Ryô Kase embodies the great Japanese filmmaker in this biography on his life and career.
JAPANESE FILM FESTIVAL: When the story of Dawn of a Filmmaker: The Keisuke Kinoshita Story begins, the yet-to-be famous film director Kinoshita (played by Ryô Kase) already had a couple of film credits under his belt. However, dealing with Japan’s wartime censorship, Kinoshita found himself artistically challenged. The key sticking point that launches this drama was a scene in The Army (1944) when actress Kinuyo Tanaka witnesses her son (and many others in the Imperial army) marching off to war. The Japanese censors were affronted by the idea that a mother would cry while her son was fulfilling his national duty and therefore took the scene as a sign of Kinoshita’s lack of commitment to Japan’s war effort. In contrast, Kinoshita thought it inevitable that a mother would cry at such a moment. Deciding it was hopeless to make films under such an uncompromising system, Kinoshita left Tokyo and returned to his family’s rural home in Shizuoka prefecture.
not really the dawn of a filmmaker, more like the rebirth
So it’s going to sound like nitpicking to point out that this film’s title is slightly misleading. Firstly, it’s not the Kinoshita story, but a Kinoshita story in a career that spanned several decades. The other aspect of the title’s wrong-footedness is that it’s not really the dawn of a filmmaker, more like the rebirth. If only that was this film’s only problems.
Reinforcing the importance of the portrayal of the mother in The Army is the fact that at the time of this film’s story, Kinoshita’s own mother (played by Yûko Tanaka) is bedridden as a consequence of a suspected stroke during an air raid. As Japan was losing the war and further bombing from the Allied forces appeared inevitable, Kinoshita’s family decided to evacuate and retreat further into the countryside. Fresh from Tokyo and disturbed by his mother’s fragile condition, Kinoshita is concerned that his mother will not be able survive the rough bus trip along unmade roads. Used to taking charge, Kinoshita insists that he and his brother (played by Yûsuke Santamaria) put his mother on a wooden cart and gently wheel her over the mountainous trail to ensure her safe and healthy arrival.
While apparently based on a true event, this story fits comfortably in with the frequent sentimentalising of mothers in Japanese films that is often utilised to make WWII a more palatable topic for Japanese audiences (or at least Japanese film studios). So prevalent are such films, they even have their own genre classification: haha-mono (haha means 'mother’ and mono is an abbreviation of monogatari meaning 'story’). Anyone expecting recriminations about WWII has a lot to learn about the limitations of contemporary Japanese commercial cinema.
Along the way, this hagiographic piece references a selection of scenes that supposedly inspired Kinoshita to make many films including a glimpse of a teacher and her school children which allegedly was enough to inspire his anti-war classic Twenty-Four Eyes (this is despite that 1954 film actually being based on a novel by Sakae Tsuboi). Even though the moodiness of Kinoshita’s character and his mother’s fragile health is well established, the film settles for a light tone that tends to neutralise this extended anecdote’s dramatic capabilities. Reinforcing this strained levity is the assistance Kinoshita and his brother receive from a young neighbour (played by Gaku Hamada) as they transport the mother by cart, while the rest of the family travelled ahead by bus. The neighbour is a rough diamond who has a tendency to complain and an eye for the ladies, but the film’s 'big’ joke is the bumpkin’s mistaking Kinoshita’s directing career for a cinema usher’s job. It is supposed to be a nostalgic and endearing portrait of the 'little people’ of Japan, but it’s just condescending and clearly the product of studio executives who probably can’t remember the last time they left Shochiku’s offices in the Ginza. The stale and manufactured atmosphere permeates outwards from this bumpkin character and keeps the film locked into a false nostalgia.
In fact, the only time the film shows any signs of vitality or authenticity is when it is showing clips from Kinoshita’s actual films. During the course of this movie, Shochiku inserts into the narrative the aforementioned sequence of Kinuyo Tanaka running alongside the marching soldiers with tears in her eyes. More tantalising still is a 10-minute montage of clips from 15 of Kinoshita’s films at this movie’s end (he went on to direct a further 47 films after WWII ended), including from his most widely circulated film, Carmen Come Home (1951), which also happens to be Japan’s first colour film. Far too late for newcomers, the sequence gives a context but leaves one feeling dissatisfied with the bland homage that is Dawn of a Filmmaker and hungering for the real thing.