April 13, 2017
Port of Flowers – Japan, 1943
I suspect that the more time goes by, the more people will be able to appreciate – and perhaps marvel at – Keisuke Kinoshita’s directorial debut Port of Flowers. I say this because the film has the unfortunate distinction of having been made in 1943, two years after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, an event actually referenced in the film, and two year before Japan’s surrender. In other words, it is unabashedly nationalistic. Two of its supporting characters even get into a shouting match over whether one of them is sufficiently Japanese. Just what was the accused’s blunder? Wondering aloud how much money a ship-making company could lose in during wartime. Only when he recognizes the need to put the country ahead of his personal wealth is he deemed to be sufficiently patriotic. The conversation is heavy handed to be sure, but it is also entirely realistic in its sentiments. In fact, I’m willing to bet that similar conversations were had on the other side of the Pacific.
By now, the plot of Port of Flowers will appear rather familiar to viewers because in the last fifty years, it has become a bit of a cliché. It was less of one back in 1943. In the beginning of the film, two con men descend upon a rather quaint port town. They arrive claiming to be the sons of a businessman who died before completing his dream of establishing a shipping company, and they woo the area’s residents with their altruistic proclamations of wanting the company to be 100 per cent resident-owned. All they want, they assert, is to make their father’s dream come true. The residents fall for it hook, line, and sinker. However, it isn’t hard to predict that at least one of these two will have a change of heart.
One of the things that makes Port of Flowers unique – and therefore a likely target for censure under Douglas MacArthur during the American occupation of Japan immediately following the cessation of hostilities – is its use of the Second World War. The film was made in 1943, at a time when it is impossible to imagine any movie being made other than one functioning at least partially as a nationalistic tribute to those taking part in the war effort. Even the great Akira Kurosawa made one these films. In his film, Most Beautiful, about a woman who sacrifices her health working in a weapons factory, an individual’s physical well-being is portrayed as less important than the Japanese armies need for artillery. In Port of Flowers, it is one’s wealth that must be sacrificed for the betterment of the military. It isn’t hard to imagine American viewers watching such films in the 1950's and seething.
However, if you think about it, everything we see in the film makes complete sense. The residents’ complete acceptance of the visitors, their buy-in of their plan, and the speed and veracity of the shift from the residents’ personal motivations and their euphoric support for the war. But look carefully. The residents know nothing of the war other than what they hear in the government’s bare-bone announcements of victorious attacks and tightly-coordinated tugs at the nation’s collective patriotic heartstrings. There is no mention of cost or loss of life, no awareness of the attack having been carried out before the Emperor’s declaration of war. I suspect that all people at this time knew was that the United States had stopped supplying oil to Japan in 1940, an action many interpreted as proof that the United States was no longer impartial. And interestingly, there’s a moment in the film when the full horrors of the war become clear. In it, the residents of the town run aimlessly across a barren field in anger and shock that death has come to one of their own. Where are they going? I’m not even sure they know. What seems clear, though, is that the war has hit home for them, and it would get much worse.
Having said all of this, I feel I’ve done the film a bit of a disservice, for in explaining my esteem for it, I have focused too much on the film’s politics, and there is much more to the film that this. There is the beautiful way in which people open their hearts to the con men, and the incredible personal journeys that the these men embark on to reach their personal destinations. I admired the complexity of the villagers, how each of them had a motive for their actions and how hard it was to fault any of them for their actions. Screenwriter Yoshiro Tsuji even had the wherewithal and the guts to introduce a new character halfway through the film and to have this character play an extremely pivotal role in the film. You’ll know the scene when you see it – it’s just that powerful.
Back when Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima was released, I remember reading a review that ended with the acknowledgement that it was rare to see war from the perspective of the other side, but that perhaps we should see more of them. I wholeheartedly agree. For me, Port of Flowers was both enjoyable and educational. In it, we see a new view of a familiar conflict. More importantly, however, we see a story that we can relate to, a story of faith in humanity, of change, and of redemption. The politics is there, of course, but so too is heart and decency, and I believe we can admire and learn something from that, while still disagreeing with the actions of an unseen government. (on DVD as part of Eclipse’s Kinoshita and World War II)
3 and a half stars
*Port of Flowers is in Japanese with English subtitles.