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The outcast of the title is a 'burakumin', the Japanese analogue of India's Untouchables. The film makes clear that they are hated, feared and despised, but does not really spell out why. This caste, made official by legislation some decades before the time of the story (1904, which is, curiously, stated at the end), does the dirtiest and foulest jobs, including sewage, dealing with the dead (funerals, butchers, tanners, shoemakers), or anything similarly icky. The members of this caste are compelled to live in ghettos, so that the towns they serve can remain 'clean', that is, separated from the unclean.
Segawa, the title character, returns to his home town, under cover of darkness. His father has just been killed by a bull he was trying to retrieve. The man had sent his son away, warning him never to return, and to keep his caste identity secret, so that the son could have a chance to better himself. Segawa's uncle begs him not to view the body, else he be identified, but he sneaks in with his face covered.
Right from the start, the fear and loathing towards the burakumin (a bland euphemism which means, simply, 'village people') is made very clear. Segawa pledges, to his dead father, that he will never reveal his true identity, and returns to his job, as a primary teacher in a rough country school.
Segawa's resolution is tested at every turn. The principal vows to clamp down on even a hint of burakumin in his school. Even his childhood buddy rails against them. Segawa is know to be a reader of Inoko, a burakumin activist who openly campaigns for better treatment. Although respected by Japanese society in general for his moral courage and humanity, Inoko is a controversial figure. Segawa's buddy counsels him to pay less attention to Inoko's work. When the author visits, the two meet, but Segawa keeps his resolution, and keeps his identity a secret even from the virtuous Inoko, who is dying from tuberculosis.
The Outcast is a film that strongly benefits from filming in black and white. Right and wrong are as clear as black and white here. There are many memorably stark images - the face of the great actor Rentaro Mikuni (who plays Inoko), just as he has been crucially betrayed, against a snowy deserted street, is just one example.
The only criticism I make, and it is fairly slight, is that the story and dialogue are both very preachy. There are long speeches about the plight and rights of the outcasts. I personally did not mind this, and simply note it for reference. All the dialogue, including the speeches, are delivered to terrific dramatic effect.
This is an outstanding film about a subject that, even today, few Japanese are willing to discuss. This is one of Japan's true shames, examined with a much-needed and very sincere searchlight.
The cast is first rate and all played their parts to perfection. The star, Raizo Ichikawa, was the most popular actor in Japan in the 50s and 60s. Yes, you read that right. The great Toshiro Mifune, though highly successful, was considered Japan's top actor internationally, but Raizo was a superstar with the domestic audience. His trademark character was 'Sleepy Eyes Of Death', a deadly samurai whom he played many times. He was my late wife's favourite actor since the age of 5.
This, then, was an unusual role for the great actor. Though Segawa does lash out, he really only wants to be left alone to lead an ordinary life, and there are no real fight scenes here. Yet he shines, and his sincerity is total and compelling.
The next half-dozen characters are mostly stars in their own right. The luscious Keiko Kishida as Inoko's wife. Rentaro Mikuni as Inoko - simply superb. Eiji Funakoshi as Segawa's elder drunken schoolteacher, effectively sacked so as to deny him a pension. Ganjiro Nakamura (who starred in a number of films with Raizo) as a lecherous Buddhist priest.
So much to enjoy, and a fair bit to think about. Unmissable.
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