Hokkaido: In the closing days of WW2 the fear, anger and resentment of villagers at Japan’s imminent defeat is directed against two recently arrived refugee families, the first is the Sonobe’s; sister Kieko (Shima Iwashita), brother Hideyuki (Go Kato) and grandmother Shizuku (Kinuyo Tanaka) and the second, the Shimizu’s; grandpa (Tokue Hanazawa), brother Shintaro (Yoshi Kato) and sister Yuri (Mariko Kaga). The cause is Yuri’s refusal of an offer of marriage from the mayor’s son, a local war hero named Takamori (Bunta Sugawara) whom the Sonobe’s know is actually a war criminal. Before long malicious rumours put about by Takamori (a perpetually ominous figure on horseback) result in the destruction of the Shimizu’s crops and have the rest of the village blaming the new arrivals for every incident no matter how trivial or absurd. When Takamori then forces himself on Yuri her act of self-defence inflames the locals and the two families are forced to take up arms to defend their tiny homesteads against the villagers.
A powerhouse movie with a plot that could have come straight out of an American western. The predominantly female cast are excellent and their nemesis Bunta Sugawara (later the star of endless Yakuza movies) a most frightening figure; a rigid, unbending martinet with a fanatical gleam in his eyes. He’s the very epitome of the crazed military types who took the country into the abyss during that period. The film is directed with effortless mastery by Kinoshita in a succession of wide master shots with sparing use of medium shots or close ups. His blocking of actors in the frame never seems flashy or dull. Cinematographer Hiroshi Kusuda’s location work is flat-out breathtaking. The opening colour shots of the farming village embody the essence of a community at peace with itself and when the movie switches to black and white for the bulk of the story his images of this remote village, encircled by dense forest and snowcapped mountains, evoke the kind of fable-like quality implied by the film’s title. Also memorable is the unusual score by the director’s brother, Chuji – a weird rhythmic buzzing that sounds for all the world like Australian aboriginal music. One powerful setpiece follows another – the shock moment of recognition between Hideyuki and the loathsome Takamori that plunges us into a combat flashback from Manchuria – a lengthy tracking shot of two Chinese civilians fleeing through the torrential rain before Takamori murders one and then drags the survivor off to be raped in front of Hideyuki’s horrified eyes. Another sequence in which Takamori on horseback slowly approaches Yuri on a mountain path under an ominous skyscape (Kinoshita’s attention to roiling cloud formations could give Kurosawa a run for his money), the only sound the trot-trot of the horse growing in volume as he approaches, is a sequence of sheer nail-biting tension. We know all too well what’s going to happen but that doesn’t make it any the less easier to sit through.
Just considered as an exercise in tension the film is a smash but its vice-like grip and visceral impact owes much to its wartime setting. The villagers don’t turn into a mob hellbent on murdering the Sonobe’s and the Shimizu’s just because Takamori was jilted or even because their crops were ruined. They go beserk because the grim news filtering through to them about the state of the war, the A-bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan’s imminent surrender, the deaths of all their sons, turns their grief into a raging torrent of emotion that needs an outlet and – manipulated by Takamori and his vengeful father – finds it in blaming the new arrivals. The final act, as the two families attempt to flee across a mountain pass pursued by bloodthirsty villagers who’ve lost all self-control, is an absolute nail-biter. So acutely does Kinoshita nail the turbulent emotions here – the villagers with their blood up, the families who will do whatever they have to do to protect their kin – that you feel like you’re being swept away by a tidal wave of emotion. During the body-strewn climax an image of a bullet slicing the heads off a row of wheat poignantly expresses the senselessness of what’s occurring.With A Legend Or Was It? Kinoshita not only made a gripping suspense drama but in ordinary men whose emotions are manipulated by unscrupulous leaders and turned into crazed killers a metaphor for what happened to Japan during the war. This is one helluva film from one of Japan’s greatest and most versatile directors.