Dawn of a Filmmaker: The Keisuke Kinoshita Story: Film Review

A visually lacking film that doesn't do justice to the origins of one of Japan's best cineastes of the 20th century.

Japanese studio Shochiku commemorates one of its most successful filmmakers with a feature film about his wartime attempt to move his mother to safety on a handcart.

Dawn of a Filmmaker: The Keisuke Kinoshita Story (Hajimari no Michi) begins with a lingering shot of the titular director's first film, Port of Flowers, being projected onto a piece of white cloth on an empty beach as the sun sets in the background; it ends with the image of its protagonist – his self-exile at his hometown over, and readying to brave the world again – striding into the darkness of a tunnel. These are visually poetic bookends that could easily do justice to the legendary Japanese auteur at its center; it's perhaps a shame, however, that what comes between these two sequences is a lightweight feature that defines Keisuke Kinoshita through mostly his filial piety and his panged-up angst about what he thought was his career nipped at the bud.

While the live-action debut of animation-film director Keiichi Hara (who rose to fame with his films based on the hit manga series Crayon Shin-chan), Dawn of a Filmmaker seems to owe its origins to its co-producer Yoshitaka Ishizuka, whose 2012 hit Chronicle of a Mother mirrors Hara's film in terms of its central narrative about an artist's relationship with his mother. Whereas Chronicle does provide a more complex picture about how an artist – in that case, a novelist – delivers art infused with his personal tribulations, Dawn of a Filmmaker flounders in its attempt to bring account for how Kinoshita's relationship with his mother translates into his work.

The only hint we get to see here is in the sentimental scene in which the mother pleads him, in the form of a handwritten note, to persist in his filmmaking. It's just one of the examples in which Hara, who also wrote the screenplay, could only to resort to the obvious in realizing the prologue-to-history nature of the film's title – with his other attempts being the inclusion of many a scene that offers parallels to the settings and characters populating the well-known films Kinoshita is to direct years later in his prime. So it is that Dawn of a Filmmaker could come in useful as part of Shochiku's year-long campaign in commemorating the 100th anniversary of Kinoshita's birth, but its limited visual palette and storyline might confine its run to Asian festivals (such as Busan, where it made its premiere, or the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival, where it makes its bow this week).

Dawn of a Filmmaker was set between late 1944 and early 1945, a period in which Kinoshita (the U.S.-raised Japanese star Ryo Kase, recently seen internationally in Abbas Kiarostami's Like Someone in Love and Gus Van Sant's Restless) went back to his home village after he resigned from Shochiku studios when his next project was canceled due to criticism of his last film, The Army, for being insufficiently manly at a time when the authorities, knowing the tide has turned against Japan in the war, were calling for spirit-stirring material for the screen.

Frustrated at this official reaction against his art – so much so that he angrily announces he would abandon his artist alias Keisuke and revert to his birth name Shokichi – his sulking is brought to an end as U.S. bombings deemed his ancestral home unsafe, and the need emerges to move his bed-ridden mother Tama (Yuko Tanaka) further inland for safety. Insisting she will suffer immensely from the wobbly trips on a long bus journey, Kinoshita decides to transport her on a handcart, in a daylong trip over a mountain, with the help of his brother (Yusuke Santamaria) and a handyman (Gaku Hamada).

And it's during this journey, which also includes long hours braving heavy rain and an overnight stay at an inn, that Kinoshita's character is gradually (and in a limited way) sketched out. Perhaps more importantly for Hara and his producers is the opportunity in which Kinoshita could be seen seeing or hearing things that would later appear in his films: The sight of a teacher (Aoi Miyazaki, who also provides narration at the opening and closing of the film) leading a group of schoolchildren on a walk would later become the key image of Twenty-Four Eyes; the luggage-dragging laborer's love for curry rice would become a crucial aspect of the rags-to-riches story of the brutal patriarch in The Broken Drum.

In fact, these scenes, alongside others clipped from Kinoshita's real films, are shown at Dawn's end as a tribute to the auteur's work. In a way, it's a very moving montage of some of the best films ever produced in Japan in the 20th century – but ironically, the variably tempered nature of the many films on show in that homage sequence only shows up the shortcomings of the new, 1-1/2 hour film that came before it, and also brings into question the film's premise that the beginning of this particular cineaste, the story of his art, should be seen decisively through the prism of his familial bonds.

Production Company: "Dawn of a Filmmaker" Partners
Director: Keiichi Hara
Cast: Ryo Kase, Yuko Tanaka, Yusuke Santamaria, Gaku Hamada, Aoi Miyazaki
Producers: Yoshitaka Ishizuka, Hirotaka Aragaki
Screenplay: Keiichi Hara
Director of Photography: Yoshihiro Ikeuchi
Music: Harumi Fuki
Editor: Yoji Tachibana
Production Designer: Takashi Nishimura
International Sales: Shochiku Co Ltd
In Japanese
96 minutes