Like all of Masaki Kobayashi’s leading characters, Shizuko is held captive in a broken system. Black River makes several post-WW2 commentaries, but its most poignant criticism is directed toward the societal prison that women still find themselves in today. Before she can pursue a relationship with the student Nashida, Shizuko is played, roped into a love affair with gangster-rapist Joe the Killer (Tatsuya Nakadai). Nashida, unlike Joe, is the honorable type, always fighting for justice, not willing to compromise.
It might be easy for a viewer to be angry with Shizuko for not “following her heart” or not going to the police after being violated, but we should temper our moral judgements with a good dose of reality. We may want to believe that someone can walk on water, and yes, Nashida because of his position in society may be able to. But few are.
What Kobayahi understands is that Shizuko is trapped in a misogynistic world. Without asking for it, she gains the attention of nearly all the males in town. Even if she’s out of a relationship with Joe, she still has other men ready to take his place (though, yes, she does want the next man in line). Her life sadly revolves around men. Her desire to keep up with society’s expectations (expectations put in place by patriarchy) actually sends her deeper into the corrupt world she was first forced into. She descends so far that at one point in the film she is willing to kill in order to be set free.
Enter my favorite scene in the film:
While considering whether she really wants to go through with her plot to kill Joe, Shizuko is reminded of her situation. She sees the umbrella from the night when she was abducted. She picks it up and walks out on the balcony pretending to be drunk, laughing, continuing to seduce the two men in her life who are standing bellow her on the street. She asks her onlookers to buy her. Joe entertains the idea and shows his superiority over his competition by challenging Nashida to bid. Nashida, of course, continues to act in his typically virtuous fashion despite the woman resting in his arm.
But then Shizuko does something fascinating.
She provokes Joe with the memory of the umbrella, the umbrella “covered in blood.” In that moment the audience feels both her excruciating pain and her terrifying power. We can’t help but recognize that under the surface she has also challenged good-natured Nashida, for she has taken the more daring approach to life: Shizuko isn’t trying to walk on water, she’s decided to dance on it.