A Legend Or Was It? (Keisuke Kinoshita, Japan, 1963)

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.

Snow Flurry (Keisuke Kinoshita, Japan, 1959)

In 1940 the only son of an aristocratic family commits suicide with his pregnant wife (Keiko Kishi) by jumping into the river from a nearby bridge. However the latter survives to eventually give birth to a son, Sutueo (Yusuke Kawazu). Over the following decades both mother and son are cruelly treated by their in-laws who regard their very presence as an unwelcome reminder of their own son’s wartime dishonour. 19 years later, with the family having lost its aristocratic position along with most of its land, the adult Suteo harbours a deep love for his adoptive sister Sakura (Yoshiko Kuga). But when Sakura is lined up for marriage at the behest of a pushy mother (Chieko Higashiyama) desperate to reclaim the family’s former status it looks as though the pattern of tragedy and suicide may be about to repeat itself.

A flurry of snow blossoms = a flurry of memories. That’s the smart conceit at the heart of this slow but ultimately deeply poignant and moving story. Effectively an ensemble piece, writer/director Kinoshita once again explores the theme of family bonds which would dominate his work, although one of the refreshing surprises here is that while he maintains an overall sympathetic approach to his characters he finds just as much to criticize as praise in a family dynamic that proves suffocating for mother and son until a pivotal event gives both the chance to walk away over the bridge that holds such unhappy memories and begin their lives over. Although Keiko Kishi gives a typically solid performance as the mother, the film is all but stolen by Yusuke Kawazu’s near wordless turn as her son. His body language, the way he brightens up the minute Sakura is around, the letter he writes congratulating Sakura on her marriage even though it’s killing him inside, you really feel for this kid and it’s all achieved without a hint of melodrama. The film is also fascinating from a formal perspective. As usual Keisuke directs in a series of beautifully staged master shots with the actors so well blocked you’re barely even aware of his cutting but what really takes the viewer by surprise is his jumping back and forth between the two timelines of 1940 and 1959 in a style which clearly prefigures the editing techniques of the 1960’s Japanese New Wave and is at least contemporary with that of the French movement. The first act of Snow Flurry presents us with a blizzard of events featuring Keiko and Kawazu at different ages but with none of the cinematic punctuation traditionally attendant upon a flashback (no dissolves or fading from colour to black and white) and it is bewildering. But as you stick with it not only does the wider context gradually come into focus but so too does a genuine tension as we wait to see how the traumatic events glimpsed piecemeal in the opening came to be and if they get resolved. To sum up, if not a masterpiece then very close.