Yet another great film by Keisuke Kinoshita 木下 惠介 is 死闘の伝説 Shitō no densetsu (1963), a drama set in Hokkaido at the tail-end of World War II. The work feels both realistic and mythic, a characteristic expressed by the film’s English title: A Legend or was it?

Literally, the title translates to “Legend of a Duel to the Death” or “Legend of mortal combat”. But these don’t quite capture the feel of the film. This isn’t a Clint Eastwood shoot-em-up Western. Nor is it a “war” movie. It’s about small people, scared people, common people who are afraid of war, afraid of starvation, afraid of the end of empire. It paints a convincing picture of what life may have been like in Japan in the last days of the war. Fear. Disbelief. Confusion. Relief?

Despite the serious subject matter, A Legend or was it? does not feel like a “dark” film, in part because it is filmed in the majestic Hokkaido countryside, and also because the goodness of the central family is so compelling.

There’s a lot that’s interesting in this film. For example, the beautiful scenery…

A Legend or was it Kinoshita 1963 mountains

A badass female role (played by Shima Iwashita 岩下志麻)…

A Legend or was it Kinoshita 1963 woman with gun mountains

Tensions between country-folk and urban evacuees (and acknowledgement of wartime hunger)…

References to firebombing of cities like Tokyo and Sendai…

Critical observations about Japanese behavior (an analogy to pre-war Japanese militarism)…

A Legend or was it Kinoshita 1963 Japan will lose the war

Suspense…

A Legend or was it Kinoshita 1963 farm scene

A dramatic final showdown…

A Legend or was it Kinoshita 1963 mounted horse police

And wonderful music… including sounds from Ainu folk instruments アイヌの民族楽器 such as the mukkuri ムックリ (source), which you can hear in the film’s trailer:

Notes:

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