Perhaps oddly for a director of his generation, Kon Ichikawa is not particularly known for family drama yet his 1960 effort, Her Brother (おとうと, Ototo), draws strongly on this genre albeit with Ichikawa’s trademark irony. A Taisho era tale based on an autobiographically inspired novel by Aya Koda, Her Brother is the story of a sister’s unconditional love but also of a woman who is, in some ways, forced to sacrifice herself for her family precisely because of their ongoing emotional neglect.
Oldest daughter Gen (Keiko Kishi) is still in school though she’s more or less running the household seeing as her invalid step-mother (Kinuyo Tanaka) spends most of her time bedridden with rheumatism and the rest of it pontificating about religion and listening to her poisonous friend (Kyoko Kishida) who likes to stir up trouble in this already difficult family environment. Gen’s father (Masayuki Mori) is a well known writer who needs a lot of quiet time for his work. As fathers go he’s very laid back and content to think his kids will be OK because they’re his kids, which isn’t to say he doesn’t care but he’s not exactly present most of the time. It’s no surprise then that care of the family’s youngest, Hekiro (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), has largely fallen to his sister. Where Gen is naturally responsible and practically minded, Hekiro is reckless and always in search of adventure. Eventually this lands him in trouble when he gets involved with a bad crowd but whatever his family might have been feeling towards him, everything changes once they discover that he’s facing a serious illness.
Because of the family’s odd arrangement, Gen has become almost a maternal figure towards Hekiro despite only being a couple of years older than he is. In fact, the pair have an almost comically childish physical fight at one point which is quite undignified considering their ages, especially when it involves staining their tatami mat floor with a puddle of bright red ink. Gen does her best but like her father she more often than not lets Hekiro off the hook by bailing him out, much of the time with her own rather than her father’s money. Not having the kind of authority a parent, uncle, or aunt might have all she can really do is ask him to think about behaving better, but Hekiro constantly pushes the boundaries to get a more concrete form of attention than his sister’s well meaning attempts to help are able to provide.
Hekiro’s stunts eventually threaten to pull his sister into his darkening world, especially when a man claiming to be a detective starts more or less stalking Gen before pulling her into a shrine on the pretext of talking about her brother’s case before trying to have his wicked way with her. Luckily Gen is saved by a flock of geese cunningly released by some of her brother’s friends which gives her enough time to escape and finally get rid of the odious little man.
Similarly, Hekiro deliberately introduces his sister to the local pool hall. Though Gen seems to enjoy the game and is even good at it, she quickly realises she’s been brought as a sort of guarantor for her brother’s mounting debts. Add in other expensive and dangerous hobbies like his boat habit (he can’t swim) and it’s not surprising everyone’s had enough of Hekiro before he’s even left school. When he has an accident which results in the death of a horse (again, very expensive), it does at least lead him to reflect on the negative effect his actions can have on those around him, even if all he wanted and continues to want is an escape from his boring and miserable family life.
Even Hekiro’s illness fails to arouse very much in the way of concern from his well meaning father and grumpy step-mother who is hellbent on marrying Gen off against her wishes. Gen is, again, the only one to nurse Hekiro in hospital, managing the household as well as looking after her brother on his sickbed. When the illness becomes more serious it provides a last opportunity for the family members to bond and make amends for the various ways they’ve failed each other. The step-mother’s visit is not as altruistic as it seems when it transpires she’s only really come to “convert” Hekiro to her religion, but she begins to feel something more for him on believing that Jesus has already saved him thanks to his outwardly calm and polite manner. The final irony is that the idealised family is only born as it is destroyed, Gen puts her pinny back on and takes the reins from her stepmother who is presumably headed straight back to bed.
Gen’s devotion can’t save her brother either from himself or his fate and it may even be the end of her too. Vowing never to marry and rising from her own sickbed stopping only to instruct her stepmother to rest, she’s very clearly chosen her path even if Ichikawa’s camera and musical cues seem to find the ironic comedy of the situation rather than the sadness of her possibly tragic plight. Ichikawa and his cinematographer invented a whole new technique for this picture – the bleach bypass, which appropriately robs the environment of its vibrancy, dulling even bright colours with a sort of heavy leaded effect perfectly reflecting Hekiro’s increasingly depressed mindset as he reflects on being someone who has no firm anchor or place to feel at home. A strange, comically melancholic piece, Her Brother is a characteristically sideways swipe at the family drama from the master of irony though one which does not altogether escape his taste for the sentimental.
Original trailer (not subtitles)