Osone-ke no ashita (1946)

12 11 2012

It’s no big surprise that even at the beginning of his career, Keisuke Kinoshita was a little didactic. I’d accuse his most beloved film, 24 Eyes as being guilty of this so it’s not a shocker to see a wartime family drama suffer from the safe thing. This is an openly pacifist film with a simplistic (if not accurate) depiction of Japanese’s militarism during the Second World War. It’s best as a family drama and includes some excellent performances, but it is obviously a bit too on the nose. I’d argue it’s the best of his that I’ve seen, but it still has some problems. A wonderful experience, but kind of an easy one.

The film centers around the Osone family. Without a patriarchal figure, the family struggles during the wartime. The mother, Fusako, played by the wonderful Haruko Sugimura in one of her biggest roles, relies on the support of her brother-in-law. He’s extremely pro-military, which clashes with the liberalism of his now deceased brother. He openly tries to rearrange the political leanings of the family, even to the point of redecorating their house. The Uncle continues to reinforce his influence over the family by blocking his niece’s engagement after his nephew is sent to prison for being against the war. The other two nephews end up in the war and our quickly killed. Shortly after, the war has ended and the pacifist son has been released.

The film’s political agenda is very obvious as, in the face of popular pro-military sentiment, Sugimura’s character stands up quite eloquently against her brother-in-law at the film’s conclusion. But even before that, one has a pretty good sense of the film’s direction. When one of Fusako’s son is drafted, he stumbles home intoxicated and poignantly wishes he would die while pursuing his passion of painting. This is such a simple move on the part of the filmmaker to make the “liberal artist” die by being forced into the military machine, but the performances really do help the film’s ham-fisted (albeit, admirable) sentiments.

Haruko Sugimura isn’t exactly the lead in this film, as it ultimately comes off as something of an ensemble drama, but this is definitely one of her meatiest roles. She was frequently hidden in the middle of more extended families in her collaborations with Ozu and Naruse. The except would be the latter’s Bangiku (1954) which remains both her best and biggest performance here. She’s given not as much time here, but she still manages to be an excellent mother, downplaying the heightened drama of her brother-in-law and military strawman, as well as the tacked-on story involving the same brother-in-law’s interference with her daughter’s love life.

My feelings towards Kinoshita have not changed, if anything this film has confirmed my suspicions that he was nowhere near as subtle as Japan’s elite at the time. This is still a pleasant surprise, even with its ideology being a little too on the nose and its story a contrived manifestation of his views. He’s still didactic, but the performances here and a downplayed style definitely help it from getting into a territory of being exhausting. It probably also helps that this runs at an economic 80 minutes, in contrast to 24 Eyes, which is 156 minutes. A longer running time may have given more time to flesh out some characters which were definitely in need of it, but I’m not sure that’s the route that would have been taken. As it is, this a nice film and a must for any fans of Sugimura.

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