Thursday, May 11, 2017

Review - Jubilation Street

May 11, 2017

Jubilation Street – Japan, 1944

The opening credits of Keisuke Kinoshita’s Jubilation Street reference the date May 3, 1944, the date of the film’s completion, and this is somewhat significant, for it is less than one year before what came to be known as Japan’s “deadliest night,” a night during which 334 U.S. B-29s bombed Japan’s crowded neighborhoods mercilessly. The date provides an insight into the psyche of the films’ characters. To them, the war and its devastation still seem somewhat abstract. Sure, they know the war is going on and likely know people fighting in it, but their conversations are not the ones usually had by people personally impacted by war. The fact that they are being relocated is telling, though. The war is coming to Tokyo.

The film follows a group of neighborhood residents as they come to terms with the government’s decision to reclaim the land their families have lived on for decades. The implication is that the government needs it for military purposes, perhaps as a way of shoring up the city’s defenses. However, for much of the first thirty minutes, the war is barely talked about directly. Instead, residents focus on the changes such a move would mean for them personally. A few of them look forward to returning to farming. Others have concerns about where they are being sent, the impact of the move on their children’s education, and whether relocating will impact their children’s wedding prospects. Interestingly, no one talks about the impact of the war on the area they are moving to. It’s as if all of Japan is still a relatively pristine paradise. This is far from the truth.

The film gives us a glimpse into the lives of many of the area’s residents, and some of their storylines are indeed moving. I was particularly interested in the story involving a young pilot, the girl that loves him, and the obstacles standing in the way of their happiness, not all of which have to do with the war. In American films, such a storyline would be driven by raw emotion, the intensity of their love making them rush to the altar just hours before one of them ships out. In Jubilation Street, logic rules the day, and their conversation is replete with appeals for patience and sacrifice. I was also moved by a character who pines daily for the  husband who abandoned her and her son ten years earlier. Other plotlines, in particular one in which a young man tries to get his father-in-law to move in with him and his wife, are less successful. Simply put, too little time is devoted to these characters for their story to acquire the necessary amount of significance.

Eventually the reality of the war comes to the residents, and they respond just as you’d expect characters in a propaganda film to, with bombastic declarations and solemn oaths to do one’s best for the war effort. What is intended in these and other earlier moments is for the nationalistic spirit of the film’s character to resonate with audience members and inspire similar avowals of nationalistic sacrifice. This seems reasonable for a film of this sort.

Yet to the film’s detriment, it goes about doing this in the most blatantly obvious manner possible. Characters simply blurt things out instead of slowly building up to them, and people change on a dime instead of doing so after slow and deliberate consideration. In one scene, a young woman speaks to the man she loves in a way that makes her frustration and diminishing hopes absolutely clear. Before the man responds, he gently turns toward the camera and then becomes deathly serious. “Our country is at war,” he says and then proceeds to give her all of the reasons why the war effort must be given priority over their personal happiness. It is an inauthentic moment, one intended purely for the audience. The scene reminded me of a similar one in Yasujiro Ozu’s 1942 film, There Was a Father. In that one, a father chastises his son for suggesting that the two of them live together after years of being apart. Again, the message is made crystal clear: The country comes first.

Knowing the efforts of the Japanese government and people like the characters depicted in the film ultimately failed, something Kinoshita and writer Kaoro Morimoto could not have hinted at even if they had an inkling of what was to come, gives the film a sense of fatalism that it likely did not have when it was released in 1944. The area these characters live in will eventual be reduced to ruble, and hundreds of thousands of lives will be lost. Furthermore, the airplanes that the film seems so enamored with will soon be wasted in kamikaze missions. Jubilation Street therefore captures a moment in time when this horror was thought to be preventable, when victory was deemed attainable if only people rolled up their sleeves and gave even more of themselves.

I wish I could say I liked it more, but the film is ultimately too unfocused, its propaganda so blatant that it strains credibility. Sure, there are individual moments to cherish, moments in which Kinoshita’s skills as a director shine through. I particularly liked the way his unobtrusive use of the camera made it feel as if the audience was a fly on a wall, and I frequently marveled at his use of long shots and close ups, especially ones of faces expressing both troubled and jovial emotions. The performances in the film are also generally strong. Ken Uehara and Mitsuko Mito are impressive as Shingo and Takako, the film’s ill-fated couple. I was also moved by the work of Chiyo Nobu, who plays Shingo’s mother. Her character is the most complicated and requires an actress who can express a range of emotions non-verbally. She nails pretty much every moment.

However, with the exception of a few of the film’s more poignant moments, I never felt genuinely invested in the film, and even the film’s most powerful moments hold viewers at a distance. It is true that some of this may have been intentional, a way of accentuating the awakening that occurs in the film’s closing moments. Yet a powerful ending should make what came before it more significant. Here, it just highlights the film’s overall unevenness. Creatively constrained as he no doubt was, with Jubilation Street, Kinoshita crafted a film that is certainly watchable, yet it is also one of his most forgettable, a good idea undone by the times and only slightly redeemed by 20-20 vision. (on DVD as part of Eclipse’s Kinoshita and World War II)

2 and a half stars

*Jubilation Street is in Japanese with English subtitles.

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