Japanese cinema has not been as shy as might be supposed in examining uncomfortable topics concerning the nation’s mid 20th century history but perhaps prefers to tackle them from a subtle, sideways viewpoint. By a Man’s Face Shall You Know Him (男の顔は履歴書, Otokonokao wa Rirekisho) is, in essence, a fairly straightforward gangster pic – save that the rampaging gangsters are a mob of “zainichi” Koreans rather than post-war yakuza or petty hoodlums. Less about what it is to be an outsider or the quest for identity in second generation immigrants, Kato’s film is about what it says it is about – a man’s face.
The film begins in the contemporary era when morose doctor Amamiya is contemplating a transfer to an island posting which proves unappealing to him. Shortly after, a badly injured man is brought in following a car accident and, though Amamiya originally suggests the man be taken to a hospital as his chances of survival are slim, he changes his mind after lifting the sheet and recognising the man on the stretcher. The two men go back a long way – firstly to the battlefield where “Shibata” was a private in the army serving alongside Amamiya and secondly to an incident which dictated the rest of Amamiya’s life when he ran the local GP’s office and also happened to own the deeds to some land a bunch of Korean gangsters wanted to get their hands on. Thanks to their earlier association, “Shibata” now returning to his Korean name “Choi” was able to assist Amamiya in mitigating the gangster onslaught as he himself was a member of the gang.
Perhaps more to do with the production styles of the time, all of the “Korean” gangsters are played by Japanese actors and only ever speak Japanese even to each other. Nevertheless, they all want “revenge” for Japan’s treatment of Korea and Koreans during the years of occupation and warfare. In 1949 Japan is still in ruins and the gangsters see this as a prime opportunity to finally take Japan apart and presumably also profit in the process. The leader of this particular gang has set his sights on taking over the “New Life Marketplace” (a pregnant title if ever there was one) with the intention of turning it into an “entertainment district”. His guys, including one totally crazy foot soldier played by a particularly manic Bunta Sugawara, run roughshod over the town until finally raping and murdering Japanese women which they dismiss as par for the course given Japan’s treatment of Korean women over the past thirty years.
This is not a subtle examination of Korean Japanese relations in the post-war environment, these are gangsters and movie gangsters are generally all the same. They say they want to destroy Japan but ultimately they want what all gangs want – to control the area and extort maximum profit. Choi, and the young female Korean Gye, were born in Japan, have never even been to Korea and can’t really claim to have a great deal of Korean cultural knowledge. All they have are their names, now reclaimed after Japan’s wartime defeat. Throughout the war years, Choi used the Japanese version of his name “Shibata” and tried to pass himself off as Japanese (apparently successfully) but is now committed to embracing his Korean heritage even if it once again sees him placed in a subjugated position.
Amamiya returned from the war and took over his father’s medical clinic in his home town. He’s cynical and apathetic. He treats the people who come in to his clinic without discrimination but he doesn’t care very much about the area either. The only thing he really cares about is his nurse, Maki, with whom he’s been having a passionate affair and seems to be deeply in love. Amamiya makes an enemy of the Koreans early on when he fights off some guys who are hassling his nurse proving that he’s no pushover. The title deeds for the land the market is built on also belong to Amamiya who is unlikely to surrender them. The townspeople first turn to the regular Japanese yakuza who are unable to help with their currently depleted manpower leaving Amamiya as their only form of salvation.
When Amamiya’s hotheaded brother turns up and starts causing all sorts of trouble with the Koreans as a way of avenging Japan’s wartime defeat, Amamiya is dragged into a battle he had no desire to fight. Shunji was too young to fight in the war but is a representative of the younger generation who can’t accept the new post-war society and what they see as their older siblings failure to support the nation. Though a strong attraction develops between Shunji and Gye, their love story becomes another casualty of the harsh post-war world. Reluctantly, Amamiya becomes the last defender of these put upon people leading to a High Noon style solo stand against the Koreans whilst the terrified populace look on in fear and hope.
Kato creates a colourful world rich in symbolism such as the early scene in which Choi’s red blood drips down the white sheet accidentally recreating the Japanese flag. Amamiya’s prominent scar becomes both a plot point and a symbolic motif as it echoes the film’s title in bearing out his “history”. A man’s life is indeed written on his face, and Choi’s wife’s urging to her daughter that they watch Choi’s face as he fights for his life is another indication that one’s true nature is seen most clearly in times of duress. The film closes on an ambiguous note, in one sense, but closes its thematic line neatly. Amamiya faces a choice and no choice at the same time but through his face we know him and so we understand.