Monday, January 9, 2017

Keisuke Kinoshita | 死闘の伝説 (Shitô no densetsu) (A Legend or Was It?)

the dangers of community
by Douglas Messerli

Keisuke Kinoshita (writer and director) 死闘の伝説 (Shitô no densetsu) (A Legend or Was It?)

A small Hokkaido mountain village, bathed in beautiful color, seems to be made up of good people: the villagers talk about the weather, express caring statements about each other’s misfortunes, and together help pull a truck free from where it’s stuck in the mud. What a lovely society, we are led to think.

Suddenly moving into a film in black and white, we discover a very different picture of this same isolated world. The Sonobe family, resettled to Hokkaido during World War II, are not so blessed in this society. They have had a difficult time with their crops, and have suffered serious deprivations. Conditions, however, seem now to have improved; their new crops have begun to grow, and their daughter Kieko (Shima Iwashita) is about to be married off to the mayor’s son, Goichi (Bunta Sugawara). 
      Goichi, returned from the war with a crippled arm, is a haughty but handsome man, who spends most of his time riding his horse across the countryside. But when the Sonobe family’s son, Hideyuki (Go Kato) returns from the front, he recognizes Goichi as a man who in Manchuria had raped women and killed innocents. After her brother reports this to the family, Keiko calls off the wedding. And the horror begins.
      First their crops are destroyed by Goichi, and gradually he turns the Sonobe’s neighbors against them, resulting in numerous petty and larger acts of vengeance. With a score that includes the repeated sound of a mouth harp, the film—a bit like Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon, John Ford films, and Peckinpah’s later Straw Dogs—drives its 83-minute-story forward to brutality, as the Sonobe house is burned and, in a shoot-out that ends in the reverse of most Hollywood westerns, both Hideyuki and Kieko are killed.
     Kinoshita portrays Kieko as a kind of proto-feminist who dares not only to challenge the highly patriarchal society in which she exists, but, in devotion to family, threatens the intense violence inherent to war-time Japanese culture. 
      Such an expression of post-war Japanese culture must have necessarily required its pleasant, communal prelude. But the Western-motif movie that follows makes its theme quite apparent. If communal thinking is often a beautiful and excellent quality, it can also be a deadly force against all of those who lie outside its embrace. The film, with its relentless musical score by Chûji Kinoshita, moves irresistibly forward with its inevitably tragic results. As the elder Mrs. Sonobe predicts of her attacker, “If you are Japanese, Japan will lose the war.”
      The gay director, Kinoshita, was a major filmmaker in Japan who produced dozens of films of all genres, but rather inexplicably is still not well-known outside of his homeland. But fortunately, with Criterion Films’ help, that may soon change, as more and more of his features become available on DVD. 
     A Legend is my first Kinoshita film, and, despite its awful English-language title, I will most certainly visit others.

Los Angeles, January 9, 2017

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