Produced earlier in the same year that saw the release of Hara-Kiri–the director’s scathing, blood soaked indictment of the popular, idealized notion of samurai “honor”–Masaki Kobayashi’s Inheritance covers much of the same thematic ground the filmmaker would later tackle in his (sadly limited) jidai-geki work, with corrupt businessmen and cramped offices standing in for hypocritical samurai and castle courtyards.
The figure at the center of the film’s conflict–a tyrannical corporate executive so desperate to deprive his wife of his wealth that he decides to split the bulk of it between his three illegitimate children upon his impending death–would get along famously with the egotistical swordsmen who forced Tatsuya Nakadai’s son-in-law to end his life at the end of a bamboo blade. So, for that matter, would the wife, who resolves to track down and adopt her husband’s youngest daughter so that she might control her share–and, upon discovering the poor girl died several years ago, callously forges a birth certificate and substitutes her own bastard child. As would Nakadai, here playing a sleazy salaryman who accepts a bribe from the wife to abandon his search for the eldest daughter, only to turn around and cut a deal with the lovesick young woman: he’ll make sure she appeals to her estranged father in exchange for half of the inheritance–as well as other, more carnal benefits. Much like the morally reprehensible retainers of the Iyi clan, these are people consumed by a single, unwavering, overwhelming desire–for money, in this case, rather than honor, though the end result is more or less the same: a tense, claustrophobic confrontation in which a single vengeful rebel shatters all facades with little more than a few carefully chosen words.
But therein also lies the movie’s greatest departure from its successor (apart from its overall visual aesthetic–far looser and more spontaneous when compared with Hara-Kiri’s controlled, calculated camerawork): unlike Nakadai’s refreshingly sincere ronin, Inheritance’s protagonist, the executive’s eager-to-please secretary, becomes thoroughly corrupted by the film’s corrupt world, suffering a series of abuses and indignities that ultimately make her just as greedy and cynical as her numerous enemies. Her fall from grace is evident even in the opening credits (as in Hara-Kiri, the plot unfolds predominantly through flashbacks): dressed in the flashiest possible designer clothing, our heroine indulges in a bit of window shopping, peering almost lustfully at expensive handbags, jewelry, and high heeled shoes over a pair of comically oversized sunglasses.
Thus, despite all of the thematic and structural similarities, Inheritance also stands as Hara-Kiri’s mirror image. Nakadai’s “victory” over the Iyi clan is purely moral and personal: he may find satisfaction in showing his son-in-law’s murderers just how weak they truly are, but at the end of the day, he’s still dead, with all evidence of his defiant actions swept away and stricken from the historical record. Our valiant secretary, on the other hand, manages to do some significant and permanent damage to those who have wronged her–yet when she resorts to using their own dirty tactics against them, she compromises her morals, thus depriving herself of any meaningful sense of personal triumph. In both instances, Kobayashi’s bitter, brutally honest message/call to action rings loud and clear: in a system of pervasive and deeply ingrained oppression, the individual can never truly win–either he dies to uphold his ideals or succeeds by becoming the very thing he despises. Unless the corrupt system is fundamentally changed, any fleeting victory will always be hollow.
[Originally written July 28, 2015.]