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Universally considered one of the greatest Japanese directors, Keisuke Kinoshita, whose centenary we celebrate with this series, worked almost his entire career for Shochiku, the Japanese studio that also housed Yasujiro Ozu. Shochiku was that studio most devoted to what the Japanese call shomin-geki, stories of everyday life; yet while Ozu developed a rigorous, austere style that he perfected from film to film, Kinoshita was constantly changing, challenging himself to adapt to new subject matter and ways of storytelling. The director of Japan’s first color feature film, the charming musical satire Carmen Comes Home, could move just a few months later on to the bold experimentation just a few months later of A Japanese Tragedy, a work whose jumbled timeframe and insertion of newsreel footage anticipates the modernist films of the Sixties. He made bold use of traditional Japanese art forms such as kabuki (The Ballad of Narayama) and brush painting (The River Fuefuki), but could just as easily indulge in a steamy melodrama (Woman).
Kinoshita moved into the director’s chair after a traditional apprenticeship at the studio, and his familiarity with the many technical aspects of filmmaking led to his demanding the greatest effort from his crews. His two wartime films are forthrightly ambiguous in their view of militarism, and the arrival of the American occupation forces with their promotion of “democratic” ideals in the cinema suited Kinoshita perfectly. Perhaps the major theme that runs through his work is the loss of innocence: one character, usually the protagonist, at some point comes up against the harsh realities of the world. This emphasis on the individual, and his or her ability to craft their own choices, gave the early postwar films a progressive tine, but one can also sense the darkening of his vision as he moves into the Sixties. Although an early proponent for change in Japan, Kinoshita was clearly a man out of step with the vastly different country that had strayed from its traditions far more than anyone has ever imagined, as one can see in his final masterpiece, the remarkable The Scent of Incense.
It should also be said that Kinoshita was a terrific director of actors, and several—Kinuyo Tanaka, Hideo Takamine, Yuko Mochizuki, Keiji Sata—gave some of their greatest performances in his films.
This series was organized in collaboration with Shochiku and with the support of the Japan Foundation. Special thanks also to the Criterion Collection. Series programmed by Richard Peña.