Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

Videophiled: ‘Kinoshita and World War II’

KinoshitaJapanese director Keisuke Kinoshita made 50 films in a 50-year career, including Twenty-Four Eyes (1954) and the original The Ballad of Narayama (1958), both of which Criterion has released on disc. Kinoshita and World War II (Eclipse, DVD) presents his first five films and offers a rare glimpse into the propaganda films made in Japan during World War II.

After a long apprenticeship at Shochiku (and a brief stint in the army), Kinoshita made his directorial debut in 1943, well into World War II, when the filmmaking industry was enlisted in the war effort to produce patriotic movies. Where directors like Ozu and Kurosawa managed to skirt the excesses of nationalistic propaganda (the respected veteran Ozu through films about family values and responsibility, the newcomer Kurosawa through period pieces), Kinoshita applied with humanistic sensibility to rousing calls for patriotic action.

In any other era the deft little Port of Flowers (1943), a light-fingered comedy about two con-men who try to bilk money from the inhabitants of a small island with shares of a phony shipyard, could have come off as a Capra-esque comedy of a guileless small town community winning over the corrupt big city crooks with their idealism and generosity (and a little help from a twist of fate). Here, that twist is the declaration of war, which ignites the patriotic responsibility of the shysters and shames them into supporting the war effort. Apart from the propaganda, it is a light, amiable little film with a warm sense of community and purpose, but the message becomes more insistent in The Living Magoroku (1943), which takes on the need for agricultural production, and Jubilation Street (1944), which follows the inhabitants of a Tokyo street forced to relocate for the war effort.

‘Port of Flowers’

Army (1944), Kinosuke’s fourth and final film of the war years, pushes the patriotic drumbeat to extremes and sneaks in a sly portrait of the nationalistic fervor that drove Japan to war. Spanning three generations and almost 80 years, it begins with lessons of duty to the Emperor and outrage over the international intervention that pressured Japan to return captured territory to China: “Someday we will avenge this indignation.” Generations of men pass on the ideals of hysterical nationalism to their children (without actually serving in combat themselves) until it comes down to the sickly son of Tomosuke Takagi (Chishu Ryu). “He’s always been a coward,” says both mother and father of the grown Shintaro (Kazumasa Hoshino), but when war is declared on China (to at last avenge the indignation from decades ago), Shintaro enlists to make his father proud.

Kinosuke presents patriotic zeal with such blind fervor that it borders on political cartoon. “A true Japanese would never admit that Japan could lose,” sputters an apoplectic Tomosuke to Sakuragi (Eijirô Tôno), a civilian industrialist who has volunteered his services in every conflict since he’s come of age. In hindsight it appears to be Kinoshita satirizing fervent nationalism and militarism as jingoism and hubris (especially from a man who has never faced battle) but at the time it was apparently accepted as a lesson in patriotism. That wasn’t what upset military censors, however. All four of Kinoshita’s wartime films are sensitive to the lives and emotions of his characters but Army ends with a potent show of emotional ambivalence to the proud sight of young men marching off to war. As Shintaro parades through town with his fellow soldiers, Kinoshita stays with his mother as she shuffles through alleys, stumbles and falls, and finally reaches the crowds with a sorrowful, almost panicked look on her face as she seeks out Shintaro. They looks they share before he marches out of town and out of frame are poignant but Kinosuke lingers on the mother, left behind and alone, already mourning for her lost son. He was not permitted to make another film until after the war. He returned with a vengeance.

'Morning for the Osone Family'
‘Morning for the Osone Family’

Morning for the Osone Family (1946) offers a scathing indictment of the culture that drove Japan into war through the intimate story of a family shattered by it. From its opening scenes of a family at Christmas singing “Silent Night,” it presents a family with an international education and an intellectual life that brands them as suspect in the heat of war. The eldest is jailed for daring to challenge the culture of military power and rampant nationalism, the next son is an artist drafted to fight, the daughter’s engagement to the son of an important industrialist is called off (her family is considered too subversive for such a respected clan), and the youngest falls under the spell of their hyper-patriot uncle, a military officer who preaches the gospel of Japanese superiority and the inevitability of Japanese triumph (never mind that the war in the Pacific has already turned against them). Through it all, the liberal mother (Haruko Sugimura) tries to respect the leadership of her brother-in-law (her husband died years ago) and keep the peace, but her silence only allows his arrogance to go unchecked until the war is over, the family is shattered, and the uncle’s base hypocrisy is revealed. When the family challenges what his philosophy has done for the country, he actually says (as translated in the English subtitles) “I was only following orders,” refusing to take responsibility for everything he advocated through the entire war.

While no longer under the supervision of the Japanese military, the post-war years had a different set of constraints imposed by the occupying American forces, which might explain why the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are never mentioned in the discussion of surrender and the destruction of Japan (seen only in the glimpses of the street outside the Osone home). The message of this film is clearly aligned with their interests and, like Kinosuke’s earlier films, has moments pure didactic speechifying. But also like those earlier films, Kinosuke’s interest is in the characters and their ordeals. Apart from the uncle, who is clearly the stand-in for national military arrogance. Whether you buy the hopeful coda (the “morning” of the title) or simply chalk it up to post-war propaganda, Kinosuke invests it with the passion of his liberal characters who dare to dream of pursuing their ideals once again.

Japanese with English subtitles. This collection comes from Criterion’s Eclipse line of bare-bones releases of movie collections. These are preserved films, not restored, and some sequences are heavily damaged with wear, scratches, and missing frames, but it is a small miracle that they survived at all. Each film is in its own slimline case with an essay by house writer Michael Koresky.

More reviews of recent Criterion releases at Cinephiled