This is the first installment of The Kinoshita Project, a retrospective guide through the Keisuke Kinoshita films now available from the Criterion Collection on Hulu Plus.
Keisuke Kinoshita’s first film, made in 1943, is a made-for-hire World War II propaganda piece. This becomes apparent within the first few minutes of the film, but, like Kurosawa’s The Most Beautiful, the movie is not necessarily boxed in by its nationalistic and militaristic trappings. In the midst of the film’s call for Japanese solidarity and pragmatic sacrifice to the cause of killing “American weaklings”, The Living Magoroku is a deft exploration of superstition, the need to remember a national history, and a lesson in telling the difference between a good sword and bad sword. It’s not always internally consistent, but at a brisk and sometimes overly complex 87 minutes, The Living Magoroku manages to be more than the sum of its parts.
The Magoroku of the title refers to an ancient Japanese blacksmith who created prized swords in his era. One of the Magoroku swords, a rare commodity in modern Japan, can be found in the Onagi home. The Onagi’s are the prestigious owners of the Onagi Field, sight of the Battle of Mikatagahara Field. For over three-hundred years no one has taken a hoe to these 70 acres of sacred land, because of a belief that cultivation (desecration) would bring down a curse on the Onagi family. With Japan needing all the help it can get in the war, some of the townspeople think that the land, grown over with useless shrubs and vegetation, should be given over to more practical uses.
The central conflict of the film – Japan’s practical needs vs. the need to hold on tightly to ancient lore – has many victims. There is the male head of the Onagi family, who believes that he has lung disease and will die young like the other Onagi men; there is the local blacksmith’s daughter, who wants to marry into the Onagi family but is prohibited because her brother is the lead ringleader of the movement to cultivate the Onagi field, an idea tantamount to apostasy; and then there are the townspeople, dying to do something for Japan but held back by what they feel is the nuisance of superstition.
Anyone who understands anything about Japanese war mentalities will know that the sacred field will eventually be cultivated. With the major exception of the kamikaze pilot, the Japanese are a fiercely pragmatic and disciplined people during wartime, and in most other times for that matter. As the film progresses, you can almost hear Kinoshita (or Shochiku studios) extolling nationalism and mocking the superstitions of the past. But you began to wonder if the conflict is only a contradiction, and a forced one at that. The field set to be cultivated is, after all, a historic battle site. If the Japanese are to preserve the memories of the past, they should make a monument of this battlefield, right? Would Americans have turned Gettysburg into a farm for war efforts? Would we trample on our past so easily in the name of pragmatism? Well, we might, but forget about the prospect of a curse for cultivating the land and think about what it means for the sake of history to desecrate a place like that. Throughout the film, Kinoshita has characters wax eloquent about the virtues of studying your family tree and knowing exactly where you come from and the blood that you carry. But while praising the Japan’s history and calling on it as an inspiration, the film is only too willing to let that history be shoved aside for the immediate needs of the present.
On a formal level, The Living Magoroku is fairly straightforward and unfussy. This serves the didactic narrative well, but there are surprising moments here and there. In one example, the blacksmith’s daughter and her Onagi boyfriend are facing the fact that they cannot be together. As the young boy tells her that he must end the relationship, the girl’s back is facing the camera; Kinoshita creeps up on her slowly, as though he were a concerned lover, moving the camera around her so that we can finally see her weeping face. The moment is not revelatory, because we know she’s crying from the moment the camera faces her from behind, but the gesture is a bold stroke in a movie largely devoid of flourishes. Is this a hint of things to come?
The Living Magoroku, despite its political purposes, ends up being a sweet movie. In it people learn of their own strengths, come to terms with their position in the world, and are able to find happiness and purpose. Seen in the middle of a losing war, The Living Magoroku was likely an inspirational piece of filmmaking. Today it is just the first step in Kinoshita’s long career.
This concludes our first edition of The Kinoshita Project. In the next installment, we’ll cover his second film, The Army.