When they both died in 1998, Japanese media treated film directors Kurosawa Akira and Kinoshita Keisuke as equally important cultural figures. In the English-speaking world, Kurosawa was and is far more prominent. The Criterion Collection has made films directed by both available and is streaming 42 Kinoshita films on Hulu. In a two-month binge I went from never having seen a Kinoshita film to having seen 42. (There are another nine that are not available.)
Lacking a university education, Kinoshita was not allowed to start as an assistant director at Shochiku Studio, the company that distributed all his films (I think), even after it ceased to be/have a studio.
Kinoshita was drafted in 1940 and deployed to China, demobilized for illness (like the father in “Army” in an earlier Japanese war). Both Kurosawa and Kinoshita directed their first films in 1943, both from novels famous in Japan, Sanshiro Sugata (aka “Judo Saga”) and Port of Blossoms. There is the setting in the past that recurred in Kurosawa films and the comic elements (the two con men who get swept up for real in what was supposed to be their con) in the maiden voyages of both directors.
Kurosawa later wrote a script (The Portrait) that Kinoshita directed. The one Kinoshita reciprocated with became “Japanese Tragedy,” after the assistant Kurosawa wanted to promote did not feel up to directing it. The two of them along with Kinoshita’s protégé Kobayashi and with Kichikawa Kon formed a production company, Shiki no kai (The Four Horsemen Club). The failure of “Dodesukaden,” directed by Kurosawa in 1970 (the only Kurosawa movie I actively dislike) ended that venture. After the other three had died, Ichikawa directed the screenplay the four had collaborated on as “Dora heita” (alleycat) in 2000. (It is a period piece resembling “Yojimbo,” so seems like second-rate Kurosawa.)
I have been especially interested in the attitude towards what the Japanese call “the Pacific War” (though for them, much of it took place conquering areas of Asia; Japan did not participate in the First World [sic.] War”). I detect some satire of patriotic fervor in “Port of Blossoms” and even more in “Army” (which was produced by the Japanese army), along with the famous finale of anticipatory grief on the part of the mother whose son is marching off in uniform. The militarists are excoriated in “Jubilation Street” with the villain being a colonel or general who expropriates military stores to begin black market profiteering on the day of surrender in “Morning for the Osone Family.” Much later, in “Children of Nagasaki” (1983) responsibility for prolonging the war with no hope for victory is squarely laid on the Japanese military command. The 1960 “The River Fuefuki” set at the end of the 16th century shows the roots in Japanese character of making war with no prospect of winning that is also, I think, directed at the overlords who drafted and deployed Kinoshita.
There are also portrayals of rural intolerance for families relocated from Tokyo in “A Record of Youth” (1952) and “Legend of a Duel to the Death” (1963) and the portrayal of a silenced dissident in Kinoshita’s most popular move, the 1954 “24 Eyes.” . There is poined social criticism in many others, including especially “Apostasy” (Haksi, 1948), “The Ballad of Narayama” (1958), “My Son! My Son!” (1979), and “The Young Rebels” (1980), along with many portrayals of class differences having painful effects on life chances (particularly matrimonial ones).
Though admiring the look of Kinoshita movies, I have recurrently expressed my dismay at the musical scores his brother (Chûji) provided — along with expression of admiration for the cinematography their brother-in-law, Kusuda Hiroshi provided, realizing the visual intent of Kinoshita Keisuke, who himself began as a photographer. “I had to have someone who would do exactly as I wanted,” Kinoshita told Audie Bock. Perhaps even more importantly was someone who understood what he wanted
like the comedies the best, and “Spring Dreams” (1960) the most of these, followed by “A Broken Drum” (1949), “Carmen Comes Home” (1951, the first Japanese film in color), and the black comedy “Danger Stalks Near” (1957).
Though Kurosawa had a large range, it is for movies set before the Meiji Restoration (starring Mifune Toshrio and/or Nakadai Tatsuya along with Shimura Takashi) for which he was and is known (in the west). Kinoshita directed (usually from his own scripts) more films set in the present or recent past than Kurosawa, and in a wide range of genres, including a two-part ghost story, the aforementioned comedies, war films, “women’s pictures” (josei eiga, bittersweet romances and aha mogo, “(venerated self-sacrificing) mother films”), tragedies, quasi-documentaries, a quasi-kabuki film (Narayama), war movies, social problems (melo)dramas.
Between 1943 and 1963, Kinoshita directed two or three films a year (except in 1945, the year of the atomic bombs and the end of the war). Between 1965 and 1978, he made only two, the Japanese film history in general and Shochiku in particular, having collapsed, and after directing another six between 1979 and 1988, he did not direct any during the last decade of his life. Kurosawa and Kobayashi also had great difficulties in getting support to make the movies they wanted to make (Ichikawa did what others wanted, not having his wife-scenarist, Wada Natto, to adapt material and provide input on what he shot.)
His films were largely edited in the camera. “After doing my own writing, directing of actors and camera setups, I’d rather have a little time left to eat, drink, and talk about movies with my friends” than do the mechanical work of cutting, he also told Bock.
Kinoshita was a major auteur (writing and directing what to a significant extent were family projects) and I am grateful to Hula for making much of his output available with well-subtitled streaming videos.
On to Kobayashi, whose first films had considerable involvement from the Kinoshitas, in the fourth of my surveys here of Japanese humanist film directors.
The quotations are from Audie Bock’s 1978 book Japanese Film Directors.
In addition to a set of Kinoshita’s first five movies, Criterion has released “24 Eyes” and “The Ballad of Narayama” on disc. Oddly they have not made the one that was Oscar-nominated (Immortal Love) or one of the two that was Golden Globe nominated (“The Rose on His Arm”; the other was “24 Eyes.”)
©2016, Stephen O. Murray