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Kokoro
cast: Masayuki Mori, Michiyo Aratama, Tatsuya Mihashi, and Shoji Yasui

director: Kon Ichikawa

120 minutes (12) 1955
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Eureka DVD Region 2 retail
[released 23 February]

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
One of the great blessings of Tartan Video folding is that other companies have been able to pick up the baton and grab some critical attention by bringing out classics of world cinema in a market place that is not overshadowed by the increasingly bankrupt and derivative 'extreme' genre output of Japan and South Korea. Compared to the high production values and lavish extras of the American Criterion collection, the on-going co-operation between Eureka Entertainment and the Masters of Cinema website can look a bit like a dowdier European cousin. Nevertheless, since 2004, the Masters of Cinema series has included some genuinely great films that lack the commercial visibility necessary for a Criterion release. Ichikawa's Kokoro is one such film. Based upon a classic of Japanese literature by Natsume Soseki, Kokoro is an epic melodrama about isolation, guilt and suppressed sexuality which, though subtle to the point of evasiveness, contains some great storytelling and some masterful performances.

The film begins after an argument between the middle-aged intellectual Nobuchi (Masayuki Mori) and his wife Shizo (Michiyo Aratama). As happens every year, Nobuchi has gone to visit the grave of his friend Kaji Tatsuya (Mihashi) whilst making it clear to his wife that she is not welcome. "It's not what you think!" Nobuchi protests heading off an unspoken explanation by his wife. As Nobuchi visits the cemetery he is caught up by his young friend Hioki. Concerned about the older man's taciturn nature after intervening in what looked a lot like a suicide attempt, Hioki sets about asking about Nabuchi and his wife, but all questions are politely rebuffed. However, Hioki does not give up and, before long; he is a friend of the family and inspired Nobuchi to think about why he does not work and why he is so unhappy.

As Hioki returns home to tend to his dying father, Nobuchi remembers his friend Kaji. An unsociable ascetic, forever going on and on about his spiritual development, Kaji inspired great loyalty in the young Nabuchi, who paid for the penniless student to lodge with the family of the woman who would become Nobuchi's wife. Yet, as time presses on, it becomes clear that far from being a great spiritual man, Kaji was in fact so deeply depressed that his unhappiness took the form of a form of masochistic self-denial, especially as far as Shizo is concerned. Shocked to learn that Kaji is secretly in love with Shizo, Nobuchi proposes to the girl precipitating Kaji's suicide. The older Nobuchi reveals all of this in a long letter to Hioki after the young man refuses to return home in order to speak to his friend, thereby restarting the cycle of grief, blame and alienation that began with Kaji's treatment of Nobuchi.

Before I discuss the film, I would like to make a quick remark about translation. I genuinely do not bother with these kinds of remarks as far too often western criticism of Japanese film devolves into linguistics, but in this case the translation is central to an understanding of the plot.

The word 'sensei' is traditionally translated as 'master' or 'teacher'. However, while it is true that, in the west, the only context in which people still have masters is formal education, the same is not true in Japan. Indeed, the Japanese apply the word 'sensei' not only to teachers and professors but also to people with some acknowledged skill in a particular area. So, for example, a great musician or a great writer might be called 'sensei' just as easily as a university lecturer. This realisation comes somewhat late in the film to me but once you realise that Hioki is not a student of Nobuchi as much as he is someone who looks up to him and wants to learn from him, then the similarities between that relationship and the relationship between Kaji and Nobuchi become a lot clearer.

In both cases, a young man becomes emotionally attached to a man whose apparently impressive intellect is actually nothing more than an excuse for emotional detachment, alienation and hostility. In the case of Kaji, he studies and whines about how much he suffers for his soul but, despite his great spirituality, he is a taciturn man whose studies lead him nowhere. This is obvious when Kaji encounters a monk but instead of discussing spiritual matters with him, he uses his knowledge as a way to trap and ridicule the far more spiritual and peaceful man. Similarly, the older Nabuchi has a roomful of books which he reads continuously but there is little sense of his working towards a book or doing anything with the knowledge he acquires except using it as a way to fill his days and provide an excuse for not talking to his wife. This is the life of the mind as a life of self-deception and unhappiness.

So what causes this alienation and unhappiness? The book is apparently unclear and the film is not a good deal more lucid. Ichikawa never really explores why it is that Kaji is such a grumpy sod and all attempts to explain Nobuchi's taciturn nature merely lead back to someone even more aloof and inexplicably unhappy. In short, the cause of all this unhappiness is conspicuous by its absence. Reading between the lines, the only explanation that makes sense is that Nobuchi was in love with Kaji and that Kaji indulged his friend's desires but hated himself for it. This explains why Nobuchi paid for his friend to live with him, why Kaji would be rude and cold towards Nobuchi, why Nobuchi would not take this as a sign that Kaji wanted to be left alone and why Nobuchi would want to cut his friend off at the pass by proposing to a woman he did not love merely to keep his friend single.

Given that this film was made in the 1950s, it is perhaps understandable that Ichikawa and the original novelist would not want to be as elusive as possible in regards to the real passion that drives the plot of Kokoro. However, the unwillingness of Ichikawa to wade in to these waters does result in the film treading water towards the end. Indeed, there is a whole section where Nobuchi and Kaji go on holiday together and if you read between the lines the section makes sense (particularly Kaji's bizarre decision to lash out at a passing priest/ moral authority figure) but as presented here, it feels like a good 20 minutes of unnecessary padding in what is ultimately quite a long film.

I cannot help but wonder what someone like Ozu might have made of this script as films such as Tokyo Story (1953) and Tokyo Twilight show that, not only could he extract great significance and even-handed pathos from the great social changes of post-war Japan, but he could also handle socially taboo subjects in a way that was discrete and elegant. By contrast, Ichikawa seems unwilling to get his hands dirty and his engagement with post-war Japan is limited to endless pointing at newspaper headlines describing the death of the Emperor. I actually tend to prefer films that expect the audience to do some work for them, but when the director seems content to leave a huge gap where a central plank of the film should be; it strikes me as more a failing on the director's part than on the audience's.

However, despite the fact that Kokoro lacks the final punch that would have made it a masterpiece, there is a lot in this film that is good. For starters, the performances are superb. Mori Masayuki strangely looks older as a youth than he does as a middle-aged man but he exudes a deep sense of anguished misery that changes into resentment when he is dealing with his wife and almost flirtatious malice when dealing with Hioki. Mihashi Tatsuya also does a fantastic job of portraying a man at war with himself, especially when his carefully constructed spiritual bunker opens as he finally admits that he is in love with Shizu... a love that he can accept about himself. Aratama Michiyo does a better job of playing a youth than her on-screen husband as her smiling, giggling, youthful self is almost unrecognisable from the beaten-down middle-aged woman who cannot understand where her life went. Yasui Shoji is wonderfully naïve. He keeps returning to his sensei's house but does not quite understand why... he is forever looking for books he does not need and seeking to protect the house from thieves that never come.

The film is also visually interesting, if rather traditional. Much like modern award-courting films, the focus is very much upon the actors, who receive endless close-ups on their anguished faces. Masters of Cinema have done a fantastic job restoring the film as it is as clear as anything I have seen and puts largely un-restored prints such as Tartan's terrible, scratchy Tokyo Story release to shame.

Unfortunately, the DVD does not come with any extras, but there is a 25-page booklet including an interview with Ichakawa, and a lovely essay by Tony Rayns which, having read through it just now, covers much of the ground covered in this review and more but with a good deal more clarity and style. Ahem.
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