In praise of obscure Kinoshitas

Photo via Wikipedia
Keisuke Kinoshita (Photo via Wikipedia)

When people think of Japanese directors, or even just mid-twentieth century Japanese directors, Keisuke Kinoshita isn’t likely to be the first name that springs to mind. With contemporaries like Akira Kurosawa, Yasujirô Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi and Mikio Naruse, that’s understandable. Moreover, very few of his movies are available on DVD and/or Blu-ray in the United States. The Criterion Collection has released Twenty-Four Eyes (1954) and The Ballad of Narayama (1958), and their Eclipse line includes a five-film set called Kinoshita and World War II, which comprises Port of Flowers (1943), The Living Magoroku (1943), Jubilation Street (1944), Army (1944) and Morning for the Osone Family (1946). Fortunately for those interested in exploring more of Kinoshita’s work, Criterion also offers a large number of his films on their Hulu channel; I counted forty-three(!), of which I’ve seen about half. The aforementioned Twenty-Four Eyes and The Ballad of Narayama are probably the best-known, but my favorite Kinoshita discoveries tend to be more obscure. He can be a bit hit-or-miss — some movies are obscure for a reason — so I’d like to mention a few that I’ve particularly enjoyed.

Wedding Ring (1950) Toshirô Mifune is young and gorgeous and asks Kinuyo Tanaka if he can cry on her lap. Do you really need to know anything else? Okay, fine: Tanaka plays an urban businesswoman whose sickly husband lives in the country for health reasons, and she only sees him on weekends. Mifune becomes his new doctor. Sparks fly.

Carmen’s Innocent Love (1952) a.k.a. Carmen Falls in Love This is a sequel to Kinoshita’s Carmen Comes Home, released in 1951 and reputedly Japan’s first color film. (If that’s not true, feel free to correct me.) Carmen Comes Home is about a stripper (Hideko Takamine, playing against type) who returns to her rural hometown and, naturally, attracts a lot of attention. I found it rather dull, but there were a few odd, comedic, borderline surreal scenes that I enjoyed, and the black-and-white sequel is essentially a whole movie in that mode. The jokes are often bizarre and dark and sometimes don’t work at all (Chieko Higashiyama’s atomic bomb-obsessed maid character, for instance), and Kinoshita’s use of Dutch angles gets old very quickly. You actually see shots go from level to tilted, or vice versa — over and over and over. Still, if you can overlook that, it’s an unusual and entertaining viewing experience. This time, Takamine’s character falls in love with an artist who’s engaged to a female politician’s daughter.

Spring Dreams (1960) Another Kinoshita in the “so weird, it’s funny” vein. In a way, it reminds me of certain 1930s American comedies, like My Man Godfrey and Merrily We Live, in its focus on a wealthy, eccentric family. (And it has harpsichord music! And gratuitous pink and green lighting!) This particular family and their staff have to deal with a strike at the tyrannical father’s company, various romantic problems, and the presence of an elderly sweet potato peddler (Chishû Ryû!) who has a stroke in their house and can’t be moved. As in Carmen’s Innocent Love, not all of the humor works, but it’s never dull. I’m especially fond of the shorts-sporting existentialist son.

Immortal Love (1961) In this drama that spans thirty years, beginning in 1932, a young woman (Hideko Takamine) is forced to marry a rich but cruel landowner (Tatsuya Nakadai) instead of the man she loves (Keiji Sada), with serious consequences for everyone involved. Admittedly, Takamine, Nakadai and Sada are three of my favorite actors, so I may be biased, but they all deliver excellent performances, and the way various relationships play out over the decades is compelling. Oh, and did I mention the flamenco band? Because there’s a flamenco band, and whenever the story jumps ahead several years, they sing about what’s happening. (Like the majority of Kinoshita’s films, Immortal Love was scored by his brother, prolific composer Chûji Kinoshita. I’m not sure which of the brothers was most responsible for the, uh… idiosyncratic nature of the music in many of Keisuke’s movies; Chûji’s wonderful work on The Human Condition, for example, never seems out of place. Maybe his brother gave him more freedom to experiment.) Immortal Love is probably a little less obscure than the other titles on this list, as it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It lost to Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly.

A Legend or Was It? (1963) a.k.a. Legend of a Duel to the Death For the first two minutes, this movie looks and sounds as if it’s going to be a sentimental tale about life in an idyllic farming community, where everyone is friendly and helpful, the consistently nice weather fosters good crops, and the death of a neighbor’s horse is enough to make people cry. Then a narrator speaks up: “This story took place amidst this peaceful scenery. It was a nightmare.” From this point on, until the last scene, the movie jumps back to the summer of 1945, the final days of World War II; it also switches from color to black and white. A small group of Tokyo citizens has been evacuated to the Hokkaido village shown at the beginning. The locals have never really warmed up to these outsiders, and when a crisis occurs that pits one side against the other, it’s like a match to a powder keg. A Legend or Was It? is both a tense thriller and a warning about prejudice, mob mentality, the effects of war and how quickly people forget the past, or try to forget it. (With questionable music choices. Again.)

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