“Ikite iru Magoroku” (The Living Majoroku, 1943), the second film directed by Kinoshita Keisuke is rather opaque to 21st-century American viewers. I don’t know if it seemed as schizoid to Japanese viewers as the tide was turning in the Pacific War (WWII). On the one hand, it advocates dispensing with superstitions, in this instance stemming directly form a military engagement three and a half centuries earlier that gave a field to the Onagis (for service in a battle on the side of Tokugawa Ieyasu with a curse on anyone digging into it (with, say, a hoe). And there are feudal obstacles to the marriage of a pair who work on the local bus (driver and conductor). On the other hand, it honors the cult of old swords—and a new one to cut down Americans in the war raging to the south. Militarist myths about the divine Japanese spirit were not treated as superstitions.
The fulcrum of the struggle to cultivate the Onagi field that has been covered with weeds (the same pampa grass that covered it back in the day of the now legendary battle) is Yoshihiro (Hara Yasumi), who is convinced that he is dying of the curse on Onagi males (form his grandfather’s affront to the sacred battlefield) and that letting the field be turned to food production will kill him. A visiting physician (Hosokawa Toshio), who is there seeking the heirloom sword (the titular Magoroku) the family has, tests the young Onagi’s lungs and realizes that they are unusually strong, that the failing lungs have no somatic basis. (“Nervous breakdown” is the translation provided by the subtitles.)
There are some strikingly beautiful outdoor scenes, reminiscent of Murnau. I didn’t notice any shots from above, but there are quite a lot of closeups (in rapid succession before the heretofore neurasthenic head of the Onagi family pronounces his decisions).
The valorization of clinging to the past and of taking action to help the nation in its struggle seems schizoid to me. At least there is nothing I see in the way of an explanation of what distinguishing should be preserved from past (feudal) lifeways, what jettisoned.
BTW, the pressure to increase production on the virgin soil comes from local fervor rather than down from the militaristic government. I wondered why Yoshihiro had not been drafted by 1942.
“The Living Majoroku” is available on the Criterion Eclipse (barebones) boxed set “Kinoshita and World War II.”
©2016, Stephen O. Murray