The Kinoshita Project: Broken Drum (1949)

The Kinoshita Project is chronological exploration of the of Keisuke Kinoshita films now available on Hulu Plus through the Criterion Collection. 

A familiar physical gesture hangs over every frame of Broken Drum; It is the gesture of a man with his right arm raised up at a 45 degree angle over his subjects. He is the dictator and all others are there to do his bidding. In the wake of World War II, there is only one figure that this gesture can point back to.

Kinoshita doesn’t just critique Hitler in Broken Drum; he satirizes him with the ruthless glee of a disgruntled employee sounding off on his recently dead boss. That doesn’t mean that this version of Hitler isn’t pitifully funny, though. Gunpei Tsuda, the owner of a once profitable construction company, always addresses his inferiors with arm outstretched. It’s a shaky arm, though, because he is old, and he has a difficult time keeping it up in the air with any sense of authority. Tsuda’s autocratic gesture has the effect of an impotent appendage; turning from a symbol of power into a sign of lame paternalism. And though everyone who stands under the outstretched arm must give their due respect, behind the old man’s back they will slander, mock, and deride him. The respect given is only formal, not coming from the heart at all. The only thing that Tsuda wants in life – and the Hitleresque gesture is a sure sign – is to control his subjects; in this case his children. And he is the abject comic center of a beautifully played ensemble piece.

The trajectory of the movie is set in the first scene, long before we ever meet Tsuda or any of his family. A maid confesses that she’s had enough of this house and is leaving. She’s been there for years and is finally tired of the abuse. Loyalty only goes so far. This attitude is soon taken up by almost every member of Tsuda’s family. He has his wife and six children (four sons, two daughters), and each person has reason to rebel. The oldest son doesn’t want to go into the construction business per his father’s wishes, partly because he’s not cut out for it and partly because he wants to make music boxes with his aunt; the oldest daughter resists an arranged marriage and falls in love with a painter from a ramshackle family; another son wants nothing but to play piano all day; one daughter seems to love nothing but Shakespeare’s Hamlet; and the youngest son is a baseball fanatic. Tsuda’s wife has no hobby or outside interest, she has just been browbeaten to her breaking point.

The pleasure of Broken Drum is in watching each member break away. The varied responses of each family member represent the sum total of Japan’s new independence from the Emperor. Some situations require open defiance (how else do you avoid an arranged marriage?), others only require not so subtle readings of Hamlet to chide the despotic father, and still another situation calls only for unheralded patience. These are a people who are only now, after years of living under an iron fist, discovering the courage to seek out their own paths in life. The process is frightening, for without the father’s approval, these children risk poverty, estrangement, and possible failure. It is often said, “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t,” but when the devil you know is destroying every last corner of your life, you need to let that devil go. And so it went with Japan, a country crawling out from underneath the weight of their emperor, risking everything to discover who they really were.

The great irony of this most overbearing of father figures is that he is constantly admonishing his children to follow in his path, one which involved incredible risk, independence, and fortitude. And yet, all he wants his children to do is play it safe – go to school, work in the construction business that he’s already started, and follow socially respectable paths to success. When they actually do follow his advice and go with their guts, he can’t abide by it.

Like the young school teacher afraid to reveal his caste history in Apostasy and the tough fragile young woman of The Portrait, these children have to discover who they are when they’re not in their father’s long shadow. This breaking away process is almost enough to ruin the entire family, but we see that to not break away would only do the same thing.

Broken Drum, like many of the Kinoshita’s movies we’ve seen so far, is a celebration of goodness in the face of evil. It requires us to enter into the process of self-actualization that its characters go through. And in that process to discover that we don’t need to be controlled by outside forces (in Apostasy it’s an outmoded caste prejudice, in The Portrait it’s the stereotype of a brazen woman) or our own perceived limitations. Though Kinoshita isn’t afraid to get sentimental on us, Broken Drum is a forceful account of how to break away from authoritarian control and despotism. It is also a clear-eyed lesson on how authority should and should not behave.

As an ensemble piece, Broken Drum is effortless, which should come as no surprise after seeing Kinoshita’s Jubilation Street, a war propaganda film that functioned far better as an examination of a community in transition. Each character in Broken Drum is clearly defined and given an easy to follow arc. They all swarm around the father, who is a complex and fascinating center. Of particular interest is Kinoshita’s depiction of progressive women. When the eldest daughter wants to break her arranged marriage, she is shown as a strong creature, willing to wreck the mold and sacrifice her parent’s wishes at the altar. She’s no Ozu heroine; she’ll never sacrifice herself for the needs of some arbitrary tradition or to keep her parents from getting old and lonely. And why should she sacrifice herself? Her father, after all, never appeals to anything nobler than a life of bourgeois amenities.

After the bitter cynicism of The Yotsuya Ghost Story, Broken Drum returns us to the Kinoshita that we’ve come to know, an optimistically-minded champion of honest and courageous men and women. In Kinoshita’s world the outstretched hand has no place; it is destroyed, its impotent nature revealed and cast out. The truly strong do not need to lord it over others.

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3 thoughts on “The Kinoshita Project: Broken Drum (1949)

  1. i just saw this movie in Taiwan today and wow. amazing movie making. But why did the family eat Western style in 1949 movie, with forks and knives and not chopsticks?

  2. I’m no expert on this, but my guess is that Japan was already adopting Western customs by 1949, and so while it might not have been commonplace to eat with forks and knives, I suspect that it wasn’t unusual either. Ozu deals a little with encroaching Western customs in Late Spring, which was released in 1949 as well. If you haven’t seen that movie, I think it’s Ozu’s best.

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