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Song of Home
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by Jay Seaver

"Education is ... apparently a mixed bag."
3 stars

"Song of Home" is the oldest surviving film by director Kenji Mizoguchi, and like a lot of great artists, I suspect Mizoguchi took what work he could get at the start of his career and did what he could to make these assignments his own. At least, I hope that's what happened, because otherwise this is a really strange thing for Japan's Ministry of Education to produce in the mid-1920s.

It opens with a number of kids arriving back at their village from Tokyo for their summer break. Junichi (Kerntaro Kawamata) and Misako Okamoto are siblings and seem like nice folks; Taro Maesaka (Michiko Tachibana) is a little more status-conscious. They are picked up at the station by Naotaro Takeda (Shigeru Kido), who has been the smartest kid at their junior high but could not afford tuition at a city school and works as a coachman to support his poor family. Things may change when he saves the life of a visiting American scholars son, though.

This film was commissioned by the Ministry of Education and produced by a division of Nikkatsu Studios that specialized in educational films, and you would think that would result in a hard sell for continuing one's schooling, or perhaps some sort of description on how even those in difficult circumstances can attend school on some sort of scholarship, but that's not the case. Instead, it plays much more to the title, with subplots about how time away from one's home in the city can make a person disconnected from regular life and how it is apparently nobler to be a good farmer than accept aid to study, no matter how talented you may be.

For all that, it's an amiable movie if you overlook its odd lineage. The kids are a likable group, with Shigeru Kido especially taking a character in Naotaro who could seem excessively earnest and making him a guy whom the audience can believe in, embracing the sort of openness that silent film demands without it crossing over into mugging. Michiko Tachibana's Taro could easily be built to get on the audience's nerves more than he does, but rather than make him a hidable villain, Mizoguchi and writer Ryunosuke Shimizu go for a sort of absurd caricature of upper-class snobbery.

Being the earliest extant film of a man regarded as a master puts more spotlight on this movie than it necessarily deserves; it's made for institutional purposes as much as popular entertainment and is quite short on top of that (IMDB lists 45 minutes, but the print screened at the Harvard Film Archive ran about an hour without looking slowed-down), but has wound up a necessary part of retrospectives. It's at least an entertaining inclusion, even if it's not the best of Mizoguchi's silent work.

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originally posted: 06/09/14 10:22:12
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