The Kinoshita Project is a continuing exploration of the Keisuke Kinoshita movies made available on Hulu plus through Criterion. In chronological order, we’ve reached 1948!
“Freedom and equality. Respect for human rights.
These three elements are guaranteed to be protected by the new constitution.
However, the ghost of the feudal period still continues to linger. The caste system looms large in people’s minds. Clear social rankings were in place in the feudal society. Of highest rank were the samurai, followed by the farmers, then the tradesmen and villagers or “outcasts” at the bottom. Society was controlled by submission and oppression. The caste system was abolished in the Menji era, bringing equality to all people. However, conventional perceptions and mere ignorance were still in existence. Contempt, prejudice, and oppression continued to exist among the people.”
The opening sequence of Apostasy presents us with the above quote over shots of running water. These explicit appeals to equality, a new democratic constitution, and human rights are highly uncharacteristic of the Kinoshita films we’ve seen so far. Here the message is brazenly political and preachy in the extreme. The rest of the film, which details the struggles of a small town school teacher whose caste is revealed, is only an acting out of these opening ideals. And these exhortations, no matter how sincere they may be, have the effect of stripping Apostasy of all its didactic and dramatic content. Once you pass those bold proclamations, there’s nothing left to learn from the movie. If you believed that caste was an important factor in the social structure of Japanese life, you probably would’ve walked out on Kinoshita within the first few minutes of the movie. Apostasy, ironically enough, preaches to the choir. The message of the film, therefore, falls flat. But, as we learned from his war propaganda films, Kinoshita is capable of imbuing almost any material with freshness and vigor. The key to enjoying Apostasy is to look past the brouhaha of the message and stare into the core of emotional honesty in the film’s protagonist, Segawa.
As the Menji period begins around the turn of the century, Japan is doing away with the old caste system. Samurai and villagers are no longer supposed to represent different layers of social strata and equality is the goal for all. Old habits die hard, though, and one young teacher, living in a remote Japanese village, knows that if his family lineage is ever revealed, he will be ostracized from his community, and forced into a perpetual cycle of poverty, both for himself and for any future family that he might like to build. After a few early subplots are introduced and promptly discarded, Apostasy settles in on Segawa.
What undermines the opening rally cry of Apostasy, and what makes the movie at least mildly fascinating to watch, is that Segawa’s struggle isn’t so much with his community (social) as it is with himself (personal). On his deathbed, Segawa’s father had implored his son to hide his lineage so that he could raise the family out of poverty. But Segawa knows that true equality cannot be reached if he (and others like him) are forced to hide their true selves for the sake of some arbitrary belief that village people are not as respectable as samurai and other castes. Actor Ryo Ikebe, with a thick shock of black hair and a tortured face full of sharp angles, fully realizes Segawa’s internal conflict for us. He quietly bears the strain of trying to live up to his father’s wishes, wanting to remain an educator, and knowing that the shame he feels over his lineage is both irrational and immoral.
The sight of Segawa’s strained face, struggling for courage, is a grand universal expression. He is the prime reason for watching Apostasy, because without the actor’s expression, the film becomes a tired exercise: Segawa meets up with a philosopher/mentor figure named Inoko. The acolyte dreams of following in his master’s footsteps, and the dosage of foreshadowing is so heavy that one definitely does not need to finish watching the movie to know what Segawa will become the new Inoko, complete with supportive wife at his side. Again, if it weren’t for Ikebe’s performance, Apostasy would be the filmed equivalent of paint-by-numbers.
Kinoshita, living up the reputation that precedes him, puts all of his hope in youth. Though Inoko the mentor is no spring chicken, the responsibility for a better tomorrow is put squarely on the young. It is through their energy and willingness to uphold enlightened values that the young are enabled make Japan a nation built on honesty, innocence, and virtue.
If, like me, you are determined to see everything Kinoshita, then you’ll have to sit through Apostasy. If you can live your life without seeing every one of his movies, then this is probably the first of Kinoshita’s postwar efforts that you can afford to skip completely.
This concludes the sixth edition of The Kinoshita Project. Come back next week for a look at The Portrait (1948).