Home Video Hovel: Kinoshita and World War II, by West Anthony
There were certainly a lot of films made in America during World War II, dramatizing the lives of military personnel (Delmer Daves’ Destination Tokyo) and civilians (John Cromwell’s Since You Went Away) alike. We have a pretty good idea of, if not quite what life was really like in those days, at least what Hollywood and our War Department wanted us to think it was like. But even now, over 70 years since we entered the war, I’ll bet that many people here in the States still don’t give any thought to what life was like in the Axis nations. It stands to reason that they had their own propagandistic films to go to, full of the same rah-rah we’re-gonna-win-boys determination and the same we’ll-keep-the-homefires-burning sentimentality that ours had. I certainly never gave the notion a moment’s consideration, and until now the only Axis-nation wartime film that had made any impression on me was Germany’s 1943 version of Titanic — and it was not a favorable impression. Dubbed the “Nazi Titanic” (because once you see it, you can’t not-see it… sorry), the film was Joseph Goebbels’ grotesque propagandistic telling of the legendary boat-meets-iceberg story that portrays pretty much everyone on board as greedy American capitalists or craven British aristocrats who deserved to go down with the ship, and the lone crew member of German descent as the only one with the innate bravery and decency to do anything good.
It’s this kind of bushwa that makes the Criterion Collection’s latest Eclipse Series box set, Kinoshita And World War II, such an unexpected joy. Japanese filmmaker Keisuke Kinoshita, although bound by certain restrictions imposed by the government, turned out a series of five films that are not only a little more gentle in their propagandistic nudging, but also contain deeper currents of doubt, sorrow and regret that grow ever more insistent, finally culminating in a burst of righteous antiwar indignation by the last movie.
Kinoshita’s first film, Port Of Flowers (1943), is a somewhat Capra-esque comedy in which a pair of con men show up in a small town both claiming to be the son of a beloved former citizen who left for Tokyo some years before. Once that close call is swept away, the two join forces in a scheme to swindle the town with a phony business proposition; the naive and good-hearted citizenry go along with everything having no idea what’s about to happen to them, until Japan’s declaration of war shames the grifters and unexpectedly turns their fake venture into a real one. The tone of Kinoshita’s debut is sweetly placid, and the film is helped along by a pleasant score from composer Sakari Abe (who only scored one other feature film after this, which is a shame); the most jingoistic it gets is one line of dialogue: “Curse the American devils!” Fair enough.
The next two pictures are kind of soap operas. The Living Magoroku (1943) starts out looking like something else, as it begins with a flashback to a violent clan war in the 1500’s. As the story shifts to the present day, the same field of battle is now partly a military training ground, but most of the 75 acres is just lying around because the family who owns it has a weird superstition about it, even though others urge them to use the land for farming to help the war effort. Alongside this are subplots involving a young couple who want to marry (a recurring device in these films) and a soldier desperately trying to replace the Magoroku samurai sword that he foolishly sold without any clue as to its true value; unfortunately, Magoroku swords are about as rare as a Joe Shlabotnik bubble gum card. The filmmaker’s visual sophistication grows in The Living Magoroku, but Kinoshita really comes into his own with Jubilation Street (1944), a touching and tragic drama that plays out entirely on one small street in a neighborhood that is being evacuated because of the war. Here, Kinoshita gently touches on the toll the war is taking on the homefront as well as the soldiers (a young girl promises to wait for her man, who promptly heads off to battle with terrible consequences). While he still ends the story on a somewhat upbeat note, as the people of the street are proud to leave their homes and do their part for Japan, and resolve to work ever harder for victory, it starts to become clear that Kinoshita is not buying what the front office is selling. Jubilation Street packs a punch precisely because the director is obviously at odds with the message he has been ordered to convey, and his pacifism is starting to show.
But it is with the fourth film, Army (1944), that Kinoshita makes what is probably the most subversive picture in the bunch. In this film, generations of proud military men give way to one boy and his parents, and the concerns of the mother and father over the fact that they have a less-than-alpha male on their hands. But eventually the lad overcomes his deficiencies, and by the third act he’s being shipped off to fight the marauding… well, us. In the climactic scene of the story, Kinoshita all but screams out loud that these families are being torn apart for nothing: the mother hears distant marching music and, knowing her son is among the troops, rushes to catch one last glimpse of him before he’s gone. The overwhelming sadness of this scene comes down to the filmmaker’s obvious talents and an outstanding performance by Kinuyo Tanaka as the mother, who conveys bottomless oceans of feeling in a sequence with no dialogue. Only the triumphant marching music and the cheering of the crowds is heard, and makes a stunning counterpoint to the emotion that plays across Tanaka’s face.
Perhaps it was a tad too subversive, because Army generated some controversy upon its release — Kinoshita was accused of treason, and was not allowed to make another film until the war was over. By then, he had a different censorship office to deal with — an American one — but that turned out to be no hassle at all, because in his first postwar film, Morning For The Osone Family (1946), he let loose the floodwaters of antiwar feeling and pacifist sentiment. The Osone family’s pacifist father has been dead for some time, and the mother and children are set upon by a hawkish uncle, who seems to be standing in for every rotten thing Japan’s military leaders ever did. From the get-go, it is clear that the uncle (and the jingoistic fervor he represents) is the villain of the piece, while the mother has to deal with one son being carted off to prison for writing subversive material, another son who wants to be a painter but gets drafted instead, one more son who volunteers to enlist, and a daughter whose chance to marry a great guy is seemingly ruined by Uncle Warmonger. One bad turn after another befalls the stoic mother, until at last Japan surrenders and the cruel uncle is humiliated by defeat. Here at last, the mother lets loose with bitter recriminations; it is clearly what Kinoshita had in his mind all along:
“You people have completely destroyed this country. You took many lives; the others who survived are left with grief. You deserve to feel the same grief and hardship as those people.”
Wow. Putting aside for the moment the fact that these words are still sadly relevant today, let us instead rejoice in the long pent-up catharsis of saying them. Kinoshita still ends the picture on a note of hopeful uplift, however, and despite all that has come before it, the finale does not seem forced or phony; the director does believe that, with the war behind them, his countrymen can indeed look ahead to better days. The sincerity and humanity that infuses all the preceding films reinforces the positivity of this ending, and the collection as a whole. In Kinoshita And World War II, it is possible to see the rise and fall of a wartime nation in microcosm, a nation that nevertheless holds its collective head up high and moves forward toward a brighter future with dignity. These films are an engrossing look at a culture in a time and place to which we may not have given much consideration; you would do well to give it now. This collection is as fine an example of cinematic humanism as you will ever see.