Kaneto Shindo is, at 99, the oldest film director in Japan and, after Portugal’s centenarian Manoel de Oliveira, the world. As a scriptwriter active since the 1930s, he has worked on many commercial films, but as a director, starting in 1951 with “Aisai Monogatari (Story of a Beloved Wife),” he has taken a more independent path. The human price of war has been a frequent theme, from his 1952 triumph “Genbaku no Ko (Children of Hiroshima)” to his latest film, the World War II home-front drama “Ichimai no Hagaki (Post Card),” which he also called his last when it won the Special Jury Prize at last year’s Tokyo International Film Festival.
Whether or not “Post Card” is indeed the “last,” it is by a filmmaker still passionate about his subject, still trying to provoke his audience. While not likely to be mistaken for the work of a young man, it is also not a geriatric shuffle through the attic of memory. In fact, it has a striking relevance to the present moment, with a plucky heroine forced to restart her life after everything collapses around her.
She is Tomoko (Shinobu Otake), whose rough-hewn but loving farmer husband, Sadazo (Naomasa Musaka), is drafted into the army, leaving her to care for his aged parents (Akira Emoto and Mitsuko Baisho). Through a series of disasters I won’t detail, she finds herself widowed twice and alone at the end of the war, when she receives a visitor: Sadazo’s former comrade, Keita (Etsushi Toyokawa).
The night before Sadazo shipped out to the Philippines, never to return, he had asked Keita to take Tomoko a postcard she had sent him, so that she might know he had read it. Sadazo could have written a reply, but was afraid the strict military censors might not pass it. Keita turned out to be a lucky choice as Sadazo’s messenger — out of 100 soldiers in their unit, he was one of only six to return home alive.
Though Tomoko resents his good fortune — why did he come back, she rages, and not her husband? — she is also attracted to this tall, handsome straight shooter. She asks him to stay for dinner and then for the night and then… he announces he is going to Brazil. He wants to make a fresh start, he says, especially after discovering that, while he was in the service, his slutty wife had started an affair with his scapegrace father.
This, more than halfway into the film, is where the real drama begins. Will Tomoko and Keita go their separate ways, as have so many Japanese screen lovers in stories of surechigai — ships passing in the night?
The sentimentalism dripping from those stories is nowhere to be found in “Post Card,” however. Shindo has made a career finale that, in its first half especially, is darkly comic in tone. The patriotic fervor on loud public display — all the marching and singing and shouting — is a front; in private, baser needs and desires bubble up, from the nakedly sexual to the unabashedly selfish.
Tomoko seems the least calculating of the lot, wailing her heart out at the loss of each husband, but she is theatrically performing her grief as well as genuinely feeling it. Otake has been criticized for going over the top in this role, but she aptly expresses the duality that permeates the entire film. She screams both Tomoko’s individual pain and a more universal protest against war’s cruelty and futility: a cry that falls on deaf ears. Yes, it’s stagey, but so is Greek tragedy.
Stylistically, Shindo also plays a double game. His old-fashioned wipes and zooms recall the films of the period; at the same time, he opts for long shots, long takes and frontal compositions that have a distancing, objectifying, ironic effect. That is, despite his nods toward nostalgia, he rigorously avoids the period’s typical cinematic melodramatics.
His message, to put it simply, is that war (and by extension, life) is a lottery, but having drawn your number, be it the death of a husband or a second chance at life after 94 of your comrades have died, you have to make the best of it.
This, for Shindo, is no abstraction: Keita’s story is actually his. “I have always had the souls of the 94 with me and have made them the theme of my existence,” he said at the aforementioned press conference. “Post Card” is thus among his most personal films, but it is also for those men, dead now more than six decades, and for the generations since who do not know war — or understand its cost.