Keisuke Kinoshita - A Japanese Tragedy (1953)

In my last blog entry I argued that Kinoshita used period pieces to make poignant observations about post-war Japan. With A Japanese Tragedy, Kinoshita sets his movie in post-war Japan to comment on what must have seemed to him like a "lost" generation. Haruko, the widowed mother of Utako and Seiichi, is struggling to offer a better life for her kids. She pays for Seiichi's college education and wants to make sure that Utako marries a man that enables her to ascend the social ladder. In order to support her family however, Haruko has to work in Inns and offer her services to men. Her children, in turn, interpret her stints in nightclubs as personal amusement and don't recognize her struggle. Seiichi wants to be adopted by a rich man and Utako entertains the idea to run away with her English teacher. Haruko, who sacrificed everything for her children, is ignored by them and left behind.

Kinoshita parallels this rather heavy melodrama with news footage and newspaper headlines of the tumultuous post-war years, thus drawing a direct parallel between Haruke's fate and the state of the entire country. In an effort to distance themselves from the generation that participated in a devastating war, the film argues, the Japanese youth even rejected everything that came before it. Unable to separate the struggle of the everyday people with those who brought about the war, they severe themselves from any previous lineage, paving the way for a sweeping westernization. What I label the “lost generation” are people who suffered through the war, had to pay bitter consequences for it, and didn't get their footing in the post-war years. Haruke is a prime example.

Kinoshita interjects the story with sudden flashbacks to the days when Utako and Seiichi were kids and Haruke struggled gravely to make ends meet. Seeing the bleak reality Haruke's kids choose to ignore underlines the cruelty of their behavior towards their mother, but I am not sure that it works as a narrative device. Oftentimes, flashbacks are ill-reputed as bringing the main narrative to a halt. This is not the case in A Japanese Tragedy. Rather, the flashbacks function as a sort of rhythmic device that spice up the story. What irked me about them was the sometimes jarring tonal shifts we were subjected to. Some of the flashbacks, for example, played out in utter silence, signaling very clearly that we leave the main narrative. But in contrast to a lot of other technical pirouettes Kinoshita displayed in his other films, this didn't seem to amend the story and was more of a distraction than anything else. Although some of the flashbacks are beautifully edited and integrated into the main narrative (particularly one involving the telling symbol of a broken window pane), they took me out of the story, rather then make me comprehend it more.

I have the same complaint with Kinoshita's attempt to bring modern-day politics into his film by resorting to news footage and newspaper headlines. He abandons this device before the halftime mark and concentrates fully on the characters. It is then that the movie truly gathers steam and one wonders if the film couldn't have been better off without the blatant want to make it socially relevant. I understand why it's there, but the execution is not as smooth as one might have wanted. The character drama, however, is very well written, staged and performed and once the story finds its cruising speed, the patient viewer is in for a treat. A Japanese Tragedy might be a good entry way into Kinoshita's body of work, as he displays all his strength as a singular artist, and shows us glimpses of how innovative and exciting his work could be, even if it is not fully successful in this case.

Keisuke Kinoshita - She was Like a Wild Chrysanthemum (1955)

Kinoshita was employed by the Shochiku Studios alongside such famous directors as Yasujiro Ozu and Mikio Naruse. Shochiku, helmed by the legendary Kido Shiro was famous for its social realist films characterized by socially engaged stories and minimalist film style. Kido even released a book in 1978 called My Theory of Filmmaking in which he described his view of how films should be produced. Kinoshita is oftentimes cited alongside Ozu, Naruse and Mizoguchi when Shochiko is being discussed, but he clearly is the odd man out among his peers. The social realist films of the time were, above all, concerned with questions of gender identities in the face of a sweeping modernization, with the symbol of the city, Tokyo first and foremost, as a kind of promised land and doomed place of failure at the same time where characters struggled and women especially faced defeat. In these movies, the Japanese countryside, where morals and tradition still  seemed intact, always loomed as a sort of safe haven. I generalize, of course, but modern city life was under increasingly sharp critical scrutiny in Japanese cinema, especially in the post-war years. Kinoshita however, as far as I can tell after having seen five of his films, has no interest in the symbol of the city as a modern gulag and does not view the countryside with a favorable eye either. His cinema reverses the social realist tropes and is thus entirely unique.

In She Was Like a Wild Chrysanthemum, Kinoshita tells the story of a doomed love between two cousins, Masao and Tamiko, as recalled by a 73-year old Masao. As 15 and 17 year olds, the two lovers work together on the fields of their remote village, but gossiping villagers and Masao's ambitious mother hinder them to ever give in on their feelings for each other. Masao is sent off to high school and Tamiko marries a local. When Masao comes back to visit during a holiday, she is not in town. At the end of the film, Tamiko dies after a miscarriage. It is then revealed that 73-year old Masao
has come to his chilhood village to visit Tamiko's grave one last time.

She Was Like A Wild Chrysanthemum is as much a film about memories and how we remember the past, as it is about the love story. Told in long flashbacks, we see everything through an Iris filter, reminding us constantly that what we see are memories, not "facts". At the very beginning of the film, 73-year old Masao says himself that he doesn't remember everything exactly, which makes him an unreliable source for the narration. But we also get scenes in which neither him nor Tamiko are present, which poses the question of what old Masao actually recalls. Is he making these episodes up? Was his love for Tamiko of the same nature as he presents it to us 60 years later? The film is punctuated by prose verses whispered by the old man in voice over, and it heightens the general melancholic vibe. Is this just commentary to the story, or an indication that Masao presents us his story in more poetic terms? Kinoshita's almost scientific zeal to film the vegetation and wide fields of the countryside contributes to the feeling that we may attend an old man's overly doleful recollections of an adolescent crush, as it reminds us that a lot, if not most of our memories from childhood and adolescence are linked to memories of the locations where they took place. With that in mind, old Masao not only thinks back to his first love, but he also marvels at his time spent in the luscious countryside.

Kinoshita also uses the wide open countryside that spreads under a never ending sky to ironically underline how trapped Masao and Tamiko are in reality. They are both bound by conventions and restrictions. In addition to being too young to show their affection to each other, Masao must attend a prestigious high school and Tamiko, as a woman, does not have a lot of say in her marital destiny anyway. They live an out and out impossible love, although their feelings will never extinguish. With that, Kinoshita ultimately shows that old-time Japan was not any better than modern-time urban Japan. Men and Women always had to fulfill roles that were often at odds with their true will. Tradition and modern corporate city life are just different articulations of a restrictive environment that oppresses those living in it. This parallel might be incomplete and inaccurate, but the more I discover Kinoshita's work, the more I think that, although articulated entirely differently, he comments on modern issues just as much as his contemporaries who did it more overtly.

Keisuke Kinoshita - The River Fuefuki (1960)

It is impressive to see how focused Kinoshita's cinema is. Stylistically, every movie of his I have seen so far has been very different, but they all share the following characteristics: they are period pieces, they take place in the countryside, the main protagonists live in rather modest conditions, the theme of time and its effect on humans is central to all of them, there is some sort of musical narrative device and there is an emphasis on mobility and journeys. The River Fuefuki is no different. We follow a poor family over 70 years that sacrifices son after son to wars that seem pointless and cruel and threatening to the social fabric. The interesting thing is the perspective of the movie. The River Fuefuki is essentially a samurai movie told from the point of view of peasants. Punctuated by impressive and  dynamic battle scenes, the majority of the story takes place in and around the hut of the family. Only towards the end do we leave that environment and follow a procession of warriors who march straight to their deaths.

Evidently, The River Fuefuki is an anti-war drama but Kinoshita tries to go deeper. He does not simply show that war destroys lives and families, but points to an even more depressing fact. While humans (read: men) engage in battles and war,  the river continues to flow. Conflicts seem utterly pointless
when they don't seem to have any perceivable outcome. The family still continues its existence, no matter who the Lord is and no matter who won what battle. And more importantly, the river flows, unphased by what humans think is of importance. There is no sense that Kinoshita envisions a better world that glistens in familial bliss. Without cynicism he portrays human conflict as a perpetual calamity that affects the people touched by it (families that sacrifice sons who go to war) but that doesn't change their condition. By focusing on a poor family that has no say in the fortunes of their
country, Kinoshita shows that big politics and the resulting wars ultimately don't change much. The river just continues to flow.

Arguing as such, Kinoshita also makes the point that humans don't learn any lessons, and certainly not from history. The short battle sequences and subsequent homecoming of the warriors (or messengers bearing the news of another family loss) serve as repetitive rythmic elements, underlining the senseless perpetuation of violence throughout history. We never see the Lord who commands the troups, we never get a sense of why these battles are fought, all we see is a family member leaving for battle, fighting, and coming home (or not) - a sequence of events that does not change over the 70 year period the movie spans. Whenever someone important dies, there is a birth in the village where the family central to the plot resides, and the characters talk a lot about reincarnations. But these new-borns ultimately go to war as well, which accentuates the director's idea that history repeats itself - as pointless as it is.

The River Fuefuki
is clearly a thesis movie and as such has to be enjoyed cerebrally. While certainly entertaining, one won't remember any memorable characters or dialogue. The central idea of the film counts more than customary narrative techniques, which makes the film interesting. But it is not particularly gripping and what was undoubtly meant as an emotional ending falls flat because we aren't invested enough in the characters. We get, however, plenty of interesting visuals. Kinoshita experiments with color filters and frequently infuses the impecable black and white photography with smears of bright color that look like the brushstrokes of a painter. I haven't been able to find any information on the purpose of this visual exercise (it certainly is not warranted by anything in the script) but it looks interesting in a lot of cases. Kinoshita also employs a singing narrator. The old woman appears on screen from time to time, but like a lot of elements in the movie, Kinoshita doesn't really build on his initial impulse to use her as a greek chorus and her interventions do not add a whole lot to the narrative.

Keisuke Kinoshita - Ballad of Narayama (1958)

Beloved and critically acclaimed in Japan, Kinoshita was either ignored in the West or labelled as old-fashioned and sentimental. Ballad of Narayama, told in kabuki style, complete with a curtain opening for the first scene and a narrator telling the story in song, shows us Kinoshita's perceived conservatism, as well as his taste for formal innovation that apparently baffled Western audiences. Orin is reaching the age of 70 and according to rural customs, she is to be brought to the top of Narayama mountain and left to die. Her son recently lost his wife and is supposed to take a widow from a neighboring village as his new spouse. His son wants to marry as well but the scarcity of food can't allow for too many mouths to be fed. While Orin's son tries to delay her departure to the mountain, her grandson can't wait to get rid of her. There is another old man in the village who is supposed to be brought to Mount Narayama as well but he desperately tries to evade his destiny, clinging on to life even though his family doesn't feed him anymore, while Orin has accepted her faith.

Shot in long, meditative scenes, Ballad of Narayama is more a showcase for Kinoshita's formal flourishes than a gripping story about aging and death. But the narrative advances on its own terms and highlights a few plot points that seem inconsequential at first glance, but reveal themselves to be essential in retrospect. The insistence on the scarcity of food, Orin's shame to still have all of her teeth, the interlude in which the inhabitants of the village react very harshly to a burglar are just some of the elements that play a fairly big role in the film and that had me wondering what the narrative is really about when I watched it for the first time. It seems to me that Kinoshita, above all, is interested in questions of community and inter-personal relationships. All of his movies discussed so far on this blog are set in small rural communities that have to react to elements that threaten or shake up their traditional bonds. In Ballad of Narayama, Kinoshita explores how such a community reacts to shortage of food and how it values the elderly and by that shows us how little space for transgression there was in traditional Japanese society.

There doesn't seem to be an overt critique on Kinoshita's part of the way the village disposes of its older members. But he doesn't shy away from showing us how unjust it is. With Immortal Love and Carmen Comes Home, we have already seen that societal structures are wholly arbitrary in Kinoshita's eyes and it is again of great concern here. How can it be that Orin has to leave this life simply because she has a certain age, although she is a valuable and still active member of society? Is she less valuable than her greedy grandson who does little to contribute to the community simply because of the age difference? This also entails questions of faith. Orin has created a reality for herself in which ascending Mount Narayama is the right and noble thing to do. Furthermore, she considers that the sooner she gets there the better she will be treated by the gods. She openly encourages the old man to go to Narayama in order to die. When her son brings her up the mountain, she is eerily at piece with herself, not uttering a single word during the entire voyage. The old man, on the other hand, has to be dragged up to Narayama, resisting bitterly. Two people react very differently to the same event. What separates them is the fact that one has faith and the other has not. One can see easily how that could be interpreted as a reactionary mindset.

I wrote that Ballad of Narayama does not provide a gripping story, but as can easily be seen here, Kinoshita still gives us a lot to think about, and the lack of goal-oriented narrative is certainly the film's strength. The fact that the film functions on its own terms makes it an interesting and frustrating viewing experience. The visual virtuosity also helps us over a few bumps. The mise en scene is highly stylized. Sets are wheeled around before our eyes, the lighting changes abruptly to highlight a single spot on the screen and switches back to normal, some scenes are bathed in red and green light (an expressionistic lighting Dario Argento brought to perfection a few years later), the decor can clearly be identified as theatrical props, the scenery is nothing more than a painting on cardboard. This artificial environment clearly echoes the long tradition of kabuki style cinema that was already highly popular in the 1910's before the Pure Film Movement set out to reform Japanese national cinema. Without a doubt, this very self-conscious citation of a Japanese cinematic tradition snubbed a lot of Western critics. But it is nothing short of powerful cinema.

Keisuke Kinoshita - Carmen Comes Home (1951)

A good example why films should always be considered within the context of their time. Carmen Comes Home was the first Japanese film to be fully shot in color. To showcase the new technique, Shiro Kido, the head of the Shochiku film studios that employed Kinoshita, gave him the instructions to film as many outdoor scenes as possible. So he wrote a story that took place in the countryside and had a natural reason why most scenes take place under the sky. Furthermore, the film came about just when the American occupation of the country was over. Carmen Comes Home could be seen as a lighthearted comedy specifically targeted at female audiences. But that would mean to ignore the social commentary and underlying critique of Japanese self-effacement that is very present in the film and was a big issue in the public sphere at the time. It is also noteworthy that there are a lot of discussions between the characters in the film about how traditional art relates to modern art. Given that Kinoshita employed for the first time the new Fujicolor technique, that factor can not be seen as innocent.

After finding some success as a stripper in Tokyo, Okin comes home to her village at the foot of Mount Asama to be cheered and admired. But this exercise in self-aggrandizement doesn't go well with her father, a farmer, who hasn't forgiven her that she ran away. Okin, who goes by the stage name of Lily Carmen, also causes an upheaval at a local festival. She and her sidekick finally decide to put on a nude show the night before they leave to go back to Tokyo, permitting the local crooked businessman to make a lot of money, but humiliating her father. However, she gives her pay to her father and the local school. When she leaves, she is cheered at by some locals but, the film seems to suggest, for all the wrong reasons.

Several things of interest in the script. Kinoshita is not so much interested in Okin's psychology and how she perceives her hometown, as to see the impact of her presence on the village. Even before she arrives, we are introduced to a variety of villagers and get first glimpses of the small town politics and power struggles within the community. With Okin present, Kinoshita can now let her interact with different characters and follow their reactions. There is a strong emphasis on art making. Okin constantly refers to her dance as "art" and one conflict in the village is that the local composer had to sell his organ to the crooked businessman to pay off some debt. During the festival, the composer plays his newest song, clearly moving Okin, but her sidekick looses her skirt and the entire village laughs at her, interrupting the song. The composer now thinks that people are laughing at him and wants to leave. This incident stands metaphorically for the underlying questioning of the value of "modern" or "city" art compared to "traditional" or "rural" art. This problem is intricately linked to the question of "Japanese" art. Okin is a clear specimen of blind Westernization. She has an English stage name, wears Western clothes that shock some villagers, and is a striptease dancer. Her contempt for the happenings at the village, her fixation on material things, and, above all, the fact that she demands to be applauded by the people of the village for the fact that she attained some sort of "glory" in the big city clearly speak to a form of alienating fixation on "modern" and "Western" ways in Japanese society at the time. If Kinoshita seems to see that with a rather critical eye, he tries to reconcile "modernity" and "tradition", values and money, in that Okin's pay, although accruing from her dancing nude in front of the entire village, benefits the school and enables the composer to get back his organ.

Clearly, Carmen Come Home was designed to show off the new Fujicolor technique. The green pastures and endless blue skies are the perfect backdrop to Okin's colorful wardrobe. Prime colors dominate throughout the film, and it seems like the Japanese countryside has never seen a single day of rain or even clouds. Even though there was a black and white version that was filmed simultaneously (and the sequel, Carmen's Pure Love, was shot only in black and white), the film was clearly designed to be shot in color and it has aged surprisingly well. The editing is superb. We often open a scene with a close up of an object or a face, and gradually widen the shots. With each new shot we get a new piece of visual information, or are prepared for the next shot with new information. But Kinoshita also doesn't hesitate to let dialogue scenes play out in one single shot, often framing the actors so they could use their entire body. There is nothing fancy about the framing or the editing. We get restrained mastery.