23 September 2008 | imogensara_smith
The Kobayashi-Nakadai partnership continues in this somber, atmospheric nocturne
INOCHI BO NI FURO means "We give our lives for nothing," and I would award the highly competitive prize for ludicrous English re-titling to the person who decided to render this as "Inn of Evil." For American lovers of Japanese cinema, however, the indignity of silly international titles pales beside the sheer difficulty of getting hold of brilliant movies by great directors. Only three of Masaki Kobayashi's films are readily available on DVD in the U.S. (I don't count THE HUMAN CONDITION, which will set you back around $300), but I was lucky enough to scrounge up a decent copy of INOCHI BO NI FURO. It's a fascinating film, as dark and intricate as its marshy, nocturnal setting, and it richly deserves to be seen.
After taking muddy, visceral realism to the limit with THE HUMAN CONDITION, Kobayashi embraced traditional Japanese aesthetics; his period films combine denunciations of feudal oppression with austere formal beauty, creating a tension between explosive emotion and serene ritual. HARAKIRI (his masterpiece) and SAMURAI REBELLION have a spare, clean look, with many scenes set in white, rectilinear tatami rooms or raked-sand courtyards. INOCHI BO NI FURO is stunningly different look at the past. More than half the scenes are set at night, and the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography creates a breathable sense of place: a small island in the marshes, home to the Easy Tavern, a hideout for a band of smugglers. The camera explores the rambling, shadowy wooden building and peers through screens, wooden grilles or tall, waving reeds, visually evoking the mysterious privacy of the island, where strangers are made very unwelcome by the criminal inhabitants.
Tatsuya Nakadai, Kobayashi's favorite actor and personal discovery, stars as Sadashichi, nicknamed "Sada the Indifferent," who impresses and terrifies the rest of the band with his vicious temper, ruthlessness and enigmatic gloom. With his snake-quick reflexes and knife hidden in his kimono sleeve, Sada is reminiscent of Nakadai's pistol-packing villain in YOJIMBO, but he's even more closely related to the icy, dead-eyed killer Nakadai played in SWORD OF DOOM (a runner-up in the bad re-titling sweepstakes.) But unlike either of these heartless men, Sada is vulnerable and deeply wounded: he broods over his mother, whom he lost as a child when she was sold into prostitution, and he nurtures a baby sparrow, pathetically hoping its mother will return to claim it. After he brutally stabs a policeman who comes to search the tavern for illegal goods, an incredible spasm of horror, weariness and sorrow passes over his face. When Nakadai acts he really ACTS, but he's so good he gets away with it. He's a bit flamboyant here, but just try to take your eyes off himhis serpentine grace, haunted eyes, fierce anger and monstrous sadness are mesmerizing.
The proprietor of the tavern, a man with the calm face of a Buddha, sounds like an enlightened social worker when he talks about his "boys," whom he sees as emotional cripples unable to survive in society and starved for sympathy. Kobayashi the humanist makes these crude misfits (one stutters, one has tuberculosis, one is an ex-monk teased for his bisexual proclivities) much more appealing than the police who plot against them, who are nothing but cold bribe-hungry thugs. (This gets a little too obvious when the camera dwells on the swastika crests on one cop's kimono.) The film pivots on a rather implausible change of heart when the smugglers, led by Sada, decide to risk their lives to help a young fugitive who is trying to raise money to keep his fiancée from being sold to a brothel. Sada's own tortured psychology makes his sudden desire to help the young man convincing, though the eagerness of the other bandits to become do-gooders is a little hard to buy. They're basically just followers, but several other characters are well developed. Shintaro Katsu, as the only outsider allowed to drink in the tavern, spends most of the film doing a slobbering-drunk act in the background, but finally gets a chance to tell his own story, which he carries off with poignant, dignified restraint. The proprietor's daughter, a sweet girl who harbors a growing love for Sada, embodies the film's conscience in her simple belief that no one is worthless, every life is worth fighting for. The young couple taken up as a cause worth dying for are ordinary, imperfect people; the victory sought is an average, peaceful life. Most of Kobayashi's films are about resistance to authoritarian power, but the enemy here is rather selfishness and indifference, which can be defeated only through self-sacrifice.
The climax comes in a spectacularly beautiful battle when an army carrying paper lanterns attacks at night; the glowing spheres flow across the dunes and float above the water like fireflies. I won't give away what happens, but ironically, despite its title, this is the only Kobayashi film I've seen which does NOT end in futility. The heroes give their lives "for nothing" in that they seek no personal gain--but not in vain.