Like Mizoguchi, Naruse saw life as a crushing fate, and it was for him too the position of women in society that best expressed the claustrophobia and resentment we feel about our lot. Yet unlike Mizoguchi, still less like Ozu, Naruse allowed no moments of stillness, no redemption through the expanse of subsuming nature, no recognition of the rightness of order. Naruse found no quasi-religious reconciliation to the sorrow of living, and in his films showed only the confirmation of what he himself said of the human condition: “From the youngest age, I have thought that the world we live in betrays us; this thought remains with me.”
Despite this bleak view on the part of the director, however, the determined characters of the Naruse film never give up. A stubborn dedication to their own self-respect in the face of overwhelming crassness, vulgarity and exploitation from even those who should be most sensitive and protective toward the individual lends Naruse’s heroines a distinctive nobility. […] The Naruse heroine can be seen as a symbol for everyone who has ever been caught between ideals and reality, making do with something unsatisfying, as in Repast (1951) or Tsuruhachi and Tsurujiro (1938), going without because all ideals have been crushed but self-respect remains, as in Late Chrysanthemums (1954) or When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960), or retaining a determination to realize the ideal against all odds, as in Lightning (1952) or Flowing (1956). All of these approaches to coping with life’s disappointments and betrayals strike a familiar chord in viewers around the world, and therein lies Naruse’s uniqueness.
These neutral conclusions, neither sad nor happy endings which have been called “inconclusive” by some critics, would not be possible without Naruse’s uniquely subtle technique. Without the quiet style in which they are couched, many of the stories of Naruse’s films, such as the late melodramas Yearning (1965) and Scattered Clouds (1967), would be maudlin and undistinguished. But the criticism the late Shochiku studio head Shiro Kido leveled against Naruse, “His films have no ups and downs; the tone is too flat”, reveals the consistent subtlety of the director’s technique. As with the films of Ozu, the Naruse film rejects plot in favor of character. Akira Kurosawa counters Kido’s remarks with a description of Naruse’s style as “like a great river with a calm surface and a raging current in its depths.”
— Audie Bock on Mikio Naruse (August 20, 1905 — July 2, 1969)