A Legend or Was It? (死闘の伝説, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1963)

A Legend or Was it posterIn 1951’s Boyhood, Kinoshita had painted a less than idealised portrait of village life during wartime. With pressure mounting ranks were closing, “outsiders” were not welcome. The family at the centre of Boyhood had more reasons to worry in that they had, by necessity, removed themselves from a commonality in their ideological opposition to imperialism but newcomers are always vulnerable when they find themselves undefended and without friends. 1963’s A Legend or Was It? (死闘の伝説, Shito no Densetsu, AKA Legend of a Duel to the Death) tells a similar story, but darker as a family of evacuees fall foul not only of lingering feudal mores but a growing resentment in which they find themselves held responsible for all the evils of war.

Beginning with a brief colour framing sequence, Kinoshita shows us a contemporary Hokkaido village filled with cheerful rural folk who mourn each other’s losses and share each other’s joys while shouldering communal burdens. A voice over, however, reminds us that something ugly happened in this beautiful place twenty years previously. Something of which all are too ashamed to speak. Switching back to black and white and the same village in the summer of 1945, he introduces us to Hideyuki Sonobe (Go Kato) who has just come home from the war to convalesce from a battlefield injury. Hideyuki’s engineer father went off to serve his country and hasn’t been heard from since, and neither has his brother who joined the air corp. His mother (Kinuyo Tanaka), sister Kieko (Shima Iwashita), and younger brother Norio (Tsutomu Matsukawa) have evacuated from Tokyo to this small Hokkaido village where they live in a disused cottage some distance from the main settlement.

The family had been getting by in the village thanks to the support of its mayor, Takamori, but relations have soured of late following an unexpected marriage proposal. Takamori’s son Goichi (Bunta Sugawara), a war veteran with a ruined hand and young master complex, wants to marry Kieko. She doesn’t want to marry him, but the family worry about possible repercussions if they turn him down. It just so happens that Hideyuki recognises Goichi and doesn’t like what he sees – he once witnessed him committing an atrocity in China and knows he is not the sort of man he would want his sister to marry, let alone marry out of fear and practicality. Hideyuki, as the head of the family, turns the proposal down and it turns out they were right to worry. The family’s field is soon vandalised and the police won’t help. When other fields meet the same fate, a rumour spreads that the Sonobes are behind it – taking revenge on the village on as a whole. The villagers swing behind Goichi, using the feud as a cover to ease their own petty grievances.

City dwellers by nature, the Sonobes have wandered into a land little understood in which feudal bonds still matter and mob mentality is only few misplaced words away. The village serves a microcosm of Japanese society at war in which Takamori becomes the unassailable authority and his cruel son the embodiment of militarism. Goichi embraces his role as a young master with relish, riding around the town on horse back and occasionally barking orders at his obedient peasants, stopping only to issue a beating to anyone he feels has slighted him – even taking offence at an innocuous folksong about a man who was rejected in love and subsequently incurred a disability. Despite all of that, however, few can find the strength to resist the pull of the old masters and the majority resolutely fall behind Goichi, willing to die for him if necessary.

As the desperation intensifies and it appears the war, far off as it is, is all but lost, a kind of creeping madness takes hold in which the Sonobes become somehow responsible for the greater madness that has stolen so many sons and husbands from this tiny village otherwise untouched by violence or famine. An embodiment of city civilisation the Sonobes come to represent everything the village feels threatened by, branded as “bandits” and blamed for everything from murder to vegetable theft. The central issue, one of a weak and violent man who felt himself entitled to any woman he wanted and refused to accept the legitimacy of her right to refuse, falls by the wayside as just another facet of the spiralling madness born of corrupted male pride and misplaced loyalties.

Kinoshita returns to the idyllic countryside to close his framing sequence, reminding us that these events may have been unthought to the level of myth but such things did happen even if those who remember are too ashamed to recall them. Tense and inevitable, A Legend or Was It? reframes an age of fear and madness as a timeless village story in which the corrupted bonds of feudalism fuel the fires of resentment and impotence until all that remains is the irrationality of violence.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Somewhere Beneath the Wide Sky (この広い空のどこかに, Masaki Kobayashi, 1954)

somewhere-beneath-the-wide-skyOf the chroniclers of the history of post-war Japan, none was perhaps as unflinching as Masaki Kobayashi. However, everyone has to start somewhere and as a junior director at Shochiku where he began as an assistant to Keisuke Kinoshita, Kobayashi was obliged to make his share of regular studio pictures. This was even truer following his attempt at a more personal project – Thick Walled Room, which dealt with the controversial subject of class C war criminals and was deemed so problematic that it lingered on the shelves for quite some time. Made the same year as the somewhat similar Three Loves, Somewhere Beneath the Wide Sky (この広い空のどこかに, Kono Hiroi Sora no Dokoka ni) is a fairly typical contemporary drama of ordinary people attempting to live in the new and ever changing post-war world, yet it also subtly hints at Kobayashi’s ongoing humanist preoccupations in its conflict between the idealistic young student Noboru and his practically minded (yet kind hearted) older brother.

The Moritas own the liquor store in this tiny corner of Ginza, where oldest brother Ryoichi (Keiji Sada) has recently married country girl Hiroko (Yoshiko Kuga). The household consists of mother-in-law Shige (Kumeko Urabe), step-mother to Ryoichi, unmarried sister Yasuko (Hideko Takamine), and student younger brother Noboru (Akira Ishihama). Things are actually going pretty well for the family, they aren’t rich but the store is prospering and they’re mostly happy enough – except when they aren’t. Ryoichi married for love, but his step-mother and sister aren’t always as convinced by his choice as he is, despite Hiroko’s friendly nature and constant attempts to fit in.

As if to signal the dividing wall between the generations, Somewhere Beneath the Wide Sky opens with a discussion between two older women, each complaining about their daughters-in-law and the fact that their sons married for love rather than agreeing to an arranged marriage as was common in their day. These love matches, they claim, have unbalanced the family dynamic, giving the new wife undue powers against the matriarchal figure of the mother-in-law. While the other woman’s main complaint is that her son’s wife is absent minded and bossy, Shige seems to have little to complain about bar Hiroko’s slow progress with becoming used to the runnings of the shop.

Despite this, both women appear somewhat hostile towards Ryoichi’s new wife, often making her new home an uncomfortable place for her to be. Though Hiroko is keen to pitch in with the shop and the housework, Shige often refuses her help and is preoccupied with trying to get the depressed Yasuko to do her fair share instead. At 28 years old, Yasuko has resigned herself to a life of single suffering, believing it will now be impossible for her to make a good a match. Yasuko had been engaged to a man she loved before the war but when he returned and discovered that she now walks with a pronounced limp following an injury during an air raid, he left her flat with a broken heart. Embittered and having internalised intense shame over her physical disability, Yasuko finds the figure of her new sister-in-law a difficult reminder of the life she will never have.

A crisis approaches when an old friend (and perhaps former flame) arrives from Hiroko’s hometown and raises the prospect of abandoning her young marriage to return home instead. No matter how her new relatives make her feel, Hiroko is very much in love with Ryoichi and has no desire to leave him. Thankfully, Ryoichi is a kind and understanding man who can see how difficult the other women in the house are making things for his new wife and is willing to be patient and trust Hiroko to make what she feels is the right decision.

Ryoichi’s talent for tolerance is seemingly infinite in his desire to run a harmonious household. However, he, unlike younger brother Noboru, is of a slightly older generation with a practical mindset rather than an idealistic one. Ryoichi simply wants to prosper and ensure a happy and healthy life for himself and his family. This doesn’t mean he’s averse to helping others and is actually a very kind and decent person, but he is quick to point out that he needs to help himself first. Thus he comes into conflict with little brother Noburu from whom the film’s title comes.

Noburu is a dreamer, apt to look up at the wide sky as symbol of his boundless dreams. His fortunes are contrasted with the far less fortunate fellow student Mitsui (Masami Taura), who comes from a much less prosperous and harmonious family, finding himself working five different jobs just to eat twice a day and study when he can. Noburu wants to believe in a brighter world where things like his sister’s disability would be irrelevant and something could be done to help people like Mitsui who are struggling to get by when others have it so good. Ryoichi thinks this is all very well, but it’s pie in the sky thinking and when push comes to shove you have to respect “the natural order of things”. Ryoichi wants to work within the system and even prosper by it, where as Noburu, perhaps like Kobayashi himself, would prefer that the “natural order of things” became an obsolete way of thinking.

Nevertheless, it is the power of kindness which cures all. Gloomy Yasuko begins to live again after re-encountering an old school friend and being able to help her when she is most in of need of it. Being of use after all helps her put thoughts of her disability to the back of her mind and so, after hiding from a man who’d loved her in the past out of fearing his reaction to her current state (and overhearing his general indifference on hearing of it), she makes the bold decision to strike out for love and the chance of happiness in the beautiful, yet challenging, mountain environment.

Like many films of the era, Somewhere Beneath the Wide Sky is invested in demonstrating that life may be hard at times, but it will get better and the important thing is to find happiness wherever it presents itself. This is not quite the message Kobayashi was keen on delivering in his subsequent career which calls for a more circumspect examination of contemporary society along with a need for greater personal responsibility for creating a kinder, fairer and more honest one. A much more straightforward exercise, Somewhere Beneath the Wide Sky is Kobayashi channeling Kinoshita but minimising his sentimentality. Nevertheless, it does present a warm tale of a family finally coming together as its central couple prepares to pick up the reins and ride on into the sometimes difficult but also full of possibility post-war world.


 

Carmen Comes Home (カルメン故郷に帰る, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1951)

Carmen Comes HomeShochiku was doing pretty well in 1951. Accordingly they could afford to splash out a little in their 30th anniversary year in commissioning the first ever full colour film to be shot in Japan, Carmen Comes Home (カルメン故郷に帰る, Carmen Kokyou ni Kaeru). For this landmark project they chose trusted director Keisuke Kinoshita and opted to use the home grown Fujicolor which has a much more saturated look than the film stocks favoured by overseas studios or those which would become more common in Japan such as Eastman Colour or Agfa. Fujicolour also had a lot of optimum condition requirements including the necessity of shooting outdoors, and so we find ourselves visiting a picturesque mountain village along with a showgirl runaway on her first visit home hoping to show off what a success she’s made for herself in the city.

Famous Tokyo showgirl “Lily Carmen” (Hideko Takamine) was once plain old Kin from the cow farm. When the family receives a letter written in grand style and signed with Kin’s stage name explaining she’ll be coming to visit, her sister may be excited but her father has much more mixed emotions. When Carmen comes home she does so like she’s on a victory parade. Wearing her Westernised, colourful outfits fashionable in the city but like something from outer space here, Carmen becomes the show but oddly seems uncomfortable with the predictable amount of attention she’s getting around town. The presence of Carmen and her equally pretty friend, Maya (Toshiko Kobayashi), threatens to destabilise this otherwise peaceful mountain village but just what sort of chaos can two beautiful women really create over the period of a few days?

The villagers react to Carmen’s return with a series of ambivalent emotions. Of course, they’re glad to see their own girl back, especially as she’s been so successful in the city, but this Carmen is not the same as the Kin who ran away. Slightly in awe of all this visiting urban sophistication, the villagers are also scandalised by Carmen’s modern attitudes to fashion and vulgar behaviour. Striding around the village like as it were a tourist attraction and she a visiting monarch, Carmen chews gum, breaks in to song at random and dances happily in her underwear on the green mountain hillsides.

The village is smallish community but fiercely proud of their local traditions. Many of the residents are happy to think that a “great artist” of the pedigree of Lily Carmen could have been born in their little village. In fact, this tiny settlement is something of a crucible for artistic talent and the extremely pompous school headmaster has a bee in his bonnet about bringing forth the future of Japan through cultural education. However, not quite all of the residents are so liberal and many live in fear of a feudalistic money lender named Maruju (Koji Mitsui) who runs the local transportation business (such as it is) but makes most of his money out of issuing exorbitant loans to desperate local people. Recently, he’s pointlessly repossessed an organ from the home of a man who was blinded during the war.

The headmaster is very keen for Carmen to come and bring some of her city sophistication back to the village, but no one has actually asked what kind of “art” Carmen is involved in. After a lot of chat from Carmen about how seriously she takes her work, people start wondering about this cutting edge performance art that their homegirl has apparently surrendered her life to. As if it weren’t obvious from her name, Carmen is a burlesque dancer. Quite a good, high grade burlesque dancer and, in fact, an artist, but essentially a stripper who really does take it all off in the end. Ever the enterprising businessman, Maruju decides to put on a show which he advertises with a big cart bearing the slogan “wild dancing by nude beauties” plastered on the side.

Needless to say this does not go down well with pompous headmaster and his plan to create a great city of highbrow artists. Striding straight over to talk to Carmen’s father Shoichi who’s only just got up from a few days in bed after Carmen’s last embarrassing faux pas, the principal intends to talk Carmen and her friend out of their scheduled performance. Her father, however, has a surprising reaction. He had an inkling what kind of life his runaway daughter must have been living. Shoichi put much of Carmen’s lack of acumen down to being kicked in the head by a cow as a child and realised it would be hard for her to find “respectable” work. He doesn’t want to see her “indecent” show and thinks the professor shouldn’t go either, but also thinks that if she’s good at it and it makes her happy then maybe that’s OK. After all, if it was that bad they wouldn’t allow it in the city and whatever’s good enough for the city ought to be good enough for the mountains. The headmaster, momentary stunned, is now confused and wondering if stopping the performance is an infringement on Carmen’s human rights.

Kinoshita refuses to take a side, he shows the ridiculousness of both the isolated villagers and the sophisticated city dwellers to great comic effect. Hideko Takamine is something of a revelation, cast completely against type as a bubbly, airhead showgirl. As is true with a lot of early colour films, or even a lot of early talkies, Carmen Comes Home has a built in gimmick and doesn’t really worry about doing very much beyond it. As such it keeps things light and bright and breezy, emphasising its high contrast colour palate every step of the way. A gentle comedy of manners as small town comforts rival big city liberalism with the obvious trade offs involved on either side, Carmen Comes Home might lack the substance of some of Kinoshita’s other work but makes up for it with general sunniness and effortlessly timeless humour.


Original trailer(s) (no subtitles):