Stars: Keiko Kishi, Tatsuya Nakadai, So Yamamura, Seiji Miyaguchi, Yusuke Kawazu, Mari Yoshimura, Minoru Chiaki, Misako Watanabe and Osamu Takizawa
It’s neither a war film nor a samurai flick, but it takes a similarly dark look at humanity, an approach for which Kobayashi is justifiably known. Senzo Kawahara is a rich businessman who lives only for his work, running a company called Toto Precise Tech. Soon into the picture, he discovers that he’s dying of cancer and has perhaps six months to live. He has a trophy wife, Satoe, his former secretary who’s two decades younger than him, but no heirs. Well, not legal ones, anyway. He tells some of his closest associates that he has three illegitimate children, with whom he’s had no contact since conception, and tasks them with finding these kids, so that he can judge whether they’re worthy of receiving a share of his three hundred million yen fortune. His wife will receive the ‘legal guaranteed portion’ of a third of it, but the rest, which is a considerable sum even in yen, is up for grabs. And that’s how these associates take it, immediately scheming as to how they can screw each other over and land the money for themselves.
The camera stops moving, for a start, at least for the most part. Most of the film is shot with the camera static, movement happening within the frame. Occasionally it deigns to aid the actors as they move, but rarely, concentrating instead on imparting something through composition of frame and choice of angle. This quintessentially Japanese approach isn’t surprising, as the cinematographer was Takashi Kawamata, who had shot many films for Yasujiro Ozu, often regarded as the most Japanese of the Japanese directors. It’s hard to imagine anything more Japanese than Tokyo Story, for instance, an appropriately archetypal title for such an archetypal picture, directed by Ozu and shot by Yuharu Atsuta, with Kawamata assisting. Even though the camera doesn’t move much, the effect is still highly cinematic because the motion is in the frame so that, even when characters are talking, they’re cleverly choreographed to ensure that the shot is one painting to begin with and a different one when it ends.
His wife, Satoe, has the best position throughout, as the law guarantees her a third of it anyway, but she wants it all and plays everyone against each other to get it. Misako Watanabe plays her as an ice queen, cold and heartless and someone not to underestimate. It’s hardly surprising that Kawahara married her for her body and wants little to do with her otherwise. Of course, that says as much about him as it does about her: the man is dying of cancer, an inherent sympathy point, but we never feel sympathy for him; in fact, we get less sympathetic for him as the movie runs on, because the situation he finds himself in is arguably a much deserved one. Minoru Chiaki takes the opposite approach to Junichi Fujii, the secretarial chief. He’s friendly and engaging, with a mild air of ineptitude that’s calculated. He and Satoe are tasked with finding a seven year old girl, Kawahara’s daughter by a maid. Fujii’s thought is to not find her, but Satoe talks him into it as she would become the girl’s guardian and so gain control of her portion too.
Finally, there’s a boy Kawahara fathered in Manchuria twenty years earlier, perhaps an easier person to find as he doesn’t just have a name, he also knows who adopted him. He has Miyagawa go to fetch this young man, Sadao Narimune, which gives Keiko Kishi even more opportunity to steal the film. She’s the first and last person we see and, if the story is built on So Yamamura’s strong performance as the dying man, it unfolds primarily through Kishi’s as Yasuko Miyagawa, especially as the bulk of the picture takes place through a visualisation of her recollections of a tough time in her life, a time that she describes as ‘the wound I’m so proud of’. She’s given plenty of opportunity to shine, with that initial glamorous scene in the street being contrasted so strongly with the beginning of her recollections that I didn’t even catch that it was the same girl at first. She’s a traditionally submissive but capable secretary and she grows as the film runs on, being moved to Kawahara’s house and becoming closer to him than she expects.
I clearly need to watch more of Masaki Kobayashi’s films. My first was Kwaidan, many years ago, after it cropped up so often in discussions of Japanese horror. Everything didn’t really start with it and Onibaba, but they’re as good a starting place as any to find out what else is out there. I’ve revisited it since and it stands up well. I’ve also seen Samurai Rebellion, one of many pictures about samurai to be overlooked in the west, where ‘samurai film’ is often equated to ‘Akira Kurosawa’. I’m not saying to avoid masterpieces like Seven Samurai, Yojimbo or Ran, but check out Hideo Gosha pictures too, like Sword of the Beast and Three Outlaw Samurai, a half dozen of the best Zatoichi films and others like Kill! and Samurai Rebellion. From what I gather, Kobayashi’s Seppuku, also known as Hari-Kiri, is deserving of that company too so I should seek it out soon, along with some of his other work from the late fifties and early sixties. I have a feeling that The Inheritance, utterly not a samurai movie, will resonate with me like Kurosawa’s films noir.