#4 in my ranking of Masaki Kobayashi’s films.
I really had no idea what I was getting into with Masaki Kobayashi’s final film. Extremely difficult to track down at all, I had to settle with a copy at Rarefilmm that seems to have been filmed on a VHS recorder from a television broadcast. The quality of both image and sound is…less than ideal. And yet, and yet, I got completely caught up in this tale of the complete disintegration of a family after the eldest son partakes in a very public and heinous terrorist act.
The center of the family is Nabayuki Kidoji (Tatsuya Nakadai), the father figure who takes a day to go to a remote part of Japan and visit with a medium who tells him that he must work to atone to the fifteen souls dead. Witnessing this is Kanae Sawaki (Azusa Mano), a young, female, religion student at the same university Nabayuki works as a computer scientist. Does she recognize his last name? It’s very possible because Kidoji (which is spelled with the Japanese characters for devil and child) has become a household name in Japan after Nabayuki’s eldest son Otohiko (Kiichi Nakai) participated in a hostage situation that lead to the deaths of fifteen people as a member of the Red Star Army, a communist terrorist group. Otohiko is in jail without any prospect for a trial, and the family must bear the shame of the adult son’s actions. Other parents of the other young men involved have either taken their own lives or resigned their professional positions, but Nabayuki has refused. That refusal to accept the shame and guilt for his adult son’s actions has become something of a national controversy to the point where people throwing rocks through their window at the family’s dinner time has become such a common occurrence as to become mundane.
Nabayuki’s wife, Yamiko (Mayumi Ogawa), has a mental break at the prospect of losing Otohiko completely through the death penalty. Tamae (Kie Nakai), Nabayuki’s daughter, is enraged at her father’s stance because her fiancé’s family will not allow him marry into a disgraced family. Osamu (Takayuki Takemoto), Nabayuki’s younger son, is the most at ease with the whole situation, able to acquire some semblance of normalcy in the abnormal environment, but he’s at least putting on a face to some degree. It’s eating away at him underneath, though he does seem to admire his father for his stalwart stand in a tough situation. Alongside the family is Yamiko’s sister Kiwa Nakahara (Shima Iwashita), a lawyer who offers Tamae help to change her name legally (a process that Nabayuki refuses).
The bulk of the film are the dynamics between these characters with Nabayuki at the epicenter. It’s not just that he’s the head of the family, it’s that he’s refused to fall on his own sword for the actions of his adult son. And yet, that nagging question of how much Nabayuki was responsible for Otohiko’s fall lingers in the background of most scenes throughout the film. How could he have raised a boy to the point where he went off and took part in a terrorist attack like that? Was he just born that way, or was Nabayuki’s hands off approach to Otohiko’s higher education, his insistence that Otohiko will be alone with the consequences of his field of study, part of the equation? It’s never answered because there are no easy answers to that question in life.
There are dramatic points as well involving the relationship between Nabayuki and Kiwa with Yamiko in an insane asylum that drives them together (however, this being a Japanese movie, they never quite consummate their professions of love), but the turn happens late when the Red Star Army takes an airplane hostage in India, demanding the release of ten prisoners in Japan, including Otohiko. The moral question of the film shifts, slightly. With the Japanese government giving into the terrorist demands, what is Nabayuki’s responsibility to the son he hasn’t seen since he went up into the mountains, having never visited him in prison? Should he see him one last time? Should he follow through on the wishes of the Japanese prosecutor to try and convince Otohiko to remain in Japan to face trial instead of flying away to who knows where to, perhaps, die alone on a strange road and never be heard from again? Nabayuki’s selfish motivation of seeing his boy one last time is in alignment with his public duty for once, but it’s out of alignment with his admonition that Otohiko must take his chosen path alone.
The carefully crafted course of emotion that Nabayuki follows from the flashback heavy beginning to the cleareyed ending is ultimately crushing. We’ve seen him stand tall in the face of pressures from all sides, quietly asserting his own right to live his own life free of the consequences of the actions of his adult son. He’s pushed aside all his emotion because he cannot bend his ideals to fit the emotional reality that he finds himself in, and yet he’s still a man, a father, who will never see his eldest son ever again, destined to meet an end he’ll never know. Whether Otohiko is his own failing or not becomes beside the point. When he finally agrees to let Kiwa see Otohiko one last time without going himself, it’s crushing.
And yet, it ends on a wonderful and hopeful note. The nascent relationships that Nabayuki develops between Kiwa and Kanae all fall apart for different reasons. He is no longer going to find that kind of intimate love again, but Otohiko had an unknown son. Maybe Nabayuki can find a way to redeem himself somewhat through that small boy on a remote farm.
There’s a bit earlier where Kanae’s brother paints an impression of Nabayuki, and he paints a lion, vomiting blood, and pierced with many arrows. However, the lion is still standing on all four legs, and it becomes obvious to anyone who sees the portrait that it is of Nabayuki. He will soldier on, wounded on all directions, and he is a man of great bravery at the same time. He really is a great character.
Masaki Kobayashi ended his career in television, working in smaller, character based dramas of a similar sort as how he began. Less obviously melodramatic, he applied the narrative and cinematic lessons he had learned over the decades to produce films that almost feel like they could have been made by a Japanese Ingmar Bergman. Sharply written characters with precise visual framing (he often has two characters on opposite sides of the frame, separated by something in between, and he’s probably the most purposeful in using the third dimension of the frame to imply distances between characters) and pinpoint performances from all of his actors (Nakadai ends his run with Kobayashi delivering a wonderfully subtle bit of heartache), Family Without a Dinner Table was Kobayashi going out swinging.