The destructive effects of militarist folly are borne out in the fortunes of one bifurcated family in Miyoji Ieki’s impassioned social drama, Stepbrothers (異母兄弟, Ibou Kyodai). Ieki had joined Shochiku in 1940 and served as an assistant director to Minoru Shibuya making his directorial debut in 1944 taking over a project Shibuya had begun before being drafted, Torrent. After the war he became the head of the studio’s union and was subsequently dismissed during the Red Purge of 1950. Adapted from the novel by Torahiko Tamiya, Stepbrothers was produced by Dokuritsu Eiga which became a kind of refuge for left-leaning directors and makes a direct attack on lingering feudalism and the militarist past.
Spanning 25 years, the film opens in 1921 with pompous military officer Hantaro Kido (Rentaro Mikuni) riding his horse before immediately slapping his stableboy on dismounting apparently dissatisfied with his service in insisting there is something wrong with one of the horse’s shoes. This fear is later confirmed by the new maid he has just hied, Rie (Kinuyo Tanaka), who is the daughter of a recently deceased carriage driver. She has been hired because Hantaro’s wife is chronically ill and bedridden, no longer able to care for their two brattish sons Ichiro and Gojiro who imitate their father by pointing swords and guns at people while ordering them around. After asking Rie to check on the horse and observing her treating it with tenderness before pointing out the problem with its shoe unprompted, Hantaro loses control of himself, pushes her into the straw, and rapes her. With nowhere to turn Rie goes to the family friend who got her the job who discourages her from having an abortion and tries to make Hantaro take responsibility but he refuses to compensate her finally scoffing that there’s no way he would marry the mere daughter of a carriage driver.
Challenged by his superior officer, however, he pledges to do just that in order to save the honour of the Kido family along with that of the regiment but is soon sent off to a less prestigious provincial position. In appointing Rie as a maid, Hantaro had expounded at length on his family lineage as guardians of a particular style of kendo, but there’s no denying that he has acted dishonourably while Rie is forced to marry the man who raped her and is then rendered little more than an unpaid servant in his home who is essentially raped every night for the remainder of her married life. After giving birth to the baby, a son Yoshitoshi, she has another some years later, Tomohide, but she and her children are not regarded as members of the family and are forced to sleep in the kitchen. Ichiro and Gojiro still call her Rie rather than mother and order her around like a servant while Hantaro simultaneously rejects her sons and insists they follow the family tradition by becoming fine soldiers.
A poignant scene sees Gojiro looking on at Rie as Yoshitoshi and Tomohide cheerfully play cards with some of the servants one New Year implying he may in fact miss maternal closeness but is unable to express it because of his father’s code of manliness later tearfully asking his brother for memories of their mother when they are both grown men. The difference between the boys can seen in their names, those of Hantaro’s sons from his first marriage meaning something like “first son boss” and “strong second son” while those of Rie’s sons are much warmer, Yoshitoshi using the characters for good and benefit, and Tomohide’s wisdom and excellence. Ichiro and Gojiro continue to mercilessly bully Yoshitoshi and Tomohide, insulting them as sons of mistresses a term which Yoshitoshi does not fully understand but instantly associates with the way his family has been treated as other and inferior, confined to the parts of the house otherwise occupied by servants. When he says he’s no desire to become a soldier, Hantaro locks him in the cupboard under the stairs and seemingly never talks to him again.
Rie tells him that he will understand her actions when he’s older but he continues to blame her for them, angry that could not reject Hantaro’s authority to protect him nor would she escape the situation by simply leaving it. His criticism is unfair and ignores her continued suffering given the reality that as a young woman with no family or fortune she is left with no means of supporting herself that would make it possible to escape. But he may also have a point in that she is also the product of a feudal and patriarchal society and is spiritually unable to refuse Hantaro’s corrupt authority over her even as he dismisses her as a carriage driver’s daughter and her sons as unworthy by his name. She suffers and placates him to protect them but Yoshitoshi sees only her complicity.
Yet Hantaro’s pompous austerity which is also the code of the age later destroys him. He prattles on about his supposed military prowess while telling one of his sons that soldiers should be thought of as pawns to be sacrificed for the emperor only to lose both of them to the inevitable defeat. Portraits of his two sons sit proudly under a map of the Japanese empire now shorn of the flags he’d pinned to mark their victories, while Rie’s are hidden away on the shelf of a cupboard itself one of the few pieces of furniture they had not sold to survive in the difficult post-war period. Hantaro had rejected Tomohide (Katsuo Nakamura) who craved his approval because he was in poor physical health and therefore unable to fulfil his vision of manliness but it is he who alone survives having rejected his name after his father beat him for singing and sent Haru (Hizuru Takachiho), the cheerful servant girl he loved, away to be sold off to a brothel by her impoverished family.
When Tomohide returns home after some years of wandering to a mother who thought him dead only for Hantaro to reject him, his only living son, Rie finally finds the strength to reject his authority. This time she refuses to leave, insisting that the house is rightfully Tomohide’s and he should not surrender it to a Hantaro who is now beaten and defeated, a pitiful old man who can barely walk and is perhaps consumed by the humiliation of his life’s folly. It’s his hypocrisy and moral cowardice along with the cold austerity of mindless militarism that have ruined all their lives, yet in Tomohide who truly crossed the barriers of class in continuing to help Haru with her chores there is a hope for a new future as his mother and he fill the bath together and assume ownership in equality of the home which has always been their own.