Masaki Kobayashi is still not enamoured with the new Japan by the time he comes to make Black River (黒い河, Kuroi Kawa) in 1957 which proves his most raw and cynical take on contemporary society to date. Set in a small, rundown backwater filled with the desperate and hopeless, Black River is a tale of ruined innocence, opportunistic fury and a nation losing its way.
The tale begins as a poor student, Nishida, moves into a rundown tenement owned by a tyrannous landlady who collects rent payments as if drinking in souls. Nishida looks around his new abode with a depressed air as the landlady advises him that he can always clean the place up. The vast majority of his possessions are books and the studious Nishida quickly sets himself apart from the ordinary working class denizens of this forsaken place to whom he clearly feels himself superior. However, he does take a liking to a local waitress. This too is destined to go wrong as when Shizuko visits him late after work one night hoping to borrow a book, she is grabbed by a gang of guys who attempt to assault her. Another man turns up and disrupts them but it quickly transpires that the whole thing is a ruse set up by the local gangster, Killer Joe, who then rapes her himself.
The modern, jazz inspired score and classic love triangle plot are almost a seishun eiga cliché but Kobayashi is only partly interested in the central trio with the ruined girl at its core. Casting the net wider, he’s interested in each of the wretched people that live in this place which is on the fringes of an American military base. From the obvious and blatant pan pan girls to the secret prostitutes and black marketeers, the American military has become a disruptive force in the area offering the weak minded easy, if dishonest, ways of living. That is to say, the problem is not “the Americans” or “the occupation” so much as it is the society which is allowing itself to become corrupted by Western values.
In this place, it’s everyman for himself. One of the community is ill, probably with tuberculosis. At one point he’s in desperate need of a blood transfusion so the wife hysterically asks everyone else if they have a matching blood type which they all deny (some of them obviously lying). Nishida admits he has a match, but outright refuses his blood despite the fact that this man will likely die without it. This doesn’t matter however because someone remembers the wife herself is a match but even she did not want to volunteer her own blood to save the life of her husband. Later when he is rushed to hospital she will delay his departure trying to take all their worldly goods with them in case the husband dies and his relatives turn up to claim everything.
The landlady has hatched a plot with Killer Joe (played by a young Tatsuya Nakadai in his first film role) to evict the tenants, knock the place down and build a love hotel catering to the American troops. They have a small problem as a committed communist lives in the building and refuses to move – he also tries to organise some community action where he tries to get them to club together to reduce energy costs as the local American base doesn’t pay their bills and the community has to foot the bill for the entire area. Nobody really cares though and no one wants to pay.
Killer Joe plays the tough guy in swanky clothes and sunglasses but his authority is hollow and really he’s just a scared little boy. He rapes Shizuko because he’s too lazy and frightened to bother about doing things in the more conventional way. She, for herself, is too pure to consider herself anything other than ruined by her traumatic experience and immediately petitions Joe to marry her (he, predictably, laughs and offers to let her move in with him). She’s disgusted with herself but is completely in thrall to Joe, both attracted and repelled by him. Gone are her demure outfits and white parasol, in with the dark, figure hugging dresses with exposed shoulders, loose hair and pretty pearl earrings. Her love for Nishida is the one aspect of her former self that she clings to as a way of keeping her innocence alive. Eventually she decides the only way to reclaim her honour and be free of Joe is to kill him and kill the new self born in her by his violence.
Innocence, once lost, is not something which can ever be truly regained. Nishida makes the typically male decision and is saved from his folly by a typically female one, but the ending here can never be anything other than tragic for all involved. It’s the usual B-movie conclusion, leaving only a lonely white parasol lying abandoned on the road to ruin. The message is clear, the world is cruel because we allow it to be and that is a fact that is unlikely to change.
Black River is the third of four early films from Masaki Kobayashi available in Criterion’s Eclipse Series 38: Masaki Kobayashi Against the System DVD boxset.
Here’s a scene from about half way through the movie: