“I have to love you to love myself.”
Released just before what is widely recognized as his most important work (The Human Condition trilogy); Black River is one of Kobayashi’s most personal films. His pacifism and cynical/realistic perspective of post-war Japan saturates the entire film. For a film exploring such themes, Kobayashi does so with such restraint and ability that it succeeds as both a denouncement and an interrogative piece of subversive art. It doesn’t come to simple and obvious conclusions; the American occupation is not portrayed in the film as the only cause of social unrest within Japan, but the Japanese social ladder itself. This is a courageous, but valuable, move on Kobayashi’s part; often, society is to blame for the majority of its problems.
The film takes place around the Atsugi U.S. Naval base where prostitution and poverty are widespread. The protagonist is university student, Nishida, who rents a room in a filthy apartment building run by an authoritarian landlady who makes a deal with a local gangster, Killer Jo (Tatsuya Nakadai), to demolish the building in order to build a more lucrative bathhouse. Their scheme is to payoff the tenants as they sign their support of the demolition – and the ones who won’t sign will have their signatures forged. Killer Jo watches imperiously from his balcony overlooking the street and gazes lustily at Shizuko, her umbrella (which is soon to become a major symbol within the film) bobbing picturesquely. He notices the burgeoning bond between her and Nishida – their relationship beginning rather innocently through the borrowing of a book. Indeed, much of the progression of events in the film relies on Nishida’s quaint library of books. Killer Jo becomes obsessed with Shizuko and devises a scheme to win her over, but in the end, his lust takes over and he rapes her. She is bound to him however, coerced by threats and this unspeakable, fatalistic longing to be with him.
Of course, the film’s main focus is on this love triangle, but Kobayashi also incorporates the lives of the other tenants as well. They bicker amongst themselves over petty issues, their arguments fueled by selfishness and uncertainty. There’s a poignant scene in the middle of the film involving a tenant who needs a blood transfusion in order to live. The doctor has already donated his blood but needs more and implores the others to donate as well. Everyone claims to have the wrong blood type. It’s very telling of the human condition and how easily people will pass along responsibility when forced to decide whether or not to sacrifice their own comfort. The rampant corruption amongst governmental bodies in Japan during this time is also disheartening; the American occupation of the region creating a distinct uneasiness. There are sudden bursts of violence (most of it carried out, of course, by Killer Jo) throughout the film and this concept of dread permeates every scene. There is, of course, a final confrontation between Nishida and Killer Jo, but this is a story which progressively becomes more and more about Shizuko. Hers is a battle between traditional values and morality – two powerful forces that inevitably lead to murder.
The strength of the film lies in how it renders the characters and their intertwining fates. The doomed love of Nishida and Shizuko is palpable in every frame they are together; their paths seldom cross and every turn is met with obstacles to keep them apart. The looming presence of Killer Jo and the power of his terrifying charisma is a constant threat. In the end (ironically taking place during Killer Jo’s birthday party), there is no easy solution to Nishida and Shizuko’s problems. In fact, they both have their own unique plan for dealing with Killer Jo and it becomes an interesting conflict as to which bad idea will actually occur. That Kobayashi would follow-up this film with the devastating portrait of a pacifist during World War II (The Human Condition trilogy) is evidence that this is a subject closest to his heart, as it should be for every unselfish human.