Keisuke Kinoshita is considered one of the cinematic masters of the Japanese postwar generation, a generation almost completely overshadowed by the titanic presence of Akira Kurosawa. Kinoshita's films combine wild cinematic invention with sentimental plot. Though his films found a wide audience in Japan, but they have rarely been seen abroad.
Born in December 1912, Kinoshita was the son of a grocer in the Hamamatsu, Shizuoka prefecture. From a very young age, he became a passionate cinema buff. Though he dutifully attended a technical high school at his parents' behest, he dreamed of work in film. Upon hearing that the best way to crack into the industry was as a cinematographer, Kinoshita promptly enrolled in the Oriental Photography School. In 1933, after graduation, he applied at Shochiku studios for a job as an assistant cameraman, but he could only muster a job in the film-processing lab. Eventually, he got a job as an assistant to Yasujiro Shimazu's cinematographer. Though he spent three years as a camera assistant, he was frequently reprimanded for watching acting rehearsals instead of focusing on the camera, until Kozaburo Yoshimura, an assistant under Shimazu who would later become a major director in his own right, suggested that Kinoshita transfer to the directors' section. Two years later, Kinoshita managed to do just that after Shimazu's chief assistant Shiro Toyoda was promoted to director. He spent six years along side Yoshimura as assistant director, working exceedingly long hours and enduring Shimazu's famously autocratic demeanor on the set.
In 1943, Kinoshita directed his first feature Hana Saku Minato. A light comedy about the difference between country bumpkins and city slickers, the film showcased Kinoshita's deft comic touch. Though he would return to comedy repeatedly throughout his long and productive career, Kinoshita showed a willingness and a remarkable ability to work in virtually every genre found in Japanese cinema. Just as Kurosawa's first film, Sugata Sanshiro (which also debuted 1943), heralded his signature existential humanism, so did Hana Saku Minato presage an enduring theme which would run throughout Kinoshita's works: a fascination with innocence and purity. After his second effort, an ostensible domestic propaganda film entitled Army (1944), ran afoul of wartime censors, he withdrew from filmmaking altogether until the war was over.
Kinoshita reached his creative peak during the '50s with a series of popular domestic comedies and dramas. Almost all of these films featured women who are thoroughly good-hearted and naïve. In his joyously optimistic yet sharply satirical comedies such as Carmen Comes Home (1951) and Carmen's Pure Love (1952), this purity manages to overwhelm the societal barrier of class and geography. In his bleak tear-jerking tragedies, society wins out. In Nihon no Higeki, a widowed mother works and slaves only to be rejected by her greedy, materialistic children. In his masterpiece Nijushi no Hitomi (1952), a young schoolteacher who lost both child and husband to the war teaches peace to her young students only to be fired by the militaristic authorities. Like the women that populate the films of Kenji Mizoguchi, the women in Kinoshita's tragedies sacrifice, nurture, and endure.
Though his plots tend toward the traditional and sentimental, Kinoshita continuously experimented with his film's visual style. In Morning for the Osone Family (1946), he shot the entire film within a single interior set of a house (save the final scene, which the U.S. occupation forced him to shoot at a prison) while his 1948 work Onna was shot entirely on the craggy hills of the Atami peninsula. His 1951 comedy Carmen Comes Home was the first feature in Japan to be entirely shot in color. The Ballad of Narayama makes deft use of spotlights, expressionistic color, and sets that recall Kabuki theater while You Were like a Wild Chrysanthemum (1955) has his characters wear masks throughout the film. In spite of this, when Japanese New Wave directors such as Nagisa Oshima attacked Shochiku's slick commercial formula, Kinoshita's sentimentality and emphasis on purity was vociferously condemned. Since then, however, he has been hailed as one of Japan's true cinematic geniuses. In 1991, he received an award from the Japanese government lauding his contribution to national culture, and in 1999, his Nijushi no Hitomi was picked by Japanese critics as one of the ten best Japanese films of all time. Keisuke Kinoshita died in December, 1998 after a long illness.