Avalanche (1937)

Author: Miles Imhoff
June 21, 2014
Note: review may contain spoilers

When I was younger, I used to sit down to long movies with eager anticipation. My growing desire to interact with media in recent years has made it seemingly harder to devote my attention to lengthy, uninteractive cinematic pieces. As such, I've started to really enjoy sitting down to much shorter fare, like Avalanche. You get a complete story in under an hour, and the memories and message of the film still resonate. Now don't get me wrong, the message isn't always clear. Avalanche doesn't particularly paint either side of its narrative's debate as unquestionably righteous. It's a short movie with an open thesis that sticks with you for a while. It's like an egg... small, but satisfying; and since it was released in the nascence of Toho's cinematic endeavors, the simile is all the more justified.

For those of you hoping for a snowy survival epic, please look elsewhere... the title is metaphorical...

Our story begins as Fukiko Kusaka shows signs of distress. Her husband, Goro, with the assistance of his father, had one year ago eloped with the young woman. Though those earlier times seemed so exciting, something was amiss in the present. Her husband had become distant and cold. It turns out that Fukiko was not his first choice, for a woman named Yayoi was long the subject of his affection. Yayoi was raised rather traditionally and kept her feelings for Goro to himself prior to his marrying Fukiko, although such feelings are now known...

It's a classic love triangle, and everyone has their own view. Goro insists that it would be cruel to live a lie with Fukiko, and wishes to dismiss her as soon as possible. Goro's father, ever devoted to his son, nevertheless refuses to support such an act. He feels that his son had made a commitment and taken on a responsibility. Though Goro has been filled to the brim with knowledge like much of the younger generation (his father thought), he lacks wisdom and frequently rationalises his way out of doing the right thing. Goro's father feels that the couple should remain together at all costs. Yayoi, on the other hand, is reluctant at first, as her conscience prevents her from succumbing to Goro's advances, but begins with great regret to pursue her own feelings at the expense of others. Meanwhile, Fukiko appears to be the individual most at risk. Her naïveté seems apparent to Goro's father, but she still manages to reveal in the end that she had had her suspicions all along.

The question that the film poses is whether people should submit to social mores and endure unhappiness for the sake of others, or whether we should pursue our own happiness in spite of others. Though the film leans against Goro's (and occasionally Yayoi's) adherence to the latter mindset, the question still remains an open one throughout the film's dialogue. The prologue text (which fortunately doesn't reveal too much about the film in advance) doesn't even seem to take sides, but simply acknowledges the struggle that we as the audience are about to witness. For Yayoi's part, she would actually be considered a rather progressive character by cinematic standards of even later decades. She questions the necessity of settling down right at it's core value, but her character does possess a fatal flaw which is her attraction to Goro. When we get to the film's climax and see Goro's final plan, first to pacify his father by staging a double-suicide with his wife so he could escape the pressure once and for all, and then stopping to consider convincing Fukiko to go through with it even though he intended to run away, the film takes a turn against Goro and appears to side with his father. Even still, resolution is not fully attained. Although Goro abandons his plans after Fukiko reveals her suspicions about Yayoi, we don't really know what became of this couple. In a way, the original question still seems to be stealthily posed unanswered, even if the film ostensibly sides with a traditional viewpoint.

If I may venture off topic for a bit, one unique thing I'd like to discuss that rarely makes its way into one of my reviews is fashion. This film is a remarkable time capsule of prewar Japan, where the fashion sense of the American 1920's seems to swirl into a vortex with 19th century Japan. It's an eclectic blend of old and new that wouldn't make you think you were watching a film from 1937. As a medium, film is a great way to catalogue transitionary periods, and though fedoras and kimonos do well to highlight this unusual time in the nation's history, architecture also plays a part. The buildings drip with utilitarian dreariness, the same sort of visual industrial nightmare that plagued Europe and the US during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, the homes of both the wealthy and the modestly well off preserve the elegance of Japan's signature aesthetic.

Some of the storytelling choices would be a bit unusual by today's standards. A character's private soliloquy is almost always cloaked by a darkened filter that wipes vertically. The opening prologue text gives the audience the impression that we have learned too many major details too early on, but fortunately, the film itself still manages to surprise and intrigue when Goro reveals his first and then his second (arguably more diabolical) plans for final escape. Fukiko's revelation that she was suspicious the entire time chips away at the opinion of Goro's father that she's helplessly naïve, adding another surprise that avails the decision to include a prologue. The actors and actresses are all muted in their performances, however. With the exception of Yayoi's father and the lawyer (of course, they're blissfully unaware of the troubles), none of the actors show much range of emotion besides sadness or general agitation. It would have been nice to have some moments of genuine levity among the melodrama for the main characters, but I guess there is a bit of a time constraint when a film clocks in at only 59 minutes.

The score is heavily reliant on the accompaniment of morose string and woodwind fare. It's a bit reminiscent of the Silent Era, with that tinny sort of sound one comes to expect from earlier cinema. No piece is particularly memorable, but fortunately it's not overly repetitive either. It fails to distract, and simply matches whatever mood in which the characters find themselves (which is rarely happy).

So what do we have? We have a complete story in 59 minutes that resolves some of the later conflicts, but leaves the main question unanswered. It's a work that, in retrospect, has a sort of stealthiness about it. It poses a progressive question, doesn't take sides in its thesis, and leaves us with a difficult debate to consider. It's not really an early masterpiece, but it is a solid film nevertheless. The assistant director credits do include the likes of Ishiro Honda and Akira Kurosawa, so if you have an hour to spare, it might be worth looking into just for that.