Eclipse Series 41: Kinoshita and World War II

Kinoshita Army 2


It’s all too easy to be reductive when discussing the careers of filmmakers, and thus the great Japanese directors are often slotted into categories: Yasujiro Ozu was the precise sculptor of the domestic drama, Akira Kurosawa the creator of the philosophical action spectacular, Kenji Mizoguchi the master of the tragic woman’s picture. The popular, prolific, and eclectic Keisuke Kinoshita, however, has never been so simple to sum up. In fifty films made over the course of a forty-five-year career, Kinoshita moved easily between comedy and tragedy, musical and war picture, period piece and contemporary tale; his technique alternately embraced gritty realism and ultrastylization, long takes and quick cutting. “Each Kinoshita film is different from every other,” wrote film historian Donald Richie. Nevertheless, the director’s works are united by a strong moral sense, along with an abiding interest in Japanese history, culture, and ideals, and in the emotional lives of its ordinary citizens. These tendencies are clear even in Kinoshita’s first five films, made during and immediately after World War II, which evince a warm humanity despite being produced under strict regulation.

Like all directors of his generation, Kinoshita was a product of the studio system; he worked his way up through the Shochiku ranks, from film processor to camera assistant to apprentice of the notoriously tyrannical director Yasujiro Shimazu. With ten years of varied experience under his belt, Kinoshita was promoted to director in 1943, while war was raging. At the time, many Japanese movies never got past the preproduction stage due to the stringent vetting of their content for wartime appropriateness, and Kinoshita’s first script, despite having the blessing of studio head Kiro Shido, was rejected by the Information Ministry. His second, Port of Flowers, got the green light, however, and this deceptively lighthearted, Frank Capra–esque comedy, about con men finding their hearts in a small seaside town, became his official debut in 1943.

Initially, Port of Flowers may seem like a frivolous diversion. The highly entertaining plot involves a clash between simple country folk and wily city hucksters: two criminals (Eitaro Ozawa and Ken Uehara) have come separately to a village in southern Kyushu, hilariously claiming to be the same person—the son of a recently deceased local businessman, beloved by the community. Discovering their mistake, they agree to work together to trick the naive populace into investing in a fake shipbuilding scheme, before running off with the cash. But then war hits, and the two men are stricken with guilt; their climactic decision falls in line with the values of the nation’s war effort, giving a simple redemption tale a veiled propagandistic message.

Though Port of Flowers is the only comedy Kinoshita made during the war, he would go on to become a rare master of the Japanese satire, as shown in such works as 1951’s Carmen Comes Home, also noteworthy as Japan’s first color film. This early effort shows Kinoshita already in fine form, both as a quick-witted director of comedy and a wry observer of human nature. The film affirms the collective values of the nation while reflecting Kinoshita’s personal values of dignity and decency. So while he was satisfying the censors, he was also hinting at the humanist individualism that would come to define his cinema.


The Japanese Information Ministry’s first wartime censorship codes for the national film industry appeared in 1937, after the country’s invasion of China began the Second Sino-Japanese War, a conflict that was eventually subsumed by World War II. They featured strongly worded suggestions to filmmakers that, among other things, they refrain from making light of the military and exaggerating the horrors of war, and be sure to uphold the sacred Japanese family unit. By 1939, these requests had become laws, and when Keisuke Kinoshita was embarking on his directorial career, they were being strictly enforced. Some of the rules concerned the national image—women couldn’t smoke, foreign words couldn’t be spoken, comedians were not to appear too ridiculous. Others—such as directives to make films about the importance of industrial production and farming—necessitated communicating ideas directly to audiences, and thus affected entire narratives. This was among the motivating factors for Kinoshita’s second film, The Living Magoroku (1943), which promoted cultivating food for the war effort.

For a film so concerned with the moment it was made in, The Living Magoroku begins in surprising fashion, by plunging us into the middle of a 1573 clan war. In this violent five-minute preface, a whirlwind of quick-cutting samurai skirmishes and tracking shots through tall grass, Kinoshita shows off his youthful filmmaking prowess and also establishes that this nationalist tale of military honor will speak on behalf of Japan’s future by pointing to its distant past. When the action moves to the present day, we meet a group of soldiers (who are, as their instructor reveals, descendants of samurai) training on the same land where the battle we just witnessed was fought so long ago; they are preparing to fight the Americans, as their general talks of Japan’s illustrious military legacy and boundless future.

This area is part of seventy-five acres that have for centuries belonged to the wealthy Onagi dynasty. The family hasn’t farmed the land for three hundred years, believing it bad luck to do so; the current generations are especially averse to the idea, as Yoshihiro, a grown son of the clan, has what appears to be an undiagnosed lung disease, which keeps him from serving in the army. As the narrative kicks into gear, the Onagis are being encouraged by the community and military to cultivate the soil for the good of the nation, to grow crops for soldiers and thus become symbols of national solidarity. This pressure gives rise to a practical and spiritual dilemma for the family.

The Living Magoroku purports to pitch a battle between pragmatism and superstition, but it’s really about the selfishness of individual agency versus the righteousness of the collective spirit. Yoshihiro’s ailment turns out to be merely psychological in nature, thus allowing him to overcome it and assume his socially sanctioned role as an upstanding, selfless citizen. Much more is going on in Kinoshita’s film—including a subplot about the Onagis’ coveted, rare, and heavily symbolic samurai sword, made by the ancient blacksmith Magoroku the First, and one about a blossoming romance between a bus driver and the current blacksmith’s daughter that presages Kinoshita’s later sentimental romances The Girl I Loved (1946) and Wedding Ring (1950). But these intertwining narratives take a backseat to the central message, aimed right at the audience: do your part for the nation.


Centering on the denizens of a Tokyo street, who are forced to relocate so their houses can be demolished by the military, Keisuke Kinoshita’s Jubilation Street (1944) was made to promote the drive to evacuate urban areas of Japan in anticipation of American air raids. Kinoshita’s delicate compositions and fine-tuned editing, however, make for a far more nuanced film than the gung-ho The Living Magoroku—this is a genuinely moving study of the conflicting emotions that can dance across a human face in times of crisis. In this way, Jubilation Street rises above politics and also points the way toward what is perhaps Kinoshita’s greatest film, Twenty-Four Eyes (1954), another poignant tale of civilians touched by war.

Kinoshita’s camera is equally sensitive to all his main characters, including Mr. Zenba, a farmer turned city developer who must abandon the neighborhood he helped build and return to his old existence, and his wife and daughter, Nobuo and Takako, who don’t want to move with him to the country. Meanwhile, Takako is being wooed by Shingo, a young test pilot who lives with his mother, Kiyo; the two are awaiting the return of the father of the family, who left years earlier to find work. Takako and Shingo’s growing romance seems to foretell the joining of the two families, but Takako’s parents try to dissuade her from marrying Shingo, whose fortunes seem uncertain.

The film is confined almost entirely to the small street, but its increasingly resourceful maker invents all sorts of expressive ways to use the camera. In fact, this was Kinoshita’s most visually adventurous film yet. Rather than the heavy-duty vernacular of more blatant propaganda films, he opts for a subtly communicative visual poetry. His quietly purposeful cinematography seems to articulate what Kinoshita otherwise never would have been permitted to at the time: an ambivalence about war, a recognition of the violence and dislocation it engenders. At times, it’s as though the image is functioning in a way that is at odds with a literal reading of the material. In one scene, the camera slowly backs away from Zenba and his neighbor as they reminisce about the street they must abandon—it’s a discreet, affecting move that will reappear throughout the film. A 90 degree overhead shot during a scene in which Zenba presents Shingo with a book about the aviation pioneer Hino Kumazo conveys authorial remoteness rather than hope for glory in the sky. Later, while talking about their own and Japan’s future, the young lovers, soon to be parted by the war, are captured in a series of hugely empathetic, almost uncomfortably intimate, shot-reverse-shot close-ups that convey intense, personal feelings.

Perhaps the most striking choice comes in the film’s second half: Takako, having learned that her beloved Shingo has been shot down in battle, stands against the door of her house, and, as the camera tracks intently toward her, we hear the sounds of gunfire on the soundtrack. It’s a brief but unsettling depiction of psychological trauma, communicating the tragedy of the boy’s loss rather than any national triumph. Even given the straightforwardly propagandistic ending—during which the neighbors make their final preparations to leave the city, beaming with national pride, and Shingo’s returned father swears he will work hard to avenge his son’s death—such moments ground the film in a distinct generosity.


Today, Army looks like the clear triumph of Keisuke Kinoshita’s wartime cinematic output. In terms of technical audacity, narrative elegance, and character depth, it represented a major leap forward for the young director. However, the film wasn’t well received in 1944; the complex emotional tenor of its final act—which anticipates the ways Kinoshita would engage with World War II in his later work, when he was no longer beholden to wartime censorship codes—all but ensured the outrage of the authorities.

A multigenerational saga, this film, like The Living Magoroku, romanticizes Japan’s military legacy. But its take on war is not as easy to parse as the earlier film’s. It begins as didactically political, with brief vignettes depicting historical tensions between Japan and “meddling” Western nations from 1866 to 1895. Young Tomohiko, who has been taught the virtues of obedience to emperor and nation, vows to his father that he’ll become a soldier. But the grown-up Tomohiko (Chishu Ryu) has a weak constitution and is kept from the front lines during Japan’s 1904–05 war with Russia. Years later, as World War II breaks out, the ultranationalistic Tomohiko, now a pawnshop owner, worries that his own son, Shintaro, is too small and weak to fight. The narrative is thus largely predicated on Shintaro’s coming into his own as a strong man and eventually being shipped off to war.

While this basic trajectory and many details—including Tomohiko’s righteous fury at a mill-owning friend for voicing doubts about Japan’s ultimate victory—would seem to point to this being another clear-cut propaganda film, Army’s ending demonstrates a surprisingly ambivalent attitude that casts what has come before in a different light. This is largely because of the character of Waka, Tomohiko’s wife (played by the great Kinuyo Tanaka). The film’s extraordinary final sequence begins on an intense, unusually long close-up of Waka, unaccompanied by music. Shintaro is being deployed to the front, and her sad, worn-out face conveys anything but pride or optimism. She hears distant triumphal music and walks outside, the camera dollying in on her concerned visage. Kinoshita cuts to a long shot of her, suddenly small in the frame as she rushes down a narrow street toward the music’s source. The emotionally resonant visual techniques continue: Kinoshita switches to handheld camera work as Waka joins a crowd of flag-waving neighbors running to a send-off parade for soldiers. When she finally catches up with the celebration and finds her son in the mass of men, they exchange silent glances before he marches on. The bereft mother prays as everyone else passes by.

It’s not incidental that the entire climax is wordless—that way the censors had nothing to object to in Tadao Ikeda’s script. On the page, the scene was covered in one sentence: “The mother sees the son off at the station.” What makes this part of the film subtly subversive is purely cinematic—expressive cutting, the variations in camera distance, Tanaka’s stunning performance. Years later, Kinoshita said, “I can’t lie to myself in my dramas. I couldn’t direct something that was like shaking hands and saying, ‘Come die.’” When the film premiered, there was outrage; an army general even showed up at Shochiku and accused Kinoshita of treason. Army was viewed by many as being antiwar, and Kinoshita’s follow-up script about kamikaze pilots was rejected. He was not allowed to direct another film for the remainder of the war.


Keisuke Kinoshita began work on Morning for the Osone Family, his first film since Army, soon after Japan’s unconditional surrender in September 1945. Though he and his colleagues no longer had to direct films under the eyes of an imperial government, they weren’t yet free from censorship, as they had new watchdogs: U.S. forces. In November, the occupation released its own guidelines for the Japanese film industry, prohibiting, among other things, depictions of militarism, anti-foreignness, discrimination, and anything that smacked of antidemocratic values, and demanding that films incorporate themes promoting individual rights and peaceful postwar restructuring. Fortunately for the pacifist Kinoshita, these ideas were more in line with his own politics than the ones that had been imposed on his work during the war.

Released in early 1946, the exceptionally well-crafted, impassioned Morning for the Osone Family takes place while the war is still going on. It follows the travails of a family with antiwar leanings, despite its samurai lineage and fearsome military legacy from the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese Wars. Their leftist patriarch long dead—his portrait stares down on much of the proceedings from the fireplace mantel—the Osones consist of the benign mother Fusako, the principled daughter Yuko, and three sons: Ichiro, who is arrested for writing subversive literature criticizing the government; Taiji, a sensitive painter who ends up being drafted; and Takashi, who, against his mother’s wishes and under the influence of his ultraconservative army general uncle, enlists. The Osones represent all the dissent and democratic ideals that liberal Japanese citizens—and movie characters—could not express during the war.

When the film begins, with an extended Christmas scene featuring a Japanese- language rendition of “Silent Night,” the domestic unit is intact; by film’s end, it has been fractured by death and persecution. It’s a film that’s as direct as could be, finally pouring out long bottled-up emotions (“Did the war make anybody happy? Who was this war for?” Yuko cries near the conclusion, after the surrender). Nevertheless, Morning for the Osone Family ends on a hopeful note, as the title implies. Urged strongly to do so by the American censors, Kinoshita added a coda in which the remaining family members—including Ichiro, finally released from prison—look toward a blazing sunrise and vow to help build a new, democratic Japan.

The film feels like a catharsis for Kinoshita, as though he’s getting the war out of his system, at least for now. He would return to the era in later films, most notably his hugely successful drama Twenty-Four Eyes (1954), but immediately after Morning for the Osone Family, he dived into escapist fare that better showed off his range, from the poetic romance The Girl I Loved (1946) to the noirish thriller Woman (1948) to the comedy Here’s to the Young Lady (1949) to the ghost story Yotsuya kaidan (1949). Kinoshita would keep up his speed and eclecticism throughout the fifties, turning out films about people’s essential goodness and purity—the kinds of films the Japanese New Wave directors of the sixties would reject as sentimental and naive. Today, they seem the expressions of an artist who never gave up hope for the humanity of his people.

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