I suspect part of the power of this film lies in its epic running time. This first of three instalments (sometimes called No Greater Love) is itself split into two parts, each with its own credits, so perhaps properly this is the first two parts of a six-part film. In any case, it tracks the life of one man during World War II, played by legend of Japanese cinema, Tatsuya Nakadai. Kaji is a bureaucrat who is posted to Manchuria to help run a mining operation staffed by indentured locals and captured prisoners of war. Already the film is gearing up to examine its major thematic question, which is whether it’s possible to act justly during a time of war. Certainly there’s no particular attempt to soften the edges of Japanese imperialist ambitions of the era, though Kaji continues to try and do the right thing and be an honourable man even when he has almost no agency or control over the suffering around him. His attempts to make reforms at the mine and to treat the workers fairly only drives a wedge between him and his superiors and causes him no end of trouble — and of course the situation he finds himself at the end of this first film is clearly not going to be the worst place he’ll end up. Kobayashi directs in stark black-and-white with plenty of fine directorial touches but this remains a sweeping epic of the sort that was prevalent in this era, all of which presumably owe something to the experience of the previous few decades: a grand statement on the big themes that elaborates on what it is to be just a single person against an enormous system designed to crush everything around it.
Continuing the story of the first two parts, the third and fourth chapters of this epic (called Road to Eternity) chart Kaji as he works as a private in the army, having been beaten down to this in the first film from his work as a mine overseer due to his attempt to show mercy and restraint. Here again his commitment to being a good person is again tested sorely, and again he finds himself at the sharp end of a brutal system of punishment and repression that doesn’t encourage positive behaviour or good soldiering and only rewards giving up one’s life in the futile pursuit of wartime ambition. There’s some lovely stuff here too, and a strong moral thread with Kaji attempting to navigate the constant ritual humiliations of the service, but this is still firmly within the mould of a grand historical epic, and how much you respond to it may depend on your love for the genre.
The third film, A Soldier’s Prayer, represents a fitting conclusion to this epic trilogy about the experience of one Japanese man during World War II. In this third film Kaji finds himself trudging across Manchuria with the remnants of his squad trying to find food, shelter, safety, a way back home — though quite what “home” means in this situation is unclear. Needless to say, his spirit is more fully broken and his attempts to do the right thing, be a good person, become more and more fraught with grief, sadness and a desire for revenge against the injustice and humiliation he’s suffered. There are no particular heartwarming insights here and the idea of happy outcome is by hour 10 of the film somewhat ridiculous, but he continues retain the small flickering light of hope for a better world for such a long time that it hits all the harder when the light starts to fade, as it does through each of the three parts. It’s a grim film about a grim time of history that’s elevated through Nakadai’s central performance and a clear vision.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Masaki Kobayashi 小林正樹; Writers Kobayashi, Zenzo Matsuyama 松山善三 and Koichi Inagaki 稲垣公一 (based on the novel by Junpei Gomikawa 五味川純平); Cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima 宮島義勇; Starring Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢, Michiyo Aratama 新珠三千代; Length 575 minutes (split into six parts in three films of 206 minutes, 178 minutes and 190 minutes).
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 19 November, Thursday 25 November and Saturday 27 November 2021.
Continuing my films seen on Mubi week, it’s incredible now, but perhaps unsurprising, to reflect that Japan produced such a huge wealth of filmmaking talent after the war that has been so little appreciated (at least here) despite the many decades that have since elapsed. Mubi has inaugurated a retrospective dedicated to one such underappreciated talent (director Yuzo Kawashima), whose films are well-regarded by the Japanese film community, but almost unknown — and certainly largely unavailable — in English. Despite his lack of Western renown, his Bakumatsu Taiyoden (A Sun-Tribe Myth from the Bakumatsu Era, 1957) has its acolytes, especially in Japan where it comes near the top of a lot of best-ever lists, but perhaps the titles just didn’t translate so well in English. It’s frustrating that in the UK only three of his many films were made available on Mubi; when I travelled earlier this month to Australia, I found a lot more of them, though sadly (being on holiday) did not take up the opportunity to watch them all.
Continue reading “Three 1956 Films by Yuzo Kawashima: Suzaki Paradise: Red Light, The Balloon and Our Town”
There’s what feels like an almost unceasing parade of swordplay violence in this film, resulting in scores if not hundreds of piled-up casualties, largely of our antihero Ryunosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai), though Toshiro Mifune weighs in for one memorable scene that gives the otherwise unstoppably evil-doing Ryunosuke a moment of brief pause. It’s enough to make you think that maybe that’s what the film is doing: the title could be referring to Ryunosuke’s sword, after all, but perhaps by extension it’s all swords and “doom” is just the outcome of violent behaviour. The film is set near the end of the shogunate, so samurai are on the decline and this film enacts in a sense this final death rattle of lawless mercenary violence. It does this with some fantastically composed monochrome style, as Nakadai moves blankly (he has the unfeeling mien of a sociopath) towards both swords and doom, with nihilistic rigour.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Kihachi Okamoto 岡本喜八; Writer Shinobu Hashimoto 橋本忍 (based on the novel by Kaizan Nakazato 中里介山); Cinematographer Hiroshi Murai 村井博; Starring Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢, Yuzo Kayama 加山雄三, Michiyo Aratama 新珠三千代, Toshiro Mifune 三船敏郎; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Friday 29 November 2019.