#14 in my ranking of Masaki Kobayashi’s films.
Masaki Kobayashi finished his epic, humanist, three-part tale of World War II, and his next film couldn’t be further from that. The Inheritance is a hardnosed look at one rich man trying to figure out who to give his fortune to on the event of his death from cancer within the next few months and the ensuing explosion of conspiring and backstabbing that erupts from that news, all with a certain jazzy, noir feel to it. This is the more obviously cynical Kobayashi of Black River rather than the earnest humanist from The Human Condition.
Senzo (So Yamamura) has received word that he has cancer. Well, he hasn’t actually received word because, much like as is shown in Ikiru, it was common practice for doctors to lie to their patients about terminal illnesses. Still, he figures it out. He goes from a captain of industry, working endlessly everyday for forty years, to a quiet, contemplative man. His young secretary Yasuko (Keiko Kishi) notices and puts the pieces together herself before he actually tells her. He has a young wife, his former secretary Satoe (Misako Watanabe), and three illegitimate children that he has no contact with. In accordance with Japanese law, he must give at least one-third to his wife, but he wants to determine what to do with the rest. He wants his people to track down his three children, bring them to him without revealing his relationship to them or his motives for seeing them, and letting him decide if he wants to share the other two-thirds of his fortune with them or not.
And so starts the rat race. Satoe is angry because she feels like she deserves the entirety of the fortune as his wife, though she seems to have no real feeling for him, and he doesn’t seem to have much towards her either. She conspires with Senzo’s assistant Fujii (Minoru Chiaki) to find the seven-year-old girl he’s assigned to discover no matter what so that she can become the girl’s guardian. Yoshida (Seiji Miyaguchi) is assigned the second-oldest child to find, and he sends his assistant Furukawa (Tatsuya Nakadai) to find her. The eldest child, Senzo sends Yasuko to find, a young man born in Manchuria but living in Tokyo at that time.
Satoe is conspiring with Fujii, but it turns out that the girl died. Fujii decides to find another girl of the same age without parents in an orphanage to pass off as Senzo’s heiress. Furukawa meets with Muri, the seventeen-year-old girl, and acts as a gatekeeper so that she will keep him in the loop if and when she inherits. Yasuko is given her task and seems to have no ulterior motive. However, when Senzo becomes too sick to go into the office anymore, especially after a surgery that removes three-quarters of his stomach, he insists that Yoshida take an extra room at his house. After Yasuko refuses to sleep with him one night, he begins a sexual relationship with Yoshida that leads to her getting pregnant. I think you can see where this is going to go.
Everyone is out for the money, and the only question is who is going to stay in it to the end. Revelations are revealed, Senzo dies, and more revelations are revealed. None of these characters are really rootable. They’re all out for themselves with no concern for the wishes of the old man who actually earned everything beyond how they can manipulate him, even, in the end, Yasuko.
And that’s kind of Kobayashi’s point. The insane wealth up for grabs is completely corrupting. Even the young, quiet, and innocent female secretary is open to selling her body for access to the money. She always could leave, go find another secretary job somewhere, but she remains because of the potential life of ease up for grabs that we see at the opening of the film (the story being told in flashback as she has tea with Yoshida).
The lack of emotional connection keeps me at a small distance from the action, but the action itself is still a tense exercise and look at the corrupt side of human nature. Where Kaji refused to accept that he has lost it all and kept his efforts to retain his humanity in The Human Condition, Yasuko simply gives in completely. It’s an interesting contrast in that light as well.