Sensei (Masayuki Mori) is first seen standing in a doorway, looking down at his wife as she sits embroidering (1). Shizu (Michiyo Aratama) has opened Kon Ichikawa’s Kokoro (1955) in a luminous, enigmatic close-up that becomes a dynamic camera movement arcing from her face to reveal her position in the brightly lit room. Sensei, cramped between two shutters, stands in the darkness looking into this light. He is a man so paralysed by guilt and self-loathing he can only look on at life. One of the story’s cruel ironies is that the “life” he looks at, but cannot touch or truly interact with – in other words, his beautiful, loving, witty wife – is the reason for the betrayal that precipitated his emotional paralysis in the first place.

15 years previously, he and his student friend Kaji (Tatsuya Mihashi) lodged with Shizu and her mother (Akiko Tamura). When Kaji, to that point a sullen ascetic prone to disparaging the frivolity of others, confesses to Sensei his love for Shizu, his “friend” quickly and surreptitiously betroths himself to her. Kaji’s reaction to this deceit affects Sensei’s life forever, and blights those who try to get close to him. This includes a callow student, Hioki (Shoji Yasui), whose attempts to forge a student-master relationship with the “unyielding” Sensei mirrors that of the latter with Kaji (2). This is only the most dominant example of Kokoro’s pattern of doubling and transference (set-ups, scenes, actions, gestures, and dialogues) which create its vicious circle of inertia, depletion, failure, deferral and despair.

As Sensei stands between darkness and light in this opening scene, he appears like a ghost: emotionally dead, hovering between life and death, past and present, haunting others and sucking them into his spiritual black hole (3). Kokoro makes much use of dissolves, that ghostly threshold of elided time, one time and space bleeding into another. The film anticipates by two years another masterpiece about a withered “teacher”: Smultronstället (Wild Strawberries, 1957, Ingmar Bergman). But this connection is not just thematic: in one extraordinary sequence, Sensei sits alone to write his suicide-note-cum-confession. He looks straight at the camera in close-up; a reverse shot shows his “interlocutor”, his wife, the woman he has shut out of his heart for the last 15 years. Except it is her younger self he sees; he has already passed out of a linear time where his actions could still effect change, and has become a hapless onlooker of his own remembered past, his unchanging and unchangeable fate. Two further, even more radical close-ups anticipate Bergman, in this case the astringent, modernist Bergman of the 1960s. Sensei is filmed clinically against a bare wall; the second time he eavesdrops as their landlady tells Kaji of Sensei’s plans to wed her daughter. It is as if he is pinned to the wall, a cornered rat, pitilessly exposed, his fine words and ideas stripped away to show the liar and cheat quivering underneath.

Kokoro is an adaptation of the best-known work by Japan’s foremost modern novelist, Natsume Sōseki (published in 1914), which has long been a set text for the country’s schoolchildren (4). The associated prestige of filming such a book, together with a resulting adaptation so faithful it reproduces large chunks of the dialogue verbatim – as well as the string of other works in his filmography based on classic literature (5) – could make Ichikawa sound like a Japanese Merchant-Ivory, a quality purveyor of middlebrow costume dramas.

But beneath the apparent fidelity, Ichikawa frequently works against the grain of Sōseki’s novel. The Sensei-Kaji saga, for example, only comprises a third of the novel, whereas in the film it occupies nearly to two-thirds of the entire screen-time. The novel centres on the relationship between Hioki and his mentor; Sensei’s obsession with his dead friend at the expense of his loveless, childless marriage; and the evaded and repressed, but intensely painful and ultimately self-destructive emotions felt by each character. A reader might be forgiven for assuming a gay subtext here, despite protests by the novel’s most recent English translator, Meredith McKinney: “Homosexuality is not, needless to say, at issue” (6). Ichikawa is certainly such a reader, and brings the subtext to the surface. Hioki is introduced following Sensei to a graveyard, his eyes wide with joy; Shizu suspects Sensei’s devotion to his dead friend’s memory, and his new relationship with the handsome Hioki, is more than platonic, forcing him to at once deny and confront her accusation. The credits play over the camera seeming to drown underwater; this is later shown to be the site of Sensei and Hioki’s first meeting, narrated by Hioki and later Sensei in dreamy flashbacks. Hioki rushes to stop Sensei’s apparent suicide attempt, in the film’s emblematic scene of repressed sexuality and death. More critically, the novel’s complex layering of narrators, point-of-view, time and space gets somewhat lost, as does Hioki’s role as intermediary between the reader and the provision of narrative information.

The novel was written around the time Emperor Meiji died, and stands as a contemporary and anguished disquisition on the end of an era characterised by Japan’s embrace of Western influence following two-and-a-half centuries of isolation (both novel and film link Hioki’s two dying father figures – his actual father and Sensei – to the Emperor, the father of the nation). The film adds the further vertigo of historical perspective, as Japan’s Great Depression, military dictatorship and catastrophic defeat in World War II separate it from the novel’s composition.

Sōseki situates his chamber drama precisely in a modern time and place: a “hectic […] seething, anxious” Tokyo, with its crowded streets and sprawling suburbs, its parks and landmarks, its lodging houses and university life, its new modes of transport and communication (7). Ichikawa, like Nagisa Oshima in Ai no corrida (In the Realm of the Senses, 1976) decades later, closes his narrow narrative in on itself, with external reality a seeming afterthought. Opportunities for historically informed crowd scenes are displaced by metonym (drooping flags or paper lanterns) and tableaux (the astonishing, Kabuki-like staging of the emperor’s funeral cortege). Architecture and decor are used as emotional, rather than social, correlatives. In this, the anti-leftist Ichikawa (8) is following the postwar trends of contemporary cinema – again, the comparison with Bergman is apposite – where generalist, and generally pessimistic dramas about the human condition were preferred to local, historically and politically informed statements.


  1. In Natsume Sōseki’s source novel, most of the characters are not named, and are referred to by terms of respect or initials. In the film, Sensei – meaning guide, teacher, guru, etc. – is named Nobuchi.
  2. Tony Rayns, “Kokoro”, Booklet, Kokoro, DVD, Eureka/Masters of Cinema, London, 2009, p. 14.
  3. In the novel, Sensei compares himself to “a walking mummy doomed to remain in the human world”; it is full of allusions to Japanese customs and folklore relating to death. See Natsume Sōseki, Kokoro, Penguin, New York, 2010, p. 122.
  4. Meredith McKinney, “Introduction”, Sōseki, p. vii.
  5. Rayns, p. 14.
  6. McKinney, p. xi.  See also Rayns, pp. 7, 11.
  7. Sōseki, pp. 85, 88. The contrast between city and country is structurally and thematically more central to the novel.
  8. 8.Yuki Mori and Kon Ichikawa, “Beginnings”, Booklet, Kokoro, p. 43 [from interview first published in 1994].

Kokoro/The Heart (1955 Japan 120 mins)

Prod Co: Nikkatsu Prod: Masayuki Takagi Dir: Kon Ichikawa Scr: Keiji Hasebe, Katsuhito Inomata, based on the novel by Natsume Sōseki Phot: Kumenobu Fujioka, Takeo Ito Ed: Masanori Tsujii Art Dir: Kazumi Koike Mus: Yasushi Akutagawa, Masao Oki

Cast: Masayuki Mori, Michiyo Aratama, Tatsuya Mihashi, Shoji Yasui, Tanie Kitabayashi, Akiko Tamura

About The Author

Darragh O'Donoghue is an archivist at Tate and a contributing writer for Cineaste. He recently completed a PhD on the Stephen Dwoskin Archive at the University of Reading, and contributed to the 'Beyond Bollywood' event at Tate Modern in April 2022.

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