A Note on Kinoshita

Before I leave the sixties completely, I should like to post a brief comment on Kinoshita. If Kinema Junpo‘s lists are to be trusted, he is now beginning to be forgotten by the Japanese, remembered only for Twenty-four Eyes. Critics  outside Japan generally regarded Kinoshita as a film-maker perhaps significant in his time but marred by sentimentality, rarely mentioning either his experimentalism or his persistent social themes. Though certainly Kinoshita could wander into tear-jerker territory with films like Times of Joy and Sorrow, these were actually widely scattered throughout his career. Among the particular generation of major movie-makers who began work during the war years — Kurosawa, Imai, Yamamoto, Kawashima  — Kinoshita was the least predictable. He did melodrama, film noir, horror stories, folk tales, romances, and remarkable comedies and farces that still remain funny seventy years later, almost all of which were from his own screenplays rarely adapted from novels or stories by others.

No Kinoshita movie looked like any of his others. Kurosawa certainly was a better visualist, famous for his period films where visual imagery is far more obvious, but then he was a better visualist than anyone in the world with the possible exception of David Lean. Since Kinoshita never made a chanbara, we can’t compare their talents in this area. Nevertheless, just as John Ford’s Westerns all look the same, Kurosawa’s jidai-geki all look the same, as magnificent as that look could be. This could never be said about any of Kinoshita’s movies. Even when doing a direct sequel, like Carmen’s Innocent Love, everything is different; discounting the obvious return to b & w, the latter is all full of crazy camera angles never seen in the simple story of Carmen Comes Home. He was one of the first to use theatricalized settings as a part of his realism, but typically did it in one of his most realistic stories, Ballad of Narayama. The Rose on his Arm was utterly, completely New Wave in subject matter and in camera work and editing, but half a decade before the famous French directors ever got behind a camera. Even earlier, A Japanese Tragedy introduced Godard’s sudden shifts in time, inter-cuts of newsreel and documentary footage, silent flash-backs, and location shooting even when the setting was close to the studio but almost a decade before Godard made a movie. Snow Flurry jumped back and forth in time, as experimental as anything Teshigahara, Yoshida, or Oshima would ever try. When Japanese directors were still hesitant to use the close-up for both cultural and technical reasons, Kinoshita in Woman and Yotsuya Kaidan produced some of the tightest closeups in cinema history before the development of modern fast film and special close-up lenses. Yet he could turn around and produce Mizoguchi-like movies shot in middle distance and long takes like She Was Like a Wild Chrysanthemum or Immortal Love. The montage sections of Wedding Ring are so effectively cut that Eisenstein would cheer the work. Technically, Kinoshita was simply one of cinema’s great experimentalists, aware of and willing to use all the possibilities of the film medium, but historically preceding the more famous “art film” directors of the sixties. He rarely gets much credit from modern film critics, probably because this experimentation was always done in the context not of the “art film” but of commercial studio production. The French New Wave taught us that the film artist must be a rebel, but Kinoshita never openly rebelled against the studio system in which he grew up, . He was the great outsider who always worked on the inside, never setting up an independent company.

If we look at Kinoshita’s movies one by one, as reviewers or a blog like this will do, we often miss the things that tie his films together. Yet, of the great post-war writer-directors before the emergence of Oshima or Kobayashi, Kinoshita was the most continually critical of Japan’s feudal/military society. His major preoccupation as a film-maker was the social and cultural damage that the feudal rush to war had caused for Japanese civilians, even before the war was lost. Three of his movies on this topic were made during the war itself: Living Mogoroku and Jubilation Street, which disguised the critique under family comedy, and Army, which on paper is a propaganda piece but ends as a great anti-war statement simply by the way Kinoshita uses the camera in the final scene, which reportedly got him in considerable trouble with the government. After the war, this examination continued in various forms in Morning for the Osone Family, Phoenix, Apostasy, Boyhood, Twenty-Four Eyes, Farewell to Dream, Immortal Love, A Japanese Tragedy, and A Legend or Was It? It is also a contributing factor to the sweet romance of The Girl I Loved.  To these we might add The River Fuefuki, a rare visit to jidai-geki to examine the damage done to a family in the wars of the 16th century, the history of twentieth century Japan told through the tortured mother-daughter relationship of Scent of Incense, and his very late Children of Nagasaki which dealt directly with the aftermath of the atom bombing, as well as the re-armament sub-plot of Carmen’s Innocent Love. He never depicted the soldier’s lives but rather the social damage left behind them at home; when soldiers appear, they are always wounded, but never as wounded as the people left behind.

As might be expected from an essentially humanist film-maker, we’re never quite sure where Kinoshita himself fits in the politics of his time. He takes no obvious political positions. He chronicles the great damage done to Japanese society by the militarization of the thirties, the war, and the Occupation, but he does not seem to have any nostalgia for the time or the society before that, as did Ozu, Mizoguchi, or Inagaki. Nor does he celebrate the New Japan. A Legend warns about the way the modern society tries to pretend the unpleasant parts of the past never happened, a problem he explored in depth in his rare script for another director, Kinuyo Tanaka’s Love Letter. Garden of Women seems to be on the side of “modernization,” especially for women, just as Broken Drum seems to side with the children against the oppressive rule of the old patriarchy, but the modernization of the children in A Japanese Tragedy is far more destructive to the family even than in Tokyo Story and he has no sympathy for the greed and selfishness of the young people in Spring Dreams. He is on the side of people, not in masses but as individuals. Those individuals, such as the teacher in Twenty-four Eyes, may come to represent far more than just themselves, but his movies almost never try to make his characters into symbols (with the possible exception of A Japanese Tragedy). Each character is specific and unique. Even more than Ozu, he is the film-maker of his day trying to depict “life as it is,” through a much broader range of stories and techniques than Ozu would ever consider. Unlike Kurosawa, he finds no glory in the samurai class or era, and unlike Yamamoto, he never speechifies; unlike Imai, he changes technique almost at will, and unlike Kawashima he revealed his talent behind the camera almost immediately.

He is a remarkable film-maker, unique in that he left no towering “masterpieces” for us to study but rather a body of work that taken as a whole forms its own giant masterpiece. Because of his range of production, he is the great film artist most likely to be forgotten. A blog like this will do little to change that, I know, but I felt it should be noted somewhere. 

9 thoughts on “A Note on Kinoshita

  1. Thank you for this insightful piece. Kinoshita is kind of hit and miss for me (though more hits than misses, I’d say), but he’s always interesting, and I never know what to expect when starting one of his films.


    • As you say, there are far more hits than misses. And sometimes the experiments don’t “work,” but then we often forget that is the nature of experimentation. And of course for the first ten years or so, he and his brother Chuji never quite came to grasp with the power of music to do more than just fill the gaps between dialogue, so that many of his films have a sentimentalist layer that is purely due to the music rather than the imagery, dialogue, and performances themselves. However, by the mid-fifties, Chuji had become something of an experimenter himself (and/or Keisuke asked for or perhaps just accepted that, since Chuji did some remarkably jazzy scores for other directors) which changed the feel of many of his movies after “Twenty-four Eyes.” Still, there are some clunkers, without argument, but then Billy Wilder made “Fedora” and “Avanti” and “The Emperor Waltz” and we don’t hold that against the rest of his work.

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  2. Although I have been a lover of Japanese cinema for some time, I’m not sure why I hadn’t watch Kinoshita (and Naruse) films until this year. Naruse has been hit and miss for me personally (I enjoy his 1960s films – except ‘when a woman ascends the stairs’), whereas Kinoshita has a way to break my heart.


  3. I read this post awhile ago, but I’ve just decided to reply to it now.

    I’m not really sure I agree that Kinoshita is forgotten or even neglected in Japan: being (relatively) ignored by critics is not quite the same as being forgotten by the culture as a whole. And Kurosawa and especially his protege, Kobayashi, rated him very highly. Sometimes, watching his films, I’ve regretted his over-emotionalism: Apostasy is a particular case in point, in which the lesson of the necessity of tolerance and understanding is literally drowned in a pool of tears.

    But I’ve been impressed, as you have, by his capacity for experimentation, and how often the experiments have worked. And She Was Like a Wild Chrysanthemum is a miraculous film: it’s far more moving as a story of doomed love than any adaptation of Romeo and Juliet I’ve ever seen. In Kinoshita’s movie, after the framing sequence at the start (with Chishu Ryu), the images of the main story set in the Meiji Era are all enclosed within an oval mask, like an old daguerreotype, and in the first scene in which that device was introduced, I thought, “This is pretentious; it can’t possibly work.” But as the movie goes on, one literally forgets the oval is there, such is Kinoshita’s genius and the appeal of the two perfectly-cast young people.

    I really think he is Japanese Cinema’s greatest landscape painter. That’s not at all a putdown, because he always successfully related these magnificent rural vistas to the emotions of the characters inhabiting them. And I think the innovations he introduced in A Japanese Tragedy strongly influenced Naruse’s similar techniques in his own masterpiece film, Floating Clouds.

    You’ve now got me thinking about this filmmaker, so I think I’ll revisit at least some of his films again.


    • I based my comment about the fading of Kinoshita’s position in film history on the paucity of his movies to survive on Kinema Junpo’s greatest all-time list. As my post indicated, I think there are a good half-dozen that ought to be on that list, and even more if it is expanded to 250. Twenty-four Eyes should not be his only legacy.


      • I have looked carefully on the 1999 and 2009 Best of All Time KJ lists (I didn’t go back to 1995) and found at least 6 Kinoshita films there:
        a. Twenty-Four Eyes was at 9th place in 1999 and 6th place in 2009;
        b. She Was Like a Wild Chrysanthemum (63rd and 30th, respectively)
        c. Carmen Comes Home (90th and 63rd, respectively)
        d. Ballad of Narayama (62nd place in 1999 only)
        e. A Japanese Tragedy (74th place in 1999 only)
        f. Here to the Girls (36th place in 2009 only, which is astonishing, as I thought that movie was just okay, despite Setsuko Hara being in it)

        Compare the above with Mizoguchi’s great Sansho the Bailiff, which is MIA from *both* lists, despite huge acclaim in the West. Perhaps it’s the Mizo fans who should complain!

        And the larger point I was making was that even if Kinoshita had been forgotten by critics, he’s still very beloved by movie fans in Japan. In fact, it’s often been asserted that many Japanese prefer him to Kurosawa, a judgment which, despite my high opinion of K.K., makes no sense to me. (I strongly disagree with your claim above that Kurosawa’s jidai-geki look alike, and even if it were true, that would ignore the master’s many excellent non-period films.) So I don’t see any evidence that Kinoshita is a forgotten figure.


      • Perhaps I was simply re-acting in shock to the disappearance of Ballad of Narayama and Japanese Tragedy, or the fact that A Legend and Immortal Love and The Rose on His Arm appear on neither list. And as I have commented elsewhere, who can really trust a set of critics that leave out Sansho the Bailif? As for his reputation outside of Japan, we might note that Criterion has most of Kinoshita’s movies, but they have made no particular effort to tell anyone about it, or that a surprising number of his movies have less than ten reviews on IMDB. At any rate, we’re certainly both agreed that he is a major film-maker who ranks with the finest not only of his generation but also of all Japanese film-makers.


  4. Pingback: Children of Nagasaki / Kono ko wo nokoshite (1983) | Japanonfilm

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