with her every step of the way as she desperately tries to win her daughter’s love.
Naruse’s visuals are surprisingly dynamic. You’d think for a domestic drama he’d keep the camerawork low key. Instead, he’s constantly tracking in, tracking out and panning from side to side. The editing is also unusually imaginative, with its surprising rhythms and unconventional transitions. Honestly I feel like the director overdoes it a bit, but the style never interferes with the drama. His first priority is always keeping us engaged with the characters and deepening our understanding of them. Like many filmmakers, Naruse started his career making movies that tested the bounds of cinematic form, but later settled into a more serene, fluid style.
The film is closely tied to the time it was made. Like much of the rest of the world, Japan’s economy was on the skids in the thirties. One of the plot complications here is that Shigeko’s father goes bankrupt and is sent to prison. The family loses their house and all their belongings, leaving the mother to work in a department store in order to make ends meet. The return of Tamae adds a layer of Depression-era fantasy to the film. Here is an ordinary woman who has become a movie star and travelled to Hollywood. She arrives in Japan on a massive ocean liner, and is greeted by reporters and photographers. Even if they disapproved of Tamae’s actions, I think it’s likely that many Japanese women would have envied this wealthy, independent actress who seems to be in complete control of her life.
“Seems” is the key word here. In the end, Tamae fails to reclaim her daughter, and returns to America. This ending is in line with the traditional morality that’s been an integral part of commercial films since the silent era. Money can’t buy you happiness. The only true happiness comes through embracing family and accepting your lot in life. But Naruse doesn’t moralize. He doesn’t use Tamae’s defeat as an opportunity to render judgment. When Shigeko is returned to her home, Masako realizes how painful the moment must be for Tamae. In the final scene, the family races to the dock to say farewell to the actress as her boat leaves. They arrive just in time. The ship is pulling away from the harbor, and the family runs to the dock to wave goodbye. A minute earlier Tamae was unhappy because she didn’t see the child in the crowd below. Now the pain of seeing her is too much to bear, and she turns away.
I don’t mean to imply that this film was intended to capitalize on Temple’s popularity. No Blood Relation was made around two years before the American child star hit the big time.