Staged across three distinct time periods with the bulk of the story unfolding in the post-war disorder of 1948, By a Man’s Face Shall You Know Him is an early attempt at dramatising tensions between Japanese and zainichi Korean residents sharing an uneasy existence within the same living space. The film opens 8 years after the main action, introducing the character of Amamiya (Ando), a doctor at a rundown hospital who has just served an 8-year sentence for murder. When a man (Nakatani) is brought into the hospital fatally wounded after being hit by a car, Amamiya initially refuses to operate, seeing the case as hopeless. But after he sees the victim, whose given name is Sai, and recognises him as a private who fought under him under the Japanese name of Shibata in Okinawa during the war, he has a change of heart.
Amamiya and Sai, however, have a deeper history. During the subsequent occupation period, the town marketplace for which Amamiya acts in the capacity of a landlord sees itself falling prey to the demands of a powerful group of Korean mobsters. With the Japanese locals weary and debilitated after their defeat, the gangsters cause regular havoc and threaten to take over this heart of the community. Amamiya initially remains unwilling to get involved in this local struggle, having seen too much bloodshed during the war. But when his hot-headed brother Shunji (Itami, later the director of such internationally popular hits as Tampopo and A Taxing Woman) courts danger in the form of a young Japanese-born Korean girl Li Keishun (Mari), he finds himself unable to remain detached indefinitely.
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