Fireworks Over the Sea (海の花火, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1951)

In the films of Keisuke Kinoshita, it can (generally) be assumed that the good will triumph, that those who remain true to themselves and refuse to give in to cynicism and selfishness will eventually be rewarded. This is more or less true of the convoluted Fireworks Over the Sea (海の花火, Umi no Hanabi) which takes a once successful family who have made an ill-advised entry into the fishing industry and puts them through the post-war ringer with everything from duplicitous business associates and overbearing relatives to difficult romances and unwanted arranged marriages to contend with.

The action begins in 1949 in the small harbour town of Yobuko in Southern Japan. Tarobei (Chishu Ryu) and his brother Aikawa (Takeshi Sakamoto) run a small fishing concern with two boats under the aegis of the local fishing association. The business is in big trouble and they’re convinced the captain of one of the boats has been secretly stealing part of the catch and selling it on the black market. Attempts to confront him have stalled and the brothers are at a loss, unsure how to proceed given that it will be difficult to find another captain at short notice even if they are already getting serious heat from their investors and the association.

Luckily things begin to look up when a familiar face from the past arrives in the form of Shogo (Takashi Miki) – a soldier who was briefly stationed in the town at the very end of the war during which time he fell in love with Tarobei’s eldest daughter, Mie (Michiyo Kogure). Shogo has a friend who would be perfect for taking over the boat and everything seems to be going well but the Kamiyas just can’t seem to catch a break and their attempt to construct a different economic future for themselves in the post-war world seems doomed to failure.

The Kamiyas are indeed somewhat persecuted. They have lost out precisely because of their essential goodness in which they prefer to conduct business honestly and fairly rather than give in to the selfish ways of the new society. Thus they vacillate over how to deal with the treacherous captain who has already figured out that he holds all the cards and can most likely walk all over them. They encounter the same level of oppressive intimidation when they eventually decide to fight unfair treatment from the association all the way to Tokyo only to be left sitting on a bench outside the clerk’s office for three whole days at the end of which Tarobei is taken seriously ill.

However, unlike Kinoshita’s usual heroes, Tarobei’s faith begins to waver. He is told he can get a loan from another family on the condition that their son marry his youngest daughter Miwa (Yoko Katsuragi). To begin with he laughs it off but as the situation declines he finds himself tempted even if he hates himself for the thought. He never wanted to be one of those fathers who treats his daughters like capital, but here he is. Both Miwa, who has fallen in love with the younger brother of the new captain, and her sister are in a sense at the mercy of their families, torn between personal desire familial duty. Mie, having discovered that her husband died in the war, is still trapped in post-war confusion and unsure if she returns Shogo’s feelings but in any case is afraid to pursue them when she knows the depths of despair her father finds himself in because of their precarious economic situation. Shogo is keen to help, but he is also fighting a war on two fronts seeing as his extremely strange (and somewhat overfamiliar) sister-in-law (Isuzu Yamada) is desperate to marry him off to her niece (Keiko Tsushima) in order to keep him around but also palm off her mother-in-law.

Meanwhile, a lonely geisha (Toshiko Kobayashi) who has fallen into the clutches of the corrupt captain is determined to find out what happened to someone she used to know who might be connected to Shogo and the Kamiyas and falling in desperate unrequited love with replacement captain Yabuki (Rentaro Mikuni) who is inconveniently in love with Mie. Kinoshita apparently cut production on Fireworks short in order to jet off to France which might be why his characteristically large number of interconnected subplots never coalesce. Running the gamut from melancholy existential drama to rowdy fights on boats and shootouts in the street, Kinoshita knows how to mix things up but leaves his final messages unclear as the Kamiyas willingly wave their traumatic pasts out to sea with a few extra passengers in tow still looking for new directions.


Titles and opening (no subtitles)

The Snow Flurry (風花, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1959)

Snow Flurry poster 2Studies of the post-war world have often made the cities their home. Filled with the starving, the ruined, and the hopeless, the cities of post-war Japan were places of defeat but also of perseverance as a betrayed generation struggled to survive in whatever way they could. Generally speaking, the rural countryside seems to fare better, coping only with the absence of lost sons and lonely daughters as life goes on much as it always has. Nevertheless things are changing even here. Recalling the subversion of his earlier Army, Keisuke Kinoshita’s The Snow Flurry (風花, Kazahana) employs a complex non-linear structure to examine the various ways in which the past continues to inform the future, trapping post-war youth in the same way their parents were trapped not only with a legacy of wartime rigour but with the weight of the feudal world pressing down upon them as they struggle to escape the authority of the generation by whom they have been betrayed.

We begin with the conventional “happy ending”. A middle-aged woman looks on with genuine happiness as a younger one leaves in a bridal outfit before running off to look for her son, Suteo (Yusuke Kawazu), who has run off towards the river with dark thoughts clouding his mind. Stepping back a little, we are told that 19 years previously Suteo’s mother, Haruko (Keiko Kishi), attempted double suicide with his father, Hideo (Masanao Kawakane) – the son of the local lords. Hideo, fearing that he would soon be sent away to war and knowing that his noble family would never approve of the woman he loved, felt death was his only solution but while his attempt succeeded, Haruko’s did not. Surviving she gave birth to a child and was eventually taken in by Hideo’s family, the Naguras, but only to avoid the gossip in town that their heartlessness was the cause of their son’s death. Haruko and Suteo, rather than living in the main house with the other family members, occupy a small shed to the side of the property and are treated as a maid and farm hand respectively. The only member of the family to treat them kindly is the grand-daughter, Sakura (Yoshiko Kuga), who is a little older than Suteo and remains unmarried at 25 while her grandmother insists on finding a wealthy man willing to marry into the family and save it from dying out altogether.

Though the main action takes place in 1959, not much has changed in the village and the eventual arrival of modern cars belonging to Sakura’s prospective suitors proves jarring in more ways than one. The Naguras, once the feudal landlords, have been greatly reduced in status thanks to the post-war agricultural reforms which limited the amount of land which could be held by one family to that which they could reasonably farm themselves. This obviously means that their income has sharply decreased which, coupled with the patriarch’s profligacy, makes their present way of life untenable unless they can find a wealthy man to marry into the family and re-inject it with cash while they figure out how to make money by farming their own land. Sadly, this will be hard because the Naguras are terrible people with a bad reputation thanks not only to their unpleasant personalities but the lingering stigma of Hideo’s death and the continuing existence of Suteo.

Nagura (Yasushi Nagata), a hard man, rejected his son’s remains out of shame for his “cowardice” in refusing to die bravely for the emperor. When Suteo is born in 1941, he takes it upon himself to register the child’s birth name without consulting the mother, insisting that the child is neither hers nor his but belongs to the nation and will be expected to sacrifice himself in his father’s place to make up for Hideo’s failure of duty. “Suteo” itself means “abandoned boy” and is hardly a warm legacy to leave to anyone let alone your own grandchild and the only offspring of your own late son.

Despite their reduced circumstances, the Naguras continue to behave like lords and are trapped within the feudal pre-war world, obsessed with status and position while those around them have entered the brave new era of promised equalities and modern possibility. Sakura, the only “legitimate” child of the last generation, is literally kept a prisoner by her hardline grandmother (Chieko Higashiyama) who has insisted on conferring various “accomplishments” such as traditional dance and learning to play the piano intended to hook an upperclass husband. Such things hardly matter now in the post-war world and any man who valued them is unlikely to make her very happy, but the Naguras care little for happiness and only for their own “good” name. Sakura wanted, like her friends, to go Tokyo for university but of course she couldn’t – her family wouldn’t even let her spend time with the other girls because there were boys around and they viewed even that as “improper” given her “position”. It’s no wonder that Sakura already feels as if her life will be “crushed by the weight of this house” and longs to leave it, as well as her cold and oppressive family, far behind her.

Suteo’s tragedy is the same has his mother’s, he has fallen in love with someone who can never be his because of outdated notions of social class and the unbreakable authority of the older generation. Sakura loves him too, though she hardly knew it until faced with her own dilemma and realises a marriage is the only way to escape her miserable existence even if she must sacrifice her feelings to do so. Despite all this lifelong suffering, grandma declares herself satisfied in having reasserted her noble status in marrying Sakura off to another prominent family, even if it is to a second son and no one could be persuaded to take on their family name. The Nagura family ends here and she gives her permission for the estates to be sold after she’s gone. All of this sacrifice in name of honour was, apparently, entirely pointless.

Employing a bold non-linear structure in which past and present inhabit the same space, Kinoshita mythologises his ordinary villagers through the repeated use of theatrical narration in the songs which accompany Sakura’s traditional dance, commenting on the action with a melancholy passivity. Trapped by circumstance and burdened by legacy, his protagonists are backed into corners with no way out other than to accept the paths before them. The future for Suteo lies in “abandonment” as he prepares to reject his cruel history and attempts to start again by walking bravely into the post-war world free of feudal oppression.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

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.