MUDDY RIVER (Kôhei Oguri, 1981)

Based on Teru Miyamoto’s novel, Kôhei Oguri’s feature debut, Doro no kawa, is admirable in some ways and disappointing in others. Emphatic, inflated, at times even sentimental, it was hysterically overrated in its own day when it won a slew of best film and/or directorial prizes (the Kinema Junpo, Mainichi Film Concours, Japanese Academy, and Blue Ribbon Awards among them) and Oguri was hailed for possessing the sensitivity and brilliance of an Ozu or Mizoguchi. Wishful thinking, this, abetted by the fact that Doro no kawa was filmed in classic (though only middling) black and white.
     Nobuo, a nine-year-old schoolboy in Osaka, is near the same age as Oguri was when the action takes place, ten years after Japan’s defeat in the Second World War. Nobuo lives with his family on a houseboat at the mouth of the Kyū-Yodo River; his parents operate a bank side noodle restaurant. Their living quarters are tidy; their manner, warm, friendly, gentle. Nobuo’s father (Takahiro Tamura, wearily magnificent—best actor, Mainichi Film Concours) dotes on his son, of whom he is immensely proud, and who represents to us, because Nobuo represents to him, his and Japan’s future. Nobuo’s father survived the war, and perhaps this son of his offsets the ordeal of combat, the sacrifice of time and spirit, the humiliation of Japan’s defeat and Allied occupation, and postwar economic struggles. The father’s guardedly hopeful outlook and relatively good fortune contrast with another family on a nearby (and untidy) houseboat. There, the father is absent, having either been killed in the war or, demoralized, having abandoned his family; the mother of two children, the younger possibly born out of wedlock, ekes out their survival as a prostitute. The boat is new to the mouth of the river; it comes in and, at the end of the film, drifts out. In between, Nobuo and the prostitute’s son, who doesn’t go to school and therefore, implicitly, has no future, become fast and close friends.
     In the midst of much drama that is too schematic for my taste, one symbol is striking and trenchant: the near-mythical giant carp that the two boys barely see moving mysteriously beneath the surface of the muddy river—an encapsulation of life’s uncertainty and of Japan’s dreamlike past glory and uncharted future. In addition, there’s one very moving scene: a visit to hospital, where Nobuo, accompanying his father, meets a dying patient and holds her hand. Perhaps this former wife of Nobuo’s father is also Nobuo’s biological mother; I was too busy crying to the gills to be distracted by the blatant symbolism—Japan’s past and all that; to go forward, what must be let go.
     Indeed, around the edges of this film, and occasionally piercing its core, there are engaging ambiguities; but in the main this is one of those works that pursues “meaning” with a capital-“M.” Bloated and suspect, the film infuriated me with a scene of cruelty explaining Nobuo’s termination of his friendship with the other boy, who sets fire, dock side, to one captured crab after another. I get it: the prostitute’s son, knowing that his boat will be pulling out the next morning, is “burning bridges”—making Nobuo hate him so as not to miss him. (I am less convinced that Nobuo would so quickly come around to understanding this, as the film implies he does.) But the scene is too vicious and violent to resonate, as it wants to, beyond the sheer viciousness and violence.
     As Nobuo, whose eyes throughout reflect the boy’s growing apprehension of the world he is a part of, Nobutaka Asahara has been carefully directed, and Oguri’s evocation of childhood, and of a child’s expanding perception of the adult world, and of the father’s wistful, silent recollections, is all crackerjack, wonderful. This is why I kept hoping I would like this movie.

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