The Kinoshita Project: The Portrait (1948)

The Kinoshita Project is a continuing series, looking at the Keisuke Kinoshita films made available on Hulu Plus from Criterion. 

If ever there were an appropriate movie to apply the term “dramedy” to, Keisuke Kinoshita’s The Portrait would be the one. Here is a film that weaves between comic weightlessness and heavy drama with almost unnoticeable ease. And when Kinoshita isn’t busy throwing jokes our way or pummeling us with dramatic tension, he manages to impress upon us, in his own inimitable way, the beauty of innocence. Yes, this appears to be Kinoshita in is prime element, unable to be confused with the work of any other director that I know of.

But despite the singular quality of the film, it turns out that The Portrait was written by none other than Akira Kurosawa. If it weren’t for the credits, you’d never know, because The Portrait bears almost no resemblance to Kurosawa’s frenetic brand of cinema. It does, however, bear the marks of his overt, sometimes overbearing humanism. Audie Bock, in her book Japanese Film Directors, suggests that Kinoshita had commissioned the script so as to challenge himself in new directions. In the end, The Portrait is all Kinoshita, but it also manages to provide an interesting aside to Kurosawa’s illustrious career. 

Like The Girl I Loved, The Portrait is a simple narrative construction that runs only 73 minutes. And like Apostasy, The Portrait’s real conflict is internal, with ­a young mistress struggling to come to terms with who she really is. In the end, The Portrait is like an inverted, un-politicized version of Apostasy, which carries the glorious tone of The Girl I Loved; and on top of all that we find some of the first signs that Kinoshita is a deft satirist.

The set-up is rather amusing. Two men decide to buy a dilapidated house, fix it up, and turn over a exorbitant profit. The only problem is that the current tenants, a poor painter’s family, won’t leave. To solve the problem, one of the buyers moves into the house with his mistress (Kuniko Igawa) in tow, hoping that her fiery ways will scare them off. The idea would seem devious enough to work on most any family, but these poor tenants have hearts of gold! Instead of the mistress frustrating the poor family, the film turns the scheme back on the schemers, and in turn becomes a great humanitarian comedy that segues into an affecting drama.

The great strength of The Portrait is in its lightness. The early sections of the film are filled with humor that is positively ribald, a quality that I did not expect from Kinoshita at this point. The effect is to offset the dramatic clarity of the later sections, giving the viewer the best of both worlds – humorous cultural critique and genuinely compassionate drama. It’s a mixture you won’t find often at the movies.

The young mistress is the woman of the portrait in ­The Portrait. At first she is brazen in her worldliness (a wonderfully bawdy caricature), but contact with the poor, happy tenant family begins to eat away at her. She starts to feel genuine shame at letting them believe that she is her lover’s daughter. And she becomes so conscious of her shame that she tries to be a “nice lady” around this family, going so far as to carry her new attitude into the bedroom! And when the old, kindly painter asks her to model for a portrait, she inexplicably agrees. Sitting for the portrait, wearing a kimono given to her by her mother, she is able to consider herself – not as a shameful stereotype, but as she might be, an object of human beauty worthy of portraiture. It forces her to wonder about her moral fiber and reconsider if the position she has staked out in life is really the one she wants.

The shock of The Portrait is that it not only forces Kuniko Igawa to look at herself in new ways, but it also forces the viewer to take these new perspectives. When we first meet her, Igawa is a satirical object, and we expect her to fully meet the mistress stereotype that she is a wildcat, full of youthful entitlement and gross vulgarity. In fact, Kinoshita’s caricature of her is unexpectedly vicious when one thinks back to the other noble women he has given us. She might be a feral cat of a woman in the early sections, but the mask is stripped off gradually, giving us a chance to look at the archetype as perhaps God would look at her or how any compassionate individual might. Kinoshita asks us to seek out the good in Igawa and to glorify it. And by extension, he asks us to look into our own selves, and free ourselves from the traps that we have put ourselves in. Goodness and purity eradicate shame in Kinoshita’s world.

Whenever a director amasses a large body of work over an extended period of time – Ford, Hitchcock, Hawks, Kurosawa – it begins to feel as though the films are in conversation with each other. Though we are only on our seventh Kinoshita feature (with another 23 to go at this point), already this phenomenon is starting to appear. We will recall that Kuniko Igawa, who plays the mistress here, also appeared as the object of unrequited love in The Girl I Loved. Her performance in The Portrait is a revelation. We recall her as one of the great sweethearts of cinema (a character of almost ethereal proportions) from before, and discover her now as a brash, secular creature. But as we watch her throughout The Portrait, she transforms back to the girl that we remember – the girl we loved. She seems to be facing the earlier film, remembering what she could be if she dropped her mask and chose the life of innocence and purity of heart that she sees in the poor family surrounding her.

Even the moon, featured prominently in the climactic scene in The Girl I loved seems to be shining over from that film as the poor family dances under its light in unhindered happiness. ­Igawa watches them dance with palpable jealousy. We get the impression that she would like to transport herself to back into The Girl I Loved. It’s not such a horrible idea, but the beauty of The Portrait is that Kinoshita doesn’t let her off so easily. She has to face herself and see herself for what she could be in the here and now. There’s no going back for Igawa, only going forward.

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