Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Sadly Neglected Beauty of Keisuke Kinoshita's River Fuefuki

If you think classic era Japanese filmmakers such as Kenji Mizoguchi or Mikio Naruse are underrated masters that (until recently) have never gotten the respect (outside of their home country) often reserved for Kurosawa and Ozu, then the fateful, undeserved obscurity of compatriot Keisuke Kinoshita will blow off your proverbial socks.  Directing 42 films in the first 23 years of his career (before slowing down to a Terrence Malick-like pace for the remainder), Kinoshita was not only an amazingly prolific filmmaker, but also a creative artist that can easily stand toe to toe with any of the aforementioned classic Japanese Cinema masters.  A creative artist - an auteur if you will - who should be more well known in the West.
With each successive film of Kinoshita's that I see (and I just discovered him this past month thanks to Film Forum's Japanese Divas series) I fall more and more in cinematic love with him, and I think that The River Fuefuki (Fuefukigawa in transliterated Japanese) is the be all and end all of that love - the artistic climax if you will.  Made in 1960, just two years after The Ballad of Narayama (along with Twenty-Four Eyes, probably the director's best known work), The River Fuefuki is the epic story of one family and the turmoil of the lives throughout seventy-plus years of war and torment in what was known as the Sengoku Period (or Period of Warring States).  Seeing each generation succumb to the siren call of war (there are no less than a dozen and a half of battles throughout the story) while the elders lament what could have been, the film plays as great, almost Shakespearean tragedy.  Of course Kinoshita has I am sure, more Japanese classics in mind, but since I am not very familiar with these, allow me to compare it to the tales of Shakespeare's histories.
What really makes The River Fuefuki pop though is not the story - though the way it is told and those portraying these parts are all very riveting in their own right.  What really makes the film stand out is Kinoshita's filming technique.  Sort of comparable to one of Kurosawa's Jideigeki films, if it were made by the likes of a Dario Argento or even a Godard.  Always one to experiment with new visions, Kinoshita is easily the most stylized director of all the Japanese Masters, and is at least just as visually innovative if not more so (though in a more classically elegant way) than any of the New Wavers that came after him.  This kind of stylization in filmmaking may not be for everyone's tastes (the likes of other super stylists like Seijun Suzuki or Nobuhiki Obayashi or even their American blood brother Quentin Tarantino are surely an acquired taste to say the least - a taste I happen to quite enjoy) but Kinoshita was still extremely popular, both critically and financially, in his time.  It is still sad to think how completely unknown he is today in world cinema.
But it is this super stylization that makes Kinoshita's films work as well as they do - and in turn makes me fall deeper and deeper in love with the auteur's oeuvre with each new viewing.  His work with the bright garish primary colours of Carmen Comes Home (made in Fujicolor in 1951, it was Japan's first colour film), his manic, tilting camera in the sequel, Carmen's Pure Love, his use of mood-changing hues in The Ballad of Narayama, the back-and-forth bifractured storytelling of The Tragedy of Japan.  These things are what make Kinoshita such an alluring filmmaker - and in The River Fuefuki, it is no different.  Shot in crisp black and white, Kinoshita swathes the canvas with swooshes of colour (better seen than described - just take a look at the stills that still do not do this film the justice it deserves on the big screen).  The director's use of colour and his way of freezing shots in mid-battle and his use of ghostly imagery make him possibly my favourite director of the moment - a position held by Andrei Tarkovsky, Nicholas Ray, Kenji Mizoguchi, Ernst Lubitsch and William Wellman when I first discovered them.  Seriously, I sat there in the theater and was completely mesmerized by Kinoshita's visuals while being emotionally jarred by what was going on in and around them.
Perhaps a Kinoshita retrospective will come about soon (any potential organizers please note that I am always open to lending a helping hand) and these films, just like the rediscovery of Naruse a few years ago, will finally get the respect and adoration they deserve.  Kinoshita certainly deserves the accolades that Ozu, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi and (more recently) Naruse have gotten from the West.  Incidentally, in 1943, with Kinoshita's debut film, The Blossoming Port, the director was awarded the New Director Award - in the same year another director, Akira Kurosawa also made his debut.  I am not trying to dismiss the accomplishments of Kurosawa (he is and will always be one of my all-time favourite directors), I am just trying to put out there the fact that perhaps we need to re-introduce the great, but mostly unheralded (outside of Japan) career of Keisuke Kinoshita.  Just watch any of his myriad of films (so many different genres, so many different styles), especially The River Fuefuki, and you will surely agree with me.  If not, who wants to know you anyway.

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