Koreyoshi Kurahara, like Seijun Suzuki, began his career at Nikkatsu mostly working on its youth-orientated commercial cinema only to end up being fired for producing films deemed too “arty” for the studio’s target audience such as his 1967 Mishima adaptation, Thirst for Love. Released the same year as Black Sun, 1964’s Flame of Devotion (執炎, Shuen) is in someways a much more subdued affair, a fairly atypical melodrama critiquing not only the destructive legacy of war but also a cultural insistence on stoical endurance in the face of emotional difficulty which is itself the mark and enabler of militarism.
Beginning at the end, Kurahara opens with a small collection of men and women in mourning clothes walking towards a memorial service, later followed by an elegant young woman in western dress who has just arrived by train. Today marks the seventh anniversary of the death of a young woman, Kiyono (Ruriko Asaoka), who drowned herself after learning that her husband would not return from the war. The action then jumps back 20 years to a much more peaceful time in which the 10-year-old Kiyono first encountered the 12-year-old Takuji, before shifting to the more recent past in which the youngsters fell in love, overcame many hardships, and married only to be torn apart by war.
The love story is complicated by the fact that Kiyono is a resident of a small and secretive village who claim to be descendants of the legendary Heike. Kiyono is a mountain woman, and Takuji (Juzo Itami) is a man of the sea, the son of a fishing village expected to take over the family business. When he first re-encounters Kiyono in his late teens, Takuji is in the process of finding wood to carve his own boat with dreams of sailing it all around the world. A mountain man advises him of a shortcut home, which brings him to Kiyono’s village where he serendipitously stops to ask for water and is invited inside. Kiyono insists on walking him back to the beach where she makes plain that she remembers him as the boy from all those years ago though he is now a man. She declares that she loves the sea, because it is big, manly, and also kind, abruptly stripping off and jumping in much to Takuji’s surprise. He waits for her on the beach every day after that, and the couple fall in love but the spectre of war is already upon them. Takuji has to leave for his mandatory military service and they are parted for the first time.
Unable to see him off on the train because she would be ashamed to become emotional in front of so many people, Kiyono for the first time laments that she is not a strong woman. She sees this quality in herself as a failing and is constantly upbraided for it by the women around her who are quick to point out that the ability to bear all is a woman’s sorry duty. They see her as being too soft for the world, or perhaps merely too uninhibited, her mother lamenting that she always preferred the sea to the mountains which is perhaps why they finally agreed to allow her to leave the village and marry Takuji though no woman had ever married an outsider before.
Yet Kiyono is a strong woman just in a different way. We were torn apart by a single order, Kiyoko laments, but when Takuji is injured she travels to the navy hospital to visit him and fiercely resists the doctor when he advises amputating Takuji’s leg. Though she is warned that the wound may become infected and Takuji may not survive, she is adamant that she will nurse him back to health herself and in fact does just that. To keep him safe from the war, Kiyono convinces Takuji move into an isolated cottage in the mountains where they can live together without being bothered by anyone else. She helps him learn to walk again, ignoring the advice of Takuji’s cousin Yasuko (Izumi Ashikawa) as a medical doctor that she is being reckless with Takuji’s health in boldly stating that she only wants the Takuji from before, not one damaged by war. But her devotion is a double edged sword, once he is healed, Takuji can be drafted again. She starts to regret her decision to oppose amputation.
The villagers, meanwhile, who had abandoned their initial scepticism to see Kiyono as a fine wife, now think her selfish and neurotic. They wonder why Takuji has not been to see his mother who is seriously ill, and for their own benefit want him to return so that he can communicate with the government who have requisitioned too many of their ships and left them unable to work. Kiyono has tried to create a space of her own into which the war may not enter, as if she were living in hiding. Nevertheless it is true that once Takuji makes the decision to leave the mountain the spell is broken, the war takes him, and there’s nothing Kiyono can do but “endure”.
One of the ironic gifts brought to Kiyoko in the mountain is a Heike mask designed to contain all the pain and bitterness of a woman watching her husband march away to war. Yasuko, worried for her own husband, wonders if men and women are really so different. Kiyoko ironically replies that the men marching off to battle have an oddly beatific look, as if they too are in some way “enduring” in conforming to an idea of manliness though they too must be afraid, but if a woman looks that way it means she has gone mad. It’s the look that Kiyono herself eventually has, taking on the appearance of the mask, when her spirit is broken and she enters a kind of fugue state suspecting that Takuji will not return.
Old women watching the few remaining men being recalled to the front remark on the cruelty, that they’re only going there to die because it’s quite obvious that the war is lost. It’s war which has divided the mountain and the sea, destroyed a fated a love, and created so much suffering. In an earlier time, Kiyono’s “devotion” might indeed have been seen as selfish, a desire to isolate herself and the man she loved and keep him from his duty because of her own pain. Now however, her tale is only tragedy. Not so much a woman driven mad by an excess of emotion, as a country by the lack of it.
Original trailer (no subtitles)