Nihon no higeki—Tragedy of Japan, or A Japanese Tragedy—chronicles a representative instance of hardship in postwar Japan. Written and directed by Keisuke Kinoshita, the film opens with archival materials and newspaper reports indicating a nation in turmoil, upheaved by defeat in the Second World War and demoralized, its social traditions uprooted, its confidence shaken, unemployment and poverty rampant, student militants violently protesting, and the uncertain shift from authoritarian rule to democratic governance underway. A professor, we learn, died of hunger because he was too honest, too wedded to a habit of obedience when it came to following rules, to delve into the black market in order to supplement his meager rations. Haruko Inoue, widowed by the war, endured incredible suffering during the war in order to provide for her two children. Flashbacks, some of them startlingly inserted, reveal that Haruko was brutalized by a brother-in-law who cajoled land away from her, and she sank into prostitution. Now grown, her children are dismissive, even cruelly contemptuous of her, a bar hostess who typically smells of sake, especially her son, Seiichi, who seeks adoption by a wealthy family to meet the expenses of his medical studies. In Japan, this film is more highly regarded than many of the Japanese films we cherish here in the West.
To be sure, it is an accomplished piece of work, at times a formally brilliant one, whose mix of fiction and documentary, cool observance and anguished family melodrama, sound and eerie punctuations of silence all reveal the hand of a capable, gifted film artist. But there is also a nagging, pleading quality to much of A Japanese Tragedy; like much worse films by such erstwhile “artists” as Stanley Kubrick and Francis Ford Coppola, it unpleasantly insists on its own greatness. There is scarcely any exploratory sense to Kinoshita’s classic; rather, the viewer could be forgiven for intermittently feeling that the film is dragging a message to completion. Abandoned by children, society and history, Haruko ends by committing suicide.
As Haruko, Yûko Mochizuki gives the sort of bravura performance that leaves me cold. Like Helen Hayes or Meryl Streep, Mochizuki seems more interested in impressing us with her prodigious histrionic gifts than in investigating her character and revealing the depths of Haruko’s tormented humanity. This is “great” film acting for those who hate genuinely good film acting. It is exhausting to watch Mochizuki go through her expert paces.
On the other hand, there is wonderful acting by Keiji Sada as Tatsuya, a young street guitarist who is trying to earn enough money to hold together, body and soul, his wife, who has fallen ill following an abortion. This couple’s “Japanese tragedy”—we never see the wife—profoundly affected me, unlike Haruko’s. Sada’s performance is as haunting as the melancholy melody that Tatsuya plays on his guitar.*
Sada’s Tatsuya alone brings a touch of the delicately mournful poetry we tend to associate with Kinoshita (Twenty-Four Eyes, 1954; She Was Like a Wild Chrysanthemum, 1955). For the record, Kinoshita mentored Masaki Kobayashi, much as Yasujiro Ozu mentored Shohei Imamura.
* Eleven years later, Sada was killed in a road accident. He was 38.
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