“The Snow Flurry (1959)” may be one of the lesser known works among Keisuke Kinoshita’s filmography, but gives its audience ultimately satisfying experience. It experiments with a bold and complex flashback structure, which is firmly rooted in the emotional journey of the protagonists. The audience is guided through sometimes parallel, sometimes intersecting psychological paths of the disintegrating members of the family as if the cinematic lens has become an entity of flow of consciousness.
It’s a farming village surrounded by mountainous terrain in Nagano area in late 1950’s. The story begins with the wedding ceremony (bride sendoff) in the most affluent family in the village. One of the members who are sending off the bride, Haruko (Keiko Kishi), realizes Suteo (Yuusuke Kawazu) has left the ceremony and, sensing something amiss, searches for him. Haruko finds him near the river, alone, and apparently agitated and suicidal. She tries to console Suteo, who clutches a red Japanese fan in his hand.
At this point, the audience are completely lost at what they are looking at. What are the relationships among these people? Is Suteo a Haruko’s younger brother? Who is this bride? Are Haruko and Suteo members of this family who owns this huge estate? And the name: “Suteo”. What kind of name is that?
Then, without an explanation or visual cue, the film cuts into some other timeline. We don’t know exactly when, but presumably a few days earlier. Suteo, who is now in the backyard of this huge estate, is meekly responding to a nasty comments by an old woman. This old woman was walking behind the bride in the earlier scene. So, presumably she is the bride’s mother. We gradually starts to see the invisible hierarchy of the members in this house. Tomi Nagura (Chieko Higashiyama), the head of the house, commands the place with nasty authority while other Nagura family members dutifully obey her. But Haruko and Suteo are further below in this hierarchy, judging from their attire and villager’s comments. Still, we are not quite sure why.
The film cuts into another timeline. The title says “19 years earlier”. This is the only title indicating the exact timeframe throughout the film. The Nagura estate is having a fest. It is a sendoff party for draftees. But the fest is interrupted by the emergency: Nagura’s son, Hideo, who is drafted for military, committed double suicide with Haruko, the tenant farmer’s daughter. While Hideo died, Haruko miraculously survives. And they discovers the secret this young couple has tried to bury: Haruko was pregnant. Yes, Suteo is Haruko’s son and illegitimate grandson of Nagura family.
From then on, the film is a roller-coaster: it hops into one timeline where Suteo is a teenager. Then cuts into another era when he is still an infant and Go-noshin, Tomi’s husband and the head of the family, is still alive. Through this contorted narrative, we learn how Haruko’s son was named “Suteo”, meaning “to be abandoned”, “to be discarded”, or “to be disposed of”. We learn how Suteo grew up in loneliness with little hope. We learn Suteo and his cousin, Sakura (Yoshiko Kuga), grew up together. The narrative hops back and forth in time, sometimes connecting the events prior to the event several scenes earlier to describe how things evolved to the consequence retrospectively.
Kinoshita rarely uses closeup in this film. The composition is usually a mid- to long shot, showing a person at least waist up. He also uses shot-reverse-shot sequence very rarely. In many scenes, we are not allowed to see Suteo’s or Sakura’s face, because the frame does not captures his or her face directly. Thus, we are left to fill in the emotion of our own. There is just enough cue so that we are fairly sure what is going through their minds, but still we need to recreate the emotional turmoil they must be experiencing. This engages us more than we are used to.
As I picked up several reviews of this film on internet, I was surprised to find many reviewers expressed, though they consider Tomi as an old nasty hag, they can relate to her anguish/joy/sorrow after Sakura’s engagement. Then I realized that it is one of the rare scenes where you can actually observe person’s facial expression for an extended period of time in this film. In other words, the audience can engage with Tomi pretty easily under this scene. Higashiyama’s performance is excellent, fusing twisted joy with defeatism and false pride. But an emotional response to such a particular scene may spoil your judgment. When her anguish is placed in the proper context of the film, we may realize her ego, over-charged pride and lack of sympathy have lead to this demise. And even after all these years, she still places arrogant revenge to villagers in her imagination over her granddaughter’s feelings. Maybe because today’s audience are so accustomed to decontextualize a visual imagery for emotional consumption, we are just “reacting” to each segment rather than journeying through the visual array of various levels of experience.
As always, Kinoshita utilizes the scenery of Shinshu to the maximum effect. “Grand-Scope”, Shochiku’s own wide-screen format, functions advantageously in this regard, framing the tranquil scenery of mountainous silhouette audaciously and intimately.
In later years, Kinoshita’s use of locale has become more postcard-like and mundane. Somehow, a location-intensive movie was expected to function as a travel teaser for potential domestic travelers after 70’s. Kinoshita was one of the great movie directors with a lot of experience in location shooting, who could draw audiences as well. And his history of successful lyricism in these movies finally strangled itself in the era of economical growth and material overload. When we look at a movie such as “The Snow Flurry”, we tend to think it as a gentler time, or at least the time of the beautiful country that is lost. But then, why did our past generation try to escape from that beauty to build ugly buildings, highways, shopping malls and power plants? Why did Kinoshita have to make a half-baked travelogue thinly disguised as a melodrama in later years? Precisely because the suffocating atmosphere in these local societies did survive in people’s minds, and strangled itself.
You know, nostalgia poisons our imagination.
The Snow Flurry (風花, 1959)
Produced by Masaharu Kokaji
Written and Directed by Keisuke Kinoshita
Cinematography by Hiroyuki Kusuda
Music by Chuji Kionshita
Art Direction by Chiyoo Umeda
Starring: Keiko Kishi, Yoshiko Kuga, Ineko Arima , Yuusuke Kawazu, Ryu Chishu
Streaming available at Filmstruck.