In the closing scene of Kinji Fukasaku’s 1986 literary drama House on Fire (火宅の人, Kataku no hito), the hero plays a game he’s designed with his children titled “too heavy to bear” in which they each climb on his back waiting to see which if any of them can prove too much for the paternal shoulders. In recent years Fukasaku has become most closely associated with his late career international hit Battle Royale but prior to that his name had been almost synonymous with the genre he helped to consolidate, the jitsuroku gangster picture. Like the later A Chaos of Flowers, however, House on Fire is a subdued literary drama though one set largely in a more recent past revolving around conflicted author’s paternal anxiety and inspired by the autobiographical fiction of Kazuo Dan who might be best known outside of Japan for having penned the novel which inspired Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Hanagatami.
Like many similar literary endeavours of the time, House on Fire revolves around a conflicted writer’s affair with a much younger woman. Though set mainly in the 1950s, the film opens with a prologue set 40 years earlier in which the young Kazuo witnesses the breakdown of his parents’ marriage as his father abruptly leaves the family while his mother (played by Dan’s real life daughter Fumi Dan) later leaves him too after falling in love with a young student. As an older man (Ken Ogata) he feels he understands, though as a young boy all he felt was resentment. It’s this central conflict that consumes him as he contemplates embarking on an affair, knowing that he’s betraying his own wife and children in the same way that his father had him and his mother. He explains that this is partly because of a distance that has arisen in his relationship with his second wife Yoriko (Ayumi Ishida) following a family tragedy in which his second son Jiro was left with brain damage after contracting meningitis, Yoriko retreating grief-stricken into obsessive religious practice praying for a miracle he does not believe will come.
Typical of the “I Novel” Kazuo funnels all of this inner conflict into a serialised novel including all the salacious details of his subsequent affairs. The first of these is with a young actress, Keiko (Mieko Harada), who came to him with a letter of recommendation hoping to get his support and advice on embarking on a career in Tokyo. It seems clear that what Kazuo is attracted to is youth while what he fears is an ending, an anxiety which overshadows his romance while he continues to neglect his responsibilities as a husband and father leaving Yoriko to cope alone looking after the other children while caring for their disabled son. Learning of the affair she temporally leaves the family in much the same way his mother had, yet rather than accept his responsibility for the children Kazuo promptly abandons them too retreating to a hotel to write while leaving Jiro’s nurse and the housekeeper in sole charge of the family home.
It may be true in a sense that if he lived as a regular family man he’d have nothing to write about, but as much as Kazuo agonises over the possibilities of making Keiko mother to his children he knows he cannot marry these two desires as simply as swapping one woman for another. Just as he had, his eldest son Ichiro born to his first wife comes to resent him, breaking in to the flat he shares with Keiko and smashing the place up to make plain his sense of hurt and betrayal. Yet Kazuo seemingly cannot reconcile his passionate desires with his familial responsibilities while consumed by guilt in his failure to live up to an inner ideal. The only conclusion he comes to is that he is illequipt to understand the complicated relationships between men and women, looking back on his parents’ romance and reflecting that they run from love so great it makes you want to die to hate so strong it makes you want to kill.
Meanwhile, he circles around three women from the capable if strangely mysterious Yoriko who insists that she knows everything he does, to the petulant Keiko and carefree Yoko (Keiko Matsuzaka), a melancholy bar hostess who accompanies him on a trip around Japan while trying to decide whether to accept an offer of marriage from a wealthy old man. In contrast with the maternal Yoriko, both Keiko and Yoko present a less complicated vision of typical femininity each lively and childlike but both ultimately wanting something Kazuo can’t give them because to him the relationships are transitory. Yoko understands this the best even if Kazuo’s assertion that he enjoys being with her because she never asks him difficult questions speaks volumes about his own insecurity, enjoying the journey while coming to her own realisations in ultimately opting for a kind of stability in a loveless marriage. An essentially passive figure, Kazuo is abandoned by all three women as they exercise a romantic freedom he didn’t really consider they had with Yoriko finally deciding to return but defiantly redefining the terms of their relationship as she does so.
With this the family is in a sense repaired, Yoriko reminding him that she knows everything he does while he is forced to acknowledge that he is lucky his family will have him back even as he plays the “too heavy to bear” game with his children as pregnant as it is with his internal failures as a husband and father. A minor meditation on the changing social mores of the post-war society and the inner turmoil of a man caught between them, Fukasaku’s distanced approach undercuts the sense of melancholy in the otherwise conservative conclusion as Kazuo both resists his self-characterisation as a feckless and weak willed man and embraces it in his imperfect determination to reintegrate himself into a quietly smouldering home.
Original trailer (no subtitles)