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In the spirit of humanism

by Donald Richie

THE CINEMA OF GOSHO HEINOSUKE, by Arthur Nolletti, Jr. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005, 243 pp., with photographs, $27.95 (paper).

Though Heinosuke Gosho (1902-1981) is remembered in Japan where his films are still occasionally shown, he is all but unknown abroad. This neglect is not due to the quality of his pictures, but rather to the inadequacies of distribution and the ignorance of critics.

Yet, any director who can create films such as “Where Chimneys Are Seen (Entotsu no Mieru Basho)” (1953), “An Inn at Osaka (Osaka no Yado)” (1954) and “Growing Up (Takekurabe)” (1955) deserves to be not only remembered but elevated to his rightful position among the very best.

This is what Arthur Nolletti accomplishes in his new book on the films of Gosho. Author of “The Films of Fred Zinneman,” Nolletti examines Gosho’s extant work (about a third of the almost 100 films the director made) and insists not only their worth but also the humanistic spirit in which they were made.

Elucidating that subtle blending of sadness and happiness that is the especial quality of the director (the subtitle of this study is “Laughter Through Tears”), Nolletti defines “that mixture of pathos and humor that makes one want to laugh and cry at the same time . . . reminiscent of Chaplin and De Sica at their best. This mood has come in Japan to be known simply as ‘Goshoism.’ “

In Gosho, continues Nolletti, one finds “none of Mizoguchi’s determinism, or Naruse’s pessimism. Instead, one finds an indissoluble compassion and affection for character, which reminds one of Ozu, albeit with an occasional sentimentality that Ozu never allowed.”

Helping create Gosho’s distinctive style were a number of influences. One was that of his mentor Yasujiro Shimazu. Another was that of the American director Ernst Lubitsch whose seminal “The Marriage Circle” (1924) Gosho once said he had seen over 20 times — almost as many times as he had seen (another influence) Chaplin’s “A Woman of Paris” (1923).

In all of these influences one finds a fascination for character, which can, as it is in the later Gosho films, be distilled into a whole system of thought that centers on human beings and their values, capacities and worth: in other words, that grouping of ideas and emotions known as humanism.

Even in a comedy such as “The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine (Madamu to Nyobo)” (1931) — the earliest Gosho to survive, though already his 39th film — it is the personalities of the principals that interest the director and not the types of people that these could also represent. Jealous wives may be a type, but this jealous wife is also a person with feelings of her own, a real person. As we watch her distress we, as spectators, feel both amusement at her predicament and sympathy for her sorrow.

In a film such as “Growing Up,” the story of a young girl destined for life in the brothels of Yoshiwara, the situation is much more serious and the tension between her present innocence and coming experience, her unknowing acceptance and future bondage, is excruciating. Here our humanistic concern is truly helpless.

As is our frustration at what happened to the negative of this film. The producing company, Shin Toho, decided to re-release the picture in 1959 as the bottom half of a double bill. Because of “time considerations” the picture was much shortened. The print we have now is only 95 minutes in length. This is somehow symptomatic of what has happened to Gosho’s work as a whole.

The present volume, however, offers ample redress. For the first time we may study the extant films and begin to understand Gosho’s achievement.

With scholarly precision and a wholehearted identification with the director’s dedication to the human predicament, Nolletti has given us a model presentation.

Gosho is fortunate to have posthumously found so principled and sympathetic a critic. Here we have laid before us in full detail all that is left of one of Japan’s most neglected but most important film directors.