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August 23, 2011


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Kon Ichikawa - 1955
Eureka! Masters of Cinema Region 2

There's a shot in Kokoro of a foot literally stuck in the mud. It's a fitting visual metaphor for the character, Nobuchi, who finds himself unable to move from his own emotional trap. Many of the scenes in Kokoro also involve rooms, and opened or closed doors, emphasizing the characters' own closing off from each other.

Even when the film is a studio assignment, as Kokoro, there is still thematic continuity. The central question is about choices that are made, rightly or wrongly, that put the protagonist in a moral quagmire. One part of the story is a flashback, taking place in about 1897, about Nobuchi and his best friend, Kaji. The two young men, soon to graduate from university, have differing opinions about how to live. Nobuchi expresses skepticism regarding Kaji's choice to live an ascetic life following Buddhist principles. The two rent rooms, where they unavoidably develop interest in the landlady's daughter, Shizu.

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The framing narrative is about a young student, Hioki, who first comes across Nobuchi by accident, perceiving the older man to be drowning in the ocean. For reasons never made clear, Hioki decides to make Nobuchi his mentor in life, even though the older man's life consists of nothing more than scholarly pursuits. Nobuchi is married to Shizu, in a relationship that is often punctuated with arguments and misunderstandings, based, as is eventually revealed on Nobuchi's relationship with Kaji.

There are aspects of the film that may be lost, even with some general understanding of Japanese history. The film was based on a novel by Natsume Soseki, taking in some of the general themes of the author. 1912 marked the end of the Meiji era and the beginning of the Taisho era in Japan. Even though the Meiji era marked the beginnings of "modernization" in Japan, and the end of the feudal era, the differences in generations can be seen with Nobuchi always in a kimono, while Hioki is periodically shown wearing western style clothing, the student uniform of the day. The changes in eras allows for a look at contrasting the connections of the historical past with the emotional past. Kokoro also provides an interesting comparison to The Burmese Harp not only for its fatalism, but also how in the latter film, the young soldier pretends to take on a Buddhist practice only to have it evolve into something both serious and ultimately liberating.

Michiyo Aratama as Shizu was twenty-five when she made Kokoro. With only a change in hairstyle, she is transformed from a younger woman who encounters Kaji and Nobuchi, to a woman who has been married to Nobuchi for thirteen years. I've seen Aratama in other films, but never was struck by her as I've been in this film. She doesn't have the kind of more obvious kind of beauty of Ayako Wakao, or someone like Machiko Kyo when she plays a modern character. Aratama has the kind of understated beauty that gradually grabs your attention, at least in this film. Kokoro is the Japanese word for heart, and Aratama is the true heart of the film around which everyone else revolves.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 23, 2011 08:34 AM