(Also known as Legend of a Duel to the Death)
A Legend or Was It? tells the story of the Sonobe family who take refuge in Hokkaido near the end of the Second World War. When the daughter, Kieko, turns down a marriage proposal from a war criminal who happens to be the mayor’s son, the already suspicious villagers become more and more hostile, leading to a downward spiral of violence and tragedy. The Shimizu family sympathize with the Sonobes’ plight, but when they try to help they are drawn into the conflict as well.
The film opens in lush color on an idyllic valley in Hokkaido, with farmers going about their daily routines accompanied by a soaring string score. The whole affair is overly saccharine and simplistic. But then a narrator tells us that a “nightmare” occurred in this beautiful valley, one that the villagers now refuse to talk about. From the opening credits onward, the film shifts to bleak black and white cinematography, and the soaring strings are replaced by the most ominous jaw harp you’ll ever hear.
The contrast between the black and white cinematography and the color that preceded it makes the film’s grit stand out that much more, almost like a reverse The Wizard of Oz. Fields, trees, and mountains that only a moment ago were beautiful, warm, and colorful are suddenly cold, foreboding, and full of shadows. This is the true tone of the film.
At the end of the film, we are shown another brief color scene set in the present day. This bookend reminds the audience how easily the villagers have forgotten, or refused to acknowledge, the horror that rocked their peaceful valley.
Not only does the juxtaposition of color and black and white emphasize the film’s tone, it also portrays the black and white portion as a flashback to an earlier time—a legend, as the title and the narrator suggest. Whether this decision was the result of artistic brilliance or financial necessity, or a combination of the two, it works marvelously.
There is one particularly memorable chase scene that dramatically changes the course of the story and effectively divides the narrative into two halves. The scene begins with two people passing each other on the road, and it’s immediately tense just based on the relation between these two. The tension continues to rise to a fever pitch over the next several minutes. Rain begins to pour and thunder cracks as the events escalate, propelled by that relentless jaw harp. Then, in an instant, it’s over, and it becomes clear that the Sonobes’ situation is about to get much worse. With its impeccable pacing and execution, this is definitely the best scene in the film.
If A Legend or Was It? has one flaw, it’s that it is too melodramatic at times, betraying the stark shift after the first scene. There are a few points—especially during the climax—where the performances become too corny, and it feels like the film is reveling in the tragedy and overtly moralizing rather than depicting it in a more detached manner, to its detriment. With a little more control in this regard, the film could have been a masterpiece.
Nonetheless, A Legend or Was It? is still a formidable accomplishment that manages to feel ahead of its time with its bleak, brutal atmosphere, its lean runtime, its minimalist score, and its tight pacing. It’s an immensely overlooked film that deserves far more recognition than it currently receives.