#17 in my ranking of Masaki Kobayashi’s films.
Masaki Kobayashi drew down the number of main characters and expanded the narrative scope around his smaller cast for Fountainhead, in comparison to Beautiful Days. Instead of about six main characters, we’re down to two, while also having enough story to comfortably fill 130 minutes of screen time. The problem is that in this first effort to expand the smaller characters into full-fledged film leads, I think Kobayashi and his screenwriter Zenzo Matsuyama didn’t quite take the time they needed to ensure that all of the major elements were in proper balance across the story. As it is, subplots disappear for long stretches and an important third character who should be a major character is relegated to the sidelines for the first half of the film. Everything seems unbalanced, undermining the feeling of grand romance that the film is pretty obviously shooting for. Not to say that the film is a failure all around, but things simply don’t hit like they should.
Ikushima (Keiji Sada) is a young botanist working for a university professor who visits a remote part of Japan where a company owned by a member of the former Japanese royal system (he’s described as a former earl) Tachibana (Shin Saburi) has built some villas for rich residents of the city to come and relax. This has created friction with the local farmers who are essentially subsistence farming rice and need access to Tachibana’s water to irrigate their plans for larger rice fields. This almost feels like a very early John Ford western or even Shane. Ikushima is just there to help his boss get through a talk, but he gets invested in the plight of the farmers and agrees to do an amateur survey of the area to find a potential alternate water source. In order to get permission, he goes to Tachibana’s secretary, the young and pretty Motoko (Ineko Arima). The movie’s first, and most major, failing is the opening of the relationship between Motoko and Ikushima. They end up deeply in love, but the ramp up to it is really poorly defined. The early parts of the film are really dominated by the mechanics of the villa vs. villager conflict as well as the complex relationship Tachibana has with Motoko, tied to Tachibana’s never-seen wife.
Tachibana still loves his wife even though she cheated on him with another man. They’re separated, and, one night while he’s alone with Motoko, he shows her the shotgun that he almost killed his wife with. He then orders her to lock them into a bedroom together (with the gun on the other side of the house), putting himself into a situation where temptation will overcome him. She climbs into the bed at his orders, and just as he’s going to break down, he leaves the room and kills himself with the gun. And then we find out that Ikushima’s friends are trying to set him up with a young woman, plainer than Motoko, Kuniko (Yoko Katsuragi). They met once at a botanical garden two years before. Ikushima does not remember, but Kuniko has borderline obsessed over him ever since.
Kuniko is the other major issue with the film. She’s in one scene in the first half of the film where she doesn’t say a word, and she ends up dominating about a twenty-minute segment towards the end. This segment comes because Ikushima and Motoko have a love affair defined by their inability to not be together for somewhat strained reasons about how being together and in love will only make them unhappy, so Ikushima ends up trending towards Kuniko instead.
I think the movie is essentially two stories that never got integrated well. The first is the sort of thing that feels more at home with Kobayashi, the story of an underdog facing off with more powerful institutional foes as manifested by the villagers versus the villa owners. Ikushima decided to help the one side while Tachibana barely knows what going on with his land, pushing off the management to the unscrupulous manager (Daisuke Katō) who hires Motoko to be his personal secretary with an open offer to become his kept woman and mistress. The second is this romantic triangle (well, there is a fourth entry into the potential love interests, but his role is honestly too small to count) between Ikushima, Motoko, and Kuniko. Kuniko is introduced way too late for her part of the story to carry any weight, and the roman between Ikushima and Motoko is too poorly established early and then too dominated by twisting logic about why two people who love each other can never be together for amorphous emotional reasons to fit either. I blame, to some degree, the structure of the film.
The first and final parts of the film are dominated by the conflict between the villagers and the villa owners, and the middle hour or so is dominated by the love triangle. In fact, there’s a large section where the water rights issue is never brought up, and I wondered if the film had simply forgotten about it. The love triangle feels completely disconnected from the water rights subplot, and vice versa. I can’t even really figure out how they connect thematically.
Now, having harped on that disconnect long enough, I need to focus on some of the film’s many positive qualities. Much like all of his other work, Kobayashi has a wonderful ability to coax good performances from his actors. From Sada’s limp right arm in the role to his anguish over his love situation to Arima’s sexy performance as a woman who knows exactly what she wants and Katsuragi’s lovelorn state, the performances are uniformly excellent. The individual subplot of the water rights are handled well enough and could maintain their own movie if Kobayashi hadn’t seemingly felt the need to fit the film in with the more mainstream dramatic fare of contemporary Japanese popular cinema (that would seemingly change after he finally got to release his earlier film The Thick-Walled Room the same year).
So, it ends up a mixed experience. He made a film bursting with narrative movement but couldn’t connect it all. He had managed that in a different way in his previous handful of films, but Fountainhead was a new kind of ambitious that he couldn’t quite match. It seems to prelude the brand of ambition he would demonstrate to much greater effect later in films like The Human Condition and Hara-kiri. However, here, it’s not all that successful.