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

Beautiful Days

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

Masaki Kobayashi was still in the phase where he couldn’t make the films he really wanted, but it seems obvious to me that he was bringing his passion to the movies he was making. Beautiful Days is in the same mold as Somewhere Beneath the Wide Sky and Three Loves, a film about a surprisingly large ensemble all revolving around a central idea. Written by Zenzo Matsuyama, who would go on to adapt The Human Condition for Kobayashi a few years later, Beautiful Days has a surprising depth of emotion and intelligence to how it uses its large cast of characters.

The film centers around a group of young men and a woman who were all close friends in middle school, seemingly forever ago before a World War blew everything apart. Imanishi (Isao Kimura) is an idealistic doctor who starts the film quitting his job in a small hospital after being told by the director that he can’t just keep giving away free medicine and hospital beds and expect the hospital to keep running. Sakurako (Yoshiko Kuga) is the younger sister of two brothers who both died in the war in different circumstances, one of whom was really the closest to the other men in the story. Nakao (Keiji Sada) went to school to study the law but cannot find work in the field, so he plays the drums in a nightclub and borrows money from time to time from Sakurako’s grandmother Mrs. Tokioka (Akiko Tamura) who also was nearly killed by Shigaki (Eitaro Ozawa), a retired CEO of a textile company when his car accidentally knocked her down. Finally, there is Hakamada (Junkichi Orimato) who, with a large family to support in his self-made shack, works in a manufacturing plant that saps his time and energy.

Each of these friends has their own little subplot. Imanishi and Sakurako are unofficially engaged without the knowledge of Imanishi’s parents or Sakurako’s grandmother, and Imanishi is trying to decide it he’ll leave Tokyo forever to move to the small city of Akita to take a job as a researcher. He wants to make this decision himself, so he creates a distance between himself and Sakurako. At the same time, Shigaki wants to set up his younger son Yuji (Akio Satake) with Sakurako, and Mrs. Tokioka is receptive to the idea while also acknowledging that times have changed. They can’t simply arrange the marriage. They can set things up for the two to meet, but they can’t force it. When Imanishi pushes Sakurako away for his time to think alone, she does meet with Yuji, and they have obvious affection for each other.

Nakao works with a dancer in the club whose mother is slowly succumbing to tuberculosis, and he uses Imanishi’s new free time to get him to check her out, borrowing money from Mrs. Tokioka to help cover whatever costs the woman needs. And yet, when Imanishi organizes an outing for all four to go to Sakurako’s brother’s grave, Nakao is dismissive of the entire exercise the whole time he’s there, singing nonsense songs and taking none of it seriously. He puts on an air of not caring, and yet he’s taking out large loans and working hard to get this girl’s mother the attention she needs.

Hakamada gets the least screen time, but his story is no less important. His life is a hard one, working all the time in harsh conditions while trying to figure out a way to move his sick family from their shack which is scheduled to be torn down and replaced by a larger, modern structure. He doesn’t have much time to focus on anything since he’s working so much, and it’s made all the worse by his boss believing that he’s stolen some materials, a conflict that escalates to the point where Hakamada attacks him in front of everyone. Nakao ends up being the driving force to find a way to get Hakamada out of prison legally, paying his fines and the medical bills of the manager he hurt, again showing that Nakao’s exterior cynicism isn’t really what drives him.

What do all of these subplots have to do with each other? They involve a group of friends, but so what? What makes the compendium of stories relate to each other? All of them are swirling around this idea of a group of old friends moving on. I don’t think Kobayashi ever suffered from acute senses of nostalgia because the friends often reminisce about the old times, but they never remember the good ones. Nakao talks more than once about how other children (it’s never clear, but it may even have been his close friends) made fun of him for being the son of a mistress. The group are in a mixture of clinging to the past like visiting the grave or simply rejecting it. It even extends to the sweet little relationship that develops between Mrs. Tokioka and Shigaki where they talk about Tokyo during the war and how Mrs. Tokioka never evacuated.

The movie is ultimately about change, about how it can be painful (like Imanishi leaving his family) but how it can also be very necessary at the same time (like Nakao learning to actually try and care for other people). There’s also a deep sadness about how life, and by extension Japan’s involvement in World War II, completely derailed the chosen directions of their lives. The changes in direction may be just or unjust, but they have to pick up the pieces and move on nonetheless.

Kobayashi was working firmly within a genre he didn’t seem all that interested in considering the effort to produce The Thick-Walled Room and the direction of his later work, but you can still feel that same anger against unjust systems even here. The systems in these early movies are much smaller, usually around how families and close relationships are structured, but they share the same DNA. Kobayashi wasn’t working on films that were his passion, but he was bringing his passion to the films he could work on. That’s actually quite admirable, especially from a young, hungry filmmaker who had already been slapped down by government authorities. He refused to completely subvert himself. He was still making movies that spoke to him.

Rating: 3.5/4

4 thoughts on “Beautiful Days”

  1. This is another of Kobayashi’s that I watched once back in the 90’s but don’t own, so I appreciate the review.

    What I appreciate about Kobayashi is his ability to create complex characters. In a genre (though I’ll argue this is more drama than melodrama or romance) that usually has fairly thin characters and a emphasis on emotion and circumstance , Kobayashi has rounded characters. These are not all good or all bad people. Their problems are often self-inflicted rather than the mechanisms of fate or injustice.

    It’s a very modern movie, this is a Japan looking forward and not back. And that is frankly rare. It’s not escapist dealing with monsters or robots or the like, it’s focused on life.

    Going to have to go back and revisit


    1. I don’t think I could really say that his heart wasn’t in this stage of his career, taking at least a year to make every movie is not something you do lightly, especially in the early part of one’s career, but considering the vastly different nature of his most well known stuff, the movies he began to make after the authorities allowed the release of The Thick-Walled Room, it’s not hard to imagine that Kobayashi felt some kind of distance with the kinds of stories he was forced to tell.

      And yet, they resonate almost as well as the stuff that he made later. He threw his talent into these to make the best of the genre that he could that still spoke to him. He still wanted to find a way to say something with well-written characters, and he managed it. It’s really admirable.


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