Koto: Twin Sisters Of Kyoto

Japan (1963) Dir. Noboru Nakamura

Traditionally when a tale features twins separated at birth then meeting after being unaware of the other’s existence, one turns out to be evil or becomes jealous from growing up in poorer circumstances. Since this is 1960’s Japan, we instead get one of the politest twin reunions in cinema history despite the emotional turmoil it creates.

Chieko Sada (Shima Iwashita) is a 20 year-old woman working for her adoptive parents at their silk goods store in Kyoto. She was told that they took her from her real parents at a Sakura blossom viewing when she was a newborn baby in a fit of passion, which Chieko accepts. But one night at a festival, Chieko meets her exact double in Naeko (Iwashita), a young woman from the cedar forests of Kitayama. 

Getting to know her doppelganger, Cheiko learns that Naeko is in fact her twin sister and Cheiko was abandoned at birth because of an old Japanese superstition about twins. Cheiko is very forgiving and wants to be a part of Naeko’s life, but Naeko doesn’t want to ruin Cheiko’s happiness, while the presence of two Chieko’s creates problems for her suitors in Kyoto.

Koto is based on the novel The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata, a tribute to Japan’s former capital and how it represents everything that is traditional about the country. In Nakamura’s adaptation, whilst a number of changes to the details are evident, this still comes across on screen but less of a lament regarding the past and more with a keen eye towards the future in a rapidly recuperating post-war Japan.

In essence the twin sisters are physical embodiments this dichotomy – Cheiko as the refined, well dressed and modern thinking one, Naeko the practically minded, unaffected humble labourer – yet both hold certain respectable traditional ideals to heart that no amount of modernisation could erase. This is an irony about this as Chieko is happy to wear her father’s outdated kimono and obi designs not out of obligation but because she likes them, but she also a modern girl at heart.

There is nothing progressive about their attitudes as women but Naeko in particular isn’t easily swayed about the virtues of marrying and being a kept woman per society’s norms. For this reason, Naeko chooses to keep a safe distance from Chieko so she doesn’t encroach on or ruin her happiness, seemingly having it all as the heiress to a silk store, two living parents and a marriage proposal on the cards.

What might be an early sore point for western viewers, and indeed is one that sticks until the end, is the tale of Chieko’s parents stealing her as a baby, which she reconciles as an act of love and continues to love these baby snatcher unconditionally. They also told her that her real father died from a fall whilst cutting down cedar trees and her heartbroken mother soon followed.

Both stories are apparently complete cobblers, the snatching one definitely so, as it is revealed that Chieko was in fact abandoned as a baby on the doorstep of the silk store (then a profitable business) for being a twin. Fearing Chieko would be upset at learning she was a foundling, her adoptive parents won her over with a story that is considerably worse on the moral front. It’s almost Pythonesque in its rationale but Chikeo is happy so job done I guess.

Naeko however may have got to stay with her biological family but it was short lived as they did die when she was young but was aware she had a twin sister somewhere. So, what are the odds that they meet a shrine where Naeko prays her sister is alive and enjoying life when she is standing right next to her?

Predictable contrivance aside, the meeting is frank yet restrained, awkward yet quietly tender – no overwrought melodrama or excessive overacting, or even a typical set up where they are mistaken for each other after as serious of hilarious misadventures, they simply meet and agree quite quickly to the facts of the situation. A couple of polite bows and a few tears later and it is over and the sisters go their own way again.

It is afterwards when Hideo Ootmo (Hiroyuki Nagato), a young weaver making an Obi for Chieko meets Naeko that Naeko pretends to be Chieko, saying yes to his questions so he’ll leave her alone and not be confused by being snubbed by a Chieko look-a-like. It is remarkable that the comic potential of this premise isn’t mined at all during this film but perhaps it was felt there were plenty of extant comedies that do milk it for all it is worth.

Nakamura uses the city of Kyoto and the rural landscapes of Kitayama to great effect in separating the worlds of the two sisters, to the point they almost become cast members in their own right. The vertiginous verdant hills of towering cedar trees present a free and open backdrop for the sisters to meet whilst Kyoto is a mix of anachronistic kimonos for the women and western suits for the men, juxtaposed with displays of traditional and modern art.

The jewel in the crown of this film is Shima Iwashita. The differences in the twins’ appearances are subtle, a plain hairstyle for Naeko and a touch more make-up for Chieko, and by avoiding any drastic disparity, the story takes on a fresh direction. Iwashita plays both personalities with nuance and care, making the sisters distinctly independent yet with a tangible connection we hope will finally happen.

Koto is a slower film that the plot might suggest – the first meeting occurs 40 minutes in – and time spent casting a wry eye over the pressures of an outdated society feels more like padding than relevant. Boasting a mercurial lead performance and vivid colour visuals, this is an emotionally astute and touching drama, if a little too well mannered for its own good.