Sunday 14 February 2016

The Inheritance (1962)

Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Stars: Keiko Kishi, Tatsuya Nakadai, So Yamamura, Seiji Miyaguchi, Yusuke Kawazu, Mari Yoshimura, Minoru Chiaki, Misako Watanabe and Osamu Takizawa
The great Japanese director, Masaki Kobayashi, who would have been a hundred years old today, directed 22 films, from 1952’s My Son’s Youth to The Empty Table in 1985. The latter starred Tatsuya Nakadai, who appeared or starred in fully half of Kobayashi’s output. Their working relationship began in 1956 with The Thick-Walled Room, one of the first Japanese films to look at what the country had done in World War II, a drama adapted from the diaries of real Japanese soldiers jailed for crimes against humanity. It proceeded through all of Kobayashi’s most famous films, including the ten hour trilogy of The Human Condition; the samurai drama, Seppuku; and Kwaidan, his collection of four ghost stories that is one of the two staples of classic Japanese horror. The latter pair won jury prizes at Cannes and Kwaidan was also nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Nakadai also appeared in 1967’s magnificent Samurai Rebellion, duelling Toshiro Mifune. The Inheritance comes in between these, emphasising a superb decade for Kobayashi.

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.
If it sounds like there are no sympathetic characters to be found in this film, you’d be close to the truth. I usually have trouble with such movies, Gone with the Wind being the obvious example, because there’s nobody for me to root for. Yet here, we’re drawn in through Kawahara’s secretary, the first person we see on screen, and she’s sympathetic for a quite a while before being corrupted by the environment she’s in. She’s Yasuko Miyagawa and she’s a vision from the get go. The film begins like it’s French new wave, the camera a loose companion, floating alongside this stylish young lady in a black and white street. A jazz score kicks in and she glances through her cool sunglasses at shoes and jewellery and coats in storefront windows. This could be a Godard or Truffaut movie, or even a Eurospy flick, if the girl and everyone else around her wasn’t Japanese. It’s a light and fluffy way to begin something that’s not light or fluffy in the slightest, soon becoming dark and traditional, but it’s appropriate as it’s the only light scene.

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.
The visuals never stop impressing, some shots leaping out for attention, but it’s a character-driven piece. The script, by Koichi Inagaki from a novel by Norio Nanjo, explores a tangled web of machinations, as the various people who Kawahara trusts are about the last people he should ever have trusted, playing each and every one of each other to get ahead. I wonder how Toto Precise Tech did any business! Then again, maybe they were each biding their time all these years, waiting for this moment to pounce. Miyagawa is the only one of them who seems to care about anyone but herself. She’s his current secretary, who cares for her boss and even admits to have had a little crush on him in the past. The others are careful to bow the requisite number of degrees but we’re not convinced by any of them, not before Kawahara’s disease is announced and certainly not afterwards, when his fortune is dangled in front of their greedy little eyes and they all start to manoeuvre into the best positions to take it.

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.
The second group is comprised of Kawahara’s legal team. His lawyer, Naruto Yoshida, in the experienced form of Seiji Miyaguchi, the most serious of the Seven Samurai, is a patient and confident man who feels content nudging others into the directions he wants them to take. One such person is his assistant, Kikuo Furukawa, played by a calm but scheming Tatsuya Nakadai, so insincere that we don’t believe any of his promises to begin with, but fully expect him to use them over and over again on a succession of women. Yoshida remains behind in his sanctum of an office while Furukawa goes out and about to achieve their goals. They’re tasked with finding Miyumi Kamio, who would be a young woman now, but Yoshida wants Furukawa to search and not find, because his real goal is to set up a Kawahara Foundation. He would sit on the board and direct affairs, while his assistant could manage the day to day operations. However, it doesn’t turn out to be remotely as simple as that, because Furukawa’s search triggers plenty.

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.
Perhaps one reason why this bunch of unsympathetic characters remain so watchable is that we know it won’t end well for all of them and we want to see each of them fall. It’s phrased rather like a mystery, in the sense that our varied cast of characters manoeuvre their way through the story to end up gathered together for the final unmasking. In a mystery, one of them is usually the perpetrator of whatever crime has been committed and the others mere red herrings, but in this story, they’re all perpetrators in their own ways and we watch to see which will be unmasked by a brutal sense of karma. Certainly these final scenes are the most powerful in the film, because each successful coup makes us happy and leads on to the next. What we might feel about the eventual outcome may determine what we might feel about the film, because there’s a poetry to it and a sense of justice but nobody leaves the film untarnished by the events we’ve witnessed.

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.

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