The third entry in Criterion’s Kinoshita and World War II box set takes a decidedly darker turn than either of its predecessors. Made a little later in 1944, Jubilation Street is surprising addition, not least because for the majority of its running time it’s hard to see how it could have ever have fulfilled the propaganda requirements of the time. Its title is almost ironic, there’s nothing here but an inevitable sadness and eternal partings both between people and between eras. It’s not until the closing moments of the film that anything even remotely “inspirational” occurs, and even then it’s all a little bit tacked on and feels like a token epilogue to please the censors. With far less obvious comedy moments Jubilation Street is taking us somewhere significantly darker, but is not without Kinoshita’s characteristic sympathy.
Jubilation Street is an old-fashioned row of modest housing home to a small community of families who’ve each lived there for many years. Now they’re all being “relocated” because the government wants the land for the war effort. Some are ready to leave, others are not – either because they feel too old to start again somewhere else or simply because they don’t want to be split up from the people they’ve shared their lives with. The family who own the printer’s shop want to finish their last few orders and wait until their baby is born, the crotchety old man who runs the bath house just doesn’t want to go anywhere and Mrs. Furukawa is afraid to leave in case the husband who walked out on her and their son ten years previously finally comes home. Shingo, Mrs. Furukawa’s son, is a test pilot in the air force and wants to marry childhood sweetheart Takako, though her parents are against it given his family circumstances and dangerous work. Just in the knick of time, Mr. Furukawa makes a shocking reappearance, unbeknownst to his wife and son but will his ten years away with nary a word damage his chances of a happy reunion? With the evacuation date drawing nearer, important decisions will have to be made, and made in a hurry.
There may have been hope and happiness in this little street once, but now there’s just waiting and desperation. Towards the beginning of the film, the war still feels something far off – the relocation programme might as well be for a new dam or a modern housing development as much as being down to a war. Shingo is the only person directly involved with anything military and though his work is dangerous in one sense he gets to live at home with his mother and nothing seems very different than before. Towards the end, however, a traumatic event will drop the devastation of war right into the middle of this little community with as much force as any bomb. Doomed romance, shattered dreams, a lifetime’s work going for nothing – there’s nothing to celebrate here. Having undergone a tragedy and forced out of their homes, the community each vow they’re going to honour the sacrifices made by each doing their best for the war effort, but it comes dangerously close to being insulting. “So you’ve lost people, you might have lost your home or your business or a child but that just means you have to work even harder to make your loss mean something”. A fairly bleak message, if understandable given the circumstances, but it’s debatable that it’s one a worried populace would have wanted to receive in the normally escapist realms of the cinema.
It’s remarkably ambiguous for a film of its time. Perhaps because, again, he kept the war effort in the background, Kinoshita was able to get away with showing a less “jubilant” group of people each facing their various difficulties with an enviable degree of stoicism (coupled with their determined resolutions at the end). There’s no way you could read Jubilation Street as a “pro-war” film. Though it stops short of any kind of direct criticism, war (and even in one case the whole idea of Manchuria) has ruined each of these people’s lives, destroyed their community and cast them adrift in an uncertain world. What sort of glorious nation is this, and was it worth all this sacrifice?
Jubilation Street is not as well preserved as either Port of Flowers or The Living Magoroku, though the actual film is fine for the most part the soundtrack is very badly damaged with strong hiss and distortion throughout. However, it doesn’t detract from the experience too much and given that it’s a minor miracle it survives at all you can’t complain. Kinoshita has once again tried to put the lives of ordinary people up on screen with all the warmth, empathy and truth that was permitted to him at the time. The last days of Jubilation Street were not altogether happy ones, but as a metaphor for a place and time it’s about as close as you’d be allowed to explore.