The Kinoshita Project is a chronological look through all the Keisuke Kinoshita movies available from the Criterion Collection on Hulu Plus.
The movie begins with a credit sequence on fire. We are then offered a brief portrait of Sayoko, a woman holding court in her dead husband’s home; she loans a little money, takes care of her child, and assists everyone in whatever capacity they need. Her world is busy, but not thankless. Everyone around her appreciates what she does except her father-in-law, who becomes agitated and accusatory when his grandson accidentally breaks a window. But even grandfather calms down and shows a little compassion for Sayoko and her son. For as much as we can admire her, Sayoko has way too much on her plate.
Phoenix begins at the end, with Sayoko admitting to her brother-in-law that she has a plan to leave her husband’s home and gain independence. This is the mythical bird, coming fourth from the ashes. The movie is the remembrance of a six year fire.
It doesn’t do much harm to relate the plot of Phoenix, because just about everything is there within the first ten minutes. Sayoko fell in love with a young man. She fell in love hard, and then lost him to the War. Even the great conflict of the film – the initial disapproval of her father-in-law and his eventual reversal of stance – is on display in miniature right there in the first few minutes.
So where The Girl I Loved was about the noble pain of unrequited love, Phoenix is about the torture of a requited love that can’t be realized. It’s a subject that has been covered thousands of times, and there’s little in Kinoshita’s treatment that warrants any special attention. The deck is stacked so far against Sayoko (her father dies, her brother is sick and dies, her aunt and uncle disown her, her boyfriend’s father refuses to even meet her, her boyfriend is fighting in the war) that Phoenix would be an almost unbearable melodrama if we didn’t know from the beginning that Sayoko will get her man and overcome her desperate situation.
With that in mind, Phoenix does contain a number of emotionally resonant passages, but is never able to rise (cough, cough) above the tired clichés of doomed love. The sweetest and most memorable scenes are early on, when love has just begun. This innocent couple meets on a city bus, making coy eye contact. She follows the boy into a book shop and finds that he’s dropped his student ID. In her hurry to find him and return the badge, she forgets that she has a book in hand. This half-brained depiction of youthful love is dead-on, but it is still a sentiment better expressed in The Girl I Loved.
This is a melodrama, meant to make us cry for the tragic couple who loves each other so much. It’s meant to make us weep for the young lovers who do everything the right way but are foiled by war, tradition, and family opposition. You know, the usual.
But melodrama only works if you sympathize with the right characters. And though we know that this couple truly cares for each other, it’s difficult not to side with the disapproving father-in-law. Though he cruelly refuses to even meet Sayoko, we eventually learn that his objections are mostly solid. He knows that the war could very well kill his son, and he knows that if they marry, Sayoko could end up a widow very soon, all for the sake of a brief honeymoon. In marrying now, she is taking a high risk, low reward gambit. If they are to marry at all, they should wait until the war is over, which would be a low risk, high reward gambit. As a pragmatist, the father-in-law’s point of view seems the best to me. You may be in love, but what does marriage get you when you’ll still be separated by war? Marriage in the middle of a war, with all its formal and cultural baggage, can only confuse things when life and death are hanging in the balance.
We see that Sayoko is a fine woman, full of talent and honor. Her character enables her to seek independence and overcome the loss of her husband, which is astounding in its own right. Where lesser women would’ve withered away, Sayoko is strong. But to what avail? In the end, all that Sayoko gained from marriage was a two day honeymoon, a marginal widow’s life with her husband’s family, and some painful memories. (Well, okay, she got a son too). And now, she’ll have to find a way to break from her husband’s family and live on her own.
Love is blind, but that doesn’t mean we need to always follow where it leads.
As a literal story of foiled love and personal resolve, Phoenix doesn’t add up to much. Some of the early scenes have the same tenderness of romance seen in The Girl I Loved, but that all gets washed away in the forced melodrama and realization that Sayoko’s insistence on marrying is pig-headed at best. It’s hard to admire such foolishness after seeing some of the most upright movie characters ever in The Girl I Loved.
Given how disappointing Phoenix is as a love story, I suspect that it can also be read as a metaphor for Japan’s post-war character. Having engaged in WWII, Japan lost, and was left with devastation, forced to embark on a quest for a new identity. As a metaphor, Phoenix is poignant and telling of Japan’s will to survive, but it’s swallowed up in the kiddie predilections of true romance. And that’s too bad, because Phoenix could’ve been a film for adults.
This concludes the fifth edition of The Kinoshita Project. Next week we’ll be looking at Apostasy (1948).