Reviewed by: Emma Slawinski

Kon Ichikawa, and icon of Japanese cinema, cited Disney as one of his greatest influences, but this film is not a place for heartstring-pulling sentiment or belly laughs. ‘Kokoro’ means ‘heart’, with alternative nuances of ‘mind’ and ‘spirit’ amongst other meanings, and the film examines what becomes of the most cherished principles when they are pitted against human passions and weaknesses.

Adapted from the novel written by Natsume Soseki on the death-knell of the Meiji Era, the film focuses on a middle-aged man who is unable to open himself to those around him. Soseki was famed for his gloomy distrust of human nature, and a similar outlook is found in his protagonist, the ‘Sensei’. As the flim draws on, we become aware this isolation is a self-imposed punishment for certain events of his youth that he is unable to forget.

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In spite of his relative wealth and leisure (he does not need to work), Sensei is not a happy man, and his caring, pretty young wife is no consolation to him. She despairs of his morose attitude, and tries and fails to get him to open up to her. Why does he shun the company of others? Why does he visit the tomb of a friend from his student days once a week, and refuse to let her come with him? When Sensei strikes up a friendship with a young student, Hioki, she sees some hope for his rehabilitation, but this is to prove unfounded, as Sensei continues to hide his feelings and his past from both of them.

Hioki graduates from university, and has to return to his parents’ home, where his father is on his deathbed. It’s at this time that the Meiji Emperor’s death is announced, heralding the end of an era, and a period of mass mourning. Prompted by these events as well as his increasingly heavy conscience, Sensei pens a confessional letter to his young protégée, but without hope of redemption.

Kon Ichikawa’s film is a rich and careful – if depressing – portrait of a transitional period in Japan’s history. Ichikawa deftly manipulates the elements of the story to give a sense of threat and danger, with the second half of the film, played out mostly in flashbacks, building up the tension very successfully. Sensei’s university friend, Kaji, is dark and brooding, his mere presence giving a sense of foreboding. Shizu, Sensei’s wife-to-be, is gentle, sunny and carefree in the flashbacks, and in the present-day scenes stark straight-on close-ups of her face seem to declare a sort of defiant openness and honesty in spite of her husband’s mistrust. In this respect, she and Hioki are allies, both determined to turn the older man around.

The conflict in the story is one of outlooks, and also one of generations. One historical event – an aftershock of the Emperor’s death – is given great importance in the film, and is emblematic of the old mindset: the death of General Nogi. Nogi was a key figure in the Russo-Japanese war, but was deeply troubled by the loss of many thousands of men in a particular campaign. He asked the Emperor permission to commit suicide, but was refused; the Emperor held that he had only carried out his orders. However, after the death of the Emperor there was nothing to stop him, and he and his wife committed ritual suicide.

This fatalism and exaggerated sense of one’s responsibility is echoed in the Sensei and Kaji, who see their struggle as purely their own. Ultimately, this sort of conception of responsibility starts to look very narcissistic. In looking at themselves so hard, the characters are unable to really see themselves. Kaji is too obsessed with understanding Buddhist scriptures to the letter, to show kindness or forbearance to those around him. Sensei is too caught up in his failure to fulfill his duties in the past, to realise that he might atone by fulfilling present ones.

Ichikawa’s film makes grim viewing, certainly, but offers up a look at an important point in Japanese history, and engages with poignant moral questions. The unhurried pace and dour subject matter may lose some viewers, but Kokoro still has an undisputable elegance.

Reviewed on: 15 Feb 2009
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A pessimistic film exploring one man’s self-imposed isolation.
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Read more Kokoro reviews:

Anton Bitel ****

Director: Kon Ichikawa

Writer: Keiji Hasebe, Katsuhito Inomata, Soseki Natsume

Starring: Masayuki Mori, Michiyo Aratama, Tatsuya Mihashi

Year: 1955

Runtime: 120 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: Japan


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