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The Inheritance

Posted by martinteller on December 31, 2014

The wealthy executive Senzô Kawara (Sô Yamamura) has cancer, and the prognosis is grim.  With roughly six months to live, he wants to get his will in order.  By law, a third of his estate must go to his trophy wife Satoe (Misako Watanabe).  But he wants to give the remainder of it to his three illegitimate children, if they can be located.  If the children are found — and prove themselves worthy — they’ll get a share.  Otherwise, the money will go to public welfare.  Kawara sends his crony Fujii (Minoru Chiaki) to find the 7-year-old girl birthed to his former maid.  Kawara’s lawyer (Seiji Miyaguchi) assigns the task of finding older daughter Mayumi (Mari Yoshimura) from a previous marriage to his assistant Furukawa (Tatsuya Nakadai).  And the job of locating Kawara’s delinquent son Sadao (Yusuke Kawazu) falls on the shoulders of his secretary, Yasuko Miyagawa (Keiko Kishi).

Again, Kobayashi rages with cynicism, lending this film as much of a noir attitude as he did with Black River.  But where that film focused on the seedy, impoverished underbelly of society, this one finds corruption in the bourgeois stratum.  Exploitation and selfishness are the guiding principles in this world.  Everyone wants a bigger piece of the pie, as greed inspires deception, impersonation, manipulation, double-crosses and even murder.  When it’s not greed, it’s lust, as when Kawara forces himself on Yasuko… and then tries to buy her forgiveness (or her silence, or his own conscience) with envelopes stuffed with money.  Sex is a commodity, sometimes the only one a woman has, and when Satoe realizes she’s not getting more than her legally required portion of Kawara’s estate, she sees no reason to indulge his amorous whims.

Beyond the themes and the plot (which could easily be a Hollywood drama from the 50’s without changing much at all), the noir-esque touches continue with the jazzy, serpentine score.  And the descent into a sleazy club where Mayumi poses for nude snapshots.  And especially the voiceover by Kishi, charting Yasuko’s corruption.  She’s the film’s most sympathetic character, but the one who has the furthest to fall.  As she tells the audience how one gets used to humiliation, we see her moral compass going kaput… or is the voiceover also a con, and she’s been working the angles the whole time?  It lingers as a possibility, intriguingly teased by the film’s bookend structure.

It’s a great cast (including two of the Seven Samurai) with great performances, especially Kishi and Watanabe as two women who are each femmes fatales of a sort, but in very different ways.  The story moves swiftly and always holds your attention, although it’s sometimes slightly hard to follow all the complex machinations and character relations.  The ultra-wide frame (2.40:1 aspect ratio) is used brilliantly, positioning characters in terms of both overt and subtle power.  And for fans of the “Sun Tribe” genre, you can get a little taste of that when it comes to Sadao and his pals.  This is both a wickedly entertaining drama and a biting commentary on greed.  Criterion’s “Eclipse” set of lesser-known Kobayashi films is a winner all the way through.  Rating: Very Good (88)

IMDb
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