The Living Magoroku, the second film in Criterion’s Kinoshita and World War II box set, is the director’s second feature also made 1943 shortly after Port of Flowers. Like his previous film, it was also made under the severe censorship requirements in place during the war but this time around the propaganda is far more pronounced though still fairly mild given the time period. That said, The Living Magoroku is still full of the wit and warmth characteristic of Kinoshita’s filmmaking even if it is forced to up its jingoistic content.
Incongruously beginning with a samurai battle taking place in 1573, the action quickly shifts to the same battleground where a group of raw recruits are being put through their paces before being sent off to die nobly for the Emperor in distant lands. Berating them for their lack of respect, the instructor reminds them that each recruit is descended from the very men who died on fields like these whose graves they should still be tending. This small rural town still goes by the old ways. There may be no real samurais anymore but each and every decision has to go through the local matriarch, Mrs Onagi. Actually, Mrs Onagi has a son who should rightfully be in charge but he’s such a neurotic drip who thinks he’s dying of lung disease that no one pays much attention to him. The Onagis own the entire battlefield area, some 75 acres, given to their ancestor after the battle and legend has it there’s a curse that should anyone try to cultivate it all the men of the Onagi line will die young. The field has remained untouched for 300 years, but with a war on shouldn’t the Onagis rethink their reluctance to turn this wasteland into a productive agricultural area, even if the ridiculous idea of an ancient curse was somehow real?
Like Port of Flowers, The Living Magoroku is actually fairly light on militarism despite featuring a group of soldiers and prefers to focus on the slightly backward looking nature of this small village. Even under the conservative nature of wartime Japan, it’s odd that a couple of young people would feel the need to ask the old lady at the manor for permission to marry given that she really has very little to do with them – and even odder that she would refuse to give it and that her refusal would actually bother them. The cause of the problem being that the girl’s brother is the chief instigator of the motion to get the field back in use, and that he went directly to the young master rather than the mother who’s been de facto in charge of these things. Local politics – some things never change! The young people want to use the land, curse-shmursh, but the old people would rather not. Just suppose the curse is real – poor Yoshihiro, technically head of the Onagi family, is so worried about his prospective fate (and the way his mother, grandmother and sister seem to worry about it for him) that he’s almost paralysed with fear and resentment!
Thrown into the mix is another problem concerning the sword referenced in the title – a sword of unparalleled fineness forged by Maguroku the First of which very few survive. The instructor at the army base claims to have one which infuriates the local blacksmith and sword expert as he simply refuses to believe it. By coincidence, the Onagis also have one of these swords and are paid a visit by an army doctor seeking to buy it as, it turns out, his family once owned one but he sold it unknowing its rarity to pay for his medical tuition. Of course, the Onagis don’t want to sell a precious family heirloom, though they admire the doctor’s zeal to repay his debt to his late father by acquiring another one. The instructor’s sword turns out to be a fake anyway prompting the blacksmith to make him a new one – after all, needs must and a sword is just a sword, the name on it won’t matter much on battlefield. Similarly a field is just a field, isn’t it selfish not to use it when the country needs grain even if it might cost your life seeing as every other young man is looking down the barrel of a gun at the present time? The message is clear, traditions should be honoured, yes, but when it comes down to it, the present is more important than the past and superstition gives way to clearheaded pragmatism. Every resource must be pooled for the common good and personal sacrifices must be made to ensure a better future for everyone.
The Living Magoroku feels a little more uneven than Port of Flowers, and actually ends quite abruptly with a strange newsreel style wrap-up of events. Luckily, it’s still broadly a comedy in strictest sense (it ends in a series of marriages, everyone not already married ends up wed), poor old Yoshihiro gets a new lease on life and becomes a productive member of society, the village gets a bumper harvest and all is right in the world save the strange final message about the instructor who is apparently carrying his new sword bravely in the heat of battle. Like Port of Flowers, it wants to reinforce the traditional values of community spirit and giving up your own individual pleasures and freedoms for everybody’s good. The past informs the future, how could it not, but when push comes to shove you have to let it go. Like everything in life there has to be a balance, respect your history – yes, but not so much that it costs you your future.