#18 in my ranking of Masaki Kobayashi’s films.
45-minutes is kind of an awkward length for a film. It’s more than a short film, but it’s much shorter than what is typically considered feature length. Too long to have that sort of tight focus of a short film, but too short to expand the story effectively like a feature, Youth of the Son sits uncomfortably in the middle. It’s also surprisingly sweetly natured, considering what I know of the director Masaki Kobayashi’s later work. A nice little story about a family of four as the two teenage sons grow up in different ways. If we could actually get solid time with both sons, it might have been pretty good.
Haruhiko (Ishihama Akira) is the eldest son of Hideo (Kita Ryuji) and Chiyoko (Miyake Kuniko). He has a crush on a girl Morikawa (Kozono Yoko) that he’s afraid of revealing to his parents. Meanwhile, his younger brother Akihiko (Motoji Fujiwara) is getting in with a bad boy Uemura (Ryu Chishu). The parents ruminate about how young love forms, Akihiko’s resistance to haircuts, and their own aging status one morning. When Haruhiko sheepishly asks his parents if he can invite Morikawa to his birthday party, his parents are overjoyed, but reserved (this is Japan), at their oldest son reaching the age where interest in girls blooms. Of course, he can invite Morikawa, as well as several other girls.
That night, Haruhiko and Akihiko get into a fight in their room because Haruhiko implied that Uemura was a bad seed. Defending his friend’s honor, Akihiko throws some punches, and we get to see the different parenting styles of the two parents. Hideo wants to see his sons fight it out, just to get the conflict over with so they can move on with their lives. Chiyoko wants her two boys to just get along and be happy without conflict.
And then Akihiko largely disappears from the film. Instead, we watch the nascent romance of Haruhiko and Morikawa at the birthday party followed by the two going into Tokyo for a date (kind of the opposite of One Wonderful Sunday where the two have gobs of money and don’t know what to do with it instead of having no money). It’s cute stuff, demonstrating the halting way young people approach new, adult situations they don’t quite understand. The other side of the equation, Akihiko and his friendship with Uemura, falls completely to offscreen action and post-hoc explanations after they get into a fight with some visiting students to the area. Uemura’s father, who has a small anger problem and antagonism with the local police chief, ends up accidentally angering the police chief to the point where he puts both boys in detention for the night.
The contrast between Haruhiko’s innocent and sweet moment of growth against Akihiko’s more violent one would have been interesting to see play out. However, hiding it from us is an odd choice. I can find nothing written about the film, but I wonder if it was supposed to be filmed and then dropped either during production due to cost reasons or during editing because it wasn’t very good and Kobayashi figured his film worked fine as a 45-minute film instead.
Akihiko’s side of the story ends up vastly underserved, and we’re left with about two-thirds of a story that ends on kind of a weird note where a small judo match breaks out in front of the family home between the brothers and Uemura with all three parents cheering it on. I’m really unsure of what this is saying.
The performances across the board are largely cheerful, but the shortened nature of the storytelling serves as an impediment to everything rather than as an asset.
One thing that interested me, somewhat removed from the film’s positive or negative attributes, was the presence of English throughout. The two boys go on separate routes at a fork in the road, marked by a Coca-Cola sign. At the birthday party, all of the Japanese children sing the Happy Birthday song in English with English decorations around the room. And, most interestingly, Haruhiko sings “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” more than once (Morikawa wears a yellow ribbon, of limited value in black and white photography), a song written by an American about an American soldier and that had, three years earlier, been the title of a John Wayne/John Ford cavalry film where the song had featured prominently (with lyrics changed slightly to more directly fit the cavalry setting). The American occupation of Japan was in the final stages when this film was made in the early parts of 1952, officially ending on April 28 (the film was released in June). Was this one of the final films that had concerns about appeasing American censors? Maybe. It’s just kind of interesting to note.
Anyway, the film is okay. Shorter, and they’d have to rewrite it. Longer, and they’d have to film more stuff. However, stuck in the middle it can’t quite effectively tell the story it tries to tell. There’s warmth and niceness, especially in the first half, along with a perfectly competent sense of framing and editing from Kobayashi and his technical team, but it just doesn’t quite work as a whole. [6/11 – I have since learned that the 45-minute runtime was designed and planned in an early effort at modifying the apprentice system in the Japanese system. Kind of a trial run for newly promoted directors.]