Black River (1957)

16 02 2008

Masaki Kobayashi’s debut marks the start of two careers. Obviously, his own, but perhaps more importantly, is the sight of Tatsuya Nakadai’s first big-time role. He’s complimented by plenty of familiar faces – Isuzu Yamada, Ineiko Arima, and Fumio Watanabe but nobody comes off too well in this case. This is not to say these are bad actors, they have proved otherwise many times before, but it’s a manifestation of my problem with Kobayashi: his characterization never really gets beyond a “good guy / bad guy” complex.

We’re introduced to a small, post-war makeshift Japanese town (think of an urbanized version of ghost towns in old westerns) that is the home of an American Air Force base. The owners of the town live in the suburbs and are oblivious to how the city is run. Then, Kobayashi shifts his attention towards a cast of characters all of whom are housed in the same apartment complex. Isuzu Yamada’s character is the lessor and she is interviewing a possible new lessee, Nishida, a quiet and lonely student. As he makes his way to his new place, we become aquianted with Jo. He’s the gangster who essentially owns the town but he can’t help but be helplessly infatuated with Shizuko, but she’s got her eyes on the “new guy” – Nishida who ends getting mixed up in a complicated situations.

Yeah, it’s dreadful as it sounds. It’s not even that this film is particularly bad to watch, but it’s just one those completely empty time-filling escapist films. Sort of entertaining during the actually experience, but quite silly when you begin to think logically about it. Stylistically, this is quite Ozu-esque and paves the way for the ultra-meticulously-framed cinematography in Kobayashi’s own Harakiri. I can also give this credit for anticipating a lot of the same thematic ground found in Nagisa Oshima’s The Sun’s Burial and other early Japanese New Wave films.

The only real reason to see this, though, is if you’re a really big of the cast and I am. Like I mentioned, they’ve all seen better days, in fact Ineko Arima made Tokyo Twilight with Ozu in the same year. Tatsuya Nakadai would appear in another “jazzy” film three years later in Naruse’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. I guess this is also a good way to make time pass, it’s just sort of mindless entertainment that occasionally stumbles upon it’s own clever writing. If you don’t like film-noir and you don’t know your Japanese actors from the late 50s then you’ll probably want to pass on this.

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