Obituary: Keisuke Kinoshita

Click to follow
ALTHOUGH AKIRA Kurosawa is the better-known film director in the West, in Japan Keisuke Kinoshita is revered as the greater genius, and the 50 or so films he made display a much wider variety of styles and themes, all expertly handled, than do Kurosawa's.

Kinoshita's work was a perpetual reflection of his whole philosophy of living, an idealism rare in the modern world whose ugliness and cruelty he despised and mocked in satirical comedies and heart-breaking tragedies. His aim as a director and scenario writer - he wrote nearly all his own scripts - was to preserve the purity and sense of beauty he had been taught to admire in boyhood.

While Kurosawa excelled in depicting male characters, Kinoshita specialised in sensitively directed parts for women, many of which were played by his favourite actress, Hideko Takamine. In her amusing 1980 autobiography, Watashimo Tossi Nikki ("Journal of the Way I Live"), she pays tribute to his inspired direction, but adds that he did not really like women.

In the summer of 1986 the first wide-ranging retrospective of his films was shown to an international audience, in the Swiss town of Locarno. I had followed his work from my first arrival in Japan in 1959, and so had seen a dozen or so of his films before he gave up the cinema for television after Natsukashiki Fae ya Talko ("Nostalgia for Flutes and Drums") in 1967. When he was persuaded to return to film-making in 1976 for Sri Lanka no Ai to Wakare ("Love and Heartbreak in Sri Lanka") his heart was no longer in the subject, and among the four more late works he produced, the 1983 Konoko o Nokoshite ("Children of Nagasaki") was the only memorable one.

So the Locarno Festival was an occasion to see some of his early movies, which were a revelation. Among the best-known in the West are the over- sentimental ("three-handkerchief") weepie starring Hideko Takamine, Nijushi no Hitomi ("Twenty-four Eyes", 1954), based on the popular novel by Tauboi Sakaez; and Narayama Bushiko ("Ballad of Narayama", 1958), based on the controversial novel by Shichiro Fukazawa. Another full-scale retrospective of Kinoshita's work is ardently to be desired.

He was born in 1912, in Shizuoka Prefecture, in the city of Hamamatsu, where his parents ran a grocery store. From an early age, he was crazy about movies, and it has been said that he was the only Japanese director who was born to the cinematic art. From the age of eight, his one desire was to direct films, and he rebelled against the attempts of his parents to make him study for a university career.

When Hamamatsu became the location for a new movie, a period film, the actors used to patronise his parents' shop, and that is how he came to know the actor Junosuke Bando, who ran away with him to Kyoto, then the capital of period film-making. His grandfather brought him back home, and his parents finally gave in to his ambition to become a director. But Keisuke had to learn the art from the bottom up before he could even be considered by the studios.

So he worked in a photographer's shop in Tokyo, and entered the Oriental Photography School, from which he eventually graduated in 1933. He at once applied to be taken on by the Shochiku film company, and started in the film processing laboratory, until he at last became camera assistant to the chief cinematographer, Yasujiro Shimazu. When the latter became a director, he took on Kinoshita as his assistant.

Kinoshita later described Shimazu's working methods: "He relied heavily upon intuition, and didn't like to have everything calculated, and fixed in advance." This was to become Kinoshita's own light-handed, easy-going directional manner, relying on last-minute inspirations and sudden insights into character.

When the Second World War broke out, he served for a while in the army, but was sent back to Shochiku to write propaganda scripts, a task he hated, until at last he was promoted to director in 1943. It had been a long battle to reach this position, but now he had to contend with the stupidities of wartime censors. His first script was rejected as "not sufficiently patriotic" but he had better luck with the Information Ministry when they accepted Hana Saku Minato ("Flower-Blossom Port") set in the southern port town of Amakusa.

He was allowed a generous 40 days on location, and 20 in the studio, and this first feature showed immense promise. There is a charming evocation of the picturesque port, and what was to become typical dramatic and satirical confrontation between the pure- spirited country folk and cynical city schemers, between youthful love and exploitation of the innocent by hardened criminals. In the end, purity triumphs and the crooks are defeated in a comic turn-around.

City and country are again contrasted in the 1951 Karumen Kokyo ni Kaeru ("Carmen Comes Home"). Hideko Takamine, cast against her usual serious, intelligent type of young woman, plays a country girl who has run away from home to become a strip-tease dancer in Tokyo. She makes a surprise return home, accompanied by her strip-tease colleague, to give the natives the shock of their lives. The shock to the villagers can be imagined when Carmen and her friend get off the train wearing high heels, fantastic modern fashions in brilliant hues, heavy make-up and actually smoking cigarettes in fingers scarlet with nail varnish. The outraged village headmaster, played super- latively by the great Ryu Chishu, is gradually won round by the girls when they give a benefit performance to help rebuild his school.

One reason why the girls' make-up is so heavy is that this was the first Japanese film shot in colour. In those days, great trouble had to be taken to keep constant lighting levels, and each actor had a different tone of make-up. Ryu Chishu's complexion came out looking rust-red, and in the tremendous heat of both natural sunshine and artificial light, the girls' studied make-up kept melting and smoke even started to rise from their pomaded hair. Kinoshita had to start shooting a black-and-white version, just in case the final print of the colour film was a failure. Fortunately, it came out very well.

Kinoshita took the film to Europe, where he stayed for a while, in 1951. He met Rene Clair, whose light touch in comedy he greatly admired, though he also was devoted to the works of Julien Duvivier and Jean Renoir - the latter's The River in particular, which influenced his own Fuefukigawa ("River Feufuki"), 1960.

"The Ballad of Narayama" is the only other Kinoshita masterpiece to have been shown in Europe. It appeared on French television in 1996. Kinoshita was a devotee of the traditional theatre, and wanted to make a film reflecting those ancient dramatic techniques. An old peasant woman, as ancient tradition demanded, asks her son to carry her to the top of a mountain and expose her there to die, so that the poverty- stricken village will have one less mouth to feed.

There is a horrifying scene when she knocks her teeth out with a rock , so as not to be tempted to eat the food left to her and to stay alive a few days longer all alone. Kinoshita's handling of colour is masterly, and his sweeping panoramic shots of the mountains are sheer lyricism. Kabuki techniques are imitated, with painted interior sets, use of curtains, transformations, narrators.

It was an epoch-making event in the history of Japanese film-making, and only Kinoshita could have achieved such a sensitive combination of emotion and image, and such an inventive use of old dramatic conventions in a thoroughly modern use of film. This will undoubtedly be the masterpiece by which he will always be remembered.

James Kirkup

Keisuke Kinoshita, film director: born Hamamatsu, Japan 5 December 1912; died Tokyo 30 December 1998.