There are films about children and there are films about childhood. The former merely contain child actors. But the latter are about the world that children inhabit, the emotions and experiences that accompany growing up; the mysteries borne of misunderstandings, unanswered curiosities, and the temporarily inexplicable. Films about childhood ask questions but scarcely provide answers. For the life of a child is one of censorship and confinement. They have yet to figure out the world because the world hides things from them. But they see. They listen. And they think.
The great films about childhood consistently rank amongst the best ever made: René Clément’s Forbidden Games (1952), François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) and Small Change (1976), Víctor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), and Hector Babenco’s Pixote (1981) to name a few. Perhaps this is because it takes a true master filmmaker to penetrate that realm without seeming exploitative or needlessly sentimental. So when films like Kōhei Oguri’s Muddy River appear, it is our duty and privilege to acknowledge them.
Quite simply, Muddy River is one of the best Japanese films about childhood. As Oguri’s directorial debut, he demonstrates the kind of wisdom and restraint that eludes most veteran filmmakers. The film was praised upon release by international critics, earning him several awards and a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (inevitably losing, perhaps justifiably so, to István Szabó’s Mephisto). But now the film languishes in obscurity, being almost impossible to find on VHS or DVD. But Muddy River surges with a timeless vitality. If and when it finally receives a proper release, audiences will be amazed by its enduring artistry and wonder why it hasn’t been canonized as one of the great Japanese classics.
Almost a decade after the end of World War Two, 9-year-old Nobuo Itakura lives next to the mouth of the Kyū-Yodo River in Osaka. The first blossoms of what would become known as the “Japanese post-war economic miracle” have begun to bloom: the city has been largely reconstructed, new families are springing up, and Nobuo’s parents are able to run a small yet respectable noodle shop. But the scars of war live on in those, like Nobuo’s father Shinpei, unfortunate enough to have survived the fighting. “There must be lots of people out there who wish now that they’d died in the war,” he wearily comments one night. This statement, overheard by a sleepless Nobuo, seems prophetic. For the next day three such unfortunates drift their way in Nobuo’s life.
Nobuo meets the first, a young boy his age named Kiichi, on a bridge one rainy day. They swiftly become friends and Kiichi invites him to his houseboat, a ramshackle piece of junk that miraculously stays afloat. Nobuo is shocked by what he sees: desperate poverty the likes of which he never imagined. Kiichi’s shoes are full of holes, they have to ration clean drinking water, and they have almost no food. Kiichi’s widowed mother, Shoko, has been forced into prostitution, bringing clients to her private room at night while her children sleep just a few walls away. Kiichi’s older sister, Ginko, seems spiritually crushed, perhaps aware that she is doomed to follow in her mother’s footsteps.
And yet Nobuo and Kiichi become inseparable. Though initially apprehensive about their mother’s reputation, Shinpei and his wife Sadako welcome Kiichi and Ginko into their home with open arms. There are many quiet moments of soft comedy during this sequence wherein Ginko tries to get Kiichi to behave properly in spite of their “uncivilized” upbringing. Shinpei throws out a couple of friends who come to their shop for noodles only to mock Kiichi and Ginko’s mother for being a whore. Sadako quickly comes to treat Ginko as the daughter she never had, giving her a pretty (and expensive) dress and taking her to a bathhouse.
Time passes and little moments come and go: Nobuo witnesses what may or may not have been a man drowning himself in the river, a barge captain throws Nobuo and Kiichi a melon as they pass by their houses, and the two of them go to a local festival only to accidentally lose their spending money. In one scene, Shinpei takes Nobuo to visit his dying ex-wife in her final moments. These scenes may seem superfluous to those accustomed to more traditional cinematic narrative techniques. But they are just as essential to the film as any other. After all, is childhood ever a straight, streamlined chain of events? More often than not childhood is composed of distractions, daydreams, and seemingly innocuous vignettes that for whatever reason become burned into our memories.
And then there is the hardest emotion for children to swallow: sadness. One night Kiichi invites Nobuo onboard his house and lights a series of crabs on fire. Such an act of cruelty seems out of place and repellent. But as Nobuo tries to save one, he accidentally spies Shoko with a client. They make eye contact for a brief moment. And then we realize, in the pit of our stomach, that with the boon of a customer Kiichi and his family will have to move on. And the next day, to Nobuo’s confusion, the boat, and his friend, are gone. Why did Kiichi incinerate the crabs? Was it to repulse Nobuo and make their separation easier? That is one explanation. But the true answer remains elusive. All that remains is the pain, the loss, the loneliness.
Throughout the film Nobuo and Kiichi catch glimpses of a legendary giant carp that inhabits the murky bottom of the Kyū-Yodo River. Declaring it their secret, it becomes one of the impetuses for their friendship. In Japanese culture, the carp, or “koi,” is a symbol of strength and masculinity that is frequently associated with young children. It is believed that this tradition stems from an ancient Chinese legend wherein carp transform into dragons if they manage to swim upstream and jump over a waterfall located at the Dragon’s Gate. Many try, but most fail.
In post-war Osaka, some boys were blessed with enough prosperity to escape poverty and become mighty dragons. But many, like Kiichi, were swept away downstream until all that was left of them were memories. Muddy River is one such memory, resplendent in its beauty, agonizing in its honesty.