1960s, 3/4, Film Noir, Masaki Kobayashi, Review

The Inheritance

#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.

Rating: 3/4

4 thoughts on “The Inheritance”

  1. Yeah, this is another one where I didn’t like any of the characters either….well, almost and mostly. I’ll get to that.

    I oddly do like the movie, like you said it has a jazzy and sometimes VERY Noir look to it. It’s low stakes John MacDonald or less bleak Jim Thompson. You could have cast Barbara Stanwyk almost in this one as the wife OR the secretary. It’s a great time capsule movie as again we have real locations instead of all soundstage or period recreations. In fact, when it started, I almost thought this would be a heist or grifter movie as we see Yasuko eyefucking jewelry through the glass…I thought she was going to steal it. But no, she’s reveling in wealth.

    And that’s the theme of The Inheritance: Greed. We see how greed undoes everything, how it erodes morality, family, marriage even (Satoe completely stops sleeping with her husband when she realizes he’s dying and she’s gonna be rich no matter what). This is not a deep or complex tale and that’s ok. It must have been almost a relief for both Kobayashi and for Nakadai (what a wide range of people, playing Jo and stealing Black River, playing Kenji and now playing a minor background character in The Inheritance. I can’t think of too many actors willing to do that. Or able to do that.)

    I could just rave on and on about….stuff but I’ll try to focus.

    I ended up really hating the protagonist, Yasuko. And I honestly think we’re supposed to. She is filled with hate and contempt even from her first interactions with someone else at the beginning of the film. She hides this, acting, being a snake in the grass, quiet and perfect…but she’s maybe worse than the daughter that murdered her sister to take her place. She did indeed lie to Senzo, she wasn’t pregnant when she said she was. She gets knocked up by her side piece (one of my two main quibbles with the movie, it’s not set up and is an afterthought), whom she also treats with contempt. And it’s an open question if she killed her own child so she could have all the money (it died after childbirth, is what she says. But from what we’ve seen of her…)

    And oddly…I mostly like Senzo. A LOT of this is due to So Yamamura, who has real charisma and presence. He plays Senzo almost like a feudal lord, in fact he goes from his eye catching white suit to a traditional yakuta when he basically moves home to spend his dying months. Senzo is strong, decisive, intelligent…but flawed. His flaw ISN’T greed, oddly enough. It’s lust, another deadly sin. But maybe Dante was onto something, his lust seems to have hurt his character less than the greed surrounding him.

    Two things I wasn’t clear about, though, maybe you can weigh in: I…THINK Furukawa accidentally glommed onto the wrong girl. He shows a picture and provides a name but is directed to a sleazy nude model who happens to have an older half sister who is much more quiet, refined and….more like Senzo, frankly. And her murder of her older sister happens off camera, so I was left wondering if she was the ‘right’ girl at all…I don’t think she was. I think she tried to swap identities when she found out that her sister was going to inherit and Furukawa just didn’t do his diligence when he sees this hot piece of ass. The second is at the ending, did Yasuko lie about the child twice? Did she kill it? I’m assuming she had to give birth in order to trigger the will, that’s why we see that scene with…some random guy (I thought at first it was Furkawa but I don’t think so now).

    Anyway, a nasty, cold, twisty movie. I loved looking at it and I loved So Yamamura so two good things.

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    1. The stuff around the elder girl is unclear (a fault of the film, I think), but I assume that Furukawa was acting honestly in his dishonesty. He never met the other sister, so he really thought the girl was the real girl. Now, whether she was or not seems to hang completely on the murder of the other sister. If the girl who shows up at the house is the real girl, why kill the other sister at all? I think that she just took advantage of a man promising her a hundred million yen. Again, the movie is surprisingly unclear about it, even with the late explanation where she’s screaming her innocence, but I take it that way.

      And Yasuko? She’s so duplicitous that she could have lied about the whole thing, but actually having a kid an people knowing about it seems like it’s more than just her saying she’s pregnant. I think she killed the poor kid.

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