It's hysterical. I fell about laughing.
It's Mizoguchi's only complete surviving film from the 1920s and so relatively crude by the standards of later Japanese silent cinema. (They kept making silent films right through the 1930s, thanks to the tradition of benshi, or narrators, so the most sophisticated Japanese silent films look pretty damn modern.)
Also, importantly, this one was commissioned by the Ministry of Education, at a time when left-wing groups in Japan were being violently suppressed and extreme nationalism was on the rise. Here, they got Mizoguchi to examine the tensions within a rural village when two young people (Misako and Junichi) return from that Babylonian pit of iniquity, Tokyo. They were (gasp) STUDENTS! The interesting thing is that they're being reunited with a poor-but-brilliant friend who didn't go to Tokyo with them:
"Naotaro Sakuda is working as a coachman in order to support his poor family."
"That coachman is Sakuda, isn't he?"
"Sakuda, that brilliant boy at our primary school?"
"He used to say that he would become a doctor of agriculture."
In fairness, I was exaggerating. The film doesn't hate Tokyo. It does, though, take a dim view of the kind of people who've been living there and enjoying its modern lifestyle. (That said, though, the film also makes a point of showing a car overtaking Sakuda's horse-drawn carriage.)
"You are just like before. Don't be noisy."
"Making a noise is our privilege."
For a while, there's absolutely no plot. Well, unless you count a brief conversation about Sakuda's job. We see the village's rich and poor families, but neither come out of that looking good. The rich farmer Junsaku and his scary wife look like feudal throwbacks. As for Sakuda's impoverished family, they seem much more normal and we're told that Sakuda's mother and sister are nice ("a kind heart" and "a gentle girl" respectively), but I was wondering if dad might be a bastard. Sakuda's been thinking about his future:
SAKUDA: "Father, I would like to go to Tokyo. I will study hard and return as a great man."
DAD: "I know what you think. But we have no money for it."
SAKUDA: "I will have a job while I am studying in Tokyo."
DAD: "No, you cannot succeed in anything if you do not concentrate on one thing. I'm sure that you will be able to study further sooner or later. So please be patient and work for us."
(Or, in other words, "someone's got to muck out that horse at 5 o'clock each morning.")
Anyway, Sakuda's about to have a change of heart. We've seen him yearning for education. Sounds admirable to me. All he's completed so far is primary school. However, this is basically a propaganda film to encourage rural peasants to be stop thinking and be obedient patriotic lumps.
1. Sakuda rescues a small child from the river and refuses to accept any money in return when the American father tries to reward him for this. His reason: "I am a Japanese man."
2. Those danged kids start dancing and enjoying themselves! "Maesaka and the other students who are bored with the country life organize a club in the city style. The purpose of this club is to enjoy friendship among the club members and to train future ladies and gentlemen. For the purpose of this, this club studies dance and music. The appearance of this club stimulated the city fever of young people in the village."
Shortly afterwards, a misguided girl gets on the train to Tokyo. "Mother, thank you for everything. But I am fed up with the country life." UNIMAGINABLE HORROR!
3. Sakuda delivers a speech.
"More than music, more than dance, you have greater enterprise to study. It is agriculture. If we all long for the city and leave agriculture, what is our land coming to? What is Japan coming to? Please love our land. And please be proud of being a farmer."
"Forgive me. I had a mistaken idea for our village."
4. Shortly after this, that American professor offers to support Sakuda through a full education. No restrictions or limits. He'll pay for any academic discipline. (It's interesting to note that there's no racism towards the Westerner, with the film's reactionary politics being confined entirely to a mistrust of young people in the lower classes who try to think, enjoy themselves or aspire to social mobility. Also, the American's played by someone called Yutaka Mimasu and the filmmakers have hidden his ethnicity under a big hat and beard.)
Anyway, Sakuda says no.
"What is our land coming to? What is Japan coming to? Sir, I decided to remain in this village and become a good farmer. Getting further education is good. But it is more important for me to be a farmer who is independent and self-improving. Sir, please tell him what I feel. I will decline the offer."
"I pay my respects to your heart."
"Here is the land where we were born. We have to cultivate it. By doing so, everything in the nation can be nurtured."
If you're looking for a laugh, I'd recommend this film. It definitely isn't boring. The propaganda angle is high comedy, while Shigeru Mokudo's also quite good in the lead role. He has the handsome chiselled looks of a silent movie hero, along with the ability to smile in a rictus while Mizoguchi does the 1920s silent movie equivalent of a zoom. (It's also amusing to see him bashing behaviour that doesn't fit old-fashioned social roles, while wearing more make-up than the women in the movie.)
Incidentally, I should note that the other 1920s and 1930s Japanese films I've seen didn't come across to me as propaganda at all. Also, this one's fairly well made and acted. It's just its message hasn't aged well.