A Legend or Was It? (死闘の伝説, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1963)

A Legend or Was it posterIn 1951’s Boyhood, Kinoshita had painted a less than idealised portrait of village life during wartime. With pressure mounting ranks were closing, “outsiders” were not welcome. The family at the centre of Boyhood had more reasons to worry in that they had, by necessity, removed themselves from a commonality in their ideological opposition to imperialism but newcomers are always vulnerable when they find themselves undefended and without friends. 1963’s A Legend or Was It? (死闘の伝説, Shito no Densetsu, AKA Legend of a Duel to the Death) tells a similar story, but darker as a family of evacuees fall foul not only of lingering feudal mores but a growing resentment in which they find themselves held responsible for all the evils of war.

Beginning with a brief colour framing sequence, Kinoshita shows us a contemporary Hokkaido village filled with cheerful rural folk who mourn each other’s losses and share each other’s joys while shouldering communal burdens. A voice over, however, reminds us that something ugly happened in this beautiful place twenty years previously. Something of which all are too ashamed to speak. Switching back to black and white and the same village in the summer of 1945, he introduces us to Hideyuki Sonobe (Go Kato) who has just come home from the war to convalesce from a battlefield injury. Hideyuki’s engineer father went off to serve his country and hasn’t been heard from since, and neither has his brother who joined the air corp. His mother (Kinuyo Tanaka), sister Kieko (Shima Iwashita), and younger brother Norio (Tsutomu Matsukawa) have evacuated from Tokyo to this small Hokkaido village where they live in a disused cottage some distance from the main settlement.

The family had been getting by in the village thanks to the support of its mayor, Takamori, but relations have soured of late following an unexpected marriage proposal. Takamori’s son Goichi (Bunta Sugawara), a war veteran with a ruined hand and young master complex, wants to marry Kieko. She doesn’t want to marry him, but the family worry about possible repercussions if they turn him down. It just so happens that Hideyuki recognises Goichi and doesn’t like what he sees – he once witnessed him committing an atrocity in China and knows he is not the sort of man he would want his sister to marry, let alone marry out of fear and practicality. Hideyuki, as the head of the family, turns the proposal down and it turns out they were right to worry. The family’s field is soon vandalised and the police won’t help. When other fields meet the same fate, a rumour spreads that the Sonobes are behind it – taking revenge on the village on as a whole. The villagers swing behind Goichi, using the feud as a cover to ease their own petty grievances.

City dwellers by nature, the Sonobes have wandered into a land little understood in which feudal bonds still matter and mob mentality is only few misplaced words away. The village serves a microcosm of Japanese society at war in which Takamori becomes the unassailable authority and his cruel son the embodiment of militarism. Goichi embraces his role as a young master with relish, riding around the town on horse back and occasionally barking orders at his obedient peasants, stopping only to issue a beating to anyone he feels has slighted him – even taking offence at an innocuous folksong about a man who was rejected in love and subsequently incurred a disability. Despite all of that, however, few can find the strength to resist the pull of the old masters and the majority resolutely fall behind Goichi, willing to die for him if necessary.

As the desperation intensifies and it appears the war, far off as it is, is all but lost, a kind of creeping madness takes hold in which the Sonobes become somehow responsible for the greater madness that has stolen so many sons and husbands from this tiny village otherwise untouched by violence or famine. An embodiment of city civilisation the Sonobes come to represent everything the village feels threatened by, branded as “bandits” and blamed for everything from murder to vegetable theft. The central issue, one of a weak and violent man who felt himself entitled to any woman he wanted and refused to accept the legitimacy of her right to refuse, falls by the wayside as just another facet of the spiralling madness born of corrupted male pride and misplaced loyalties.

Kinoshita returns to the idyllic countryside to close his framing sequence, reminding us that these events may have been unthought to the level of myth but such things did happen even if those who remember are too ashamed to recall them. Tense and inevitable, A Legend or Was It? reframes an age of fear and madness as a timeless village story in which the corrupted bonds of feudalism fuel the fires of resentment and impotence until all that remains is the irrationality of violence.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Music (音楽, Yasuzo Masumura, 1972)

The MusicIf the under seen yet massively influential director Yasuzo Masumura had one recurrent concern throughout his career, passion, and particularly female passion, is the axis around which much of his later work turns. Masumura might have begun with the refreshingly innocent love story Kisses, but later he dived deep into the depths of depravity in Blind Beast and of manipulation in Manji before cycling back around the intense freudian character study which is The Music (音楽, Ongaku) in 1972. Based on a novel by Yukio Mishima (Mishima and Masumura – a match made in heaven), The Music is the story of one woman’s corrupted sexuality caused by a series of inappropriate sexual encounters during her childhood.

The film begins with a symbolic title sequence in which a large pair of scissors opens and closes rhythmically before being superimposed over the body of a woman – Reiko, our protagonist. She has made an appointment with a psychiatrist because, she claims, she has strange symptoms including constant nausea which led her to believe she was pregnant though medical doctors can’t find the cause of her sickness. The other thing is she can’t hear music, she can hear voices and sound effects but if music starts playing it’s like she goes deaf. Her psychiatrist isn’t quite convinced by Reiko and can tell she’s misleading him.

Sure enough he asks her to come back and she admits not hearing music was a symbolic way of explaining that she derives no pleasure from sex. Her boyfriend is a good man and she loves him, she doesn’t think the problem is with him, but she simply feels nothing when he touches her and it’s causing a rift in the relationship. This is the “music” she was talking about and which will become a recurrent motif throughout the film. Later, Reiko finds that she is able to derive a kind of satisfaction from sexual acts with men who are either dying or impotent, but should they simply get better she again loses all interest in them.

As might be expected, the reasons for Reiko’s strange behaviour lie in her childhood. Her fascination with scissors derives from a game of rock paper scissors she once played with the boy to whom she was betrothed to marry when they came of age. Reiko is the only girl in the group and when she loses the boys suddenly declare she’ll have to have her “thing” cut off – only she’s a girl and never had one in the first place. This leaves her feeling disturbed, humiliated, and in some way inherently deficient. From this point on she develops a masculine sensibility symbolised by one side of the closing scissors which becomes her own “thing”, leaving her with a desire for both cutting and being cut.

We also discover that Reiko was assaulted at a young age and that she also experienced early sexual contact with a family member as well as witnessing her aunt engage in an inappropriate relationship which greatly disturbed her. In all, it’s not surprising that Reiko is experiencing such a degree of confusion given all of the traumatic events that have followed her since her youth. Involved in an obsessive, incestuous sexual relationship Reiko is unable to move on with a “normal” life until she addresses the true cause of all her problems.

The psychiatrist is wiley guy, he can spot a lie a mile off and he has Reiko’s number pretty quickly. Amusingly, she does our job for us of trying to diagnose herself with the obvious solutions that seems to emerge from the latest story she’s told, only for the doctor to remind her it’s not so simple and untrained people shouldn’t try to analyse themselves. This is a little ironic in some respects as a trained psychologist would probably give much of Mishima’s cod Freudianism short shrift, but it works well enough in the context of the film. Reiko is about as unreliable a narrator as it’s possible to find but it does seem at last that the truth has been uncovered and Reiko set free from her improper sexual desires.

There’s a degree of campness involved in The Music with its heavy atmosphere and overtly theatrical melodrama. Masumura films with a perverse eye, animating Reiko’s recollections like dreams complete with bizarre perspectives and symbolic imagery to complete his Freudian approach to filmmaking. The Music may not be his most accomplished work, but it is nevertheless interesting and a late career return to his most pressing concerns.


Unsubtitled trailer (NSFW):