A Dedicated Life 全身小説家 (1994) Director: Kazuo Hara, Producer: Sachiko Kobayashi

A Dedicated Life   

全身小説家 Zenshin Shosetsuka

Release Date: September 23rd 1994

Duration: 157 mins.

Director: Kazuo Hara

Producer: Sachiko Kobayashi

Writer: N/A

Starring: Mitsuharu Inoue, Jakucho Setouchi, Hiroshi Noma, 

IMDB

Released seven years after The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, you might expect A Dedicated Life to pale in comparison to that excoriating and exciting experience but it proves to be an enthralling documentary as it explores the myth-making of leftist writer named Mitsuharu Inoue and offers a fascinating and complicated biographical portrait of a larger-than-life personality in the few years prior to his death.

What is first noticeable is that, stylistically, in the filmography of Kazuo Hara and Sachiko Kobayashi, A Dedicated Life is a sort of transitional work where the pair’s approach to filming departed from their cinema vérité style and moved toward more conventional documentary techniques such as using talking head interviews, dramatic reconstruction, and archival footage/materials to shed light on Inoue’s true nature. Two reasons probably decided this:

Soon after the team began shooting material in 1989, Inoue’s doctor discovered the writer had liver cancer and so what was originally planned as a 10-year shoot was cut short when he died in 1992;

During the reduced period of the shoot it appears as if Inoue resisted opening up to Hara and Kobayashi’s presence and left them with dubious information. This resulted in the duo doing some archival digging and asking around for other perspectives after his death.

With what little time they had with their subject, they record Inoue showing the romantic persona he wants to project: a Casanova of literature from a hardscrabble life struck by genius and struggles in equal measure. The film intercuts multiple extended sequences where we watch Inoue travel to workshops and speaking engagements from Hiroshima to Sasebo and Tokyo and impart tales of his fatherless adolescence working and living on an island full of coalmines and brothels, he regaling people with his days as founder and head of the Communist party in Japan, and then partying away at cafes and bars with his loyal students who are clearly desperate to learn to write and star-struck by his bravado. For the less credulous viewers at home, we detect that a lot of dubious claims are made but it is fun just listening as he is a really charismatic speaker who knows how to spin a story and make people feel as if they believe it.

Amidst these scenes is the bombshell that he has been diagnosed with cancer and we are given unflinching looks at surgery – we see his liver taken out! – and other medical treatment. Amazingly, his response to his condition is to not go gently into the night, but, rather impressively, to launch into a flurry of writerly activities and social engagements. It is as if he is trying to seize every moment and hold back death in a heroic writer’s way. It is here that Inoue states that he would rather bend the truth of his diagnosis and treatment to present a more interesting picture to listeners and, if the dubious claims didn’t alert viewers, this clearly foreshadows the latter half of the film where it hits upon its central thesis: Inoue lived as he wrote, by blurring the lines of truth and fiction. 

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This is the truth, but what we choose to tell from the truth is fiction.  

In a number of classes we see, Inoue talks about how to draw a novel from lived experiences by slight embellishments. As if scenting this, following Inoue’s death, Hara and Kobayashi investigate his past and soon deconstruct the romantic myths of the writer and show how he embellished parts of his own life and turned it into prime material, both for his autobiographical works and his novels.

The scenes of Inoue retelling his version of events, still fresh in our memories, are later rebuffed in interviews with surviving relatives or collaborators who give their own perspective, often undercutting the legend that he built. For example, his tales of life on a mining island, which he recalls had Korean sex workers who would parade around on pay day to entice men, lead into dramatic reconstructions shot in monochrome. These classily shot moments full of pathos and romance are immediately torpedoed in following scenes by surviving islanders who give a more mundane version of events where such behaviour would be unthinkable with the mining companies in charge. A former communist party member laughs at the idea that Inoue was a lynchpin in the party and reveals he was closer to an errand boy and an opportunist. His connection to a great kabuki family? Nonsense. And that is the pattern.

One can’t help but give a wry smile over each revelation how he bent the truth and listening to his friends and relatives in interviews soon segues into a fascinating search of family records at city offices and discovering that Inoue’s penchant for telling tall tales was a character-trait from a young age and, it feels as if it was seemingly a fateful manifestation of previous generation’s habits, tragedies, and misdeeds which offers the film a sort of ironic circular history.

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A more poignant aspect is how people generally seemed to be aware of his lying but let him do it anyway. His womanising seemed to be well-known in Japan, his relationship with the writer Jakucho Setouchi setting tongues wagging, and she shows up in full Buddhist nun gear here to stake her claim in his legacy – she entered the order to end their affair. The interviews with a range of his students show them to be people enamoured with him, particularly women who we see Inoue targets for a little lascivious attention, but also aware (however slightly) that he has just having fun at their expense and it is a little sad to see them admit that they were happy to be thought of in romantic ways even if they felt used. I think my heart went out to Inoue’s wife who loyally stays by his side throughout the film. One woman comments how obedient she is and it seems like she was a promising writer in her own regard until she gave it up – a flash of her earlier days and a novel giving a tantalising glimpse. Their relationship kind of embodied the aphorism, “behind every great man is a woman” and it is clear that Inoue’s life, dedicated to so much to literature, could only function at this stage because he has a dedicated wife by his side. I would have liked a little more insight into her but that goes beyond the remit of this film. 

At the end, when all is revealed, we have to tip our hats to a person who approached storytelling as if it were life itself and used it to please himself and to please others. Whatever you may think of him, we also have to acknowledge that people need to weave fiction and imbibe it to make life a little more richer and a little more bearable.

I didn’t do it to make people unhappy. Sure we made some money, but I did it to make them feel better.

The final result is a film that resists being a hagiography and presents a portrait of a man who dedicated his life to fiction in more ways than one. In its display of Inoue’s dazzling presence, his working methods, and his attitudes, and then Hara and Kobayashi’s investigations, the film fascinatingly shows how life informs fiction and vice versa. Inoue is revealed to be the consummate storyteller and this skill brought a glimmer of joy into people’s lives.

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A Dedicated Life plays as part of a Cinema as Struggle: The Films of Kazuo Hara and Sachiko Kobayashi which is available to stream in North America until July 02nd.

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