Kiiroi Karasu (1957)

Literally, Yellow Crow, though this poignant little film is also known in English as Behold Thy Son.

It’s been a long time since I reviewed a non-Indian, non-English language film. I have several bookmarked on Youtube, and after some trial and error (a couple of minutes of this, ten minutes of that) settled on this one. Kiiroi Karasu was directed by Gosho Heinosuke, the man who directed Japan’s first talkie (and who was, for a while, the President of the Directors’ Guild of Japan).

I began watching this film with few expectations. In fact, I didn’t even read a synopsis of the film, so I had no idea what I was getting into, not even what genre.

Kiiroi Karasu begins at a Buddhist shrine. In front of a massive monolithic Buddha sit a bunch of school children, sketching and colouring for all they’re worth.

The teacher (Kuga Yoshiko) goes around looking at their work, and stops at the very grim-looking sketch made by nine-year old Yoshida Kiyoshi (Shitara Koji): it’s all black, stark and forbidding, against a pale yellow backdrop. The teacher, gently and kindly, tries to draw Kiyoshi’s attention to the fact that the actual colours in front of him aren’t all black, but Kiyoshi isn’t listening.

Back in school, the teacher discusses this with a colleague, who says that these colours—black and yellow, which predominate in Kiyoshi’s drawings—are a sign of a child who’s having a hard time. Most often seen in the work of lonely children, without fathers or mothers. Orphans. Kiyoshi’s teacher is puzzled by this, and ends up laughing it off. That can’t be, she tells her colleague; Kiyoshi has both parents. In fact, his father came back from China just last year…

… and, in a flashback, we go to a year earlier. Kiyoshi and his mother Machiko (Awashima Chikage) are travelling by train to meet Machiko’s husband and Kiyoshi’s father, Ichiro (Ito Yunosuke). Ichiro went to war just around the time Kiyoshi was born, and has only now been repatriated. He’s coming back, and his son (who’s never seen Ichiro) is very excited to be finally meeting Dad. While he and his mother get ready to sleep—Kiyoshi insists on sleeping next to her, she tells him he’s too old now; he gives her shoulders a massage—Kiyoshi wonders: will Dad take him to the beach? Will they go swimming?

But their first meeting is a sobering one. Ichiro looks dazed and very lost; Machiko recognizes him and goes to him, and though there’s relief in his face when he sees her, the dazed look comes back when he sees Kiyoshi. Kiyoshi, so big? How old is he? Kiyoshi looks surprised, and Machiko embarrassed: has her husband forgotten how many years he’s been away? Nine, she says. Kiyoshi is nine years old.

The awkwardness between father and son does not settle quickly, though Machiko tries her best to encourage Kiyoshi to call Ichiro Dad. There is a moment of lightness—Ichiro challenges Kiyoshi to arm-wrestle him, and (after having been given a subtle hint by Machiko) allows the boy to beat him, too.

This, however, is a one-off incident. Ichiro is not being able to make headway with Kiyoshi.

It’s not as if things are all right at work, either. All these years, Machiko has been doing some craft work—etching designs on wooden plates, which her neighbour (Tanaka Kinuyo) sells (she has a workshop attached to her house). Machiko continues with that, but Ichiro goes back to the company he’d been working with before the war. After they’ve first sent him a letter to take a week’s leave before joining—it’s obvious they are in no hurry for him to return to work.

And even when he does return to work at the company, Ichiro discovers that things have changed. Procedures have changed, people have changed. Everything has moved on, and he doesn’t fit here anymore, not really. It’s depressing, and Ichiro is so dejected, he goes out for a drink with a colleague…

… and comes home very drunk. At home, Machiko and Kiyoshi have been waiting for Ichiro so that the family can have dinner together, but Ichiro’s intoxication befuddles him. He blunders about, discovers the ‘zoo’ Kiyoshi has made in part of his room (with an assortment of animals, including a white mouse), and flies into a rage. It stinks, it’s unhygienic, get rid of it now.  And mice remind him of the prison in China.

Kiyoshi gets into more trouble with his father: an old lady comes by to say Kiyoshi’s been fighting, and her grandson has been badly hurt. Ichiro by now is wishing he’d never come home; it’s obvious to him (as he tells Machiko, in a bitter and self-pitying way) that they were getting along perfectly well without him. Ever since he’s come home, nothing has gone right.

Sadly, this is just the start. Within the year, Kiyoshi has a baby sister, whom his parents obviously dote on. Ichiro is devoted to the baby, and now that she is there, needing so much attention, Machiko has even less time for her son.

One evening, Kiyoshi is rocking his sister’s bassinet, playing with her, when the baby suddenly starts crying. Machiko rushes to pick her up, and Ichiro, startled, immediately pounces on Kiyoshi: what did he do? Has he been hurting the baby? What? Kiyoshi denies having done anything wrong, but Ichiro is so livid by now, he’s not listening.

The situation swiftly spirals out of control—Ichiro ends up dragging his son out of the house, and locking him up in a shed. Kiyoshi yells, then begins to cry, loudly. Machiko, torn between husband and son, dithers: should she help her husband save face by not going to Kiyoshi’s rescue, or should she let her maternal instincts get the better of wifely loyalty?

In the meantime, though, the neighbour has overheard Kiyoshi’s wailing, and she comes to his rescue. She unlocks the shed, gets Kiyoshi out, comforts him and takes him to her home, where her daughter Haruko (?), who is a good friend of Kiyoshi’s, sits down and has her dinner alongside Kiyoshi.

After dinner is over, Haruko’s mother takes Kiyoshi home—she only manages to persuade him by reassuring him that she will not only come with him, but will apologize on his behalf. She does so, much to Machiko’s embarrassment. Kiyoshi is ushered in by a mother who is affectionate but worried on his part: she urges Kiyoshi to apologize to his father, but to no avail. Kiyoshi goes off to his room, still smarting and hurt.

And this is far from the end…

As I wrote at the beginning of this review, I began watching this film with no idea of what it was about. But within a few minutes, it had pulled me right in. It’s a sensitive, thoughtful little film about a family trying to rebuild itself after the war.

What I liked about this film:

The way the characters are etched. There are not too many characters in Kiiroi Karasu—the Yoshidas, their neighbour and her daughter, and Kiyoshi’s teacher, are the only ones who have any significant screen time. Of these, the teacher and the neighbours act as a sort of family-away-from-family for Kiyoshi, the people who understand what he’s going through and try to help in some way or the other. The main characters, though, remain the Yoshidas, and the dynamics between them are what make this story so relatable.

The best thing is that all three of them—Kiyoshi, Ichiro and Machiko—are three-dimensional characters, so finely portrayed, warts and all, that none of them comes across as either wholly good or wholly bad. You can see where each of them is coming from: Ichiro, for instance, after nine years away from home, and the last few spent in obviously very insalubrious conditions, is worn-out, tired, somewhat withdrawn. Kiyoshi, whom he has never known, is a stranger to him, and worst of all, there’s the fact that Ichiro’s long absence from work has meant that he’s now a misfit at his company as well. It’s not difficult to see why trying to build a relationship with a wary boy who doesn’t easily obey him is not top of Ichiro’s priorities.

On the other hand there’s Kiyoshi, who might seem to be unnecessarily belligerent towards his father, or jealous of him (and of the little sister who has, along with their father, come along and usurped Kiyoshi’s till-then sole command over the affection of Machiko). But when you look at Kiyoshi closely, he’s just a child who has suddenly gone from being the centre of his mother’s universe to being on the periphery of it. He actually does love his baby sister—you can see that in several scenes—but, all said and done, he’s a child. Easily distracted, a playful child who finds solace in adopting a stray crow…

Lastly, there’s Machiko. Although the focus of this film seems to be Kiyoshi, to me, Machiko is as much, if not more, the focus of Kiiroi Karasu. This is a woman who’s lived nine years on her own, fending for herself, bringing up her son on her own. Is it unnatural for her to delight in the return of her husband, to bask in the adult company he offers her? No, it isn’t, though it takes Machiko time (and a little help) to understand the repercussions of that perhaps somewhat selfish switching of attention.  And yet, the sincerity of Machiko’s affection and love for her son are very palpable, no matter what happens.

The acting was overall good, and there was a real-ness, a poignant but ultimately heartwarming genuineness  about this film that I really loved. The end, especially, had me in tears.

Was there anything I didn’t like about Kiiroi Karasu? No. I do wish, though, that someone would take up the task of cleaning up the colours of this film.

You can watch Kiiroi Karasu, with English subtitles, here.

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4 thoughts on “Kiiroi Karasu (1957)

  1. This stirs some old , vague memories.. I was in high school in 1957. I recall that there was a Japanese movie shown in our theatres around that time, which attracted great publicity. Somehow, the name registered in my mind sounded something like ‘Yukiwarisu’ I made enquiries in Japan when I visited that country in 96, but none could throw light. I wonder whether it was this movie and whether it was ever released in India. It is not uncommon that the same movies are released in different countries under different names.

    • Kiiroi Karasu did win the Best Film Award at the Golden Globes, so I would think it would be a prime candidate to be shown in theatres, even in India. So it’s very likely that this was the film. I got the impression, from comments I saw posted below the Youtube video I watched, that it’s not a well-known film despite everything, so it’s possible that it’s simply slipped out of popular memory. Rather like Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar, which was critically acclaimed and won at Cannes, but seems to have been mostly forgotten except by diehard fans of old cinema.

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