Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
“A Sincere Heart,” from 1953, demonstrates that Masaki Kobayashi’s gift for staging was evident very early on. In particular, his ability to invest spaces with emotional meanings, and to link them to other spaces via subtle visual cues, is sharp enough to recall Griffith. The plot concerns a carefree youth, named Hiroshi, whose life takes on new meaning when a dying girl moves in next door. Though the two never speak, they glimpse each other through their bedroom windows; like Fabrizio and Clelia in “The Charterhouse of Parma,” the intensity of their connection is inseparable from the teasing impossibility of their closeness (physical proximity aside, they’re from radically different social spheres). Kobayashi directs the hell out of the movie; there’s not a shot that feels out of place. That tightness of control extends to the score, which features a lot of Western-style music, some of it diegetic, and which is used both to link up the movie’s characters and evoke unseen wells of feeling (one tune continually evokes a dead family member). On some level the movie seems intended as Westernizing propaganda — it’s so thoroughly American in tone and decor that it often feels like part of the Andy Hardy series. It’s odd to see the great Kinuyo Tanaka in a rather small role as the boy’s mother. She’s terrific. So is Yuzo Ariga as the stern business-man father. Most of the movie’s problems cluster around Akira Ishihama, the actor who plays Hiroshi. He lacks the subtlety and depth to make the boy’s transformation understandable in emotional terms; Hiroshi starts out callow and mostly stays that way. Kobayashi also might be at fault — he seems unable to get into the young man’s perceptions and feelings, and so he contents himself with festooning the character with signifiers of angst (there’s a lot of boohooing). It’s not enough: Hiroshi’s love comes out of nowhere, and it remains thin in a way that defeats the movie’s theme of carelessness grown into soul. Is it possible that Kobayashi’s sensibilities were too self-consciously noble? A similar flatness of character dogged his epically scaled “The Human Condition,” which has Nakadai playing a man whose basic decency is never really challenged or expanded on.
Made the following year, “Somewhere Under the Broad Sky” corrects some of the problems which plagued “A Sincere Heart.” Akira Ishihama is again present, though here he’s not asked to shoulder the full weight of the movie’s emotional content; he blends happily into his surroundings. The milieu is that of a working-class Japanese family. It’s real slice-of-life stuff, substantially scrubbier than what’s depicted in “Heart,” and definitely more downbeat — it’s a snapshot of a country working its way through a fog of post-war bitterness. At the center of that bitterness is Hideko Takamine, possibly Japan’s greatest film actress, playing a single woman on the cusp of spinsterhood. Crippled during a bombing raid, she’s damaged goods, but she’s too proud to accept a similarly damaged husband; she spends her days limping about Tokyo’s pleasure sector, gambling on bicycle races and dwelling on ruined possibility. Like Gish and Loy, Takamine is one of those performers whose talent seems to manifest on a plane apart from mere acting; her performance here is like an emanation of being, and she often wrings the subtlest of effects from simple byproducts of posture — her slump-shouldered limp is enough to carry the movie’s pathos. Offsetting Takamine’s sullenness are Keiji Sada and Yoshiko Kuga as the brother and his newly minted wife. Their relationship is a bit rocky — Kuga doesn’t feel accepted by the family — yet they embody a cautious optimism, a symbolic role which Kobayashi and writer Yoshiko Kusuda occasionally push too far, as when they have the couple stand on a rooftop and jabber stuff about hope and love. But they have some touching moments as well: when Kuga’s old beau shows up, it catalyzes their marital problems in a way that barely disturbs the surface calm which successful couples are so effective at maintaining. This lovely sequence, shaped by the simplest of gestures, is characteristic of Japanese social dramas of this period. It’s a reminder that “Sky” is part of one of the great movie traditions, a tradition whose main practitioners include Ozu and Naruse, and which has few equivalents in the arts (the work of Jane Austen is about the best comparison I can muster). There’s no denying that “Sky” is a bit wobbly, and it overstays its welcome by about fifteen minutes. (Ozu, by contrast, always knows precisely where to end a movie.) But during its best moments it’s a pleasure.
Both movies are available to stream via the Criterion Collection channel on Hulu+. Criterion has also just released a set of four early Kobayashi works on its Eclipse label. Worth checking out.