1950s, 3/4, Drama, Masaki Kobayashi, Review

Black River

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

This is The Lower Depths but angry. This feels like the closest Kobayashi ever came to making a Kurosawa movie, and it’s still distinctly his own. It’s a look at people living in the shadow of an American military base on the eve of the American military’s departure from the area, when development opportunities are opening up, and what happens to the people in the lowest rungs of society in the face of that. It’s also a love-triangle. There’s definitely interlapping elements between the two major storylines, both literally and thematically, but I still feel like the two could have been intertwined more intimately.

A slum area of Tokyo welcomes a new resident, the student Nishida (Fumio Watanabe). He has decided to move out here to save some money, finding a cheap place to rent run by an unscrupulous landlady (Isuzu Yamada). On his way, he meets with the pretty Shizuko (Ineko Arima), a waitress who lives in the area. She is also spied by Joe (Tatsuya Nakadai), a local gang leader who decides that he’s going to have her. Nishida meets the tenants of the shack of an apartment building, including a husband whose wife he has no idea is a prostitute, a sickly man with a wife, and even some of Joe’s gang. That night, Joe sends his gang out to accost Shizuko while she’s alone, allowing him to put on a show of saving her from the group of six men. He then immediately rapes her. She is a good girl, though, and knows that he took possession of her. She comes to him the next day and demands that he marry her formally, a prospect that Joe laughs off while taking her on as a kept woman. This causes a rift between Shizuko and Nishida in more ways that one. They were obviously fond of each other in that stranger likes another sort of way, and she had promised to borrow a book from him. With her shame, she runs away from him instead.

Behind all of this is the landlady working with a government official to get the tenants to sign eviction notices because she wants to sell the land to the government for development. Tenant rights in Japan at the time apparently included a provision that each tenant in a tenement had to affirmatively sign off on the eviction for the sale to go through, so the landlady enlists the services of Joe and his men to get those signatures. They’re happy to pay three thousand yen for a signature, but they’ll commit fraud if necessary. And commit fraud they do, getting at least three fake signatures (as well as stamps, which were apparently a thing) including that of Nishida.

Meanwhile, the relationship between Shizuko and Joe continues with Shizuko obviously trapped in a situation she has no love for, living in rather constant fear, while also trying to find ways to break off just to see Nishida for a few moments whenever she can, but it never works out. He grows increasingly disgusted with the whole situation, and she grows increasingly desperate that she’s losing her way out of her depression.

The final major section of the film is really centered on the love triangle while pretty much completely dropping the tenant storyline. There is something going on here that connects the two, though. It’s all about how to survive in such a world. Do you keep your innocence, whatever it may be after a crime committed against you, or do you become like Joe? Well, Shizuko chooses one path, and Nishida does not want her to take it. He puts himself in danger to prevent her from doing it, but she does it on the eponymous black river (a stretch of street that is pitch black in the middle of the night). The final shot is just great, by the way. A marvelous composition of stark contrasts in both light and subject.

I think Black River is a good film overall, but the out of balance nature of the two subplots undermines the emotional throughline of Nishida, I think. The center of this film is the degrading effects of this lawless, dog eat dog environment on the people, starting with the presence of Joe and continuing into the degradation of Shizuko. The look at the tenants is another dimension of this same idea, meaning that the two subplots do tie together, but it ends up feeling like extra stuff rather than essential elements to the story. So, it’s not quite two movies awkwardly stitched together, but it’s close to it. It feels like Kobayashi’s typical issue (I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a problem) where he has what he wants to say (this time about the lawlessness of post-war Japan that tramples under the underclasses) while trying to find a story to attach to it. The story itself, the romantic trio, actually has all of the subtext that he was looking for, which is interesting in and of itself. Perhaps simply diminishing the tenants in importance while giving us more time with Nishida would have been enough to push this into the upper tier of Kobayashi’s body of work.

As it is, though, Black River is the continued evolution of Kobayashi learning to say what he wants to say within a story effectively. He’s never been bad at it, and he’s made better films, however the strength of the love triangle element’s subtext is probably the best he’s done at it. The overall package is solidly good, but that love triangle represents some very good work on Kobayashi’s part.

Rating: 3/4

6 thoughts on “Black River”

  1. This is Kobayashi at his SLEAZIEST. I mean Russ Meyer might have shot some of these sequences, including the opening. In fact, if there is a theme here, it’s sex. And possibly degradation. I’d love to dig into the making of this movie as it feels off.

    But it also feels real. Once again, we have very complex real characters. I just don’t like any of them. ANY of them. I wonder if this was a stage play, there’s a scene with the communist tenant is trying to organize everyone to unite against the eviction and everyone he tries to recruit all ‘exit stage left’, sometimes literally.

    This has a great, jazzy score and Joe just DRIPS with style and charisma. I don’t like him but he has swagger. It has a very Japanese look at local gangsters like Joe, who are part of life and used as such. He is a fixer, he smooths things over, gets stuff done (including, oddly, surveying for a water pipe) but he also takes what he wants. He is called ‘Killer Joe’ but that seems to be partly reputation, though he responds to defiance and disrespect with violence. Ultimately, the killer in The Black River is Shizuko. She commits premediated murder and then runs off into the night.

    I loved how people are already, in contemporary Japan, referring to themselves as ‘Godzilla’. It’s a neat bit of realism. So are all the other details of life in the shadow of Atsugi AFB (which did not get rid of the Americans, they’re still there, in fact. Along with the JSDF, it’s a joint base now). If anything seems to be ticking Kobayashi off, it’s that Japan is still ‘occupied’. In his contemporary movies, he goes out of his way to say ‘Hey, the Americans are still here!’ He’s spitting in their direction, like Joe just before he dies, but it’s not excessive. Kobayashi is a very honest filmmaker and he shows how much the Japanese are leeching off the Americans.

    That realism extends to Joe and Shizuko’s relationship. We see a painfully realistic portrayal of a man who knows how to mix abuse and affection to tie Shizuko to him. And he has hooked her with a mix of love and hate.

    And that brings me to our protagonist, Nishida. He is the typical ‘good guy’, sexless protagonist common to Japanese romances. Unable to have a sexual relationship with his love, almost emasculated when confronted with attractive, willing, sleazy women, like a Jerry Lewis character. Even the ending denies him a relationship as, for all her words, Shizuko has done something unforgivable: murdered in front of the man she “loves”. But Kobayashi still makes him well-rounded compared to a normal romance lead…but not all in good ways. He refuses to give blood to save a man (his wife also refuses, making HER really hard to like, too), he runs around to have fun with a pimp instead of meeting Shizuko (in fairness, she’s ghosted him several times at this point), and when he has a quiet moment with her, his big question for her is ‘how many times have you done it?’…AFTER mocking her as she confesses the story of her rape and degradation as a melodrama plot (which…it is. It makes me wonder again what Kobayashi was actually trying to do here with those tropes).

    So yeah, The Black River. I admire the craft, hate the characters.

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    1. Sleazy is a good word.

      Kobayashi’s anti-Americanism always feels like an aside, never the point. It was like he wasn’t happy with the American presence in Japan or how it dealt with war crimes, but the American involvement was secondary to the Japanese involvement and reaction. The collapse into lawlessness, betraying as hollow the whole idea of Bushido and the Japanese ideal, seems to have settled deeply into his mind. Considering his overall mentality, I doubt these were new developments postwar, I’d bet he was anti-feudal before he got conscripted, but the war and reaction to the defeat probably put some jet fuel into his thinking around it.

      Japan held itself up as the greatest of nations, willing to uphold great honor and feeling great shame at degradation, and yet, in defeat they became feral to a certain extent in his mind. America was part of the problem, he saw, but only part. The real problem was at the heart of Japan, and that was his main target.

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      1. I’m not sure…I’m sure once we get to the ginormous The Human Condition we might have more evidence for that. But this story, and I Will Buy You aren’t really ‘Japanese’ stories. Baseball is an American sport, it wasn’t like he was doing an expose on the corruption in Sumo (which is and was a real thing). Likewise criminals, abusive relationships and love triangles are very…universal.

        He isn’t happy with how the Japaneses are degrading themselves, in the B plot, that’s for sure. But the greedy landlady isn’t universally Japanese either (and frankly considering her residents don’t pay their rent…I’m not sure she’s all in the wrong either).

        I think ‘The Thick Walled Room’ comes closest, as Japan refuses to honestly deal with its guilt and its guilty from the war.

        Ah well, more to come! At least until 1965 or so….sadly.

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      2. I’m not going to review it, but I did just watch Tokyo Trial (literally just this morning) and the intersection between the two issues is at its most pointed and obvious there. A documentary, it affords him the ability to tell the story of prewar and wartime Japan using his own framing while casting a net on both sides that attacks both America and Japan. There’s a point early-ish where he contrasts the admitted war crimes of the Japanese army in China with the atomic bombs, the only time in his whole body of work I’ve seen the A-bomb referenced at all, much less directly.

        “Everyone sucks,” seems to be his point, and I think that extends to The Black River. The character defects are a combination of universal (like the greed aspects, as you say) and the particular, especially regarding the Japanese gang situation.

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