April 27, 2017
The Living Magoroku – Japan, 1943
In effective propaganda films, the propaganda operates something like a drone. It flies at a height that ensures that is it never entirely undetected, hovers around for a while, and then makes its full purpose known. And it does all of this in a manner than never distracts or cheapens the central narrative. In fact, when it finally trumpets its nationalistic message, the message seems entirely logical, the reasonable conclusion of a character’s personal journey. Keisuke Kinoshita’s first movie, Port of Flowers, did this reasonable well. The same cannot be said for his sophomore effort, The Living Magoroku.
The Living Magoroku begins interestingly enough, for in its opening moments it transports viewers back to a 1573 conflict between two warring factions. The conflict doesn’t end well for either side. Fast forward more than three hundred years, and the descendants of these warriors are now being trained for eventual assignment in the Second World War. There’s only one problem: they’ve gone soft. As their squad commander puts it, they’ve lost their ancestral spirit. The soldiers are chastised for their shallow understanding of their ancestry, told to plea to their ancestors for courage, and urged to become educated in their family roots. Then comes the kicker. The commander closes with the following “words of encouragement,” “Don’t cling to life. When you die, die honorably.” In 1943, the message to the audience would have been unmistakable.
The film is set on a Japanese island dominated by the Onagi family. The family has so much power that even marriages go through them, much like they did in lands ruled by kings or despots long ago. The family controls the 75-acre piece of land that was the scene of the battle depicted in the film’s opening scene, and for superstitious reasons, they have never allowed it to be farmed on. This is presented as hindering the war effort, and more than a few conversations are centered upon just how much food could be grown on the land. Additional layers of conflict are added through a rare and valuable sword that the family owns (and that another character wants) and the problematic health of the family’s elder son, who is convinced that he, like all of the other men in his family, is destined to die a premature death.
Thus, the film’s central conflict could not be clearer. It is a variation of that age-old theme of modernity versus tradition, one curiously set at a time when children were still being taught that their emperor had divine origins, a contradiction that the film obviously does not address. Nor did I expect it to. What I did expect, however, was for the film to build to a logical and deserved conclusion. After all, it’s never a mystery how the film will end. Government rules mandated that movies promote farming, manufacturing, hard work, and sacrifice, and a family clinging to superstition and self-preservation just doesn’t gel with that message. However, after spending a good hour and twenty minutes creating an atmosphere of slight tension, the film whimpers to the finishing line, electing to have a Deus ex machina character deliver a stirring speech that sets things right. (One guess who the character is.) Just like that, anxieties are gone, a weak character is strong, a strong character is subservient, self-centeredness gives way to charity, and superstition is suddenly powerless. It’s simply too much too soon.
And this is a shame, for the film mostly works up until that point. Sure, it is heavy handed at times. It is also slightly condescending of the island’s youth, its message about young women is somewhat problematic, and several of its storylines remain undeveloped. However, when it focused on the conflicts between the old and the new, and on the lasting effects of superstition, I felt the film had something worthwhile to say – at least, until it didn’t anymore. It is as if Kinoshita, who also wrote the screenplay, reached the 80-minute mark and suddenly remembered that he’d promised the studio a 90-minute feature. The last ten minutes are truly the worst part of the film, not because the film ends with such an overtly nationalistic message, but because what it has a key character do is utterly uncharacteristic. It resembles the actions of a director who simply threw in the towel, and maybe this is indeed what happened. In a way, the film ends exactly the way it has to. I get that. However, I’ve seen enough films like this one to know they can be done well. They can be subtle, logical, and moving. The Living Magoroku only succeeded in the latter, and by the time the credits finished rolling, even that sentiment had been exhausted. (on DVD as part of Eclipse’s Kinoshita and World War II box set)
2 and a half stars
*The Living Magoroku is in Japanese with English subtitles.