If you're considering watching this film... yeah, go for it. It's pretty good, although that's not the best reason to recommend it. I found it fascinating, because it's a Japanese film made during World War Two. Keisuke Kinoshita's first four films were made during the war, under wartime censorship codes. His first script had been rejected outright by the Information Ministry. This was his third, after Port of Flowers and The Living Magoroku. They feel like propaganda, with dialogue like: "The bottom line is, how to protect the land you love. How can you best protect the homeland?"
Kinoshita was a pacifist and his later oeuvre includes anti-war films like Twenty-Four Eyes
. His fourth and final wartime film, Army, got attacked for anti-war sentiment (despite getting past the censors) and he wasn't allowed to make films again until American rule after Japan's surrender.
I think this film also has an anti-war reading. It jumped out at me, personally, but I can see how the censors at the time might have refused to see or acknowledge it.
My discussion below includes a big SPOILER, by the way.
This film's short, light and easy to watch. It's set in Tokyo at a time when everyone's moving out to somewhere safer. There's a test pilot who wants to marry a girl, who's not exactly jumping at the prospect. (The complication is that in this era, you couldn't marry without your parents' consent. It took me a while to work out all the factors in what to us looks like a simple "boy wants to marry girl".) There's a woman whose no-good husband disappeared ten years ago and she refuses to think that he might be dead. Instead, she likes to believe that the trials he must have endured might have reformed him.
"Mother, do you still think my father might come back?"
"If he's alive, maybe one day..."
"And if he comes back, do you intend to live with him? He caused you so much hardship. Did you forget the dresser you brought with you when you married him?"
"He had to sell it and run away. He had no other choice back then. The truth is, he's a weak man. That's why he's always worried about what's right in front of him. He ends up doing what ordinary people wouldn't do. But I think he's changed by now. He must have gone through a lot of hardship himself."
"That's wishful thinking, Mother. A beautiful, but baseless dream."
"You may be right. But that dream has kept me going until today."
The film's understated and good-natured. It's the domestic story of a bunch of mismatched neighbours of, shall we say, varying intelligence. I laughed at one idiot's bad reason for assuming that his pregnant wife's child must be a boy. When Deadbeat Dad returns, the scene where he meets his wife is scored with gentle, light string music that almost suggests comedy.
Nonetheless, there's an offscreen death... and that's where I saw that potentially subversive reading. "Died on duty. Not an accident, but killed in action. What does it mean?" What indeed? The film repeats this odd expression and even has the puzzled characters wonder about it. Personally, I wonder if that might not have been friendly fire. This would throw a completely different light on the patriotic sentiments that are later expressed about this:
"I decided I'm going to work at an airplane factory. I'll make as many planes as I can. They'll avenge Shingo."
"I'll work hard. It's the way to avenge my son."
If that was friendly fire, then "vengeance" should be against the Japanese government itself.
That said, though, does it really matter? Lots of Japanese soldiers died in the expected way and their parents would have expressed this kind of sentiment. The film feels real and true. Even with the patriotic dialogue, I can completely imagine ordinary Japanese people talking, thinking and acting like this in 1944. There's not the slightest shred of awareness that Japan was the aggressor, mind you. They see themselves as under attack by enemies, which is both true and misleading.
I was fascinated by the propaganda dimension and its hidden tensions... but, really, this is a film about a bunch of neighbours. They mean well and they love their country. They're silly. They can be too stubborn to act in their own best interests. It's quite a deft, neatly told little story that got me even more interested in Keisuke Kinoshita, albeit with a certain amount of censor-friendly dialogue.
"It's not about the result or the fact. The nation is at war. We can't pursue our personal wishes. That's what I mean. It's about respect for our country."