The Kinoshita Project: Boyhood (1951)

The Kinoshita Project is a Chronological exploration of all the Keisuke Kinoshita movies available on Hulu Plus from Criterion. 

Hindsight is always 20/20, or so the old saying goes. We like to apply this truism to our personal lives liberally. We reason that if we’d only done this or that, then our lives would have been different in such and such way; usually we imagine that life would’ve been better. And when we apply this to our personal lives, we usually curse ourselves for our lack of vision. We regret our foolishness and wallow in our guilt. Once we get over our guilt, we call this becoming wiser, learning from mistakes, and so on.

If we do this as individuals, then surly a nation could do it as well, right?

The answer, made apparent in Keisuke Kinoshita’s 1951 film Boyhood (a.k.a. A Record of Youth), is a resounding yes. Nations can and do look back at their pasts, recognizing their failures and then striving to do better. Just look a Germany. Look at America. Some are better at this than others.

There can be no doubt that Boyhood is a post-war product, because it doesn’t just aim to learn from the mistakes of Japan’s involvement in World War II, but to actually revision the war from the inside out, using a basic coming-of-age template to explore Japan’s youthful ignorance in the face of global tragedy.

It follows the trails of a teenage boy who is never actually given a name. He has spent his whole life up till now in Tokyo with his father, an acaedmic, his mother and two younger brothers. But with the war come air raids on Japan’s great city. The family wants to leave for the country to escape the danger, but the boy doesn’t want to give up his military school and familiar surroundings. His parents choose to leave him behind with a host family. Alone, the boy struggles. He relates poorly to his host family and is finding it difficult to maintain friendships at school. At the first air raid in the absence of his mother, he hops a train back home, abandoning his schoolmates, who now perceive him as little more than a simpering baby. Eventually the boy is convinced by his mother to join the family in the country. He can continue his studies there without the fear of air raids.

All of this is fairly rote, as we see the boy growing to understand his own social limitations and connection to his family. The cycle of wanting to leave, wanting to stay, clinging and letting go, is predictable. But the movie flips on us in the third act. The country, safe from enemy planes, turns out to be hostile in its own ways. In a smaller community, without the buffer of academic institutions and nearby intellectuals, the boy’s father is swiftly found to be unsympathetic to the war cause. Having seen The Living Magoroku and Army, we know that even a hint of anamosity towards Japan’s military aims will be viewed as unpatriotic and worthy of scorn. And so the boy, having been teased and ridiculed for running home to his mother when he was in Tokyo, is now guilty by association with his father. And, being a young boy, he does not understand how or why his father could even adopt such a position.

SPOILERS

Beyond the first two acts, Kinoshita does a poor job of developing the boy and his relationship to his father, but this is not as important as the film’s final conclusion in which the boy sees his father’s position as the correct one. It is in this respect that he comes of age. We do not know why he has finally sided with his father, but we can only suspect that the boy changes his allegiances, because he sees what ever Japanese person would’ve seen in 1951 – that the war, lost and devastating, was never a cause worth fighting for. Fighting was a matter of pride, not national interest. The only thing that fighting, in this case, led to was loss; loss of pride and loss of many young men and women. Their sacrifice, often venerated by the Japanese, was not worth it. Kinoshita and the rest of Japan can now look back through this boy and be grateful that for as many died in a worthless cause, at least there are some who might have been saved by their parents’ inability to accept a war that they did not believe in. A lack of patriotism pays off once in a while.

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