Thursday, July 4, 2013


The last entry in the Eclipse box Masaki Kobayashi Against the System jumps ahead a few years from it's forebears, landing in 1962. It's the first film Masak Kobayashi made following his epic-length The Human Condition [review], and as if in response to the breadth of that story, Kobayashi chose a project that was purposely more compact in its scope, though no less complex or ambitious in substance.

The Inheritance is, in a way, a play on the traditional closed-door murder mystery: which of these suspects, all of whom had motive and opportunity, is guilty of the crime? The twist is there is no murder here, at least not centrally, the people of interest won't be directly responsible for the death of the man the majority of them will wrong. Wealthy businessman Senzo Kawara (So Yamamura, Tokyo Story [review]) has been diagnosed with cancer and, at best estimate, will die within six months. Kawara has no official will, and before he will decide how he will divide his fortune, he must track down his three illegitimate children. Depending on how they turned out--they range in age from 7 to early 20s--and whether or not Kawara, no lie, actually likes them, he will give them a share of his estate. If not, it will go to charity.

The only person guaranteed a share is Kawara's wife, Satoe (Misako Watanabe, Take Aim at the Police Van [review]). She was originally his secretary, and they married when she was younger and considered a trophy. She never had kids of her own with Kawara, and their current relations are, shall we say, testy. Satoe immediately begins scheming to cheat the kids out of their money. She has been charged with finding the youngest daughter, while Kawara's underling Furukawa (Tatsuya Nakadai, returning once again) is sent after the older girl. All of the people around Kawara, including his lawyer and his right-hand man, plot to find ways to keep all the cash where they can get their hands on it. They might not have to try all tht hard, though. The lost offspring themselves come with their own problems. Furukawa finds Mariko (Mari Yoshimura), but she's working as a nude model in a seedy club. Not exactly daddy's little girl!

It would seem the dying man's most trusted confidante is his pure-hearted secretary Yasuko (Keiko Kishi again), the girl who replaced Satoe in the position. Kawara assigns Yasuko with finding his son, Narimune (Yusuke Kawazu, Fighting Elegy), and she takes the job seriously. The boy is a disappointment, as well, however: he is a juvenile delinquent who puts the moves on Yasuko. Like father like son, as it turns out: when she returns from the trip, Kawara also casts his lust toward Yasuko.

How the old man's advances and assumptions end up corrupting the sweet girl is reminiscent of how the gangster Killer Joe entrapped the waitress in Black River [review]. Both men use the ladies' trust and expectations against them, leaving them with no other real option. Yasuko finds herself trapped in a cycle of abuse, and it has the unexpected side effect of also giving her bargaining chips with the other scoundrels, who see her increasing influence. Though Kobayashi directs The Inheritance as if it were a chamber room drama--and indeed, some of the events would not be out of place in a serious Bergman film--there is also something almost noirish to how the players maneuver and double-cross. As I suggested, it's like watching a murder mystery where everyone has some kind of blood on their hands, and as the story progresses, we narrow down the suspect pool. Other sins disqualify them from being able to commit the crime in question--stealing all the money for themselves.

In this, The Inheritance is more like I Will Buy You [review] than Black River. The possibility of vast sums of money cause people to do wretched things to the person they allegedly care about. Cash corrupts, and in some aspects, the system itself is rigged. A lot of what Kawara's people attempt is a manipulation of the law. It's a mugging where the weapon is legalese. What disgusts Kobayashi most is how the pursuit of capital gains sullies everyone. Even Kawara's intention to donate to charity is a selfish impulse: he'd be scattering the money to the wind because he finds no one worthy of his lucre. Just like in I Will Buy You, the true puppet master in The Inheritance could end up being the person everyone least expects.

Of the quartet of films in Masaki Kobayashi Against the SystemThe Inheritance is the only one shot in widescreen. The director uses the extended frame to open up the rooms where the narrative plays out, almost as if these large spaces are indicative of the excess of the upper classes. Compared to the cramped residences of the characters in all three of the other films, including the jail cell in The Thick-Walled Room [review], here the bad guys can stretch out and plan their evil deeds. Money has even bought them the time to do it. Yasuko starts to lose her way when she loses her sense of purpose, when her boss' condition means she no longer has her daily work routine. The devil and idle hands, you know? (The resemblance between her window shopping and the window shopping of Holly Golighty at the start of Breakfast at Tiffany's [review] has to be more than coincidental.) Perhaps the director is also saying something in how blasé everyone is about what is happening. All of the performers play their roles with a particular restraint. They are laid back about their thievery, they don't have the desperation of survival. 

This, of course, separates them from the artist that brought them to life. Masaki Kobayashi's victories were hard-won, coming from The Thick-Walled Room being shelved to actually pulling off something like The Human Condition in less than a decade. His next move would be to shift into historical drama, with Harakiri [review] soon to follow The Inheritance, but the change of timeframe would do nothing to dull the bite he developed cutting his teeth in the early movies in Masaki Kobayashi Against the System. That the last film, The Inheritance, seems so effortless is only a testament to what a vital filmmaker Kobayahi had become.

Read the full review of Masaki Kobayashi Against the System at DVD Talk.

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