Kobayashi’s first film after completing his magnum opus, The Human Condition trilogy, The Inheritance (からみ合い, Karami-ai) returns him to contemporary Japan where, once again, he finds only greed and betrayal. With all the trappings of a noir thriller mixed with a middle class melodrama of unhappy marriages and wasted lives, The Inheritance is yet another exposé of the futility of lusting after material wealth.
The film begins in a framing sequence in which Yasuko, an elegant woman dressed in a fashionable outfit, sunglasses and large black hat, is aimlessly window shopping when she encounters a familiar face she’d no desire to see ever again. The pair head for coffee with Yasuko lamenting that her pleasant afternoon has been ruined by the necessity of spending time with this “unpleasant” man. We then flashback to some time previously when Yasuko was just a poor secretary working for a top executive and lamenting over her sad life in her “concrete coffin” of a tiny apartment. When her boss discovers he has a terminal illness he makes a surprising declaration – he isn’t going to leave all of his money to his wife. The law says she has to get a third so she will, but the couple had no legitimate children and Kawara wants an heir. Apparently, he has three illegitimate children with whom he did not keep in contact so he intends to find these young people of differing ages and divide the money between them. As you can imagine, this news pleases no one and it’s not long before everyone is scheming how they can manipulate the situation to grab some of the money for themselves.
Shot this time in 2.40:1, The Inheritance has a slightly more whimsical air than some of Kobayashi’s other efforts. Aided by Toru Takemitsu’s jazz infused score, there’s a feeling of a chaotic, black farce lurking below the surface as the complicated schemes and counter schemes play off against each other all while an old man lies dying and largely, it seems, alone. In fact, the dying man himself is relegated to little more than a plot element, a physical countdown to the zero hour of his death and the release of his funds. Though charged with the task of tracking down these, until now forgotten, offspring, Kawara’s underlings immediately start thinking about the best way to spin their assignments. Maybe it’s better if they just can’t find the kids, or maybe if they find them and manipulate them into a more beneficial course of events. The only thing that matters is sticking to the course of action which is most likely to bring them into contact with the money.
The children themselves? Well, they’ve not turned out quite the way Kawara might have hoped. He stated that they’d only get the money if he finds out that they’re honest, decent, right living people. However, the oldest, a son, is a delinquent college student who likely wouldn’t be able to cope with receiving a sudden large lump sum of money so he’s out. The middle daughter is a nude model living a lifestyle Kawara would most likely regard as “immoral” so she will require some “fixing” if her side is to prevail. The youngest child, a seven year old daughter, has sadly passed away after being adopted in another town. However, the enterprising wife and her paramour have an ace up their sleeve in the form of another child they can substitute in her place. This child is quiet, well behaved and in all an ideal candidate for Kawara’s money (if only she actually were his daughter).
Our story is being recounted by Yasuko, so how does she fit into all of this? Commentator, heroine, perpetrator? We can guess a little of what must have happened from her appearance in the later framing sequence with which the film began. Though apparently wealthy, this Yasuko doesn’t seem particularly happy (even bar her unwanted reunion with Kawara’s lawyer). After being entrusted with the task of tracking down the oldest son who then develops a crush on her, Yasuko finds herself ensconced in Kawara’s household and eventually becoming his mistress. The affair begins with a quasi-rape after which Yasuko receives a large amount of money in a white envelope – an offering which repeats itself after each encounter with Kawara. At first she tries to pretend there was something more to it but eventually admits she got used to taking the money. Though she later tries to refuse Kawara’s offering, the corruption has already set in.
Recounted in a world weary tone by Yasuko, The Inheritance is another, though less abrasive, look at greed and lack of moral authority. Kawara is dying and perhaps regrets his devotion to his career rather than something with a greater legacy. However, he evidently showed no interest in his children before and has no real desire to meet and have a relationship with them before it’s too late – he simply wants an heir. His marriage turns out to be mostly physical convenience and even his wife is not so broken up about his illness so much as irritated to have sacrificed the last seven years and only receive a third of what she assumed would all be hers. The underlings scheme amongst themselves and unwittingly open a door for a challenger nobody expected. In some ways, from our point of view, the “right” person won but this was a game that had no right to be played. A sordid farce of squabbling over a dying man’s estate and for what, in the end? A fancy hat? Kobayashi doesn’t push as hard here as he has before, this time he casts veniality as black comedy rather than a social evil but still the lesson is clear, in most cases avarice will get you nowhere and even if you play the slow game and win you may not like where it takes you.
The Inheritance is the fourth and final of the early films from Masaki Kobayashi available in Criterion’s Eclipse Series 38: Masaki Kobayashi Against the System DVD boxset.