Morning for the Osone Family 大曾根家の朝 (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1946)

81avzyD41gL._SL1500_So, after making the subtly subversive Army, Kinoshita found himself persona non grata but all that changed with Japan’s final surrender and the coming of the Americans. You might think that means an end to the system of censorship and a greater freedom of expression but the truth is one master had simply been swapped for another. The Americans now imposed their own censor’s office and banned the depiction of various dangerous or inconvenient ideas including anything xenophobic, militaristic or anti-democratic. In short, the complete reverse of before but perhaps no less restrictive. However, the new requirements were undeniably closer to Kinoshita’s true feelings so there were fewer problems when it came to getting a film made. Accordingly Kinoshita began working on Morning for the Osone Family soon after the surrender and the film was released in 1946. Extremely raw and probing, the film deals with the effects of the war on a well to do, liberal intellectual family but turns their plight into a metaphor for the country as a whole.

The film begins in the Christmas of 1943 as the Osones gather together around the piano for a rendition of Silent Night as they prepare to say goodbye to the daughter’s fiancé who’s been drafted and will shortly be leaving for the war. The celebration is short lived as their peace is shattered by an ominous knock at the door. Oldest son Ichiro is carted off by military police for having written a mildly subversive essay in a newspaper. Whilst all this is going on Yuko’s fiancé, Akira, takes his leave handing her a letter to say she needn’t wait for him with the future so uncertain. It’s at this point that meddling fascist uncle first appears to reveal he has written to Akira’s family to break off the engagement because they are of a high status and with Yuko’s brother’s arrest he feels it’s inappropriate to bring them shame. As the war drags on, Uncle Issei comes to have more and more control over their lives but will the progressive atmosphere of the Osone household ever be able to withstand the bluster of Uncle Issei’s militaristic fervour?

Made immediately after the war, Morning for the Osone Family is filled with the bitterness and anger of disillusionment. Coloured by the knowledge of Japan’s impending defeat, the events can’t help but take on a portentous air and it’s pretty obvious the Osone family will never be able to return to that final Christmas in 1943 before everything was taken away from them. The obnoxious Uncle Issei becomes a metaphor for Japanese fascism as a whole with his heartless militarism and personal corruption. During one telling episode, Yuko remarks that the more they simply obey him the worse he’ll get and that they should stand up to him every now and then. The mother, Fusako, agrees but thinks it’s impossible. Later, in a last impassioned speech, she laments that she should have done more, said no earlier, but she tried to do what was expected of her. Fusako voices the rage and disappointment of the masses of ordinary people who went along with things they didn’t agree with because they felt it was the proper thing to do. Now she sees no need for the pretence, in this brave new world it’s time for the younger generation to do as they see fit without feeling beholden to these corrupt ideas peddled by those who claim to speak for everyone but have only ever been speaking for themselves.

Oddly, Morning for the Osone Family may have the most overtly propagandistic feeling of any of the films in Criterion’s Kinoshita and World War II boxset. Though it ends on an undeniably powerful declaration of hope for renewal and rebirth, its epilogue feels like a step too far – both hollow and needlessly over the top. Apparently this final scene was added at the behest of the Americans who wanted more deliberately democratic sentiments which may explain its on the nose tone though it isn’t entirely out of keeping with the rest of the film and most likely represents Kinoshita’s real feelings. Morning has arrived after a long night filled with pain and sorrow, all that remains now is to banish the darkness and welcome in the light.

Army 陸軍 (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1944)

Dem-3 Photo. Helene Jeanbrau © 1996 cine-tamaris.tif

With a name like “Army”, you’d expect this to be a stridently propagandistic film about brave men fighting for their countries – some of whom will likely fall but will cover their families in eternal glory through their selfless sacrifice. Those are certainly the ideas behind Kinoshita’s 1944 film, the last film he’d be permitted to make before the war’s end, however any lingering feelings of pro-militaristic ardor are completely undercut by the film’s near silent closing moments.

Like The Living Magoroku, we begin in another historical era – one just as turbulent as the contemporary action. As people flee burning houses at the dawn of the Meiji era, a father and son shelter a wounded samurai who gifts them a set of historical encyclopaedias. Despite the changing times, the father is convinced a man’s highest duty is to his country and makes a deathbed plea that his son Tomohiko become a fine soldier. Tomohiko tries his best, as an infantry Captain through the several of Japan’s international conflicts of the early 20th century he’s certainly had ample opportunity to distinguish himself. However, luck is not on Tomohiko’s side as minor injuries, illness or simply failing to be selected have kept him safely away from the front lines. Eventually invalided out, Tomohiko tries to make a go of civilian life, finally ending up trying to run a pawn shop (before realising he’s not good at that either and leaving the heavy lifting to his more capable wife). Still convinced of the wisdom of his father’s philosophy, Tomohiko pushes his wishes for military glory onto his oldest son – the equally weedy Shintaro whose slight frame and kindly nature don’t exactly point to a future Field Marshall. Japan needs soldiers though, it’s time for every man and boy to stand up to defend her!

Final scene excised, Army would look like the most obviously propagandistic film in the box set. Full of references to the importance of military virtue and physical strength over book learning, Army brings home that a man who does not fight is not a man. He is weak and womanly and is to be shamed. Even those who are in poor physical health or simply not built for brute force attacks are expected to suddenly shape up and join every other young man in sacrificing themselves nobly for the Emperor. Mothers, even, are not permitted to grieve as their sons were never theirs in the first place – they were merely taking care of them for the Emperor. Now they’ve done their duty and returned their progeny to the father of the nation, they ought to feel nothing more than relief at a job well done, or so says Tomohiko’s wife, Waka. Wouldn’t it be shaming to have a grown up son still at home, after all, or even one that was far from the front line but relatively safe? Prepare for the worst or hope for it? It’s an oddly macabre way of thinking.

However, the last scene of the film which is played almost silently, undercuts this cold willingness to sacrifice and shows it up for its own hollowness. Having originally claimed not to be going to see the brigade depart because she’s a weak and emotional woman, Waka is suddenly overcome by something. She rises and follows the other townspeople drifting towards the noise of the parade with its crowds of cheering, flag waving supporters. Desperately, anxiously, she searches for her son in amongst the multitudes of other young men in identical uniforms marching off gleefully almost certainly not to return. Having pushed through the ranks of ecstatic civilians, she finally catches a glimpse of Shintaro who smiles at her before disappearing back into the ranks of anonymous infantrymen. Waka is left bereft, alone and terrified – her only recourse is prayer.

Unsurprisingly, the army didn’t really like this bit. In fact, one high ranking official marched right down to Shochiku and accused Kinoshita of treason! Luckily, not too much came of that but Kinoshita’s next script about kamikaze pilots was rejected and he wasn’t allowed anywhere near a camera until after the end of the war. Waka’s final uncertainty, her grief at losing her son to this faceless monster undercuts the entirety of the previous 80 minute celebration of glorious military history and masculine pride. All of a sudden it’s not a joyful celebration anymore, it’s a funeral peopled with grieving wives and mothers – hardly the sort of message you want to send out when you’re trying to give the barrel a final scrape when it comes to conscripting for the army. Army is a film that’s defined by its final minutes and is surprising in the level of ambiguity it was allowed to get away with given the strict censorship conditions in place. As a propaganda film it fails, but by design. Kinoshita once again refuses to depict his characters as unfeeling robots who can suppress their natural empathy in the name of duty or honour and a mother’s love proves the most dominant (if hopeless) force of all.

Jubilation Street 歓呼の町 (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1944)

20138117_1_IMG_FIX_700x700The third entry in Criterion’s Kinoshita and World War II box set takes a decidedly darker turn than either of its predecessors. Made a little later in 1944, Jubilation Street is surprising addition, not least because for the majority of its running time it’s hard to see how it could have ever have fulfilled the propaganda requirements of the time. Its title is almost ironic, there’s nothing here but an inevitable sadness and eternal partings both between people and between eras. It’s not until the closing moments of the film that anything even remotely “inspirational” occurs, and even then it’s all a little bit tacked on and feels like a token epilogue to please the censors. With far less obvious comedy moments Jubilation Street is taking us somewhere significantly darker, but is not without Kinoshita’s characteristic sympathy.

Jubilation Street is an old-fashioned row of modest housing home to a small community of families who’ve each lived there for many years. Now they’re all being “relocated” because the government wants the land for the war effort. Some are ready to leave, others are not – either because they feel too old to start again somewhere else or simply because they don’t want to be split up from the people they’ve shared their lives with. The family who own the printer’s shop want to finish their last few orders and wait until their baby is born, the crotchety old man who runs the bath house just doesn’t want to go anywhere and Mrs. Furukawa is afraid to leave in case the husband who walked out on her and their son ten years previously finally comes home. Shingo, Mrs. Furukawa’s son, is a test pilot in the air force and wants to marry childhood sweetheart Takako, though her parents are against it given his family circumstances and dangerous work. Just in the knick of time, Mr. Furukawa makes a shocking reappearance, unbeknownst to his wife and son but will his ten years away with nary a word damage his chances of a happy reunion? With the evacuation date drawing nearer, important decisions will have to be made, and made in a hurry.

There may have been hope and happiness in this little street once, but now there’s just waiting and desperation. Towards the beginning of the film, the war still feels something far off – the relocation programme might as well be for a new dam or a modern housing development as much as being down to a war. Shingo is the only person directly involved with anything military and though his work is dangerous in one sense he gets to live at home with his mother and nothing seems very different than before. Towards the end, however, a traumatic event will drop the devastation of war right into the middle of this little community with as much force as any bomb. Doomed romance, shattered dreams, a lifetime’s work going for nothing – there’s nothing to celebrate here. Having undergone a tragedy and forced out of their homes, the community each vow they’re going to honour the sacrifices made by each doing their best for the war effort, but it comes dangerously close to being insulting. “So you’ve lost people, you might have lost your home or your business or a child but that just means you have to work even harder to make your loss mean something”. A fairly bleak message, if understandable given the circumstances, but it’s debatable that it’s one a worried populace would have wanted to receive in the normally escapist realms of the cinema.

It’s remarkably ambiguous for a film of its time. Perhaps because, again, he kept the war effort in the background, Kinoshita was able to get away with showing a less “jubilant” group of people each facing their various difficulties with an enviable degree of stoicism (coupled with their determined resolutions at the end). There’s no way you could read Jubilation Street as a “pro-war” film. Though it stops short of any kind of direct criticism, war (and even in one case the whole idea of Manchuria) has ruined each of these people’s lives, destroyed their community and cast them adrift in an uncertain world. What sort of glorious nation is this, and was it worth all this sacrifice?

Jubilation Street is not as well preserved as either Port of Flowers or The Living Magoroku, though the actual film is fine for the most part the soundtrack is very badly damaged with strong hiss and distortion throughout. However, it doesn’t detract from the experience too much and given that it’s a minor miracle it survives at all you can’t complain. Kinoshita has once again tried to put the lives of ordinary people up on screen with all the warmth, empathy and truth that was permitted to him at the time. The last days of Jubilation Street were not altogether happy ones, but as a metaphor for a place and time it’s about as close as you’d be allowed to explore.

The Living Magoroku 生きてゐる孫六 (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1943)

Film_Eclipse_LivingMagoroku_original

The Living Magoroku, the second film in Criterion’s Kinoshita and World War II box set, is the director’s second feature also made 1943 shortly after Port of Flowers. Like his previous film, it was also made under the severe censorship requirements in place during the war but this time around the propaganda is far more pronounced though still fairly mild given the time period. That said, The Living Magoroku is still full of the wit and warmth characteristic of Kinoshita’s filmmaking even if it is forced to up its jingoistic content.

Incongruously beginning with a samurai battle taking place in 1573, the action quickly shifts to the same battleground where a group of raw recruits are being put through their paces before being sent off to die nobly for the Emperor in distant lands. Berating them for their lack of respect, the instructor reminds them that each recruit is descended from the very men who died on fields like these whose graves they should still be tending. This small rural town still goes by the old ways. There may be no real samurais anymore but each and every decision has to go through the local matriarch, Mrs Onagi. Actually, Mrs Onagi has a son who should rightfully be in charge but he’s such a neurotic drip who thinks he’s dying of lung disease that no one pays much attention to him. The Onagis own the entire battlefield area, some 75 acres, given to their ancestor after the battle and legend has it there’s a curse that should anyone try to cultivate it all the men of the Onagi line will die young. The field has remained untouched for 300 years, but with a war on shouldn’t the Onagis rethink their reluctance to turn this wasteland into a productive agricultural area, even if the ridiculous idea of an ancient curse was somehow real?

Like Port of Flowers, The Living Magoroku is actually fairly light on militarism despite featuring a group of soldiers and prefers to focus on the slightly backward looking nature of this small village. Even under the conservative nature of wartime Japan, it’s odd that a couple of young people would feel the need to ask the old lady at the manor for permission to marry given that she really has very little to do with them – and even odder that she would refuse to give it and that her refusal would actually bother them. The cause of the problem being that the girl’s brother is the chief instigator of the motion to get the field back in use, and that he went directly to the young master rather than the mother who’s been de facto in charge of these things. Local politics – some things never change! The young people want to use the land, curse-shmursh, but the old people would rather not. Just suppose the curse is real – poor Yoshihiro, technically head of the Onagi family, is so worried about his prospective fate (and the way his mother, grandmother and sister seem to worry about it for him) that he’s almost paralysed with fear and resentment!

Thrown into the mix is another problem concerning the sword referenced in the title – a sword of unparalleled fineness forged by Maguroku the First of which very few survive. The instructor at the army base claims to have one which infuriates the local blacksmith and sword expert as he simply refuses to believe it. By coincidence, the Onagis also have one of these swords and are paid a visit by an army doctor seeking to buy it as, it turns out, his family once owned one but he sold it unknowing its rarity to pay for his medical tuition. Of course, the Onagis don’t want to sell a precious family heirloom, though they admire the doctor’s zeal to repay his debt to his late father by acquiring another one. The instructor’s sword turns out to be a fake anyway prompting the blacksmith to make him a new one – after all, needs must and a sword is just a sword, the name on it won’t matter much on battlefield. Similarly a field is just a field, isn’t it selfish not to use it when the country needs grain even if it might cost your life seeing as every other young man is looking down the barrel of a gun at the present time? The message is clear, traditions should be honoured, yes, but when it comes down to it, the present is more important than the past and superstition gives way to clearheaded pragmatism. Every resource must be pooled for the common good and personal sacrifices must be made to ensure a better future for everyone.

The Living Magoroku feels a little more uneven than Port of Flowers, and actually ends quite abruptly with a strange newsreel style wrap-up of events. Luckily, it’s still broadly a comedy in strictest sense (it ends in a series of marriages, everyone not already married ends up wed), poor old Yoshihiro gets a new lease on life and becomes a productive member of society, the village gets a bumper harvest and all is right in the world save the strange final message about the instructor who is apparently carrying his new sword bravely in the heat of battle. Like Port of Flowers, it wants to reinforce the traditional values of community spirit and giving up your own individual pleasures and freedoms for everybody’s good. The past informs the future, how could it not, but when push comes to shove you have to let it go. Like everything in life there has to be a balance, respect your history – yes, but not so much that it costs you your future.

Port of Flowers 花咲く港 (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1943)

film_syosai_img_01_04-thumb-730x480-1642Keisuke Kinoshita is far better known in his native Japan than outside it despite his long and prolific career in filmmaking. Equally adept at comedy and tragedy and tackling all genres from musicals to crime dramas, Kinoshita began his career in the relatively turbulent war years where every last detail was at the censor’s mercy.  Port of Flowers is his very first foray into the director’s chair and began a long association with the comedy genre. Though, yes, it has it’s obligatory moments of bare faced propaganda, the film is refreshingly light on heavy handed political statements and prefers to focus on a humorous take on small town life.

Life in a sleepy little port town is about to get significantly more exciting after the local inn has received two rare telegrams purporting to be from the same man but sent from different locations one day apart. The man in question claims to be the son of a businessman who lived in the town some years previously but has since died and the bereaved child has a hankering to see the little shipping village that the father apparently loved so much. After picking up their new guest at the station the mini delegation of inn keepers and officials are shocked to discover another disgruntled customer also claiming to be the sender of the letter. Sufficed to say neither of the two in question is what he claims to be but has come to town with the intention of fleecing some gullible country bumpkins out of grandma’s silver. The two decide to work together but eventually the goodnatured enthusiasm of the villagers (and the rising war effort) begin to make them rethink their nefarious ways!

Given the time period and strict censorship, it would be ridiculous not to expect some degree of pro-war sentiment in the film but Kinoshita has managed to more or less leave the conflict as merely a background setting. Life in this little fishing village seems fairly tranquil and the war has barely encroached on its idyllic settings. There are youngish men about, the people aren’t rich but they aren’t afraid and the only mention of turbulence seems to be a young woman who’s recently returned from Manchuria not entirely at her own volition. There are some fairly excited mentions of various victories but these are fairly minor events, almost like something happening far away to other people to whom you feel connected but not quite involved with. The most important thing is the building of the ship – not only is it a source of pride for the villagers, a way of fulfilling the dream of a respected visitor they all remember fondly but it will also be for their country. Everyone must contribute as they can because it’s for the entire community of citizens, not just the village but for everyone in the country and it’s important. Their sacrifice and hard work will matter because it will be for the greater good.

Here endeth the lesson, for the most part. What of our two bumbling crooks? It’s never really explained how they came to know so much about this poor, unsuspecting community and simultaneously hatched on the same scheme at the same time but they must have been pretty well out of options to think these poor villagers were going to be worth this much effort. They came to commit a fraud but ended up having to actually do the impossible and make their improbable scheme work solely because the villagers’ kindness was too much to bear. The addendum to the lesson being that pure hearts can shame the devil and innocence becomes infectious after a while (in the best possible way).

Very much of its time and with an air of disposability, Port of Flowers is an enjoyable, surprisingly warm film but not without its faults. Eschewing heavy handed propaganda for a subtle enforcement of traditional, communal values it reflects Kinoshita’s subsequent humanistic concerns and even manages to do so without giving in to the censor’s red pen. A nice take on an old story, Kinoshita once again proves that nothing matters so much as people and goodness will always win through in the end.