If there is a frequent criticism directed at the always bankable director Yoji Yamada, it’s that his approach is one which continues to value the past over the future. Recent years have seen him looking back, literally, in terms of both themes and style with remakes of films by two Japanese masters – Ozu in his Tokyo Story homage Tokyo Family, and Kon Ichikawa in Her Brother. While he chose to update both of those pieces for the modern day, 2008’s Kabei sent him back to the traumatic years of militarism and warfare for a story of maternal sacrifice and national tragedy. The Little House (小さいおうち, Chiisai Ouchi) brings this recent meandering around the past full circle with its deliberately Ozu-esque aesthetic and flashback tale of atonement as one woman leaves the truth she could never bear to speak on paper as a last dying confession.
After the death of his great-aunt Taki (Chieko Baisho), who never married and has no other family besides himself, his sister, and father, Takeshi (Satoshi Tsumabuki) discovers a biscuit box with his name on it filled with keepsakes and the conclusion of a kind of autobiography he’d been encouraging Taki to write in the last few months of her life. Cutting back and forth between the contemporary interactions of the older Taki and her great-nephew, and the younger Taki’s (Haru Kuroki) life as a Tokyo maid from the mid-1930s to the end of the war, The Little House takes its cues from The Go Between as an innocent bystander becomes the unwilling guardian of a secret the holding of which will prove to be a lifelong burden.
An 18 year old girl in 1935 from a poor family in Japan’s frozen North, Taki’s options are few – early marriage, geisha house, or maid. All things considered, maid is the best option and Taki is thrilled to be travelling to the big city with all of its untold excitements. After a spell working for a famous novelist, Taki becomes the housekeeper of the “Little House” – a curiously cute Western style cottage with a bright red roof out in the suburbs. Her mistress, Tokiko (Takako Matsu), is an oddly flighty woman, fiercely independent of spirit but living within the confines of her time. Crisis approaches the family not with the onset of war but with the arrival of Mr. Hirai’s sensitive, artistic, colleague, Shoji (Hidetaka Yoshioka), whose softly spoken ways quickly find their way into Tokiko’s heart.
In fact, The Little House, is not a million miles away from an expansion of a similar narrative device previously employed in Kabei but this time Tokiko is no pillar of strength, singlehandedly upholding the traditionally saintly virtues of the Japanese mother but a flesh and blood woman caught in the storm of a turbulent era. Taki becomes our passive observer as she sits, almost invisibly, in the corner of every scene, unwilling chaperone or accidental accomplice. As she witnesses the growing attraction between Tokiko and Shoji begin to spark into something more dangerous she finds herself conflicted, not knowing the best way to help her mistress. Should Tokiko be discovered, it wouldn’t just be a scandal leading to the end of a marriage, but considering the stringency of the times the outcome could be far more serious for all concerned.
When Takeshi eventually meets Tokiko’s son Kyoichi (Masakane Yonekura), he echoes many of the older Taki’s sentiments but adds that it was an era in which everyone was “forced to make an unwilling choice”. Taki finds herself forced to choose between action and inaction and does something she thinks is for the best, but is then forced to live with the suffering of wondering if she did the right thing.
The film does not seem entirely clear on her motives for her choice – it half commits to a possible love triangle between Taki, Tokiko, and Shoji by emphasising Taki and Shoji’s shared Northern roots and by Shoji’s subsequent inclusion of both women in his artwork. Taki, however, seems to be looking more to her mistress than her suitor, wanting nothing other than to stay in the Little House with Tokiko and Kyoichi for evermore. A later scene featuring a “mannish” university friend of Tokiko seems to reinforce the directions of Taki’s unspoken desire, though if her declaration of loyalty to the Little House following a disastrous marriage proposal was intended to voice it, it falls on deaf ears.
This being the case, Taki and Shoji become almost mirrors of each other – each somehow on pause, still living inside the Little House long after it ceased to exist. The loss of the Little House is not just the destruction of a building but the obliteration of everything it stood for, not only in terms of Taki’s investment in the family who live there, but in its evocation of early Showa dreams, individuality and innocence.
As the well educated Takeshi points out, Taki’s memories are often too rosy to tally with the history books, but even given the grimness of the times as they seem in hindsight, she has a right to the romanticism of her youth. The increasingly difficult political circumstances rarely impinge on the female centred domestic environment, but are made felt firstly through the husband’s toy business which begins by chasing the Chinese market and then is reduced to making wooden toys only and trying to marry off its eligible employees to woo more investment, and through the family’s excitement about the upcoming Tokyo Olympic games which are subsequently canceled. Tokiko’s later exclamation of “Isn’t it awful everything’s disappearing” does not just refer to the sudden absence of luxury from soaps to previously ordinary foodstuffs, but to her whole bourgeois way of life suddenly brought crashing down by a series of events she has no control over.
Yamada channels Ozu with initially distracting obviousness both in the contemporary and period sequences, matching his famous compositions from the straight to camera dialogue to the mid level tatami mat view and propensity for shooting through corridors and doorways. The world of the Little House is a curiously artificial one as Yamada shoots on an obvious stage set complete with tiny twinkling lights for stars which both looks forward to the artwork at the film’s conclusion and signals its nature as an unreal, constructed, environment existing only within Taki’s memory. Were it not that the Ozu compositions creep into the contemporary sequences, it could almost be read as a representation of Takeshi’s internal dramatisation of Taki’s memoirs as mediated through classic cinema.
The Little House is, indeed, resolutely old fashioned. Far too subtle for its own good (an extremely rare quality in a Yamada film), The Little House is an exercise in restraint in which the central love triangle never even hits the simmer, let alone the boil. Given the well trodden nature of the narrative, even the most inattentive viewer will have correctly guessed the big reveal well before Takeshi puts two and two together, rendering the final explanatory segment entirely redundant. Never quite as affecting as it would like to be, The Little House is a muted experience, perpetually pulling back each time it approaches doing something more interesting with its material. Nevertheless, it does provide an interesting perspective on its period setting as its collection of tragically romantic heroes march forward blindly into a maelstrom of oncoming destruction.
HK trailer (English/traditional Chinese subs)