If Masaki Kobayashi were a Sinatra-style crooner, he'd have good cause to sing about how 1956 was a very good year. The third movie released in those twelve months, Black River, was his most confident yet, gathering up some of the pulpier aspects of the crime genre and arranging them on a contemporary Japanese landscape.
Set near a US naval base in Atsugi, Japan, Black River provides a searing look at the poverty and corruption that generated big business in many such neighborhoods around the country. Pimps, prostitutes, gamblers, and dealers all lurk in the military's shadow. Our hero, Nishida (Fumio Watanabe, The Human Condition [review]) is an engineering student who moves to town in order to save money. He rents a squalid room in a rundown boarding house run by an opportunistic widow (Isuzu Yamada, Sisters of the Gion [review]). She is a purposely grotesque character, outfitted with kitty-cat glasses and outrageous metal teeth, as much Dickens as she is noir. Yet, she is also the least scary of the movie's collection of villains. Her appearance is like a bell around a cat's neck--the mice can see her coming.
Nishida runs afoul of the real evil dude of Black River when he falls for Shizuko (Ineko Arima, Tokyo Twilight [review]). The pretty young waitress has also caught the eye of Joe (Tatsuya Nakadai, High & Low [review]), the slick would-be gangster that acts as the nexus for most of the local crime. Joe dresses in sporty suits and wears sunglasses, as if he were a movie star sunning himself in California rather than slumming on the outskirts of civilization. Not one to be beaten to the punch, Joe sets up an elaborate scenario where Shizuko is kidnapped by his cronies. He pretends to save her from their assault, but in a twisted twist, he rapes her himself. Now that he has "ruined" her, Shizuko begs him to do the right thing, but instead he plays with her emotions until she submits to being his. The girl is too ashamed to explain herself to Nishida, but the do-gooder will soon have plenty of other reasons to clash with his dark rival.
The love triangle described above would be enough to fill any standard crime picture, but Kobayashi and screenwriter Zenzo Matsuyama (who regularly collaborated with the director) are telling the story of a community as much as they are detailing a sordid love affair. Each resident of the shack Nishida lives in is a fully realized character, with both a personality and a purpose. Mr. Okada is the decent guy who turns a blind eye to bad goings-on, the cautionary tale for humiliating yourself in the name of love. His wife, Yasuko, masquerades as a hairdresser, but she's really just another prostitute catering to American GIs. Nishida witnesses her lust first-hand. In one overheated scene, she comes to his room to hit on him. Her seduction technique involves her literally fanning her vagina in his direction.
At the same time, her reason for coming on to Nishida may be a big contributor to why he sticks to his principles. Yasuko tells him that she wants to be with him because he's a real man. Unlike her husband, he knows what he wants and stands up for it. Another factor in fortifying Nishida's moral resolve is Mr. Kim, a family man and a communist who keeps the tenement running. He rails against the American base leeching off Japan's resources and forcing citizens like them to foot the bill, and he pushes the tenants to stand as one against the landlady. This becomes more necessary than ever when the slumlord sells the property to an outside crook so he can build another brothel, and she hires Joe to kick everyone out.
The demolition deadline, set on Joe's birthday, provides the opportunity for a showdown between the lovers and louts. Fed up with the thieves getting away with taking everything, Nishida makes his move--even as Shizuko is looking to carve out her own exit. The climax of Black River is one tense night of drinking, dancing, and sharpened tongues, leading to a surprising climax that is as dark as anything to be found in archetypical American film noir yet as beautifully shot as any closing image in a grand MGM spectacle.
Kobayashi's ensemble cast is note-perfect down to every last performer. The character actors who fill out the roster are all unique and assured, playing to type but yet managing to be stylized without being cartoony. Whether it's the landlady's victim routine, Mr. Kim's earnest speechifying, or Yasuko's breathless flirtation, there's some kind of tragedy behind every extreme behavior, and with that comes humanity.
Both Fumio Watanabe and Ineko Arima bring complexity to their portrayal of good people pushed to doing bad things. His nervous temper solidifies into righteous anger, just as the wanton mask she adopts to cover her humiliation turns to fierce determination. Even Joe, who, on the face of it, appears to exist just to be baaaaaad--and Tatsuya Nakadai is so good at it, too--runs on buried fear. He's really just a little boy dressing up as a cinematic tough guy.
Kobayashi handles the complicated plot deftly, fusing the story's hardboiled tropes with his political message using his Neorealist shooting style as the bond. His work here, particularly in how he handles the large cast, strikes me as more Renoir than Rossellini, but at the same time, the use of realistic locations grounds the melodrama so that neither the comedy nor the tragedy--and there is plenty of both--appears over the top. On the contrary, underneath all of the salacious maneuvering is a yearning for honesty. Mr. Kim wishes the government would own up to what is really going on, just as Shizuko repeatedly tries and fails to come clean with Nishida. The cynicism of Black River, however, is that the outcome is the same whether you champion the truth or live the lie. Kim does no better than Okada, and Nishida, for all his morals, may come out with the least of all.