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)

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)

Boyhood (少年期, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1951)

Boyhood (Kinoshita) screencapIt’s easy to look back in judgement with the benefit of hindsight, but much less so to see clearly in the moment. Keisuke Kinoshita’s Boyhood (少年期, Shonenki), arriving just six years after the events that it depicts, is a painful if sympathetic look at the conflicts of the age seen through the eyes of a conflicted adolescent as he struggles to understand his place in a world which is becoming ever colder.

In the spring of 1944, 16-year-old Ichiro (Akira Ishihama) and his mother (Akiko Tamura) investigate the possibilities of retreat, back to the country and away from the increasingly fraught and dangerous city. Their first prospect which offered the comfort of family nevertheless proves too inconvenient and so Ichiro’s mother decides perhaps Suwa, a rural area not quite so out of the way, might be better even if it would mean starting all over again with no friends or family to offer support. Ichiro, however, doesn’t want to leave at all. He is afraid of being thought a coward and doesn’t see why he should have to leave his school and classmates behind just because there’s a war on. If he had his druthers, he’d be a pilot dropping bombs, not a resentful schoolboy torn between his feelings for his family and the increasingly austere demands of militarism.

Ichiro may be 16, and if it were not for his poor health perhaps he might already have been drafted, but he seems younger and is trapped in the difficult gulf between boy and man which makes him petulant and occasionally unreasonable. His father (Chishu Ryu), a professor of English literature, is a well known social liberal which is a problem that eventually makes it impossible for the family to stay on in the city. They decide to sell the house and move to Suwa, allowing Ichiro to stay behind alone as a lodger for the family of greengrocers who are the new occupants, but despite his insistence on his independence Ichiro is not yet ready for self sufficiency and misses his family, especially his mother, dearly, while he also experiences harsh treatment from the military instructors at school thanks to his general lack of soldiering aptitude.

Like his nation, Ichiro is lost in a fog of confusion – torn between the prevailing ideology of the age and that of his gentle hearted father. His problem is that as he is still “a child” and the conditions in which they find themselves make openness difficult, nobody is willing to talk to him seriously about the issues at hand – his father perhaps less out of fear or reticence than because he is acutely aware that his son must come to his own conclusions even if those conclusions prove contrary to his own. Thus, much to Ichiro’s consternation, he refuses to allow him to enrol at a military academy but does not explicitly state why, leaving him with only the vague idea that his father is “anti-war” and therefore a social pariah in a nation where everyone is expected to do their duty.

Ichiro begins to resent his father for the family’s plight, certain that he is the reason they were forced out of their home and also the ongoing cause of his mother’s suffering as she finds herself becoming the family breadwinner as an unlikely milk lady – a job she was only able to get thanks to the friendship of a gregarious neighbour, herself a fellow evacuee in a similar position. Far from the community spirit such situations are said to engender, Ichiro and his family find themselves perpetually excluded, viewed with suspicion as “outsiders” and at the bottom of the pile when it comes to the distribution of resources. “Extra” people get only the extra after the real villagers have had their fill. Meanwhile, Ichiro is bullied by the full on fascists at school, one of whom is the son of a local military commander and has fallen completely under the militarist spell.

Everyone is always telling Ichiro that he will come to understand when he is older. Being young, he resents this intensely but eventually comes to see that they were right, some things can only be understood with the weight of experience. With the war’s end and the eventual defeat of militarism, the fog begins to lift, allowing him to see that the prevailing ideology is not always the correct one and that there’s something to be said for quiet resistance and sticking steadfastly to one’s principles even if it would be much easier to go along with the majority. His father, however, reminds him that those who chose to do just that can hardly be blamed and will likely suffer in whatever is to come. They will need the all love and compassion in the world in order to find a new, less destructive path than the one they had been obliged to walk through a time of fear and madness. Using imperialistic song and propaganda to ironic, somewhat chilling effect Kinoshita presents a characteristically empathetic portrait of a “difficult age” in the life of a young man and his country who each find themselves emerging from chaos and confusion into something completely unknown and perhaps frightening but open and filled with possibility.


Title sequence and opening (no subtitles)