Revered in Japan, director Masaki Kobayashi never quite broke thru Stateside, and the recent spate of DVDs from Criterion are unlikely to change things. Certainly not BLACK RIVER, an ill-shaped tale of down-and-outers falling by the wayside during Japan’s post-war recovery. We watch thru the eyes of a passive 20-something student who’s rented a room in a squalid warehouse that’s been partitioned into separate living spaces. With his studies constantly interrupted by marital feuds, dying or spying neighbors, horndogs from the nearby U.S. military base & other unwanted guests, he finds himself in the unlikely position of romantic rival for a pretty waitress against a slick, dangerous gang boss (Tatsuya Nakadai). Kobayashi has an abrupt style that keeps cutting away from the action (kineticus interruptus), while letting his cast erupt at will. But the sordid scene and the sheer level of misery, envy & backstabbing retribution offer a certain grim fascination. The political pay-offs & corruption shown are regrettable, yet Kobayashi must know we can’t mourn the inevitable destruction of this dank world.
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Kurosawa worked similar terrain to fine effect in his Gorky adaptation, THE LOWER DEPTHS/’57 with Toshiro Mifune. And the Jean Renoir version from ‘36 is even better, with great perfs from Jean Gabin & Louis Jouvet.