Kinoshita’s “Shitô no densetsu,” known in the US as and in the rest of the English-speaking world as “Legend of a Duel to the Death,” is as grim as his other 1963 movie, “Sing, Young People!” is frivolous. (He wrote the scripts for most of his films, but not the one for “Sing.”) “Legend” overlaps with Kinoshita’s 1951 “Boyhood” (Shônenki) in focusing on a family evacuated to the countryside from. The family of a liberal intellectual in “Boyhood” (1951) had some difficulty subsisting. The boy, Ichirô (Ishihama Akira, whom Kinoshita would cast again in “The Tattered Wings” in 1955 and in “Farewell to Spring” in 1959, but mostly passed on to his protégé Kobayashi Masaki) was younger and a fervent patriot to young to sign up for military service. There are two Sonobe sons, two daughers, a mother, and a grandmother evacuated with their family from Tokyo to rural Hokkaido in “Legend” (two more sons are in the military). Hideuki (Katô Gô) had been in the occupying/marauding army in China. (I’m not sure about his younger brother, Norio; two more are still overseas fighting.)
The locals distrust and resent the urban refugees trying to eke out a living from marginal land part way up the mountains. The Sonobes hav been and continue to be aided by their immediate neighbors, the Shimizus, father Shintarô (Katô Yoshi) and fairly tomboyish daughter Yuri (Kaga Mariko, on the verge of the thrill-seeking gambler in Shinoda’s breakthrough“Pale Flower”), who is nineteen or twenty years old. Yuri is in love with the just returned Sonobe Hideyuki, who does not notice until it is too late.
Hideyuki is appalled to learn that his elder sister, Kieko (Iwashita Shima, who had just starred in Kobayashi’s “Harakiri”) is on the verge of being married off to the only son of the local (very fascist) mayor. Kieko is willing to marry Takamori Gôichi (Sugawara Bunta), whose right had has been crippled in the war for the good of the family. Hideyuki saw his commander, Takamori, commit atrocities in China (the flashback is of slaying civilians, but it is clear that Hideyuki also told Kieko about rapes). The Takamoris (petulant and arrogant son and father) are insulted by the refusal from their social inferiors of the socially and economically advantageous match, and the rejected suitor(‘s horse) tramples their garden… and, then, others’ while planting rumors that the Sonobes are destroying their neighbors’ crops out of revenge.
As local animosity mounts, Hideyuki decides the family must move again. Yuri accompanies him part of the way, getting local gossips’ tongues wagging. It is the driver of the horsecart who tells Hideyuki that Yuri is in love with him. Meanwhile, Kieko has accompanied her brother Norio on a foraging expedition. He sees storm clouds ahead and sends her home.
On the way home, she encounters Takamori Gôichi, as usual, on his horse. She spurns his offer of a ride. He rides on, then returns and harasses her down the road and then off the road. Yuri sees the beginning of a rape and smashes a rock on the rapist’s head.
This leads the villagers, whipped up by their mayor, to form a vigilante posse rather than wait, as the policeman who had earlier refused to interrogate Takamori Gôichi about the trampling of the Sonobe garden, unsuccessfully implores the angry crowd to wait for police reinforcements to arrive.
The rampage that occurred, literally in the very last days of the war, is not spoken of in contemporary (1963) rural Hokkaido. (How then can it be a legend?) The 1945 parts of the film were shot in black-and-white, the opening and closing shots of the natural beauty of Hokkaido were shot in color, with a rather portentous narration voiced-over by Takizawa Osamu (Yasuda in “Fire on the Plains”). As usual in Kinoshita films, the excellent cinematography was the responsibility of his brother-in-law, Kusuda Hiroshi, and the music, as usual sometimes dubious, sometimes effective, was the responsibility of Kinoshita’s brother Chujî.
Kinoshita Keisuke has been faulted for sentimentality, not without reason. I guess that the valor of the Shimizus in “Legend” might be labeled “sentimental,” but the movie is a very strong critique of Japanese credulity, authoritarianism, and xenophobia and provided a rare acknowledgment of crimes by Japanese soldiers against civilians on the Asian mainland (and on islands south of the Japanese archipelago). For all the scenic beauty on display, “Legend” is a grim and uncompromising film. The Hollywood ones it most reminded me of were Fritz Lang’s first American one, “Fury,” (1936) and William Wellman’s “The Ox-Bow Incident” (1943), both dramas about lynching’s (without shotgun-bearing women; Kinoshita usually showed female heroism without firearms!).
©2016, Stephen O. Murray