The Kinoshita Project is a chronological look at all the Keisuke Kinoshita films available from the Criterion Collection on Hulu Plus.
Up until now, we should have learned at least one thing about Keisuke Kinoshita: he loves the pure of heart. His heroes are typically young and idealistic to the point of naiveté. The fact that Kinoshita rarely privileges anyone beyond their 20s becomes extremely acute in The Good Fairy, which, even if it doesn’t carry the poetic heights of The Girl I Loved or the comic brilliance of The Portrait, might be the most mature expression of his vision so far. The honor and self-sacrifice of its hero is so thorough that it crosses over the line, moving from melodrama and into horror. What he does and the alliances he chooses are anathema to the understanding of most people, myself included. What he does is both right and sick. His actions, in the ordinary world, would be classified as insane.
In The Good Fairy Kinoshita juxtaposes two extremes – the smarmy world of tabloid journalism and the hero’s (Rentaro) romantic longings for a sweet 19 year old girl who is scheduled to die within the next few months. She has no prospect of future life and her family is poor, which means that loving her makes absolutely no practical sense at all. If she dedicates herself to him, it is an easy dedication; with only a few months to live, she has nothing to lose. If he loves her it is because he is sincere, not because he has anything to gain. Rentaro knows at the outset that loving her will only break his heart.
Rentaro and Mikako stand as a calm center of the film’s narrative as the rest of it swirls around them in a near-hedonistic drive for personal gratification. The other characters – finance ministers, newspaper editors, runaway wives, jilted girlfriends – look for money, romance, and power at the expense of anyone who happens to stand in front of their plans. They run over each other for what they want and they are run over as well. They aren’t all completely guilty, but none of them have the propensity for innocence and purity of intention that these two have. Again, Kinoshita instructs us with an ideal, not reality.
Briefly, to summarize, the film begins with Rentaro who is a junior reporter assigned to cover the missing wife of a local minister of finance. No one knows why she’s disappeared. Rumors circulate that she has committed suicide, but her powerful husband doesn’t seem particularly concerned.
Scandal obviously lurks behind this mystery, but Rentaro is too shy and honorable to treat his assignment as the gossip column that it is; he is loathe to pry into the private lives of innocent citizens, perhaps because he respects them enough to treat them as he would want to be treated. He searches for the missing wife by first checking her childhood home. She is not there, but her younger sister, Mikako, is, and she is willing to take him the rest of the way. When he does finally find her, he’s sheepish in his questioning and the article he writes reveals nothing (to the public anyway). Part of the problem for Rentaro and his newspaper is that what he discovers is scandalous in ways that a normal gossip rag could never understand. Itsuko, the runaway wife, hasn’t left her husband for the usual salacious reasons at all; this woman has fled her posh life because her sugar daddy does shady deals. She doesn’t want to be married to a crook. She, like the young journalist who interviews her, is an innocent (to a point), willing to give up luxury for a clear conscience. But while Itsuko is ready to run from her white collar criminal husband and says that she won’t give any information to the reporter, she calculatingly suggests that her marriage could end. We also discover that she has ties to Rentaro’s newspaper editor, a man who once loved her years ago but was too cowardly to make his feelings known. When he discovers who the missing wife is, he buries Rentaro’s story, against the obvious wishes of the paper’s board. With the woman he loved now hurling back into his life ten years too late the editor is ready to seize the opportunity provided by marital discord. Itsuko isn’t a brazen woman, though; she’d rather the husband correct his behavior than she be forced to divorce him, and she’s willing to wait.
The tally now includes a corrupt public official, an opportunistic paper editor, and a self-righteous wife who is unwilling to act. The actions of these three people have their counterpart in Rentaro, Mikako, and Mikako’s father, a poor man, dolling out the last years of his life in his mountain home with his dying daughter (while his other daughter dallies around with a corrupt public official). Neither group really understands the other.
As it always is with Kinoshita, the qualities that split these groups revolve around innocence, honesty, guile, and corruption. Even Itsuko, who seems upright on the surface, is revealed through flashback to be as greedy and rotten as the rest. And the editor, who seems only to be trying to get his unrequited love back, turns out to be a nasty man in his own way. The only obvious villain is the finance minister, who is so comfortable in his own skin that Kinoshita doesn’t even bother to explore his evil; it’s already too knowable.
It is probably best to see these characters as living on a scale. On one end of the scale, with the finance minister, we have pure corruption; on the other end, with the dying Mikako and her aging father, we have purity itself. Everyone else exists between these two poles and their arcs are seen as reflecting off of one pole or the other.
It is Rentaro, though, that demands our utmost attention. If we place him on this imaginary scale, Rentaro would be just to the side of Mikako and her father. If he lacks their absolute purity it is only because he is stupid enough to think that he can maintain his integrity while working for a gossip rag. If we learned nothing else from Sweet Smell of Success it is that tabloids leave no room for the innocent.
These characters play together in a dance of morality. And what makes The Good Fairy so powerful is the morality in question doesn’t always seem so big. Moral purity is found in simple things: treating others with decency and care.
If this sounds like yet another sermonizing Kinoshita movie, you’d be on the right track, but not quite there. Kinoshita ups the ante in the film’s final sequence. Mikako, as we know, is about to die. Rentaro wants to marry her before she does. Through a beautifully convoluted sequence of events, he misses the mark by only a few minutes. But with the young girl already deceased, Rentaro demands to be married to her anyway in what amounts to the most innocent act of necrophilia ever imagined. This one scene lifts The Good Fairy out of the turgid self-righteousness lecturing that it often flirts with and becomes a sick fantasy of righteousness. And in that, Kinoshita shows us what he truly desires: that people should reject the natural cruelty and corruption of the world and embrace an innocence so insane that one one would recognize it as normal.
We have seen that innocence and purity are pet themes for Kinoshita. They have been beautifully expressed already in The Girl I Loved. Here, though, they take on a new significance when contrasted directly with the smarmy world of gossip columns, corrupt public officials, and the coldest of romantic relationships. The world that Kinoshita presents is not the ideal one we saw in The Girl I loved, which was pure as the driven snow in every way. The world of The Good Fairy seems like something close to the real world, but with a few people who are so good-hearted that you’d be hard pressed to believe that they could ever exist. And if they did exist, you’d send them to the loony bin.