#6 in my ranking of Masaki Kobayashi’s films.
Adapted from the Shusaku Endo novel Lord, Have Mercy, Masaki Kobayashi’s Hymn to a Tired Man is a combination of his own The Thick-Walled Room and Kurosawa’s Ikiru, a re-evaluation of war crimes of the Japanese Army during World War II and the embrace of what can be done with one, small life. It has the hallmarks of a carefully considered novel while, at the same time, feeling distinctly cinematic at the same time thanks to the combination of Endo’s source and Kobayashi’s cinematic talents. There’s a stark emotional reality at play that settles in deeply and never quite lets go.
One of the interesting things about how the film works is that there are two competing voiceovers. The first is from the supposed narrator (Masao Mishima) who ends up potentially the spirit of another character, and that of our main character, Zensaku (Makoto Fujita). With his overbite and a hearing aid dangling from his right ear, the narrator informs us that Zensaku is just like any other middle-aged man in Tokyo and that he is not a tragic figure (he even questions why writers enjoy such characters at all). He leads a small patent office with two others, takes the train to and from work, and goes home to his nagging wife (Tomoko Naraoka) and two children Reiji (Toshio Kurosawa) and Sakiko (Wakako Sakai). Reiji is preparing for his entrance exams to university, but he has no drive or direction and is considering dropping the whole thing to the consternation of his father.
One day, one of Zensaku’s underlings at his office asks him if he knows a woman named Yosiko (Michiyo Aratama) whom he met working at a bar on the other side of the city. It takes him a moment to recognize the name of the girl he had loved before the war, the second part of a trio of friends broken up by the draft with the third being their friend Ohno (Kunie Tanaka) who died during the war. He rushes over to find her newly widowed with her deceased husband’s plans for a new kind of heat-resistant plastic that she wants help figuring out what to do with it. Enlisting the help of a friend, Zensaku takes Yosiko to his friend’s contact at a manufacturing plant Suzuki (Kei Sato). Suzuki and Zensaku, having not met since the war, share a past. Suzuki was Zensaku’s superior officer in the war and beat Zensaku horribly when Zensaku refused to himself beat a starving American POW who had stolen rice. The beating left Zensaku completely deaf in his left ear and partially deaf in his right. To make matters more complicated, Reiji meets a girl at a studying institution who happens to be Suzuki’s daughter, and they are falling in love.
You can see the tight little world that gets created with Zensaku rediscovering Suzuki and Yosiko while his own son develops a relationship with Suzuki’s daughter that seems a hallmark of a tightly constructed novel. These sorts of coincidences define how the action comes together, but that’s where the coincidences end. The development and resolution of the action is all upon the characters themselves and their own choices, and that’s where the film’s intentionally quiet power comes from.
Zensaku has grown to dislike his own wife, and here comes his old love, still beautiful in her middle-age, into his life, but her success and happiness is up for grabs. She knows of what Suzuki did to Zensaku, but Suzuki is also the one giving her a great deal for the rights to the patent along with a promise of a space in one of his buildings for her to have her own bar instead of working in someone else’s. He’s essentially trying to buy her as his mistress, and Zensaku has nothing to offer her but sentiment. The problem is, as is noted by several characters including himself throughout the film, is that he is a coward. He took great beatings throughout his life, but he never stood up for himself. And even now, with a potential for happiness within his grasp again, he’s meek. There’s a fantastic final showdown between Suzuki and Zensaku in Yosiko’s bar where Suzuki stands firm in his belief that everything he did during the war was justified and that Zensaku deserved everything that he got. Zensaku can do nothing but slink away as Suzuki claims Yosiko.
The mirror to Zensaku is Reiji, his son. Reiji, undirected and after an incident on the street where he tries to teach some manners to a line cutter awaiting a bus that goes badly for him, ends up visiting the National Defense Forces with the man who saved him from the incident. The order and clarity of the Japanese analogous entity to the armed forces appeals to him despite everyone else’s resistance to the idea, in particular Zensaku’s, stemming from his horrible time in the army during the War. Why Zensaku even entered service, though, is an interesting question that gets raised early, then ignored for about an hour, and then readdressed in the film’s finale.
Before his draft notice had come, he had made a plan with Yosiko to listen to the leaflets dropped by the American planes about what town was going to be bombed next and when. If he went there the day before, survived the bombing, and then switched identities with a dead man, he could avoid the draft. And yet, the next flashback after this plan gets explained shows him as a guard in the army leading to his beating. What happened? Well, it’s key to his small kind of bravery. He wasn’t legally allowed to conscientiously object to the war, and to refuse to show up would have meant prison. And yet, despite all of the other concerns of all of the other people, including, most particularly, Ohno, they all went. So, Zensaku decided that it wasn’t fair to abandon his own place to shove someone else in. He didn’t want to die, or to fight, but he went anyway after seeing the horrors of war firsthand in the bombing. That decision led him to his quiet, tired life. It’s sad in his own small way.
The wounds of the past may heal, but the scars remain. Zensaku will forever be mostly deaf, but the times do change. Reiji is the future, and despite Zensaku’s hatred of Suzuki, is it fair to hold that against his daughter? Is it fair to equate the Army of WWII with the National Defense Forces of the 60s? There are lessons to be learned, but you cannot live in the past. Zensaku makes his decision to stop living in the past, and it’s a quiet, modest victory that may pale in the face of the promise of a new life with Yosiko. It’s still a victory, though.
This is an intelligent and elegant little film from Kobayashi. It’s themes feel more mature in a way, stepping away from the endless fight against an unjust system and finding a way to lead one’s life modestly and well (the stated goals of many of Kobayashi’s protagonists through his angrier films, mind you). There’s real tenderness when Zensaku returns home in the end, and it’s well earned.