This article was originally published in issue 50, April 2009, and re-published in issue 79, July 2016.
Black River/Kuroi kawa (1957 Japan 114 mins)
Prod Co: Shochiku Kinema Kenkyû-jo Dir: Kobayashi Masaki Scr: Zenzo Matsuyama, Takeo Tomishima Phot: Yuuharu Atsuta Art Dir: Kazue Hirataka Mus: Kinoshita Chuji
Cast: Nakadai Tatsuya, Watanabe Fumio, Ineko Arima, Asao Sano, Seiji Miyaguchi, Eijiro Tôno.
Kobayashi Masaki (1916-1996) is generally depicted as a social dissenter committed to films with a humanist orientation. Owing to his reluctant conscription to serve in Manchuria, his refusal of promotion above the rank of private and subsequent internment as a prisoner-of-war in Okinawa in 1944, his attitude was one of opposition to the wartime conduct of the Japanese Imperial Army. Although most widely known for Seppuku/Harakiri (1962), Kwaidan (1964), Joiuchi/Rebellion (1967), an earlier period saw a spate of films directly concerned with the social justice issues of his time.
After working as assistant to Keisuke Kinoshita for Shochiku, his debut film, Musuko no seishun/My Son’s Youth (1952), depicted lower-middle-class life and belied the sentimental traces of his mentor’s style. Not until Kabe atsuki heya/A Thick-Walled Room (1953), Abe Kobo’s adaptation of the diaries of lower ranking war criminals, did Kobayashi begin to show his distinctive approach. Shelved for four years by Shochiku, the film revealed through flashback the issue of military “chain of command” in World War II: how subordinates received long sentences for atrocities which had been committed on the orders of superior officers who remained uncharged. Following a brief period of democratisation, a concerted suppression of self-critical consciousness (hansei ishiki) took place from 1948-50 due to the onset of the Cold War, and Japan’s strategic position in the region.
Following three subsequent films dealing with more personal narratives, Kobayashi resumed his polemical style with Anata kaimasu/I’ll Buy You (1956), concerned with corruption in baseball, and Kuroi kawa/Black River (1957) depicting the rampant organised crime and prostitution that had blossomed around American bases in Japan.
Opening with ’20s-style cut-out titles and a fat, big band soundtrack, Kobayashi’s Black River shows post-war domestic life around the gates of the Atsugi US Air-Naval Base in mid-summer, a place which Donald Richie described as being like “an amusement park” (for Americans). As US Army trucks and jeeps hurtle past on dirt tracks and planes shake the ground and rattle the windows from the sky, the streets are run by the black market. In bars like “Wonderland” and “Black Cat” (all the signs are in English), goonish, coiffured gang members practice their boxing and dagger-board darts, while eager G.I.s take Japanese girls in hot pants and blooming dresses on dates.
Nishida (Watanabe Fumio), a new tenant who has to walk miles to school each day, is chirpy despite the heat. He meets Shizuko (Ineko Arima) who promises to come by his room that evening to borrow a book. A landlady (Isuzu Yamada), in traditional kimono, with magnificent crooked teeth (Isuzu Yamada), known as “the devil” to her tenants, switches from high Japanese to doggerel as she rounds up the rent from Nishida’s dormitory. The potential seeds of love persist despite the frayed tatami floors, lack of plumbing and privacy, and obsessive squabbles over the shared vegetable patch. The cost of living is high due to the economic burden of occupation in the pacified nation and divides the tenants: a tubercular husband’s blood-compatible wife resists giving him blood, while a young wife tries to escape her emasculated husband by working the clandestine brothels surrounding the base. Motivated by this embarrassment, an “accented” resident labourer makes valiant but fruitless attempts to organise the tenants to unite to protect their rights. The ambivalence towards the issue of US occupation and the cravenness of the Japanese authorities keen not to offend the Americans, hints at the deep-seated corruption in the minds and bodies of the Japanese people.
Into this fertile territory step the white-suited yakuza, Kuroki and “Killer” Jo (Nakadai Tatsuya). Together with the landlady they hatch a devious plan to remove the tenants to make way for a bathhouse development, while Jo moves in on Nishida and Shizuko’s budding romance. In Kobayashi’s world of unrequited love, Nishida and Shizuko are constantly thwarted by Jo’s sabotage, Shizuko coerced by a cocktail of brutish charm, the promise of protection and fatalism. She slides further towards to becoming a prostitute servicing the occupation forces (prostitution, gambling, and gangsterism around American bases was unofficially permitted).
Joe, Kuroki and the landlady give notice to the tenants of the imminent demolition of the dormitory, following the “signing” of an agreement by the tenants’ representative. Simultaneously, Jo invites Nishida his birthday party. A determined Nishida accepts, against the will of Shizuko who has made a more serious plan for the night. In the process, she is transformed from virtuous waitress to gangster moll.
Jo tries the “soft” approach by offering wads of cash (satsutaba), sake and a hostess on the payroll. He also offers Nishida another room, for a premium. Nishida tries to do what is right, demanding that Jo divide up the money from the dormitory. He also tries to win Shizuko back, but his moral rectitude fails to match Jo’s delinquent charisma. Shizuko ends up nursing a paralytic Jo on a highway, yet true to the short and fast life of a yakuza, he slips in front of a convoy of American trucks. Kobayashi closes on Shizuko desperately running towards them.
Although fraternising was prohibited during the Allied occupation of Japan from May 1946 (Australians were present for 4 years of this occupation), many soldiers took advantage of the impoverished conditions giving occasion to assaults, rapes and murders. Considering the overriding atmosphere of post-war hatred and racial propaganda, Black River is remarkably restrained. Nevertheless, it might be more a lack of familiarity with foreign actors that determined Kobayashi’s specific focus on Japanese rather than Japanese-American relationships.
Donald Richie regarded Black River as “studiously just, the villain not America for having camps but the Japanese social system which permitted lawless behaviour” (1). Concerned with social evils, poverty, oppression, the burdens of war, Black River followed the “black” motif of the humanistic films that were set in ’50s Japan. Within this Manichean black and white world of police and criminals, Kobayashi examined the individual in an historical context, and the tension that emerged between the two. He followed Black River with Ningen no Joken/The Human Condition (1959-1961), a three-part, nine-hour chronicle of World War II based on Jumpei Gomikawa’s novel. Portraying the protest, struggle, and ultimate death of Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai), the pacifist who lives in an oppressive and inhumane system, it has been acclaimed as a “powerful and moving indictment of systematized brutality inherent in a militaristic society” (2).
- Phillip Kemp, “Masaki Kobayashi”, Film Reference.
- Joan Mellen, Voices From the Japanese Cinema, Liveright, New York, 1975, p. 132.