Kokoro (Masters of Cinema) Review

After beginning his career as an animator and then toiling mostly unnoticed in Japanese studios, first as an assistant director prior to World War II and eventually helming 25 or so features in the decade following the war, Kon Ichikawa gained domestic and international acclaim for The Burmese Harp in 1956. The following few years allowed Ichikawa to prosper artistically, alongside his wife and frequent screenwriter Natto Wada, with often biting, dark humoured films like A Full-Up Train, Odd Obsession (Kagi), and Fires on the Plain (Nobi). More straightforward, but no less accomplished efforts including Conflagration (Enjo), An Actor's Revenge, and Tokyo Olympiad also came from Ichikawa's most fruitful period in the decade after his breakthrough. Immediately prior to The Burmese Harp, though, the director began work at Nikkatsu, the studio where Shohei Imamura and Seijun Suzuki would later make their respective marks, on a pair of films.

In addition to making Ghost Story of Youth (Seishun kaidan), Ichikawa worked at Nikkatsu in 1955 on Kokoro, sometimes translated as The Heart (though that alternate title is persuasively argued against in the booklet that accompanies this DVD release). Along with The Burmese Harp, Ichikawa later made Alone Across the Pacific, which is released on Eureka's Masters of Cinema label at the same time as Kokoro, for the studio. The written material included in the booklet makes clear that the novel Kokoro is based on, written by Soseki Natsume who, incidentally, also wrote the source material for Ichikawa's humourous and melancholy 1975 film I Am a Cat, is considered a classic of Japanese literature and perhaps superior to this film version. (A second attempt at filming Kokoro was later made by director Kaneto Shindô, in 1973.) Ichikawa's Kokoro has not enjoyed much of a reputation at all actually, at least in Western literature on the director and his films. It's not been available for home viewing and is rarely screened so, at the very least, preconceptions should be minimal.

Shôji Yasui, the soldier who becomes a monk in The Burmese Harp, plays wide-eyed student Hioki. We see in brief flashback that Hioki first encountered Nobuchi (Masayuki Mori), the man he calls Sensei, on a beach when Nobuchi swam dangerously far from the shore. Since that point, the two men - Hioki, who's about to graduate college, and Nobuchi, who is married to Shizu (Michiyo Aratama) and has never been gainfully employed - have developed a deep bond of friendship that belies their age difference. Their first meeting in the film is in a cemetery, where Nobuchi has come to visit a deceased friend he was obviously quite close to, someone who died fifteen years prior to the 1912 setting. Despite her seemingly ingrained subservience to her husband, Shizu exhibits jealousy of both Nobuchi's request to go to the graveyard alone and his increased time spent with Hioki. These two conflicts, the marital tension and the exact dynamic between the older sensei and his younger admirer, influence the entirety of the film's two hours.

Ichikawa and his two screenwriters, neither of which was Natto Wada, seem to make a conscious decision to let the viewer learn bits of vague motivation in the lead up to a revealing flashback which explains most everything we need to know about Nobuchi. The flashback introduces Kaji (Tatsuya Mihashi), Nobuchi's friend from his college days, and makes more explicit the homosexual aspect that was previously only somewhat hinted at, both between Nobuchi and the deceased, as well as Hioki and his sensei. Looking through modern eyes, the indications appear everywhere in Kokoro concerning Nobuchi's homosexuality. It's actually quite blunt, yet still handled somewhat delicately in the film. His inability to function in the world and extreme longing - in short, the entirety of the problems Nobuchi displays - stem from the frustrations and guilt associated with what occurs in the flashback, which is tied into his sexuality. Viewed today, Kokoro is truly a bold film in terms of how it portrays Nobuchi's struggle and unhappiness, refusing both the idea of homosexuality as an affliction and the need to make any patent statement at all.

By framing the film outside of the main relationship between Nobuchi and Kaji, Kokoro nonetheless positions itself as frustratingly vague. It often feels like two separate films due to the length and emotional depth of the flashback. Tony Rayns' essay in the included booklet applauds this walk of the tightrope, but I think, done in aggregate, it takes away some of the ability to grasp exactly what Ichikawa was aiming for here. Only the initial portion, with an ambiguous and underexplored friendship between Hioki and Nobuchi, slowly unfolds into something fascinating, doing so precisely because of the questions it asks without answering. The extent of and the motivation behind the two men's time together seems odd. Hioki fawns over Nobuchi, but we're not shown anything supporting his adoration. The seed that it might be sexual is planted before it's apparently dismissed. Otherwise, though, Nobuchi exhibits little in the way of positive qualities unless Hioki is merely hopeful that he can help with finding employment after graduation. Hioki's father is seriously ill so there's also the possibility that he sees Nobuchi as a paternal substitute.

Meanwhile, Shizu is set up as a sad, repressed figure who's probably even more frustrated than her husband. She's been denied having children and Nobuchi aggressively scolds her for questioning his time away from home spent with Hioki. It's an unsettling portrayal of the expectations of a Japanese wife, made especially poignant by the information learned in the flashback. The payoff from what we gather in that step back to roughly fifteen years previous is enormously devastating, but it's such a lengthy and significant shift in the film that the effect overall is lessened by how digressive it sometimes feels. The information contained is essential to the story. Unfortunately, the way it's presented is uneven and inconsistent with the rest of the film. Though Nobuchi's temperament is quite different, he's even less sympathetic and his actions, purely the result of jealousy, further mystify how he's managed to exist in the previous fifteen years since Kaji's death. As a protagonist, Nobuchi is lacking in dimension, a complaint somewhat helped by the film's reluctance to fully address the extent of his relationships with both Kaji and Hioki. The things we see from Nobuchi are difficult to support, but the film's reluctance to judge his actions does tend to bleed over in the direction of the viewer.

Some of Ichikawa's other intentions are more difficult to pin down. Rayns asserts in his essay that the film is really more Shizu's story, in terms of what she has been dealing with in her marriage and her role as a surrogate for the traditional Japanese wife. This idea becomes problematic, however, when looked at against the entirety of the movie and how little Shizu really factors into most of it. Her character is thinly-drawn, if effective, and she's only interesting to the point of her quiet suffering. The remaining tangents tend to struggle in the larger picture of the whole. Hioki is pushed to the background to care for his sick father and read telegrams, but no connection can be made between him and the viewer. The character of Kaji only appears sullen and often angry, for reasons possibly alluded to but never made entirely clear. Furthermore, what does Nobuchi see in Kaji that's so appealing? These are somewhat small imperfections that gain momentum when combined. They're nagging flaws in a film still supported by several compelling aspects. However, Ichikawa's cinematic shyness in Kokoro seems uncharacteristic of a director whose work often appears confidently audacious, even perverse.

There's much to intrigue us in Kokoro, but little that actually sustains. Ichikawa was at his best when either drawing attention to an inequity or darkly skewering small details - or doing both at the same time - but he was also interested in a more humane side of life, which presumably lead him to both The Burmese Harp and Kokoro. The former film now plays as too simplistic and sentimental, in my opinion, while the latter unfortunately goes a bit in the other direction. It may be the required veil hanging over the homosexuality issue in Kokoro that causes it to feel incomplete, but there's definitely something amiss in the gathered pieces the filmmakers lay out, including a deliberate latching on to the death of Emperor Meji and companion suicides of General Nogi and his wife. The storytelling itself is nonetheless fascinating from beginning to end, and Ichikawa's staid, patient direction places the viewer inside the film instead of instructing a particular point of view. Maybe not fully understanding characters' motivations is an unfair gripe, but it seems like everyone in the film lacks a sense of authenticity and depth. Kokoro wants to devastate us with a final psychological blow of an ending. It instead comes off as artificial and empty.

The Disc

Kokoro gets what is, I believe, its first English subtitled DVD release anywhere in the world via Eureka's Masters of Cinema line, hitting retailers at the same time as Ichikawa's Alone Across the Pacific. The disc is region-free and NTSC.

A single-layered DVD has been used, though the 1.33:1 image still looks quite strong for a Japanese film from the 1950s. The progressive transfer exhibits no distracting instances of noise or other compression issues. There are a few faint lines of damage that run vertically, but these are easily overlooked. No other damage was detectable. Contrast leans in the direction of grey and generally favours a bright image. The detail seems a touch soft. The picture overall is impressive, however, and should be satisfactory for anyone hinging his or her purchasing decision on image quality.

The Japanese mono track has optional English subtitles, which are white in colour. There is an audible crackle throughout the film and a loud pop just before the 18-minute mark. Dialogue is at a consistent and healthy volume.

There aren't any supplemental features on the disc itself, but a thick, 48-page booklet can be found inside the case. It contains a lengthy and fine essay by Tony Rayns, which I referenced in my review. There's also an extensive interview with Kon Ichikawa conducted by Mori Yuki for the latter's 1994 book on the director. It runs for over 26 pages of text, with "filmographic details" added by Rayns throughout the course of the interview. These substantial booklets that frequently accompany Masters of Cinema releases are most welcomed and just as, or more, vital supplements to the films as most of the digital extras. Plus their tangible nature allows for the booklets to be consumed with more flexibility, when you're not keen on sitting in front of the television.

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