The Kinoshita Project is a chronological retrospective of all the Keisuke Kinoshita films available from the Criterion Collection on Hulu Plus.
Whenever I read a critic describing a movie as “beautiful”, “poetic”, or “luminous”, I get a little embarrassed for the critic and for the movie. To use these types of superlatives is to reduce the art work to its basest levels. Rapture of this kind often indicates that the viewer is caught up in the experience of watching, almost to the point of being unthinking, and there is usually no interaction with the film’s worldview. There are, however, a few films that actually earn those kinds of accolades – Sunrise, City Girl, L’Atalante, Days of Heaven – but they are few and sometimes far between. So what I am about to write, I do not write lightly.
This is the fourth title in The Kinoshita Project. The previous three (The Living Magroroku, The Army, and Jubilation Street) were WWII propaganda films. Though they each have contained flashes of poetic brilliance, they are ultimately products of their immediate time; artifacts of a tumultuous moment in a culture’s history. Nothing in those three movies prepared me for what I saw in The Girl I loved. Within the first ten minutes of watching, I knew that I was seeing a different Kinoshita and I began to hope that this project would follow this new direction for the next 24 movies. I know that it probably won’t, but I trembled at the thought.
Like those beacons of poetic cinema that were mentioned earlier, The Girl I Loved is an elemental film; the plot is slight but highly effective, with the focus seeming to rest on ascetics. The sheer beauty of individual shots and sequences is overwhelming at times, but it’s also compounded by incredible emotional content.
The Girl I Loved follows a deceptively simple story of unrequited love set in the mountains of rural Japan. One day in the unspecified past, a baby girl is left at the doorsteps of a ranch while her father jumps to his death. Adopted by this ranching family, the baby, named Yoshiko, grows into the sweetest of young ladies. Raised by this family, Yoshiko forges a deep friendship with her older adoptive brother, Jingo. It is apparent very early on, in a scene where Jingo and Yoshiko flirt as they gather hay and then playfully wrestle, that these two love each other dearly. We suspect that their love is romantic, but Kinoshita only confirms Jingo’s side of the equation in a delightful scene where Jingo’s younger brother, Jiro, teases him. Yoshiko, stuck on familial love, can’t see Jingo’s emotions for what they really are.
The setting – rolling mountains, wide open skies with scattered clouds, pristine valleys, lush grass, and a glowing sun that casts dancing shadows – is so thoroughly breathtaking and ripe for love that I half expected Jingo and Yoshiko to marry each other without any obstacles, and that would be the end of the movie. Kinoshita is constantly framing his characters on the tops of mountains and hills, with the camera angled at least a little to the sky, suggesting the beauty of the world and the heights purity. The earth and all of its pleasures are right there, with no city to crowd them out, and these two young people, pure and innocent the clouds that hover on top of the surrounding mountains, should be together. We only hope that they will. That would have made a great movie. It’s rare to see a film in which good characters see their goodness rewarded without any obstacles, but this movie is called The Girl I Loved (past tense) and it cannot be that movie. In lieu of a movie about young lovers who should be and eventually are together, what Kinoshita actually gives us is far superior and more admirable than anything I had previously imagined.
We discover that while Jingo was serving his five years in WWII, Yoshiko has fallen in love with a crippled WWII veteran who lives in the nearby town. Though Mr. Noda is a pillar of the small town community he lives in and admired by all who know him, Yoshiko hasn’t told anyone about him, because she’s afraid that others will reject her choice for his limp. We suspect that Yoshiko could never love Jingo romantically, because, though adopted, he is her brother. The cripple does not stand in Jingo’s way. Rather, it is blind circumstance and those missing five years from World War II that will foil this love.
In an early scene, Jingo and Yoshiko tenderly sit together on a hilltop and look out at the town below. They both want to say something to the other, but do not; instead, they agree to tell their respective secrets on the night of the Harvest Festival, in five days. Jingo wants to tell Yoshiko that he intends to marry her and Yoshiko wants to tell Jingo about Mr. Noda. On the night of the festival, Jingo sees Yoshiko with Mr. Noda and understands almost immediately. He allows her to tell her secret on the way home, but refuses to tell his own. He knows that telling would cause great discord and he holds back because he knows this.
Jingo never does tell Yoshiko of his intention to marry her. He goes on and blesses her relationship with Mr. Noda and finds the most graceful of ways to tell her without telling her. The purity of the whole thing, reflected in the wonders of their natural surroundings, has nothing to do with any lovers, but in the integrity of all the film’s characters. There’s not a single one to dislike, because they are all so good to each other and so honorable in every way. And the joy expressed by each character, in luminous shots of smiles, furtive looks, and gazes towards the hills, only increases the already tremendous heartbreak of the film. The tragedy is great, but it is only the tragedy of a missed opportunity. There is no cruelty in The Girl I Loved, only bittersweet integrity. This is the kind of tragedy that can be celebrated and admired.
The Girl I Loved is truly beautiful in every way. To look at its physical loveliness, to relax in its rhythms, and to marvel at the goodness in its characters; all of this is to celebrate a movie so completely devoid of cynicism that you’d think it was filmed in an alternate universe. The shock is particularly unsettling when you think that The Girl I Loved was released only one year after two atomic bombs had been dropped on Japan.
This concludes the fourth edition of The Kinoshita Project. Next we will look at Phoenix (1947).