“Groping their way in darkness, the mortals wander in the mist.”
Hanzo returns from The Battle of Idagawara. His prowess and bravery second only to Tsuchiya, his master. Hanzo lives with his father and grandfather who are proud of his success and dream of building a bigger house. Hanzo’s sister is Mitsu who just had a son, Sadahei. Hanzo’s grandfather is killed by order of the Lord and a child is born in a peasant’s hut. “Grandfather reincarnated!” Hanzo suggests. After The Battle of Kamijogawara, Hanzo again returns victorious. His mother leaves his father to remarry a rich silk merchant in town taking her daughter with her. Soon however, Hanzo is slain in battle. His father tells tales of Hanzo’s bravery to Sadahei but warns, “When you grow older, you must never go to battle.” Yet what follows is skirmish after skirmish. Sadahei heeds the warning, his sons do not. Characters are introduced then they go to war and never return. This is the nature of Kinoshita’s world.
When the Yamaguchi Mansion is set afire by the Lord’s command and Sadahei’s great grandfather and grandmother killed, his younger sister, Tatsu, and her daughter manage to escape. Tatsu demands revenge. With every death, peasants refer to reincarnation at the cry of an infant. In fact, the entire story is told from the perspective of this family of peasants. We follow their family tree for seventy years and six generations. Halfway through the film a character mutters, “It is either war or misery for us farmers.” He is quite right. Blue-tinted scenes are designated for the singing bellringer who denotes death and rebirth. The bellringer foretells events of human folly and man’s refusal to learn from his past. “The river of death, everyone must cross it. In the last breath, life goes away. In the abyss of tears, the spiral coils up. The world is but a veil, everyone must cross it,” she intones and this is indeed the central focus of Kinoshita’s film. “Meeting is already parting.”
The slow panning shots and sudden colour alterations (such as battlefields bathed in purple or red tint) are fluid and jarring (respectively), as are scattered montages of still shots. Kinoshita used painted lenses to achieve the splashes of colour adorning nearly every frame. Reportedly, these were to represent the brushstrokes in scroll painting; quite experimental in their use but strangely compelling if, at times, distracting. When used appropriately, in line with the fantastic soundtrack by Chuji Kinoshita (the director’s brother), it creates an otherworldly atmosphere. Battles are meticulous and grand as is the fantastic set design.
That The River Fuefuki is an anti-war film has already been discussed and established in many reviews. The young peasants aspire to be samurai but do not live long enough to enjoy their newfound prosperity. It is a pattern that lives then dies; the passion reincarnated into another young hopeful and the cycle begins again. Lords come and go and the peasants continue to thrive – third parties to the destruction and reconstruction. While quite a bit different from most of Kinoshita’s other work, the film is still defiantly focused on the common man. Kinoshita was always interested in how common folk are propelled by the powerful: their plight inconsequential, their lives destined to be powerless cogs operating an eternal machine.