If I had known absolutely nothing about Muddy River before watching it, I would've naturally assumed that it had come out of the reflective post-war Japanese cinema of the mid-1950s. The only thing I did know about Muddy River prior to watching it was that it was released in 1981, which makes its thoroughly convincing earlier era aesthetic all the more impressive. There is barely a modern note throughout, from the film stock, the lighting, the framing, the performances.... Kôhei Oguri's movie really is more than just a marvelous homage to that rich period of kitchen sink dramas by the likes of Ozu and Mizoguchi and Naruse — it’s one of them, only a few decades removed.
In Muddy River (a.k.a. Doro no kawa), a mopey young boy (Nobutaka Asahara) whose parents run a modest Osaka noddle house, becomes all too aware of the transitory nature of life and fleeting promise of happiness when he makes two new friends, the children of a widow who cruises from town to town, prostituting herself from her houseboat. Despite coming some 30 years later than the movies in its peer group, Muddy River is steeped in quiet post-war angst: its Osaka is a place where veterans of the lost war feel doubly defeated by the ignominy of their current civilian existence, where the unheralded honor of submitting to drudgery can be stolen in a moment by a humiliating accident, where drunk men leave their families further traumatize their families, and shame is both a national and a personal affliction. The echoes of past regrets hand heavily over the meager present.
On a technical level, Muddy River is masterful. Narratively, it's full of small authentic moments, and its actors give natural and engaging performances, from the unpolished children to Takahiro Tamura and Yumiko Fujita, as Nobuo's parents, and Mariko Kaga, who nearly steals the film in her two brief scenes. If there's a flaw to Muddy River, it's that its many fine parts don't cohere into as powerful an overall package as they deserve. It feels like Oguri has assembled some of the pieces of a masterpiece, and a few strays, but never arranged them in their optimum shape. It's still a very nice movie, and should leave a lasting impression, if maybe a smaller one than its potential suggests.