I don’t know what inspired Kinoshita Keisuke to jump back to before the Pax Tokugawa (to the Sengoku/Warring States Period), making the highly stylized “The River Fuefuki” (1960) in black and white with some tinted scenes and colors splashed across the frames of others like brushstrokes, plus some freeze-frames. One after another of the peasant male youths goes off to the dangerous excitement of soldiering (even though samurai rank was supposed to be hereditary and only one of four lives long enough to achieve some wealth and status).
Kinoshita Chuji provided a soundtrack using a monk’s bell and other non-musical sounds like a mature Takemitsu soundtrack, and brother-in-law Kusuda Hiroshi shot very striking still compositions along with chaotic carnage of battles about which there is rarely –and then only barely — mention of who is the opposing lord. The fight choreography was good with fairly tight focus (no cast of thousands).
The peasant family, from which one son after another (two generations, three from one) rush off, live by one end of a long bridge. Except for the occasional army marching across it, the only traffic on the bridge over the River Fuefuki is someone (usually a family member) going to the house that looks like an insect cage. The quest for revenge that obsesses one of the women is just as damaging to living life as the young males rushing off to be killed.
One of the few Kinoshita movie set in distant past, “The River Fuefuki” is not a samurai movie. There is “swordplay,” albeit the “play” is deadly serious. “The River Fuefuki” fits in the body of Kinoshita work in showing the devestation of families whose sons lives are sacrificed.
In his first movie, “Port of Flowers” (1943), there is, I think, some satire of jingoism in a remote seaport. Though commissioned by the Japanese Army, the villain of “Army” (1944) is a warmonger. Most of that movie focuses on toughening up cannon-fodder, but what is most memorable is the mother’s anticipatory grief as he marches off to war. The villain of “Morning for the Osone Family” (1946) is definitely the warmonger brother-in-law who commandeers his brother’s widow’s house and presses her sons to die for the emperor, something he has no intention of doing himself. He is quick to seize army stores on the day of surrender, to thrive as a black market provider, and starts claiming he was “just following orders” even before any occupying US troops arrive. “Boyhood” (1951) shows a boy slow to understand the lack of enthusiasm for the war of his father. “24 Eyes” also shows an internal exile, appalled by the war Japan was waging. And Kinoshita would eventually (1983) turn to “The Children of Nagasaki,” in which survivors of the second (and in my view gratuitous) atomic bomb blame Japanese leaders for prolonging a war in which there was no prospect of victory.
*I’m not sure when the present in “The Ballad of Narayama” (1958) is. There are no villagers dying in distant military adventures in it. Samurais are killed one by one by avenging ghosts (for the rape and murder of a mother and daughter-in-law while the son/husband had been dragooned to some distant conflict) in Kinoshita’s venture into the ghost story genre, “The Yotsuda Phantom” (1949).
©2016, Stephen O. Murray