1950s, 3.5/4, Drama, Masaki Kobayashi, Review

Sincerity (or, Sincere Heart)

#8 in my ranking of Masaki Kobayashi’s films.

Masaki Kobayashi had the job. He was a director in the Japanese film industry now. As a gift, his mentor, Keisuke Kinoshita, gave him the script for a film called Sincerity that Kobayashi made his next project. I’ve read this described as a hybrid film between Kinoshita and Kobayashi, but I can’t really expand on that because I’ve never seen a Kinoshita film. I can say that there do seem to be some of Kobayashi’s concerns about the individual in unjust systems in some form, but this is more purely a family melodrama. I don’t say that negatively. This is a very high-quality melodrama.

Hiroshi (Akira Ishihama) is preparing for his university entrance exams, but he’s a bit directionless. He plays on a rugby team and would play every day if he could. He can’t find his way to study, even when his father has hired a tutor, Mr. Yajima (Teiji Takahashi), to help him who also seems to be trapped in an inevitable but undeclared courtship with Hiroshi’s older sister Midori (Keiko Awaji). The family is well off, being able to provide every comfort to Hiroshi on his path towards the real world. His father is an executive at a large firm. He has a personal tutor. He never goes hungry with his grandmother cooking pork every night. Life for Hiroshi is good, and he really has no idea.

Across the alley by his street is a less than spectacular apartment building, and into the apartment directly across from his window moves Fumiko (Hitomi Nozoe), a pretty invalid with an advanced case of tuberculosis. Fumiko’s older sister is running away from their predatory uncle through the good graces of a male friend with whom she makes doe eyes that will lead to the inevitable marriage between them (they’re very minor characters, so this predictability is fine). Hiroshi becomes smitten by the girl across the alley, and it’s one of those movie romances where nothing is said but everything is understood. I absolutely love it. The romance between the two, as Hiroshi learns of her presence, they learn a bit of each other’s characters through their shyness and limited interactions, and some wonderful visual bits (Hiroshi plays with the reflection of the sun from a hand mirror that attracts her attention through her window, and, during Christmas, she makes her hand-crafted decorations of animals dance for him). It’s all the sweeter because they never speak.

Things turn a bit on Christmas. Amidst the snow and carols (sung in both Japanese and English), Fumiko’s uncle finds her, driving her to run out into the cold night. Found by Hiroshi’s rugby coach coincidentally while Hiroshi waits for him to give him a last-minute Christmas present, the two bring her back and Hiroshi and Fumi get their one scene in the same room together, and it’s the moment where Hiroshi learns the extent of her rumored illness. She’s not just sick, she’s within months of death. She needs help, much more than her sister’s fiancé can provide to her. So, Hiroshi runs to his father and asks him if he meant it when he said he would give Hiroshi whatever he wanted if he got into university. Of course he meant it, but when Hiroshi asks for money to help someone he doesn’t know, can’t give the name of, and won’t provide any further information, his father resists. It seems reckless and ill-advised, the impulsive request of a youth who could be getting bilked. He doesn’t quite say no, but he’s also not throwing money at Hiroshi.

Hiroshi is undaunted, though. He’s got his mission. He will get into university to save Fumiko. He studies, and he studies. He’s more dedicated to his work than ever before. He barely interacts with the outside world, but Fumiko is getting no better. Weak, and without any hope for surviving much longer, Fumiko asks her sister and brother-in-law to let her see the sun from her window one last time. She can’t see the sun, they insist. Their apartment window faces north, and they can never see the sun or the moon. She doesn’t mean the literal sun, and, sitting up with assistance, she looks out the window as a gust of wind (perhaps the hand of God) pushes in Hiroshi’s window so that they can see each other one last time. Hiroshi doesn’t know what he’s seeing, but he can read her lips when she mouths, “goodbye” to him. This is really great stuff. I mean, it’s pure melodrama, but it works so wonderfully well. The heart of this film, the silent relationship between Hiroshi and Fumiko is marvelous.

The resolution is melodramatic to the point where I think it undoes some of the good of the film’s earlier scenes. Everyone ends up crying by the end, even those who had no idea of the relationship between the two or even knowledge of the sickly girl at all. However, it ends on a wonderful note as Hiroshi works out his anger and sadness by demanding a rugby match with his coach.

An interesting thing to note is the presence of Western cultural iconography and music in the film. Youth of the Son was filled with American iconography, but the music here is almost all Bach and there is a prominent place for Christianity, offering up solace in a hard world. I can’t find anything about the personal religions of either Kobayashi or Kinoshita, so it’s interesting to see the minority religion of Christianity in Japan featured so prominently. Kobayashi was early in his career and working from someone else’s script, so I don’t think there’s a lot to dig into that would point to his personal views, but I find it interesting nonetheless.

Still, I felt things through that quiet relationship between Hiroshi and Fumiko. I loved that central relationship. The movie around it was a bit messier (the fiancé subplot never really comes to anything, for instance), but not nearly enough to diminish my love for the film. This is a small triumph in Kobayashi’s early career, making evident that he was a solid technical director who could find emotion in a script and effectively direct his performers.

Rating: 3.5/4

8 thoughts on “Sincerity (or, Sincere Heart)”

  1. I’ve heard of Kobayashi but never seen any of his films. Pity he had to wander into Klingon space like that.

    As for Christian usage in Japanese film, I think there’s more than is usually thought. The anime “Neon Genesis Evangelion” is filled with Christian imagery and iconography.

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    1. The 60s is where he’s most famous with stuff like Harakiri, Kwaidan, and Samurai Rebellion (which I reviewed many moons ago). His early period gets lightly dismissed by most of his scholars (there aren’t that many) as just light fare. It’s definitely very different, for sure, though I’ve found quite a bit to recommend from it.

      I know that Christianity is a small minority in Japan, and that it was suppressed heavily centuries back, but it’s still interesting to see it so prominently featured. It’s not just this one. There are a couple of others upcoming that do it as well. It’ll go away, replaced by what seems to be a more subdued depiction of Buddhist ideals, in his later films, though. And yet…he also adapted an Endo novel (Hymn to a Tired Man, that I have not seen as of yet).

      I don’t really have anything to say about it, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

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  2. The Americanization of Japan is a fascinating subject and literally would make a good thesis…but I won’t write quite THAT much about it here. But I will say that it is a related to Japan’s defeat and them remaking themselves in the image of their conquerors. America was the dominant culture of the time and Japan had just lost their Militocracy and their emperor’s divinity. As a result, a lot of things got shaken and ‘reset’. American music, commercials, movies…just culture in general came into Japan after years of isolation. Some of it really glommed onto Japan, like Christmas. Christianity went from being horrifically persecuted, to protected and even granted status of a sorts, so it was more adopted by the upper classes, while the lower stayed more Shinto/Buddhist.

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    1. That makes a lot of sense. The elite would try to align themselves with the dominant powers, up to and including the adoption of a new religion. Still, it was a bit jarring to see after so much Kurosawa where Christianity was pretty much completely absent.

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