Several Japanese men in feudal dress stuck in the rungs of a ladder

Moving Tales of Youth: The Pure Heart (Shonen bidan: Kiyoki kokoro; 少年美談清き心), 1925

Tale of a Boy: Noble Heart (alternate English title)

Production CompanyShakai Kyōiku Kenkyū-jo1
ScenaristUnknown (possibly Uchida)
SourceKobayashi Sadaji (original story)2
StagingOshimoto Shichinosuke
CinematographerNagai Seiji
PerformersKojima Takehiko (Mr. Sakai, the teacher); Mizushima Michitarō [as Mizushima Michio] (Shimomura Masaichi, Mr. Sakai’s student); Igayama Masamitsu (a milkman); Kunie Hiromitsu
StatusExtant
PhotographyBlack and white
Format35mm
SoundNo
English SubtitlesYes
Original Release Date1925 (exact date unknown)
Length37 minutes3

Synopsis

An elementary-school teacher, Mr. Sakai, is walking along a country road when he observes, unseen, one of his students, Masaichi, whom he knows as a very bright, studious and upright boy, picking up something from the road and burying it beside a roadside shrine. A few minutes later, he comes upon a little girl who is crying. When he asks why, she says that her bedridden mother had sent her to buy medicine, giving her an empty medicine bottle and a coin. However, in her haste, the little girl had tripped and fallen near the roadside shrine, breaking the bottle and dropping the coin. She is crying because she cannot find the coin anywhere.

The teacher gives her another coin to buy medicine and she leaves happy. The teacher then remembers Misaichi burying something near the same place. He wonders if he had buried the little girl’s lost coin.

In class the following day, Mr. Sakai teaches the class, which includes Misaichi, the following motto: “Nothing is better than honesty.” As illustration, he tells the class the story of The Honest Porter by the River Abe. There follows a reenactment of this story.

In the feudal era, a young servant who is carrying 300 ryō on behalf of his master must cross the river to reach his destination. He asks some porters on the riverbank if they would transport him across, but they tell him ferry service is suspended, and if he wants to get across, he will have to pay them ten ryō, rather than the usual five-ryō fee. The young man, who doesn’t have permission to spend that much money, asks if they would perform this service for five ryō, but the ferrymen adamantly refuse.

The young man starts to wade across the river but, without realizing it, drops his bag with the 300 ryō on the riverbank. The leader of the porters notices this, recovers the bag and desperately tries to signal the young man. However, the foolish servant, who thinks the honest porter is trying to rob him, wades even faster across the river to get away from him. The porter wades across the river and chases the foolish servant through the countryside to return his money.

The servant seeks refuge in a farmhouse with a mother and a daughter, and the women hide the young man in a cupboard. The porter, who is the older woman’s husband and the girl’s father, arrives and asks about the young man’s whereabouts. His wife, assuming he intends to rob the servant, admonishes her husband, saying that no matter how poor they are, they mustn’t do anything bad.

An elderly moneylender, to whom the couple owes five ryō, arrives and demands payment. Though he still has in his possession the servant’s bag with the 300 ryō, the porter pleads for more time to pay back the small sum. The moneylender then demands the previously agreed-upon substitution for the money: the porter’s young daughter, whom he wishes to take as his mistress. The porter, his wife and the girl all physically resist the moneylender.

Hearing this conversation from his hiding place, the foolish young man resolves to give the porter five ryō out of his master’s funds. However, he searches his possessions and realizes to his horror that the money is missing. He emerges from the cottage as the porter accidentally drops the bag of 300 ryō on the ground. The moneylender demands his payment from this sum of money, but the porter resists, as the money isn’t his. The young man, recognizing the bag as his, and realizing that the porter intended not to rob him but to return the money he’d lost, is greatly relieved. The porter notices the grateful servant and returns his money.

In the present, Mr. Sakai completes the story: the young servant’s master, in gratitude, later paid the honest porter 300 ryō, and he lived happily thereafter. The teacher then asks the class if any of them had ever done anything of which they should be ashamed. Nobody says anything, including Misaichi.

Later, after school, the teacher confronts the boy, who pleads ignorance of any wrongdoing. The little girl then enters the teacher’s office and places a coin on his desk. A local milkman, she explains, had just found the coin the girl had lost by the side of the road and returned it to her. She then resolved to pay the teacher back for the money he’d given her to buy medicine. The girl leaves.

The teacher, puzzled, asks the boy what exactly he had buried next to the roadside shrine. He answers that he had discovered in the middle of the road, where travelers might pass, rough objects like nails and broken glass, and decided to gather and bury this debris so that they would not cause harm to travelers. The teacher praises the pure heart of the noble boy… and learns a lesson of his own.

Notes on the Cast

Head shot of a Japanese male actor wearing a casual shirt and looking slightly to one side of the camera
Mizushima Michitarō, ca. early 1950s

Mizushima Michitarō, who made his debut with this film as a child actor, was later strongly associated, as an adult, with crime films and period dramas. He starred in an early action thriller by Suzuki Seijun, Take Aim at the Police Van (“Jūsangō taihisen” yori: Sono gosōsha o nerae, 1960). He also appeared in Sawashima Tadashi’s popular 1963 yakuza film Theater of Life: Hishakaku (Jinsei gekijō: Hishakaku, not to be confused with Uchida’s two adaptations – released in 1936 and 1968 – from the same Ozaki Shiro novel), and in several installments of Misumi Kenji’s Lone Wolf and Cub (Kozure Ōkami) series in the 1970s. He died in 1999 at age 87.

Commentary and Analysis

It should be noted in evaluating this rather charming but insignificant little movie – Uchida’s earliest surviving live-action film – that both its director and the Japanese industry as a whole were still in the apprenticeship stage. In fact, it would only be in the following year, 1926, that the prestigious Kinema Junpo awards would be established for Japanese-produced films (the awards already existed for foreign productions), and it was also in 1926 that the first important Japanese avant-garde film, A Page of Madness (Kurutta ippēji), directed by one of Uchida’s mentors, Kinugasa Teinosuke, would be released.4 The artistic breakthroughs of the mid-to-late 1920s would in turn lead to the many glories of the 1930s, including Uchida’s best prewar work.

The room of a poor family in contemporary (1920s) Japan, in which the mother lies sick on the floor while a little girl watches
Uchida didn’t shy away, even in this early period, from depicting the misery of the rural poor

Granting its status as a very early extant movie (almost no Japanese films made prior to 1923, the date of the Great Kantō Earthquake, survive) and the fact that it’s an ultra-low-budget short subject by a minor studio, this is a rather sophisticated piece of work. It’s essentially a two-reel slapstick period comedy embedded within a contemporary story of moral uplift: even at this stage of his career, Uchida was mixing genres in a new way. The slapstick is somewhat labored and the frame story somewhat attenuated,5 but each part works in its own way.

A rural landscape in which one man in feudal clothes appears in the foreground, and another in the background, both running away from the camera
The porter’s epic slapstick chase after the stupid servant

Both stories critique the human tendency to jump to conclusions. The foolish servant assumes, for no good reason, that the porter wants to rob him, just as in the present, the teacher assumes, also for no good reason, that the boy (of whose exemplary character he’s already aware) had found and hidden the little girl’s money. The film thus proves that Uchida could tell a story effectively twice in the same movie, and this humble achievement proved to be a sufficient foundation upon which to build his great future work.

A country road upon which a man, whose feet, legs and coat are alone visible, is walking away from the camera
A low-angle partial shot of the teacher, giving him a monumental presence: note that the composition is similar to the chase scene above

There are some very nice visual touches in the film, indicating that the director was already beginning to experiment with the medium. It begins with close shots, from behind, of the teacher’s legs and feet as he walks through the countryside, giving him a kind of monumentality that I normally associate with the figures of workers in Soviet Cinema. The awfulness of poverty is strongly stressed in the dreary details of the interior of the sick woman’s hut. (Uchida even then didn’t shy away from depicting the brutal misery of the poor.)  And in the comic period story, long shots depicting the countryside give the porter’s chase an epic quality that makes it funnier.

A Japanese boy in a classroom wearing traditional clothes and smiling, with other Japanese boys in the background
The “noble boy,” played by future action film star Mizushima Michitarō

The film presents an innocent world to which Uchida would never return, except in the dream sequence in Unending Advance. Nearly all the characters, even the milkman, are scrupulously honest and kind. Only the (fictitious) lecherous moneylender is a bad person, so there’s almost no evil, only misperceptions that are soon corrected. And so, partly for this reason, I resisted the temptation to give this film a “5” rating (signifying a failed film) on IMDb.

My IMDb Rating

6

Moving Tales of Youth: The Pure Heart is little more than the Japanese equivalent of an Afternoon Special for kids, complete with a cozy moral lesson. But the tale-within-a-tale is lively and amusing, and the frame story has a nice twist ending.

Links

YouTube Video (without subtitles).

Footnotes

  1. This is the only film I’ve found that was produced by this company, one of many minor, short-lived film companies from this early period in the Japanese industry.
  2. This and the following credits are from the credits on the existing subtitled print, rather than from the Internet Movie Database.
  3. The running time is listed on IMDb as only 33 minutes, though this may be due to disparities in projection speeds common to films of the era.
  4. It’s very strange to watch this film and realize that when it came out, Mizoguchi Kenji had barely started his illustrious career (in 1923), Ozu Yasujirō had yet to direct a single film, and Kurosawa Akira – then a teenager – was nearly two decades away from his directorial debut in 1943.
  5. The plot is also rather illogical: as the porter already owes five ryō to the moneylender at the start of the story, one would think he’d jump at the chance to transport the young servant across the river for the same fee, in order to pay the moneylender back. Also, it’s extremely strange that the foolish young servant’s master rewarded the honest porter with 300 ryō – exactly the same sum that the master would have lost if the porter had not been honest and had kept the bag of coins for himself.

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