In this Sightand Sound article, Kon Ichikawa says that “Pu-san” is one of his “light” films. Aside from being based on a comic book and not being nearly as grim as the fatalistic “Fires on the Plain” and the more melodramatic “Enjo,” it’s still a depressing little flick. (This article captures Ichikawa’s basic ethic better.)
The basic story: Mr. Noro teaches math at a local high school. He’s a war veteran, unhappy about the past and scared of the future. He’s scared of just about everything, and the people around him do their best to justify it. The film begins with Noro getting hit by a car and breaking his arm, and little better happens to him after that. He has a completely useless crush on the daughter of the family he’s staying with, he gets fired from his job after attending a radical political rally with some of his students (he does it only for the sense of belonging), and eventually ends up doing hard labor in a munitions factory.
Yunosuke Ito, who plays Noro, has a very long face, and even when he’s smiling he looks pained and frightened, like he’s wondering what the imminent downside to this moment of brief happiness will be. In Masaki Kobayashi’s ten-hour “The Human Condition,” Tatsuya Nakadai conveys such an innate empathetic likeability that he serves as the perfect agent for post-war Japanese self-flagellation. Ito is an agent for pity and often contempt, since his meekness isn’t especially virtuous.
This would be a depressing tale of neo-realism, a nastier Umberto D., if Ichikawa didn’t keep getting distracted by elements of satire. Cops are cheerfully jaded by the crime and violence around them, and in one bizarre scene, they try to provide more powerful pills to an attempted suicide just so that she’ll tell them her name. Noro is surrounded by cynical opportunists who not only ignore their ignoble past, but profit off of it. The Communist high schoolers also are wise enough to drop that line when the see a better one. Meanwhile, Noro can’t buy in, sell out, or maintain integrity. Is it the war that did it to him? Doubtful: he’s probably always been like this.
Noro, the victim of profiteering, other vices, and just plain bad luck, can’t catch a break, but even if he could, he wouldn’t know what to do with it. He brags about how valued he is at school to impress a woman, then grovels to have his old job back. It’s sad, but there’s no sentimentality at the heart of the movie. It’s the flip side of “Fires on the Plain,” where the main character avoids acts of barbarianism, brutality, and cannibalism only because he has tuberculosis and knows he’s dead anyway.
And it’s ironic, in that neo-realism (and its social realism ancestors) was meant to scrape away the romance of characters undergoing unlikely improvements to their situations, and leave you with portraits of real life that would provoke sympathy for its predetermined unfortunates. But the political agendas of Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, Dos Passos, and others demanded characters that were reasonably worthy of sympathy. Frank Norris, in MacTeague, removed that, as Ichikawa does here, and the result is bleak, purposefully uninvolving, and hopeless.