After its anime adaptation by way of the Aoi Bungaku series, and a slew of manga adaptations, I turned next to how Sōseki Natsume's Kokoro was adapted into a live-action film by Kon Ichikawa. It does what any good adaptation of this story should do: it's faithful to the structure and the design of the original material, and it breaks your heart in all the right places. A good or great movie can be made from a bad or mediocre book (Perfect Blue), but a great book can be all too easily made into a terrible movie. Ichikawa's Kokoro flanks and complements its source material; you watch the film, or read the book, and neither one gets in the way of the other.
The (broken) heart of the matter
I have read Natsume's 1914 novel easily a dozen times in both of its English translations, and it's never failed to move me every time. The narrator, an unnamed young man in college, forms a friendship with an older man, "Sensei", a professorial type who lives in "complete idleness" with his attractive and doting wife. Some terrible emotional hurt has caused this man to retreat from the world, and the younger man is determined to find out why. He wants to know, even at the cost of jeopardizing his relationship with his parents right when his father seems on the verge of death. Good as his parents have been to him, they have not provided him with the kind of emotional rite of passage into the world that Sensei has — and, likewise, no one has provided for Sensei a receptacle for his loneliness and pain in the way this young man did.
To that end, Sensei answers the young man's questions by way of a "testament" that constitutes the second half of the book. As a young man, Sensei explains in this document, he was cheated by his own family, and it took the dotage of a war widow and her daughter to get him to open up. He in turn tried to do the same for a friend of his, a prickly and emotionally turbulent young man named "K". What instead took place was an emotional tug-of-war, where Sensei realized he and K were both vying for the younger woman's affections, and that Sensei knew exactly how to wound his friend — not just in a way that would let him win the girl's heart, but in a way that he could never be blamed for. The consequences of how Sensei acted on that understand have enveloped the whole of his life; and now at last he has found, in the young narrator, the one person who might finally be able to receive the truth of these matters that's been burning inside of him all this time.
So well-known is the book in Japan that, I suspect, one can be said to have "adapted" it without needing to adapt the whole thing. This was the strategy employed by the Aoi Bungaku version, which stripped away the subplot with the young narrator and just gave us Sensei in his youth. It wasn't a fatal decision, but it also gave us correspondingly limited results; without the framing device of the young narrator, there's no sense that Sensei's suffering has any redemption by way of a sympathetic ear and heart. The manga adaptations preserved, more or less faithfully, this wraparound story; but in the case of Nariko Enomoto's (excellent) version, it was pared down in a way that heightened, not diminished, its emotional impact.
All this I bore in mind as I sat down to watch Ichikawa's 1955 film version. Like most novel-to-movie adaptations, it compresses and condenses, reframes and reworks. What it does not do is dilute; it retains the entire original story and its accompanying tension-hightening structure. If anything, it finds ways to make the slow reveal of Sensei's heartbreak even more gripping, to imbue it with even more suspense and to make its culmination all the more elegiac.
Ichikawa preserves the book's overall structure, but doesn't marry himself to its presentation. The entire first half of the novel was told solely from the young student's POV, and the second from Sensei's pen. Here, Ichikawa moves freely between multiple points of view, but all those eyes are aimed at Sensei. We see him by way of his young admirer, by way of his wife, by way of all that he endured as a young man. But like all the rest of them, we only learn little by little what has been killing him for half his life. For that we have to wait for him to speak in his own words, even if it is to a total of one other person.
The first scene follows this pattern. It shows Sensei (Masayuki Mori) and his wife, Shizu (Michiyo Aratama), as he prepares to go to the grave of his dead friend. They talk in the way married couples do when they are both dancing around some larger, more irresolvable problem. She suspects there is another woman; he insists she stop being ridiculous. He claims he wants her company at the grave; she doesn't believe him. And so he goes alone to the graveyard, where the young man, here named Jiro Hioki (Shoji Yasui) approaches him with cheer he doesn't know how to reciprocate — no, not even over a beer shared afterwards.
This isn't the first time Jiro has come calling, either. The young man ostensibly wants help with his studies — the way he frames it is "I respect your knowledge, sir" — but what he really wants is someone to impart into him the wisdom that a grown man like him would seem to have in surplus. Sensei doesn't feel he has any such thing to share: his knowledge of women is limited, by design, to his wife (who now suspects infidelity); he thinks little of his expertise in any form. All he has to share is painful lessons about having been robbed of his parents by their early deaths, of being cheated by his uncle out of his inheritance, of things even darker that he cannot speak of.
But those few painful bits do not repulse Jiro. If anything, they only make Sensei's pull all the more magnetic. And Sensei himself seems to understand this; that's why, at about the one-third mark in the film, he takes up his pen and begins writing what becomes his testament to how he failed both himself and his greatest (and maybe only) friend.
This is where Ichikawa's movie deviates most from the original. Sensei's painful past comes to us interleaved throughout the goings-on — at first by way of Sensei's own spur-of-the-moment confessions to Jiro, and then by way of a dramatization of the events recorded in Sensei's document. The original novel generated tremendous rising tension throughout its second half simply by withholding information about what had happened to Sensei and his friend "K". It was a good strategy, but it also meant the book felt like two stories that had been spliced half-and-half. Ichikawa chose to interleave past and present more aggressively throughout his movie; it's more of a blend than a splice.
Ichikawa reaps many individual payoffs from assembling the story this way. For one, there's a far greater sense of dramatic movement, because it's happening on two parallel paths instead of a single, serial one. The younger Sensei struggles with conflicting feelings of both romantic and brotherly love; the older Sensei struggles with the implications of the emotional discoveries he makes, with whether he deserves the woman who loves him, with whether or not he should try continuing to live.
Another way Ichikawa makes this interleaving pay off: He uses it to mix back in thematic elements from the novel in opportunistic ways. One such event is the death of Emperor Meiji and the subsequent suicide of General Nogi. In the book, it's mentioned by the narrator, and then again by Sensei near the end of his "testament" — not just as a piece of historical color, but as a way to enhance Sensei's feeling of having outlived his usefulness. Here, Ichikawa moves Sensei's brooding about Nogi to a little more than a third of the way through the story, using it as a way to further dramatize how Sensei's internal life-or-death struggle is coming to a boil.
The other major way Ichikawa deviates from the book — expanding the range of POVs used in the story — also broadens the all the ways Sensei's conflicts are felt by others, most particularly his wife Shizu. I mentioned the opening scene, where it's clear that a rift has opened between them over what happened with "K". But out of that come other cracks, as when Shizu confronts Sensei about why Jiro can hear about his secrets but she can't. She suspects infidelity. Not the sexual kind, although Tony Rayns's essay for the Eureka Masters Of Cinema edition of the film notes this is a possible line of interpretation. But rather the emotional kind, the idea that her husband can confide in a young stranger about a man after whose death she wasn't even allowed to mention by name. What was only available by way of the most distant implication in the novel is now out in the open for us.
Kon Ichikawa is not as well-known outside of Japan as some of his contemporaries — definitely not Akira Kurosawa, for instance — but many of Ichikawa's nearly one hundred individual films are held in high regard. He came to international prominence in 1956, a year after Kokoro, for The Burmese Harp, another classic-novel adaptation, and was also at the helm of other notable Japanese films of the next several decades: Fires On The Plain, An Actor's Revenge, Odd Obsession, Tokyo Olympiad, I Am A Cat (another Sōseki Natsume adaptation), The Makioka Sisters, a second version of The Burmese Harp, The Village Of Eight Gravestones, a segment of yet another Sōseki Natsume adaptation, Ten Nights Of Dreams, and the sadly misconceived Dora-heita, from a previously unfilmed screenplay by Kurosawa. He also filmed an adaptation of one segment of Osamu Tezuka's Phoenix cycle of manga — would that we could see it in English! — and his own science-fiction take on the Princess Kaguya legend.
In short, Ichikawa tried a little of everything, but he always tempered his sensibilities to match the material. With Kokoro, he may have adopted a slightly more sophisticated structure than the source, but he didn't let the movie become an exercise in style. It's first and foremost an actor's picture, and the first and foremost actor in it is Masayuki Mori as Sensei. Mori had appeared before in a number of Kurosawa's earlier films (The Men Who Tread On The Tiger's Tail, Those Who Make Tomorrow), and in an adaptation of Osamu Dazai's unfinished novel Goodbye. But he was best remembered for his turn as one of the three people at the heart of the mystery in Kurosawa's Rashomon, where he used his masklike face to great effect; and as the ambitious and ultimately heartbroken Genjurō in Kenji Mizoguchi's glorious and sad Ugetsu.
The one issue I have with Mori in this film is not with him per se, but with the way Ichikawa tries to make him do double duty. He appears as both the older and younger Sensei, and it's clear the idea is to make him seem younger by way of a more boyish haircut, by putting that much more bop into his step and energy in his words. But it does not quite work. Even the natural gauze and scrim provided by the black-and-white cinematography of the time can't hide the fact that Mori is at least ten years too old to play the younger incarnation of the character. What I can't complain about is his actual performance in both roles — the bright-eyed younger man, contrasting with the hollowly laughing husk he is later on. Interestingly, Ichikawa does the same thing with Michiyo Aratama (Kwaidan, the epic The Human Condition, Sword Of Doom) as Shizu, but she's entirely convincing both as a younger and as an older woman.
Ichikawa's Kokoro has spent most of its life without much attention paid to it. It didn't garner much critical attention or box-office success at the time, and the international acclaim for The Burmese Harp in the following year swept it completely off the table. But it's a sad gem of a film, a good example of how to adapt thoughtfully, not slavishly. The French translation of Natsume's novel is called Le pauvre coeur des hommes — "The Wretched Hearts Of Men" — and I thought Ichikawa's version could have used the same title, too.