Crossroads (Japan, 1928)

Crossroads is a silent film by Teinosuke Kinugasa that tells the story of a brother and sister living in the slums of Tokyo during the time of the samurai. However, there are no sword fights in this period piece, which was the first Japanese film to screen in Europe.

Okiku (Akiko Chihaya) and her brother Rikiya (Junosuke Bando) live in the slums of Edo near the red-light district. While at the gambling houses, Rikiya falls in love with O-ume (Yukiko Ogawa) a girl who works at a gaming stand. O-ume is a beautiful and vivacious young woman who has the attention of many men. After a brawl, Rikiya returns to the rooms he shares with Okiku, where he takes a kimono she has made (only source of income, perhaps?) and goes back to claim O-ume. A fight ensues and Rikiya draws his sword after being blinded by a substance thrown into his face. The man feigns death but because Rikiya cannot see, he thinks he has killed a man. He returns to his sister to tell her what he thinks he has done, and she does whatever she can to protect him.

Rikiya is a man obsessed and Kinugasa uses imagery and camera tricks to demonstrate that obsession on film while still retaining a simple story: he is ridiculed by the others at the gaming houses and by the object of his obsession, O-ume, as well. Okiku is the calm in her brother’s violent storm and they only have each other. Unfortunately she gets taken in by a man pretending to be a constable and does something that is out of character for her. Rikiya, for lack of a better word, is an idiot who drags his unsuspecting and naïve sister into a darkness that she doesn’t deserve. She is ultimately at the mercy of her station in life and her brother’s madness.

Taking his cue from German impressionism, Kinugasa uses shadows to take the viewer into Rikiya’s mind so we can see the extent of his obsession. And it is a dark and scary place. The story remains uncomplicated – the love of a sister for her brother – but manages to effectively demonstrate the intricacy of the period in which they live. Hierarchy and discrimination is evident among the people of the Edo period: Rikiya is snubbed because he is poor and Okiku is apparently only as good as what others can gain from her. It is a heartbreaking tale right to the very end. If you have the opportunity to see Crossroads, I highly recommend it.

Crossroads was shown on Saturday November 15 at Japan Society as part of the film series The Dark Side of the Sun: John Zorn on Japanese Cinema which runs until February 2015.