Picks and Pans Review: Muddy River

updated 03/07/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/07/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

Just as a stream which springs pure at its source grows muddy as it runs to the sea, so does childhood innocence inevitably give way to life's murky ambiguities. In this spare, lovingly crafted import from Japan, first-time filmmaker Kohei Oguri explores that theme through a pair of 9-year-old pals. One is chubby-faced Nobuo (Nobutaka Asahara), whose parents eke out a livelihood from a café beside the Aji River in Osaka. The other is the feisty Kiichi (Minoru Sakurai), who lives with his older sister and widowed mother on a dilapidated houseboat. Friendship grows between the boys, abetted by Nobuo's understanding parents. Yet he rarely catches sight of Kiichi's mysterious mother and is warned against visiting the houseboat after dark. Nobuo does not understand that she is an outcast, until he accidentally peers through a window and sees her at work as a prostitute. The boy's growing understanding is as moving as that of Jean-Pierre Léaud in François Truffaut's The 400 Blows. Shot in black and white without technical gimmickry, Muddy River was, critic Donald Richie has said, an effort to re-create a genre of films called shomin-geki (simple films about lower-middle-class life). Though this form was the trademark of Japanese cinema in the 1950s, it has long since been overwhelmed by the commercialization of Japan's movie industry. But despite a shoestring budget and the risk of untried youngsters in lead roles, Muddy River, released in 1981 in Japan and now being distributed here for the first time, has been an award winner at numerous film festivals. (It won a 1982 Oscar nomination for best foreign film.) One reason is that it is a rarity on the big screen these days: a sensitive story simply told. (In Japanese with English subtitles) (Not rated)

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