Mikio Naruse continues to be an interesting case for film scholars in the West. He directed nearly 90 films in his career. He is highly regarded, yet his name doesn't often come up in lists of the top Japanese directors. He exists on the outskirts of famous lists ... the most recent such list, the Sight and Sound poll, had no films by Naruse among its top 250. I have only seen one other film by Naruse, Apart from You, which didn't do much for me. It was also different in many ways from Floating Clouds, including the fact that it was a silent movie.
So I am no expert on the work of Mikio Naruse. But I am glad I saw Floating Clouds, because at least now I get why some people swear by him. I wouldn't call it a classic. It's repetitive, feels longer than its two-hour running time, and the main characters are frustrating to watch. (The acting, especially from Hideko Takamine, is very good.) It's a tale of Yukiko and Kengo, who had an affair near the end of WWII. After the war, Kengo returns to his wife, despite telling Yukiko he would get a divorce. They have an on again/off again continuation of the affair, plus Kengo has other affairs, plus he never does divorce his wife. Struggling to get by, Yukiko becomes a mistress to an American soldier (it's not clear whether she works as a prostitute, or if people just make assumptions). She later becomes a live-in partner of a man who had in the past raped her. Late in the film, she gets an abortion (she was pregnant with Kengo's child).
I don't usually offer such detailed plot summaries, but I found this narrative to be startling. I might expect it from an HBO series, but to be watching a Japanese movie from the 1950s that had the above going on ... well, it's on me that I was at the least surprised to see this told in a fairly straightforward manner.
Naruse is sympathetic towards Yukiko, but the things she goes through could fit nicely into something by Lars von Trier. It never feels like Yukiko's love for Kengo is overwhelming and beautiful. Instead, her repeated attempts to get him back become annoying, and Kengo is never shown to be worthy of her attention.
So Floating Clouds is atmospheric, with good acting. It made me want to see more films with Hideko Takamine. But I wouldn't go any further.