A Legend or Was it?

A Legend or Was it?

A late film from the prolific Kinoshita Keisuke this story follows the overlooked fate of internal evacuees in wartime Japan. The year is 1945 and the Sonobe family have been forced from their firebombed Tokyo home to take up residence in a bucolic Hokkaido village, so quiet you’d be forgiven the war was going on at all. But just under the peaceful surface is a maelstrom of seething resentment, envy and hatred that will bubble up into murder by the time the film is up.

All is well when we first visit the village. The crop has been a decent one for the farmers, the summer has been mild and there is a wedding on the horizon. This is between Kieko, eldest daughter of the Sonobe newcomers and Goichi, son of the village mayor. She never seems bowled over by him but is not unhappy with the upcoming union. Goichi is handsome, something of a dandy (never out of uniform, rarely off his horse) and he is son of the richest man in the neighbourhood.

Trouble in paradise comes in the form of her recently discharged brother who comes to the village and immediately recognises Goichi as the soldier who brutalised locals during their time together in Manchuria. He reveals this to his family and his sister immediately breaks off the engagement. Needless to say Goichi is not pleased. He retaliates in a petty manner, destroying some crops and spreading nasty rumours. This leads to a reaction by the Sonobe clan and a series of tit-for-tat vendettas that get very serious very fast.

Propelled by a terrific score the action escalates very quickly with the entire village taking sides and getting whipped up into mob brutalism. In the absence of police and wise heads (it’s revealed the village has more than its share of war dead) the Sonobes find themselves with their backs to the wall having to fight for their very lives.

With a running time of just 83 minutes the second half of A Legend or Was it? is pure kineticism. Kinoshita wastes no time with wistful shots of the mountains or needless backstory, rather he barrels straight into the quarrel and the film is stronger for it. Everyone, protagonist, lynch mob member or neutral outsider is overtaken by events and cannot help rushing toward the inevitable, desperate ending.

An under-seen work by a major director. Recommended.

A Legend or Was it? aka Shito no densetsu – directed by Kinoshita Keisuke (1963)

In Short
A young city woman who has been evacuated to the Japanese countryside for the duration of the war receives a marriage proposal from the son of the village head, but declines after hearing of his barbarism. She and her family are ostracised by the village, and her suitor refuses to give up…