Among the many stalwarts of Japanese cinema, Keisuke Kinoshita (left) is one of the less talked about figures. Born in 1912, Kinoshita dreamed of making movies from a young age. After years of working in the film industry in various lowly positions, it was only in the 1940s that he was given the opportunity to direct his own films.
He was notable for his focus on bringing to the fore prevalent social ills in Japanese society. The 20th century saw Japan emerge from the second world war with its pride besmirched. What followed was the start of a national rebuilding programme not only of its economy but its morale.
By the end of the 1970s, Japan was one of the most developed nations in the world – a real economic powerhouse and a matter of perpetual fascination to the West. The themes explored in Kinoshita’s films are not the sort of things one could suggest of the land of the rising sun. He begs to differ – technology, rapid mechanization and development are not substitutes for a happy society, that between the noise and the fervor of apparent modernization may lie sadness, apathy and marginalization.
Of the hundred or so films directed by Kinoshita, the films below are worthy of some exploration. A spoiler alert is advised.
Oh, My Son (1979)
A man’s son is murdered late one night when returning from a night out. The son initially survives the knife attack but later dies from his wounds as his aging parents look on. The murderer receives an imprisonment sentence that is woefully inadequate; where the punishment does not fit the crime. Feeling the current system of justice has let them down, they decide to scour the furthest depths of Japan for families in similar circumstances.
After a ten year crusade they muster enough support to be able to push for the families of these victims to receive compensation. There is much which is conveyed outside of spoken dialog, the long train journeys to far corners of the country; the dismissal of families who have foregone hope of compensation and in other cases families who bear a sense of social ostracization.
I continue my exploration of the films on the Criterion Channel and stumbled upon the works of Claire Denis, the stumble eventually turned into a week-long binge on titles related or set in Africa – both pre-colonial and post-colonial.
My first stop was the movie Chocolat released in 1988, taking place in Cameroon, West Africa. The story is told from the perspective of France a young girl living in the country while it was still a possession of France. France befriends Protée, a quiet and diligent house servant who seems to understand and appreciate her childlike aloofness of the situation they are in.
While not specified, the story appears to be set around the late 1950s – just before the independence of Cameroon – and the sense of hostility is palpable. France’s father, Marc, appears to play the part of an administrative official; while his wife Aimee spends the long days while he is away tending to the affairs of the house. For their part, Marc & Aimee have settled well into the idyllic colonial life. They know their stay is uncertain but they have developed love and respect for the land which they live in.
This is highlighted especially through the relationships with their staff who also concede to their authority. This is until one day when a plane crash forces the family to take in a number of strangers whose own opinion in respect of the above delicate arrangement is different to say the least.
It is also worth mentioning that the relationships like many other things (as we now know) may have been undergoing a transition. France seems unaware of her place as a colonial settler; Marc respects and treats the African leaders as he would if they were French; Aimee and her girlfriends take a physical liking to Protée – all of which would be unthinkable had the story been placed only few decades earlier.
The arrival of Luc, a drifter in the plane that unexpectedly lands further accelerates this process of disorder. Luc engages in behavior that is both confrontational and provocative. He picks up on Aimee’s romantic feelings for Protée; showers in Protee’s outdoor bathroom; openly reads literature that denigrates Africans and continually challenges the status quo. Other characters too from the plane openly hurl insults at the servants and doctors much to the consternation of both Marc and Aimee.
The film does not make a reference to either a beginning nor the end of this era but any viewer who is remotely familiar with Africa’s history knows that what could follow is most likely a war and the mass flight of the settler population. The movie flashes back and forth between the past and the present. We are shown a grown up and contemplative France who has returned to Cameroon and has befriended an African, who is in a strange twist an African American who himself has returned to the land of his ancestors in an attempt to reconcile lingering feelings of attachment. Will the white African and the black African be able to see eye to eye, who is more an African? These are some of the questions being asked.