Zemma / The Good Fairy (1951)

21 01 2013

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with making wistful films, but the type of romanticism apparent in the films of Kinoshita has always been somewhat grating to me. The problem is not that it’s naive exactly, but his almost mystical realism seems like child’s play compared to the titans of Japanese cinema during the 1950s. This isn’t exactly a fair comparison, but there’s definitely something here that prevents a film like this one, which has plenty of things working in its favor, from really feeling like a bona fide masterpiece.


Nakanuma works at a newspaper and he’s investigating the disappearance of his onetime friend and potential lover, Itsuko. Itsuko left him many years ago for a comfortable existence with the much older Kitaura. Nakanuma sends a reporter, Rentaro to find interview Itsuko. She’s now living with Mikako and her father, played by the great Chishu Ryu. Rentaro falls hopelessly in love with Mikako, which puts both him and Nakanuma in a tough position. Their paper needs to put something out about Itsuko running away from her husband, but neither wants to betray the trust they’ve earned from their respective love interests.


Rentaro is played by Rentaro Mikuni, best remembered for his performances in Vengeance is Mine and The Burmese Harp, doesn’t fair too well here. He’s a bit too emotional and a bit too dramatic, perhaps an accurate manifestation of Kinoshita’s own philosophy considering his manipulative streak. Rentaro falls in love with the 19 year old Mikako and although she is played by a very charming Yoko Katsuragi (later in Scandal and Japanese Tragedy), her interactions with Rentaro don’t seem to be particularly romantic. They’re cute to watch together, but it doesn’t fit with the film’s extreme finale.


Mikako’s health gets worse, the illness that is hinted at towards the film’s beginning comes back in the end to give us our ridiculous conclusion. Rentaro’s questionable behavior is meant to be held up as the moral standard, as the characters around him show some flaws. The film tries to villainize Itsuko (played by the lovely Chikage Awashima) because she is somewhat motivated by money. However, a single woman in 1950s Japan, who is trying to escape the control of her unfit husband shouldn’t be blamed for some greed. Her means to money would be difficult if the proposed divorce were to ever go through. This is where Kinoshita tends to lose me,  directing his characters to single dimensions. It’s a shame too, because the fragmented way in which he tells Itsuko and Nakanuma’s love story is actually interesting. I wish he had explored that more.


Instead, he shifts his focus mostly to Rentaro and a b-plot involving Nakanuma’s current girlfriend, who he somewhat uses. Again, Kinoshita feels like he needs to build certain characters with a number of flaws so we can recognize that they’re bad, or an example of what the protagonist is fighting against, at least ideologically. It’s a little insulting really, because the characters seem like they could be interesting had they not been drawn with such broad strokes. Mikako, of course, because of her poor health is of course a martyr. Don’t get me wrong, her story is heartbreaking enough, but she’s reduced to being an embodiment of primitive small town-ness. Rentaro falls in love with her as much as he falls in love of the idea of escaping the city, which is a nice sentiment but compartmentalizes a character.


These things wouldn’t be nearly as frustrating if the film didn’t have so much in its favor. While Rentaro Mikuni is over the top, the performances from Chishu Ryu, Masayuki Mori, and Chikage Awashima seem to ground both him and the film to a much more tolerable level. The photography is absolutely excellent, even when a very fake studio set is used to depict the countryside. Hiroyuki Kusuda frequently collaborated with Kinoshita, and the photography in these films tends to be fantastic. In a way, this perfectly summarizes how I feel about this film as a whole. It magnifies much of what’s wrong with Kinoshita’s work, but it also magnifies the good things as well. It feels like a missed opportunity through my lens, but there are enough inspired moments to make this much more enjoyable than most of the filmmaker’s oeuvre.





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