Banka / Elegy of the North (1957)

13 05 2014

While David Lean’s Brief Encounter is almost universally beloved, evoking the film in certain comparisons almost seems to inherently imply a negative connotation. The beloved melodrama is seen as the epitome of its type, and the film that try to retread the magic it left behind basically are saturated with some problems that they almost serve as an explanation of everything that makes that film feel so right. Heinosuke Gosho’s Elegy of the North, made in 1957, has yet to even reach the purview of many English-speaking film scholars, but the few who have taken notice to it would find a hard time deflecting comparison to Lean’s classic. While both films occupy a cinematic space that is populated with swooning, romantic gestures, and big, monumental feelings. It’s not a typical route for Gosho, but nestled underneath all the reverie is something a bit more grounded.

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Reiko gets her arthritic hand bitten by a dog. The dog’s owner, Katsuragi is extremely apologetic. “The dog never bites” he tells her. “Dogs never bite me” she replies. Reiko becomes fascinated by Katsuragi. Once his deferential facade wears off from their original encounter, he is revealed to be a deeply unhappy man. Sure, a wealthy, attractive, and married doctor should have very little to complain about but the stillness of his life is beginning to hit him. He’s not out of love with his wife, Akiko, but the passion seems to have faded. She herself has begun seeing a med student on the side. Reiko and Katsuragi become more than friends, but his extended business trip leaves both Reiko and Akiko without anyone to talk to. Naturally, they become best friends, but Akiko remains unaware of her husband’s infidelity.

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Pardon the baseball analogy, but Gosho is really swinging for the fences here. Going for a film that tries to cover such a big, important part of the human experience is always commendable, but his film never quite achieves the transcendent moment for which he shoots. I guess this sounds like a simple criticism of “too melodramatic” but I find that phrase both misused and overused, as while as ignoring the problems that come up here. The reality is that the film is adequately melodramatic, but its issues lie in a betrayal to what it wants to tell us. At its best moments, Gosho has given us a story about two women who should be in opposition to each other, but become wonderfully close friends. This would be enough for a typical Gosho film, at least by the standards of Arthur Nolletti. Like Naruse did with Floating Clouds in 1955, Elegy of the North attempts something more pointedly and poetically “profound” than the usual work of the film’s director. Naruse was successful and his film, though atypical for him, is one of the most masterful moments in a career stocked with them. Gosho’s film is a success too, mostly on the strength of his performers, but overall, it feels a little over baked.

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One needs to give credit where credit is due, though and Elegy of the North does feature one of the best casts ever assembled. Yoshiko Kuga and Masayuki Mori would have received top billing, but the presence of Tatsuo Saito and Mieko Takamine is just as exciting. Both of them may have been considered washed up by 1957, Saito achieving most of his success during the late 20s/early 30s, Takamine during the late 30s/early 40s. More important than familiar faces is the fact that both Takamie and Kuga nail, what I would argue, is the meat of the film. That being the relationship between Reiko and Akiko. Their actual interactions seem a bit maudlin, Reiko quickly takes to calling Akiko “mom” but the film leads up to their friendship in a way that is both real, and easily the most interesting thing in the film.

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Upon meeting Akiko, Reiko mentions that she’s aggressive. “I’m a hunter, a swan hunter. If I have my eye on something I won’t miss it” she tells her. The film awkwardly gives a cutaway of actual swans, before quickly cutting back. It’s almost there that Gosho himself realizes that the illustration isn’t necessary, we’ve already seen Reiko as a “hunter” before. To call her a hunter would be missing the point. She’s aggressive around Katsuragi, but not in a way that suggests male heterosexual wish-fulfillment or even a one-dimensional femme fatale. In a scene at a bar, she has control, but not in a way that suggests she’s a manipulative woman just teasing and seducing him to torment him. Such a person seldom exists in real life, but is constantly created in the pen of frustrated men. Give Gosho credit here: his film, perhaps brought down by some silly narrative shifts, still manages to populate its world with women that feel real and complete. When the film is focused on the struggles of Reiko and Akiko, it touches on something that is far more substantial than a doomed affair. Sure, a nearly-mythical and tragic love story can work, but it seems like Gosho should have spent more time with the far more interesting relationship unfolding in the periphery.

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