Based on a 1957 children’s novel by Nobuo Ishimori, WHISTLING IN KOTAN is an honorable attempt to engage with emotionally simple material. The story, about the social problems faced by Hokkaido’s indigenous Ainu, is centered on the reactions of the characters to their oppressed state, with pathos as the emotive keynote. Screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto, who also wrote SUMMER CLOUDS (another sociological examination of an unfamiliar subculture), inserts a dialogue scene about the pain of being Ainu after nearly every dramatic cadence, and this bluntness seems a natural match for the didactic subject matter.
Despite the presence of Masuyuki Mori, Takashi Shimura, and Akira Takarada in supporting roles, the film is carried by teenagers Masu (Ryoko Koda) and Yutaka (Ken Kubo), Ainu siblings who struggle with the societal prejudice that broke the resistance of their forebears. Nearly every dramatic thread in the film has an anticlimactic outcome, a tactic of denial that feels like Naruse’s fingerprints on the project. Masa’s hopeless crush on her art teacher (Takarada), who tries for a career in Tokyo based on his award-winning portrait of Masa, peters out in a series of awkward farewells and letters; Yutaka’s conflict with racist bullies at school results in serious injury to Yutaka with no retribution for his persecutors. (The scene in which Yutaka is ambushed in a day-for-night confrontation in an empty schoolyard, quiet except for a dog barking in the distance, is stunningly filmed in high-angle long shots, and terminated by a daring premature cutaway.) A subplot in which old grandmother Ikante (Naruse regular Eiko Miyoshi, the mother in A WIFE’S HEART) desperately tries to marry off her granddaughter Fue (Kumi Mizuno) across racial lines comes to a conclusion so senseless and destructive that it’s hard to imagine it in anyone else’s movie, though its unbridled pathos overrides character and sociological verisimilitude.
The film ends bleakly, with a major character’s meaningless death leaving a storytelling void that is filled by an evil uncle (Kyu Sazanka). The children’s attempt to lift their spirits by whistling as they abandon their childhood home in the final scene is cancelled by Akira Ifukube’s swelling, mournful score. (Interesting that the story ends with Ainu-on-Ainu persecution after its running motif of oppression by Japanese – and that the script capitalizes on this change-up, with the children’s cousin Koji [Kunio Otsuka], the film’s representative of Ainu rebellion, reversing himself with a last-act speech about good and evil being distributed among all races.) Naruse’s style and sensibility is evident in every scene, but his contribution seems limited to imposing a pessimistic tone of breakdown and malfunction onto subject matter that is wired for pathos. In any case, the film looks great, with attractive widescreen compositions that identify the characters with the rural Hokkaido landscape and bring out the abstract, geometrical aspects of locations.