20 February 2017 | co_oldman
I Prefer My Rivers Black
No one is innocent in the post-war Japan depicted in Masaki Kobayashi's Black River. The film focuses on a love triangle: the straight-laced bookseller Nishida and Yakuza gangbanger Joe compete for the affections of the bourgeois local girl Shizuko. The American military base looms large in the film but the action takes place outside of it, mostly in a nearby shantytown. Although he regards the American presence as pernicious, Kobayashi is clear as to where responsibility rests for immoral behaviour and deficiencies in character, namely, the individual and society as a whole.
Kobayashi challenges preconceived notions as to whether people of a certain class are virtuous or vicious. Appearances may reinforce the moral decay of a character, such as the rotten teeth of the unscrupulous landlord, or conceal it in the case of the beautiful and virginal Shizuko. In a disturbing scene, not one tenant is willing to donate blood to a man who is critically ill--not even his own wife. Nishida at least deigns to admit that, in spite of having the correct blood type, he does not want to donate his blood. He may feel that the man, apparently less educated and of a lower class than him, is unworthy of his blood. However, his refusal is as callous and cowardly as that of the other tenants, exposing his apparent nobility as a mere façade.
Black River exhibits the characteristic influence of film noir whose origin is American popular culture. Just as the presence of the American military corrupts Japanese society in the film, American culture has, as it were, corrupted Black River. Kobayashi paints in black and white a quasi-dystopian picture of a society that, having abandoned its principles, has descended into paranoia and mutual sabotage. The stylized and disinterested depictions of characters betray a moral ambivalence to their actions. Sultry jazz music, a distinctly American genre, provides the score of the film. Like the cinematography, its expression suggests that sordid deeds, places, and people are at hand.
In general, Kobayashi juggles the large cast of characters skillfully. However, their number can distract from the film's main plot about the love triangle, leading to a loss of focus and making it difficult to identify with any one character. Humour often shines through the dark subject matter, notably in a quarrel about emptying outhouses and the use of communal space. Like most film noir, Black River occasionally wavers into campiness and mannerism.
Kobayashi crafts a powerful ending to commit the metaphorical assassination of Shizuko's character. Once again, the Americans act as an accomplice but crucially not as the malefactor, the person ultimately responsible. Perhaps for the first time in the film, a character reflects on her own behaviour and is profoundly disgusted. Contemporary viewers will likely, as I did, have more sympathy for some characters and forgive them in light of the ordeals they have experienced or the circumstances in which they live. Nonetheless, Kobayashi makes a powerful argument, not to mention an excellent film that will appeal to fans of post-war cinema, film noir, and Japanese culture.