Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Masaki Kobayashi's BLACK RIVER (1957)

Kobayashi's black river is an asphalt road servicing an American military base in occupied Japan. On one side, the sort of establishments that attract soldiers looking for a good time, almost a stripmall of sleaze. On the other, the small timers, the losers, the hustlers. Along this street of dreams and nightmares two men vie symbolically for the soul of Japan. Nishida (Fumio Watanabe) is a poor but earnest engineering student with a cartload of books. He meets cute with Shizuko (Ineko Arima) when she picks up some of the books that fall of the wagon as he moves into the neighborhood. But Joe, aka Joe the Killer (Tatsuya Nakadai) has eyes on her as well. He's the local gangster fattening off the corruption around the base. He wants to cut a deal with the landlady across the street (Isuzu Yamada) to buy her property, drive out Nishida and the other poor tenants, and build a "love hotel" for the GIs. He wants Shizuko for himself and he's got enough dangerous charisma -- this is reportedly the part that made Nakadai a star -- to get what he wants. Joe's old girlfriend makes it a quadrangle by latching onto Nishida, leaning on him like a crutch in the woozy quasi-chase scene that climaxes the picture, just as Joe leans on Shizuko further up the road.

Modern jazz plays over the Shochiku logo and the abstract, collage-like credits. The funky shapes of the English-language clippings may remind you as much of Picasso as of Saul Bass, and we see and hear it all as cool -- but does Kobayashi see it the same way? Black River is a loathing portrait of an abject nation or people on the make or on the bum, where getting someone to stand up for someone else is like pulling teeth. In defeat, solidarity is dead. You can't even get a wife to give blood to her dying husband without her throwing a fit of protest. Even Nishida, our nearest thing to a good guy, is reluctant to give blood. The miasma of desperate selfishness is catching. The efforts of a Korean tenant to rally his neighbors in defense of their rights are hopeless. Culture is dead; America's mark is everywhere. A neighbor asks to borrow some of Nishida's books, but he doesn't care which ones. He just wants to make an impression on his visiting dad. Another neighbors idea of a housewarming gift is a nudie poster. You get the idea.

Ineko Arima and her suitors:
Fumio Watanabe (above) and Tatsuya Nakadai (below)

Amid the grime Nakadai is radioactive, though it's another character who identifies himself, in a belligerent mood, as Godzilla -- and that's twice in two movies in the Criterion Eclipse box set that Kobayashi has invoked the Toho blockbuster of just a few years before. You can see why Nakadai caught fire here; next to his thuggish sexuality Watanabe looks feeble, and in the end it's Nishida but Shizuko who destroys Joe. She pushes the drunk in front of a truck, metaphorically drowning him in the black river that keeps on flowing despite the demise of the scapegoat. They killed the bad guy but the tractors still knocked down the apartments.


This is half Streetcar Named Desire, with Nakadai as Brando, and half Grapes of Wrath, with Watanabe as an intellectual, ineffectual Tom Joad. You get the poverty and wretchedness and demolition scenes without the speechifying about the people, so maybe some will like this better. There's plenty to like in this noirish skid-row screed against a nation of sellouts, but there's something generic about it that Kobayashi and Nakadai would transcend in their greatest films together and other directors would top when contemplating the corruption of occupation. This jazzy jeremiad may be too cruel to be cool but Nakadai gives it the juice to stand the test of time.

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