by Andrea Grunert
Ginrei no hate (Snow Trail aka To the End of the Silver Mountain, 1947) is a film rarely shown but one that deserves more attention – not only because of its importance in film history as it marks Mifune Toshirō’s screen debut but also because of some of its dramatic and aesthetic aspects, to which Mifune’s amazing performance makes a significant contribution. It is also the first full-length feature film directed by Taniguchi Senkichi, with whom Mifune continued working, making ten films altogether (1). Like his friend Kurosawa Akira, Taniguchi started working in the Japanese film industry as an assistant of Yamamoto Kajirō, who also became a kind of mentor to the young actor Mifune (2). The script was co-written and allegedly also co-edited by Kurosawa. Ginrei no hate is a thriller revolving around the flight of three bank robbers into a remote mountain region in the Japanese Alps. Nojiri (Shimura Takashi), Eijima (Mifune) and Takasuji (Kosugi Yoshio) become trapped in a snowbound mountain pass. The police are hard on their heels and the elderly Takasuji is killed by an avalanche, but his two accomplices find refuge in a ski lodge run by Harukō, an adolescent girl (Wakayama Setsukō), and her grandfather (Kōdō Kokuten). Taniguchi makes use of the hard-boiled thriller to explore human attitudes and universal values, and the wintry landscape (3), an unusual setting for the genre, takes on a variety of dramatic and symbolic functions.
The ideal of home
Nojiri is introduced as leader of the gang, someone who does not hesitate to impose his authority with a gun. The sunglasses he wears at the lodge where the robbers stay at the beginning of their flight contribute to the aura of danger that emanates from him. His self-control and authority contrasts with Eijima’s aggressiveness and agitation and with Takasuji’s nervousness and fearfulness. Takasuji’s death early in the film leaves the focus on Nojiri and Eijima. From the very beginning, Eijima is represented as evil, casting angry glances at the waitress who refuses to give him the bottles of sake he requires. At gunpoint he forces the experienced mountaineer Honda (Kōno Akitake) to lead him and Nojiri over the snowy mountain. Honda, a friend of Harukō and her grandfather and a guest at their lodge, saves Eijima’s life during their attempt to climb the mountain. A series of alternate shots show Eijima hanging helplessly on his rope and the exhausted Honda – whose arm is broken – with Eijima shouting furiously: “Hey, stop being lazy. Pull me up!” A little later and despite this rescue, the young bank robber is prepared to leave Honda behind. And suspecting possible betrayal, he secretly kills Harukō’s beloved carrier pigeon. His cold comment when the dead bird is buried by the tearful girl is: “What a waste! It should have been roasted and eaten.”
Unlike the ruthless Eijima, Nojiri is capable of empathy. And unlike Eijima, he cares about their older accomplice Takasuji when the latter is unable to keep up with them as they leave their temporary refuge in a hut. Nojiri is also genuinely saddened by Takasuji’s death whereas Eijima’s only regret is the loss of Takasuji’s share of the booty. Nojiri gives Harukō and her grandfather a helping hand in the lodge whereas Eijima is disrespectful and constantly complains, on one occasion remarking: “Hey, do the guests have to bathe after the family in this house?” It is Nojiri who, at the end of the film, carries the helpless Honda back to the lodge, where the police are already waiting. Nojiri accepts his fate, giving priority to the life of another person over his own freedom.
The bank robbers’ flight into the forbidding mountain region is depicted as an inner journey for Nojiri whose humanity emerges through his contact with the three friendly people in the ski lodge and its homely atmosphere. Eijima is incapable of change and dies fighting Nojiri, who is trying to protect Honda. Nojiri is deeply affected by the hospitality offered by the people at the lodge and he enjoys the peaceful atmosphere there. This harmony is reflected in the theme music associated with the lodge, written by composer Ifukube Akira. The film starts with a series of very brief shots that include shadowy human silhouettes robbing a bank safe, the police setting out on their hunt for the criminals and a train passing through an empty landscape. Ifukube’s haunting music, anticipating his score for Gojira (Godzilla, 1954, Honda Ishirō), matches at this point the dynamism of the sequence and its inherent violence. Menacing, hammering sounds accompany the departure of Honda, Nojiri and Eijima on their doomed journey over the mountain, and when Eijima dies off-screen, the music rises to a crescendo. A slower and low-register variation of the tender melody associated with the small lodge returns at the end of the film when a shot of the mountains and a close-up of Nojiri, looking at them from the train which is taking him to prison, overlap in a dissolve. Nojiri was part of the violence but has turned from tough guy into responsible human being, the music commenting on his transformation. Music also plays a significant role in the sequence in which Nojiri shares moments of happiness with his hosts and Honda, listening to a record of “My Old Kentucky Home”. For him, the song is the link to the lodge where he found harmony and inner peace, and it is heard again when he is led away by the police, where it suggests hope at a moment of despair.
The tiny ski lodge, half buried in the snow, symbolizes home and is a place which is real as well as symbolic. It is tinged with melancholy as it apparently evokes what Nojiri’s present life lacks. However, he must serve his sentence before he can return to and enjoy a peaceful life. Ginrei no hate is a film about the possibility of redemption, expressed in a series of shots of Nojiri’s illuminated face when he listens, his head lowered, to the American song. Unlike Eijima, he becomes part of the small community in the lodge, and when he returns, the semi-conscious Honda on his back, his face reveals an inner struggle before he finally throws away his revolver – a significant gesture on his path to redemption – and continues walking towards the ski lodge.
The only information given in the film about Nojiri’s previous life is the mention of his daughter, who died when she was of Harukō’s age and who is for him a haunting absence-presence. Harukō is still a child, mourning the death of her pigeon and welcoming the two robbers with a cheerful “Yoo-hoo!”. Nojiri’s encounter with the girl, who reminds him of his own daughter, is also a reminder of long-forgotten human relations and a harbinger of hope. She represents joy and purity, the purity Nojiri and Eijima have lost.
On a visual level, it is the whiteness of the snow that is a reference to purity. In Buddhism, white is also associated with self-mastery and redemption, topics that are addressed in the film through the characters and their actions. Snow symbolizes the fragility of human life and its evanescence, an important Buddhist motif that permeates Japanese culture and in particular film culture. According to Buddhist cyclical thinking, evanescence also embraces hope. In the film, the idea of rebirth and renewal is expressed verbally by the characters looking forward to the upcoming spring and by the motif of the “Rosenmorgen” (4) mentioned by Honda – that moment at sunrise when the snow takes on a pink tinge. The film is shot in black-and-white, so it is up to the viewer to imagine the shades of colour. However, the landscape shots convey perfectly an impression of great beauty. “Views of Honda, filmed against daylight, recall paintings by Caspar David Friedrich. Not unlike the works of this German artist of the Romantic period, the cinematography transforms the landscape into an emotive subject, capturing man’s reunion with his spiritual self while contemplating nature.” (5)
The human condition
Eijima, unable to understand Honda’s feelings, mocks them, spitting his words out scornfully. While the others are enjoying a moment of leisure, he is busy counting his share of the booty – money is the only thing he is interested in – and he is constantly on his guard. The swift and sudden movements in Mifune’s acting are a perfect expression of Eijima’s changing mood. Much is in the gaze – suspicion, indifference, boredom as well as contempt for his hosts and Honda, but also for Nojiri, whose sudden tender feelings he cannot share or understand (“It seems that you have got senile since yesterday”). He rejects all the values cherished and shared by the others in the lodge, his face expressing his disdain for everything around him there. In the communal bedroom with its bunks, he says angrily: “This is like a prison cell in a foreign movie”. His meandering gaze, his energetic body language and his glowing eyes reveal Eijima’s almost constant agitation. In one shot, he walks back and forth in the bedroom, reminiscent of a caged animal.
Cynical and irritable, Eijima is the typical young man in rebellion – a rebellion against Nojiri – a kind of surrogate father – against family and, implicitly, against the new order imported from the United States. Home, as represented by the ski lodge, is linked via the American song to the values of the occupying forces in Japan (6). Ginrei no hate presents a family, but one that is dysfunctional, namely a young girl living with her grandfather. The fate of the absent parents is not mentioned, but the viewer can presume that the family was separated by the war and/or that Harukō’s parents are dead, and that Nojiri’s daughter was also a victim of the war. The film mentions neither the war nor the occupation but contains enough allusions to connect its characters with Japan’s recent past (7).
Values of family, group solidarity and harmony are part of Japanese culture and were instrumentalized by the wartime military government. In Taniguchi’s film, the vision of home as a haven of peace has a more sentimental dimension that is reminiscent of Hollywood productions (8). However, this sentimentalism is still far from kitsch and it cleverly supports the film’s message of humanity. Nojiri is surprised that Honda saved his life in the mountains, but Honda explains: “That’s the rule of the mountain. You never cut the rope under any circumstances. The rope that ties humans can never be cut for any reason. I just followed that rule.” (9). The film associates this mountaineers’ code of conduct with universal topics and reflections on the human condition. The breathtaking beauty of the snow-covered landscape, shown in a great number of general shots, and also the danger that lurks in this natural environment, exposes the pettiness of Eijima’s moaning and quarreling.
The human being is at the core of this film, an aspect supported by the frequent close-ups of faces and their great variety of expressions. Ginrei no hate deals with individual responsibility, a key topic in the intellectual discourse in Japan after the war. It points to the need for healing – both for the individual and for society. The film underwent censorship and was apparently acceptable in the eyes of the Allied censors, who in general wanted positive endings with the punishment of the culprits and a positive representation of the police. However, the desire for harmony and peace was not only something imposed by the victors but was presumably genuine and also shared by many viewers at that time. In this film, the ideal of harmony is extended to include the occupiers, with music becoming a unifying force and “My Old Kentucky Home” moving Nojiri deeply. After Honda has explained the significance of Kentucky and the content of the song (“The song is about a place dear to someone’s heart”), Nojiri says: “I see. There is no difference in human feelings between the West and Japan.”
A highly suggestive shot/reverse shot sequence juxtaposes the lodge’s homely interior with Eijima lying in his bunk in the bedroom, his gaze and body language showing his growing irritation. The idyll in the main room of the lodge is destroyed by the sudden appearance of the wild-looking Eijima, who emerges from the shadows and angrily demands that the music stop. A feeling of fear and danger emanates from this sombre figure who darts angry glances at the others and from the expressionist lighting, which matches his dark character perfectly. In feeling provoked by the song, Eijima’s implicitly rejects the American values. His rebellion targets the ideal of home, of harmony and also of solidarity, even rejecting the film’s message of humanity. His egoism is a form of individualism opposed to the individual responsibility that the film advocates.
Eijima embodies evil but is also a lost soul. His constant mistrust excludes him from the human warmth of the group. He is jealous of the happiness of the others, a feeling that he does not seem to know or at least has not experienced for a long time (10). His materialism hints at the loss of humanity in post-war Japan, but Eijima is also the representative of a betrayed young generation, sacrificed by the military regime during the war years. The prototype of a disoriented youth, this character in the film provokes to reflections on masculinity. In the sequence in which he leaves the bathroom in the first lodge, Eijima, wearing only a fundoshi (11) struts like a peacock, showing off his muscular body. However, this kind of manliness is questioned in Ginrei no hate, which shows that it relies on the power of the gun. Eijima’s arrogance is a mask behind which he hides feelings of insecurity and also the fear of emasculation that many Japanese men had to come to terms with after defeat in the war.
Mifune plays the brutish Eijima with an intensity which was unusual in Japanese cinema (12). Eijima is a somewhat one-dimensional character, but Mifune’s acting gives it considerable depth. In his performance, he skillfully reveals and explores this character’s potential and its many facets (13). His Eijima is defiant, arrogant, and unbending, but also possesses an indomitable hunger for life. This energetic approach to the role reveals how much acting contributes to the message of a film, in this case also making the character attractive to the audience in post-war Japan. Eijima expressed what “many in the audience yearned to show the world but didn’t dare” (14).
1 – These films include Jakoman to Tetsu (Jakoman and Tetsu, 1949), Fukeyo haru kaze (Blow! Spring Wind aka My Wonderful Yellow Car, 1953), Kunisada Chūji (Chuji, The Gambler, 1960) and Kiganjō no bōken (The Adventure at Kigan Castle, 1966).
2 – See Kurosawa, Akira. Something Like an Autobiography, New York, Vintage Books, 1983, p. 160-161.
3 – Although set in the Japanese Alps, the film was shot on the island of Hokkaido
4 – The film makes use of the German term “Rosenmorgen”, which can be translated as “rose morning”.
5 – See also Grunert, Andrea. “An Inner Journey in a Wintry Landscape (Snow Trail, 1947)”, http://www.thebigpicturemagzine.com, 29 November 2016. The landscape shots evoke films by German mountain film pioneer Arnold Fanck (1889-1974), known for Die weiße Hölle von Pitz Palü (White Hell of Pitz Palu, USA, 1929, co-directed by G.W. Pabst) or Stürme über dem Mont Blanc (Storm over Mont Blanc, Germany, 1930). Fanck directed the first German-Japanese co-production Atarashiki tsuchi (The Daughter of the Samurai, 1937).
6 – The Allied occupation of Japan after World War II was led by the United States of America. It ended on 28 April 1952.
7 – This absence of the war topic can be explained by the strict censorship of the Allies, which was not lifted until 1949.
8 – Hollywood’s influence on Japanese cinema started long before the occupation, having inspired Japanese filmmakers since the 1920s.
9 – The fact that Taniguchi himself was a mountaineer explains the setting of Ginrei no hate in which the director describes a milieu he was familiar with.
10 – The homecoming soldiers were often rejected, treated as stray dogs by their fellow Japanese. Seaton, Philip A. Japan’s Contested War Memories: The “Memory Rifts” in Historical Consciousness of World War II, London/New York, Routledge, 2007 and Igarashi, Yoshikuni. Homecomings: The Belated Return of Japan’s Lost Soldiers, New York, Columbia University Press, 2016.
11 – A fundoshi is a traditional Japanese undergarment for male adults, a loincloth made from a length of cotton which covers the private parts but leaves the buttocks exposed. It was more and more replaced by western style men’s underwear after 1945.
12 – See Kurosawa, op. cit., p. 161.
13 – Mifune presumably drew on his wartime experience. In several interviews he referred to the war, recalling how much his rebellious behaviour and his wilfulness caused problems with his superiors, who already felt offended by his deep voice. The challenge to authority is a key theme in many films with Mifune in which he played rebels and outsiders, for example in his third film, Yoidore tenshi (Drunken Angel, 1948, Kurosawa Akira).
14 – Satō, Tadao. Kurosawa Akira no sekai (Tokyo, 1970, p. 121) quoted in Keiko I McDonald. Reading a Japanese Film: Cinema in Context, Honolulu, University of Hawai’i Press, 2006, p. 263, note 6.