Souls on the Road (Rojō no Reikon), directed by Minoru Murata and released in 1921, is one of Japan’s best remembered silent films and considered among the first steps towards a distinctly Japanese cinematic culture.
When his career as a violinist ends in disgrace as he collapses on stage in the capital, Koichiro returns to his mountain village on foot with his wife and daughter. At a crossroads in a snowy forest on the way, they're accosted by a pair of recently released convicts. The men, one lame and the other tubercular, both dejected and desperate, attempt to rob the weary family, but seeing how badly in shape they are offer them a chunk of bread instead, before limping off in another direction.
Koichiro arrives at the village on Christmas Eve but is soon rejected by his father. The ex-cons are discovered by the master of another house who, presumably, has caught them trying to sneak inside someplace to escape the winter storm that's coming. At rifle point, he forces the men to take turns beating each other with a switch.
The violinist’s daughter has a fever, but Koichiro's father shows no mercy, kicking the lot of them out into the inclement weather. They shelter in a barn while a boisterous party kicks off in a house that has been quite immoderately decorated for Christmas. The joy of the revelers, streamers hanging around their heads as they dance, is shown in stark contrast to the misery of the now febrile and fading wife and daughter, whose heads appear wreathed by strands of cold, limp hay.
Towards the end, a young boy and girl, the former loyal and hardworking throughout the film and the latter naïvely self-indulgent and frivolous, come to a spot in the woods where a body has been found in the snow. For a fleeting moment the character of each—both static up until then—is interrupted by a pondering of what if's. What if the master of the house had shown mercy? What if the father had shown compassion? A Maxim Gorky quote about compassion and missed opportunity follows to end the film.
Souls on the Road is visually compelling in its storytelling and in the emotions of characters, the rural setting and way of life, and the mix of traditional and foreign clothing. We can see the frenzy of the storm and ghostlike visions which fade in and out and, surprisingly, Santa Claus as well. Laced with sentimentality but not gushing with it, as Japanese films tend to do, Murata gives us a fairly straight telling of the shepherd’s lost sheep, here the prodigal son and the marginalized, and dips it in the inhumanity of the unmerciful and those who turn a blind eye.