#12 in my ranking of Masaki Kobayashi’s films.
I will say this for Masaki Kobayashi, there is a lot of ambition in his second feature film as both writer and director (The Thick-Walled Room was filmed first but delayed four years by the Japanese insistence on not revisiting the darker portions of their involvement in the Second World War). He wanted to tell a story of the three types of love (the Greek words agape, philia, and storge aren’t ever explicit, but they’re pretty obviously the three words most likely applying, though there’s also space for eros), and he created a fairly large cast of characters to do it with. Similarly to Youth of the Son, I feel like more time could have been spent with the story to flesh it out a bit more, but also like Sincerity, I feel like there’s a wonderfully deep well of genuine emotion that Kobayashi was drawing from. Working firmly in the melodramatic conventions prevalent during the day, the slightly overburdened story ends up getting a bit too weepy, but otherwise there’s a wonderful and surprisingly complex approach to dramatizing the concept at a narrative level.
Ikujiro (Ichiro Hosoya) is a young boy of about ten brought to a remote mountain village because his mother cannot afford to feed him anymore. She leaves him in the hands of a welfare administrator who owns some kind of bottling facility. Along the way to town, they encounter Heita (Shoji Mori), a developmentally disabled boy of the same age who is obsessed with animals and nature (his first line is, “Me butterfly”). His father is a lecturer contemplating a move to Tokyo while his mother is a housewife who dotes on her simple son. At the same time, a young, female, music teacher named Michiko (Keiko Kishi) has moved to the village for her health while her boyfriend Nishida (Ko Mishima) has stayed behind in the city, insisting on breaking up their relationship because he can’t provide well enough for her while also knowing that her desire is to make him happy by providing for him so he can spend his time painting. In the middle of this is the Catholic priest Father Yasugi (Yunosuke Ito) who became a priest ten years prior when his wife left him for a younger man.
There’s a lot of relationships going around in here, and it’s a good amount to take in. The film often feels like it’s going to fly apart with so much, but they are all centered around the central idea of the compromises and challenges of love. There are several parent-child bonds. There are several husband-wife bonds. There are even some friendship bonds that develop, mostly between the young Ikujiro and Heita. None of them are easy. Heita tries to steal Ikujiro’s flute (given to him by his dead father), and the two fight, but they end up bonding over Heita’s love of animals. Heita’s mother struggles with her son’s mental state, finding him a loving boy but simple to the point where it’s obvious she worries about his future. Heita’s father has no idea what to do with his slow-witted son and gravitates towards his students instead. Michiko, alone in this small village, finds solace in being a vessel for Heita to open up to, especially after they meet in the church where he hides to see the pigeons that don’t move, decorations on the side of the nave, and this is our introduction to Father Yasugi.
The film takes its time becoming an interesting look at how one operates in a world of pain and loss against the promises of the Christian God. Bad things happen to good people, but they’re mostly driven by personal decisions like Yasugi’s wife choosing to leave him or Yasugi refuses to let go of his anger towards her. Love is hard, and all of these stories revolve around it. Loving a disabled child is hard. Doing what’s best for your child when you can’t feed him is hard. Pursuing your artistic dreams while also trying to find a way to make your sickly spouse happy is hard.
What keeps the film from flying apart at the seams is the fact that all of the stories revolve around this central idea, and all of the stories are well-written enough to stand largely on their own. They’re almost like four or five shorter films interwoven together to make something larger, but they interact way too much directly for them to be simply separate short films (Father Yasugi is an old friend of Heita’s father, and they have two important scenes together, for instance). From a technical perspective, they’re well-filmed and well-performed, and there’s real emotion there. I think my favorite of the four or five stories is Father Yasugi’s. The pain he faces trying to rectify his anger with his duty as a priest to forgive when he receives word that his ex-wife is dying is palpable.
The film ends in purely melodramatic fashion, and I don’t get the point unless it’s to meet a convention. There’s a death, a tragic death, and it leads to much crying from our characters. The death was the lynchpin to just about everyone’s story, so I get the connection, but the death ends up feeling a bit empty, not really meaning much and a bit manipulative.
Still, there’s real ambition to this film. Kobayashi, probably reeling a bit from his inability to actually release his first film that could be called fully his own, returned to the genre that he had been working in, and he swung for the fences. The end result is an ambitious, somewhat affecting, and nearly unwieldy ensemble piece that centers around a clear core idea. I think Kobayashi was proving early in his career that he not only had great technical skill, but that he also has a sense of cinematic ambition that was going to pay off in spades later in his career. In this earlier, rougher form, there’s still a good bit to take in and enjoy, imperfect though the experience may be.