Thursday, June 1, 2017

Review - Morning for the Osone Family

June 1, 2017

Morning for the Osone Family – Japan, 1946

Call it his mea culpa; call it the unshackling of a director with a conscience. Whatever you call it, recognize this: Keisuke Kinoshita’s 1946 drama Morning for the Osone Family is every bit as blatantly propogandic as the work he produced during the war. The other difference is its target. While his other films aimed to convince or reaffirm audience members of Japan’s righteousness in going to war, Morning for the Osone Family takes the opposite view, and while this message may be easier for contemporary audiences to swallow, it in no way diminishes the heavy-handedness used to make its point.  

The film begins in 1943, and it opens with members of the Osone family and a few close friends singing “Silent Night” while a few people not singing discuss an article that one of them penned subtly questioning Japan’s motivation for going to war. It soon becomes clear that every one of them opposes the war, including a young, recently engaged man who is about the report for military duty. Towering over this group is a picture of the deceased patriarch of the family, a man we learn went out of his way to educate his children differently. In other words, in a time of war-mongering, he raised a family of pacifists. Soon the warmth of the evening is shattered. Authorities arrive to arrest the writer of the article, and a bugle, so often the sound of nationalism and pride, sounds to draw young men away from their families and closer to possible death.

In the hopes of assisting their detained family member, the family turns to their uncle, Issel (Eitaro Ozawa). It is a mistake, for he is as much a hawk as they are doves. Not only does he not help his nephew, but he cancels his niece’s engagement and chastises his sister-in-law Fusako (Haruko Sugimura) for weakening the Osone name with her anti-war sentiments. The uncle, you see, is a general in the army, and as such has much riding on the war’s success. As he himself explains, without victory, he faces the real possibility of being charged with war crimes.

Oddly enough, the uncle is the most interesting character in the film. In him, we see all of the evidence of what the other characters can only give speeches about. We see the euphoric high that war gives some people, and we see the blind pride that Kinoshita’s previous film Army articulated in loud, long-winded speeches expressed on the uncle’s rapturous face. In one scene, he practically dances when told his high-school aged nephew is being asked to enlist. He completely misses the fact that when an army recruits its children, it is a sign of desperation, not glory. His wife is a piece of work as well. Throughout the film, she seems more concerned with preserving her place in society than in the plight of her fellow countrymen, and many of her actions are simply draw-dropping.

I criticized Army for being too heavy-handed, for shouting its propaganda rather than subtly implying it. This was after all a departure from Kinoshita’s first three films, which seem to put story first. Army was practically an admission of the state of the war in 1944. It and other films like it were last ditch efforts to convince people that Japan could still win and that it was still honorable to send their sons off to almost certain death, and as such they tried too hard. The same can be said of Morning for the Osone Family. Coming so soon after Japan’s surrender and its occupation by the Allied Powers, (there’s even a reference to the benevolence of MacArthur Headquarters towards the end of the film) the film seems to be bending over backwards to convey the message that Japanese people were victims too and that it was the Japanese people themselves that wanted a demilitarized country. Perhaps that is why one of the film’s final scenes depicts Fusako finally telling off Issel and why the last thing we see him doing is eating lavishly while millions of ordinary Japanese citizens are starving.

I suspect these messages will be simpler to take for modern viewers. After all, it is harder to fault a movie for boisterously proclaiming something you already agree with than it is to find redeeming value in one that espouses contradictory views. Therefore, it goes without saying that it was easier to watch Morning for the Osone Family than either Army or The Living Magoroku. However, even that sentiment is deceiving, for what I would praise the film for is not its anti-war message, but its insight into those who had no choice but to passively wait for the war’s conclusions and those who had a vested interest in Japan’s victory, one that was matched – if not surpassed – by concerns for their own survival. These are moments that have the potential to expand our understanding of people and history, instead of just reinforcing pre-existing notions of historical good and evil. To me, they are part of what can make a film more than just entertainment. And it is in these moments that Morning for the Osone Family is a revelation. If only there were more of them. (on DVD as part of Eclipse’s Kinoshita and World War II)

3 stars

*Morning for the Osone Family is in Japanese with English subtitles.

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