Monday, February 9, 2015

DVD Review: Kinoshita and World War II (1943-1946)


Considering its reach and inherently persuasive properties, cinema in the mid-20th century proved a prime vessel for government utilization in the promotion of numerous war efforts. As a filmmaker in Japan during World War II, there were few, if any, options for creative expression. Thus, while some working directors such as Yasujirō Ozu and Kaneto Shindo were forcibly enlisted via the draft, others went on making films under the strict hand of the Information Ministry. Among the latter, Keisuke Kinoshita was one of the more successful, both artistically and financially, making his first film in 1943 after a decade of assistant work and apprenticeships at Tokyo's storied Shochiku Studios. It would be more than three years and four films before Kinoshita could fully express his artistic voice, but his early work nonetheless betrays a humane ethos and a lightly expressive stylistic impulse which would carry on in the director's work well past the war years.

Kinoshita made a variety of films throughout his four-decade career, but early on—perhaps owing to censorship restrictions—he dedicated himself to family dramas, intimate tales of upheld traditions and wartime resolve. His 1943 debut, Port of Flowers, is perhaps the lightest of his wartime films, but it's also the most effortlessly entertaining. Set in a small coastal village on the eve of war, the film opens as two unrelated scam artists (played by Eitarô Ozawa and Ken Uehara) arrive in town, each, unbeknownst to the other, pretending to be the estranged son of a local, recently deceased dignitary. Situational comedy and satirical cues ensue as the pair quickly team up to swindle the townsfolk out of investment money under the auspices of a shipbuilding project. Despite the malicious impulses of these outside characters, the tone of the film remains lighthearted and, ultimately, optimistic. When news of the attack on Pearl Harbor arrives, the two are overcome with guilt and eventually cut their losses, seeking redemption in a gesture of mutual recommitment to their fellow man.

What elevates Port of Flowers is Kinoshita's sensitive regard for his characterizations. The locals are naïve and the swindlers are as dopey as they are duplicitous, but everyone is possessed of an innate human dignity. As the director's subject matter grew increasingly grave in the coming years, it's inevitable that such a humane worldview would sit uneasily with the imposed upon sentiments of the censorship board. Nowhere is this dissonance more apparent than in The Living Magoroku, Kinoshita's second directorial effort, also from 1943. Centering on a family whose extensive acreage they've kept sacred for centuries, the film contrasts the ideals of traditionalism with the suggested responsibilities of an honorable new generation when the army begins to unceremoniously encourage the family to farm their land. Acts of social and political solidarity such as this are placed in a historical continuum through a pair of early scenes which portray the militaristic legacy of Japan in no uncertain terms, contrasting a 16th-century samurai battle with a present-day training camp located on the very same grounds. Individual stories of more genteel matters eventually take hold (one of which, concerning the ownership of an ancient sword, lends the film its title), but to Kinoshita's credit, he doesn't compartmentalize his efforts. The war scenes, while not on par with the eventual innovation of, say, Seven Samurai, are in fact more strategically realized than what even Kurosawa himself was doing concurrently with his first films.

The following year's Jubilation Street was also a vehicle to promote a specific social objective, namely the dispersal of urban residents to the countryside in the lead up to the American air raids. Another ensemble production, the film depicts the misgivings of multiple families forced into uprooting their established lives, the unpaved street of the title becoming a gathering ground for discussion and debate as the war mounts in the periphery. Shooting mostly outdoors, Kinoshita demonstrates a resourcefulness and creativity with the unpredictable conditions. Bisecting the town through its center, the street becomes a character unto itself, as Kinoshita frames it from off-center, high angels, or at a remove, with the townsfolk huddled outside their homes or in convergence at the intersection at the base of the village. Natural elements and phenomena again play a key role in the narrative of Jubilation Street, just as they had in Kinoshita's prior films, with the tropical storm at the climax of Port of Flowers and the symbolically high winds of The Living Magoroku proving effective visual analogues for the internal turmoil of their characters. Jubilation Street is also punctuated by a storm. When word of the death of a young fighter pilot arrives unexpectedly, his girlfriend is left standing in the rain outside a home to which she'll likewise have to soon say goodbye.

While tragedy inspires the characters of Jubilation Street, it unexpectedly steels the commitment of the married couple at the core of 1944's Army, Kinoshita's most direct engagement with the consequences and contradictions of war. The director's most ambitious early film, Army expands on the brief historical acknowledgements of The Living Magoroku, dedicating not just a scene, but its entire first act to a series of vignettes depicting various instances of previous wartime struggles in Japan. The film is variously set in no less than four different periods, moving swiftly from the mid 1800s through multiple generations leading up to WWII. Early on, we meet a young man named Tomohiko (Ozu regular Chishu Ryu), anxious to serve his country in adolescence, but unable to when older due to physical and mental inhibitions. His son, Shintaro (Kazumasa Hoshino), inherits similar characteristics, but ultimately overcomes his limitations and enlists in the army. Tomohiko and his wife Waka (Kinuyo Tanaka), initially supportive of their son's nationalistic attitude, soon appear to grow weary and uneasy with the apparent sanctions and sacrifices of war. Still beholden to laws of censorship, Kinoshita was unable to allow his characters to verbalize such feelings, instead opting to articulate them via cinematic means. A stirring, wordless final sequence finds Waka chasing a parade of soldiers through the city streets, the pain on her face the only exposition needed as her son marches away from her and toward the front lines.

These nascent misgivings and the resultant fury they bred are finally brought to the fore in 1946's Morning for the Osone Family, Kinoshita's first post-war film and the first produced without recourse to government intervention (though U.S. occupying forces would impose their own cinematic regulations during the post-war years, they would, for obvious reasons, conveniently allow for the director's democratic, humanist leanings). Like an exhalation after years of suppression, the film, set during in the early war years, gives voice to many previously unspoken ideals. The eponymous family, comprised of widowed matriarch Fusako (Haruko Sugimura), her daughter, three sons, and conservative uncle, represent in their individual personalities the many conflicting notions regarding the war efforts. One son's a painter and pacifist, another's a writer of inflammatory anti-government literature, while the other still is a sympathetic supporter of the war who enlists at the behest of his uncle. Fusako and her daughter mostly mourn the plight of each son and brother, supporting without encouraging any stance that may lead to additional misfortune. By the time of Morning for the Osone Family, Kinoshita was especially adept at formulating a cinematic space through which his characters and camera could move freely and at their own pace. Never a demonstrative stylist (unassuming pans, carefully held close-ups, and continuity editing predominate), he could nonetheless compose arresting images through modest means, his aesthetic voice only growing more accomplished through the years. The title of Kinoshita's fifth film is a metaphor for the eponymous family's renewed faith in generational bonds and the eventual reconstruction of Japan. But it can just as easily be read as statement of regeneration for Kinoshita himself, newly liberated and with sights set on a more hopeful future.

Image/Sound:
Criterion's latest Eclipse set brings together Keisuke Kinoshita's first five films, unrestored and, like all the film's in this line of standard-definition DVD box sets, at the mercy of the surviving elements. Picture quality is thus understandably rough, with damage and evidence of wear a constant throughout each film. Further, as many of these films make generous use of outdoor locations (particularly Jubilation Street), there's also the elements of production to consider, and the stability of the picture appears to suffer as a result of their given environments. That said, grain is visible and contrast is relatively balanced, with blacks looking solid and whites appearing fairly bright. Audio, meanwhile, suffers a similar fate, with audible obstructions and noise—often, again, due to shooting conditions—clouding the mix. Save for a few heavily smothered scenes, dialogue mostly comes through intact. Sound effects are sharp and occasionally dissonant, while music is robust, if slightly murky. Like all Eclipse sets, the value in the release is in the availability of the films rather than the technical limitations of the A/V transfers, which, for better or worse, are very film-like.

Extras:
Like all Eclipse sets, no digital supplements are offered. There are, however, very informative liner notes included for each film, written by Michael Koresky.

Overall:
A bastion of cinematic grace and gentility, Keisuke Kinoshita's first five films betray a humane ethos and lightly expressive stylistic impulse which would carry on in the director's work well past the war years. [Slant]

No comments: