more stars than in the heavens

not in our stars, but in ourselves

Keisuke Kinoshita: The Eyes of Japan

NOTE: I volunteer at the Melbourne Cinémathèque, and the first season of 2013 is going to be three weeks of films from Keisuke Kinoshita.  If you’re in Melbourne and you want a treat, you should come!  If you’re not in Melbourne, haha, sucks to be you.  Anyway, no new movies from me today – but here’s an overview of the season, written by yours truly and probably edited to sound nice by someone else.

Keisuke Kinoshita (1912–1998) was one of Japan’s best-loved and most prolific postwar directors, as well as a master chameleon of both genre and style. Considered in Japan the equal of his contemporary Akira Kurosawa, Kinoshita is less well known in the West. After doggedly working his way up the ranks at powerhouse Shochiku Studios – beginning in the film processing laboratory and directing his first feature in 1943 – he was quickly recognised as an immensely creative and eloquent advocate of humanism in World War II-devastated Japan. Often writing his own scripts, Kinoshita drew attention to the toll the war took on ordinary Japanese people: “There are so many greater but unknown people in this world”. Where Kurosawa often told tales of great men, Kinoshita tended to focus on hardworking and kind-hearted women, and his films, whether comedies or dramas, soften their satirical blows with unabashed sentiment. Nevertheless, he was a wildly inventive director, employing everything from Kabuki-style sets to newsreel footage to achieve his creative goals. From the 1940s through to the 1960s, Kinoshita’s combination of compassion and invention, humour and pathos, made him irresistible to Japanese audiences. This season of specially imported 35mm prints shines a light on one of the key but lesser-known masters of Japanese cinema.

February 13

Ballad of Narayama
1958, 98mins
A reflection on cultural relativism posing as period melodrama, Kinoshita’s film tells the story of a remote village in Japan’s feudal period. With hardly enough rice to feed the villagers, elderly people are expected to allow themselves to be abandoned atop Mount Narayama as soon as they turn 70. Highly stylised, but achingly affecting, Kinoshita’s celebrated film makes use of Kabuki theatre traditions and tropes to throw the story’s harrowing emotions into sharp relief. Featuring the remarkable Kinuyo Tanaka. Famously remade by Shohei Imamura in 1983. 35mm print courtesy of the Japan Foundation.

The River Fuefuki
1960, 117 mins
Kinoshita’s epic spans 70 years during Japan’s Sengoku period, and points unflinchingly to the futility of war. A peasant village reliably sends its sons to fight in battles for objectives they are never able to understand, and for proceeds they will never share with the lords who direct the fighting. Predominantly shot in stunning black-and-white, with dazzling splashes of colour filtered throughout, Kinoshita’s film emphasises the nobility of Japanese peasants – even when faced with the reality of ignoble and inscrutablewars. With Takahiro Tamura and Hideko Takamine. 35mm print courtesy of the Japan Foundation.

February 20

Carmen Comes Home
1951, 86 mins
Japan’s first colour feature, this lighthearted comedy emphasises Kinoshita’s overriding concern with the fate of individuals in postwar society. When Carmen (Hideko Takamine) returns to her home village from Tokyo, her family and neighbours are scandalised to learn that she has not been working as a great dancer but as a stripper. A meditation on the jarring effects of Americanisation and the rigid conservatism of small towns, Kinoshita’s much-loved work is overwhelmingly affectionate and resolutely non-judgmental. Also features Chishu Ryu.

Twenty-Four Eyes
1954, 156 mins
One of Japan’s most beloved films, made a year or so after the end of the US Occupation, Kinoshita’s anti-war statement chronicles the life of a young “modern” woman (Hideko Takamine) who moves to a small island to teach 12 pupils (hence the 24 eyes). Relegated to outsider status by the islanders, she remains poignantly emblematic of the kind of unfaltering compassion and sacrifice Japanese women were expected to display at the time. As a result of this film, Kinoshita became synonymous with the resurrection of Japanese cinema after the devastation of World War II.

February 27

A Japanese Tragedy
1953, 116 mins
Kinoshita’s film examines the pervasive tragedy of the Japanese war widow by focusing on one such figure forced to make unspeakable sacrifices in order to take care of her children – children who, when they grow up, want nothing to do with her. Not dissimilar to a then contemporary Hollywood “women’s picture”, it similarly calls attention to the social plight of its central character: she must marry, bear children, sacrifice her own happiness for their sake, and wish for nothing more. In his introduction to the screenplay Kinoshita sympathetically stated, “no matter what kind of social structure… I think humans must not be left in a state of misery”. 35mm print courtesy of the Japan Foundation.

The Army
1944, 87 mins
Although commissioned by the Japanese Army Ministry during World War II, this film was nevertheless so subversive that it almost brought an end to Kinoshita’s then short directorial career. Initially seeming to play by the rules of propaganda, painting Japan as a mighty wartime power ready to fight to the end, the director’s fourth feature nevertheless draws attention, as always in Kinoshita’s work, to the horrific toll taken on individuals by the forces of militarism. Starring Chishu Ryu and Kinuyo Tanaka. 35mm print courtesy of the Japan Foundation.

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