Sing, Young People (歌え若人達, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1963)

Keisuke Kinoshita has sometimes been dismissed by Western critics for his supposed sentimentality, but his mid-career comedies can be surprisingly cynical. Scripted not by Kinoshita but Taichi Yamada, 1963’s Sing, Young People (歌え若人達, Utae Wakodotachi) is in someways an exception to the rule, a breezy take on the student comedy updated for the present day, but underneath all the absurdist humour and jibs about youthful ennui is a real sense of adolescent hopelessness as these aimless young men ponder their “pitch-black” futures in a rapidly changing Japan where the best they can hope for is fulfilling the salaryman dream.  

Shooting in glorious colour, Kinoshita opens with a lengthly pan over contemporary Tokyo which the jaunty voice over describes as “the number-one city in the world” before homing in on the incongruous figure of a strangely dressed man holding a sign advertising “sensual massage beauties”. A relic of an earlier advertising age, the wandering sign man nevertheless catches sight of someone even “weirder” than he is, a student wearing a student’s cap! Kinoshita then takes us on a brief detour through Japan’s major universities demonstrating that no one is so uncool as to wear a student’s cap in the age of protest, drawing a direct contrast to the student comedies of old while showing us a series of scenes of students “playing” hard with part-time jobs in bands or as models, training hard in preparation for the upcoming Olympics, fomenting the revolution, or fighting in the streets. In the first of many meta touches, our hero, Mori, is eventually woken by the narrator after falling asleep in class, his eyes “gleaming with hopes for the future”. 

Or, perhaps not, he’s just tired. Mori (Tsutomu Matsukawa) is as he describes himself a man without hopes or dreams who believes that the road ahead of him is “pitch black”. Dropping a brush from the window washers’ platform at one of his part-time jobs, he asks himself if there shouldn’t be more to life than this. The only son of his widowed mother, he’s pinned everything on graduating from a top university but feels powerless and empty, adrift in the post-war landscape. Where his calculating friend Miyamoto (Yusuke Kawazu) fills the void with romance and a determination to “get lots of As” and then land a top job, his roommate Okada (Shinichiro Mikami) earnestly studies hard afraid to disappoint his austere family but also quietly resentful in his lack of autonomy, and the dopey Hirao (Kei Yamamoto) simply goes about being nice to people more or less forcing them to eat the traditional treats his loving mother is forever sending. 

Yet for all the bleakness Mori seems to see in his future, he only ever falls up. Luck follows him and he’s presented with ever more fantastic opportunities at every turn. In fact, it’s his slightly grumpy expression as he cleans the windows of an office building that leads to them snapping a picture and making him a cover star without ever bothering to ask his permission though they do eventually pay. Still Mori remains indifferent, telling a reporter who tries to interview him that he had nothing to do with the cover, he has no dreams or aspirations for the future but lives his life day by day. He describes himself only as “nervous”. His words run ironically over the magazine literally becoming tomorrow’s chip paper, used by a stall owner to wrap her croquettes, as a stand for a hot pot, and otherwise bundled up to be pulped. Nevertheless, the cover leads to great opportunities from a TV network looking for a fresh face to front their new youth-orientated drama serial. 

Despite all the promise, Mori remains indifferent, later irritating a new colleague and potential love interest (Shima Iwashita) when he idly suggests he might just give up acting and fall back on the salaryman dream. As she points out, she had to fight all the way to achieve her dreams of becoming an actress so hearing someone say they’re going to throw away a tremendous opportunity that came to them entirely by chance is mildly offensive. Miyamoto meanwhile is growing lowkey resentful, realising that maybe nothing matters after all it’s all just dumb luck. Mori deliberately didn’t do anything because he thought his life was pointless but everything has landed right at his feet while Miyamoto’s life is crumbling. He’s lost all his girlfriends and endured a lonely New Year alone in the dorm, coming to the conclusion that his future really is “pitch black”.

Nevertheless, it’s difficult to remain resentful about a friend’s accidental success and so each of the men eventually finds direction in even in directionlessness. Mori realises that he might as well ride his wave of fame for as long as it lasts, accepting in part at least his sense of powerlessness, while Okada does the reverse in deciding to rebel against his authoritarian family by marrying in secret. Miyamoto resolves to make a success of himself in his own way, and Hirao seemingly accepts the hand fate has dealt him with good humour. Kinoshita ramps up the meta comedy with Mori joining Shochiku, encouraged to try and work for that “excellent” director Keisuke Kinoshita, later referencing Garden of Women, while Mariko Okada and Keiji Sada turn up as onstage guests at an event launching him as a young actor. Playfully using outdated, quirky screen wipes and opening with an artsy title sequence featuring colourful confetti falling up, Kinoshita perhaps adopts a slightly ironic tone in satirising the all pervasive sense of confusion and hopelessness among the younger generation but does so with only sympathy for those coming of age in uncertain times. 


Tora-san, Wish You Were Here (男はつらいよ50 – お帰り 寅さん, Yoji Yamada, 2019)

From 1969 to 1996, travelling salesman Tora-san appeared in 48 films, a 49th movie special appearing after star Kiyoshi Atsumi’s death brought an unavoidable end to the series. Tora-san, Wish You Were Here (男はつらいよ50 – お帰り 寅さん, Otoko wa Ysurai yo 50: Okaeri Tora-san) arrives to mark the 50th anniversary of the first film’s release, and as the series had done in its later stages, revolves around Tora’s neurotic nephew, Mitsuo (Hidetaka Yoshioka), who is now a middle-aged widower and father to a teenage daughter. Feeling somewhat wistful, Mitsuo’s thoughts turn to his now absent uncle, wishing he were still around to offer some of his trademark advice along with the gentle warmth and empathy which proved in such stark contrast with his otherwise anarchic and unpredictable personality.  

Yamada, who directed all but two of the series in its entirety, opens with another dream sequence this time of Mitsuo as he finds himself overcome with memories of his first love, Izumi (Kumiko Goto), who is now married with children and living abroad working for the UNCHR. Mitsuo’s wife passed away from an illness six years previously and he’s so far resisted prompts from his relatives to consider remarriage though it seems fairly obvious that his editor, Setsuko (Chizuru Ikewaki), has a bit of a crush on him. Having taken a gamble giving up the secure life of a salaryman to become a novelist, Mitsuo’s first book is about to be published and it’s at a signing that he serendipitously re-encounters Izumi who just happened to be in the store that day on a rare trip to Japan and spotted the poster. 

Like many Tora-san films, Wish You Were Here is about the bittersweet qualities of life, the roads not taken, the misdirections and misconnections, and the romanticisation of a past which can no longer be present. At a crossroads, Mitsuo ponders what might have been recalling the shattered dreams of his first love which seems to have ended without resolution because of the unfairness of life. He wishes that his crazy uncle was still around to make everything better, offering more of his often poetic advice but most of all a shoulder to cry on as he’d been for so many women throughout the series. But Mitsuo himself has always been more like Tora than he’d care to admit, if tempered by his father Hiroshi’s shyness. He too is a kind man whose bighearted gestures could sometimes cause unexpected trouble. What he’s learning is in a sense to find his inner Tora, embracing his free spirit through his art if not the road, but also coming to a poetic understanding that sometimes the moment passes and there’s nothing you can do to take it back, only treasure the memory as you continue moving forward. 

That’s a sentiment echoed by Lily (Ruriko Asaoka), one of Tora’s old flames, who now runs a stylish bar in Tokyo. The beauty of the Tora-san series was that it aged in real time. The actor playing Mitsuo played him as a child and we saw him grow up on screen just as we saw Shibamata change from post-war scrappiness to bubble-era prosperity and beyond. The family’s dango-shop has had an upscale refit and there is now a modern apartment complex behind it where the print shop once stood. Seamlessly splicing in clips from previous instalments as Mitsuo remembers another anecdote about his uncle, Yamada shows us how past and present co-exist in the way memory hangs over a landscape. Once or twice, the ghost of Tora even reappears hovering gently behind Mitsuo only to fade when he turns around to look while there’s an unavoidable sadness as we notice the Suwas’ living room is now much less full than it once was. 

Aside from his uncle, it’s the warm family atmosphere that Mitsuo recalls from his childhood, something which, like Tora, he might not have always fully appreciated. Driving Izumi to a potentially difficult reunion with her terminally ill estranged father (Isao Hashizume), he refers to his own parents as “annoying” in the “pushy” quality of their kindness, something which irritates Izumi who points out that she’d have loved to have such a warm and supportive family and if she had she might never have gone to Europe, implying perhaps that their fated romance would been fulfilled. The Shibamata house was Tora’s port, he could wander freely because he had somewhere to go back to where they’d always let him in no matter what kind of trouble he caused.

A fitting tribute to the Tora-san legacy, Wish You Were Here is also a joyful celebration of the Shitamachi spirit. Tora might be gone, but the anarchic kindness and empathy he embodied lives on, not least in the mild-mannered Mitsuo and his cheerful daughter who seems to be continuing the family tradition of meddling in her loved ones’ love lives as her lovelorn father prepares to move on in memory of Tora, the free spirited fool.


Tora-san, Wish You Were Here streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Tora-san, My Uncle (男はつらいよ ぼくの伯父さん, Yoji Yamada, 1989)

“My uncle was born a kind man, but his kindness is intrusive. He’s short tempered too, so often his kindness ends up causing a fight” according to the introduction given by Mitsuo (Hidetaka Yoshioka), nephew of the titular Tora-san (Kiyoshi Atsumi) in the 42nd instalment in the long running series, Tora-san, My Uncle (男はつらいよ ぼくの伯父さん, Otoko wa Tsurai yo: Boku no Ojisan). People may say he’s “an oddball”, but just recently, Mitsuo claims, he’s learned to appreciate his uncle’s peculiar charms. Up to this point, the series had followed a familiar pattern in which Tora-san has an encounter on the road and returns home to visit his family in Shibamata falling in love with an unattainable woman along the way. My Uncle, as the title perhaps implies, shifts the focus away from Tora directly towards his wayward nephew Mitsuo now a moody teenager studying to retake his university entrance exams. 

The problem is, Mitsuo is having trouble concentrating because he’s fallen in love. Izumi (Kumiko Goto) was a year below him in high school but after her parents got divorced she moved away and is currently living with her mother (Mari Natsuki) who runs a hostess bar in Nagoya. Mitsuo has been wanting to go and visit but his father, Hiroshi (Gin Maeda), has banned travel until after his exams and his authoritarian ruling has placed a strain on their relationship while Sakura (Chieko Baisho), Mitsuo’s mother and Tora’s younger sister, is getting fed up with his moodiness. That might be why she asks Tora to have a word with him on one of his rare visits, hoping Mitsuo will be able to talk frankly to his uncle about things he might not want to discuss with his parents. Only when Tora’s uncle (Masami Shimojo) and aunt (Chieko Misaki) point out the dangers does she realise her mistake. Perhaps you might not want your son to receive the kind of advice a man like Tora might give. Their misgivings are borne out when Tora brings him home a little the worse for wear after teaching him how to drink sake (and flirt with waitresses). 

Rather than Tora it’s Mitsuo we follow as he ignores his parents and goes off to find Izumi on his own. Mitsuo is not Tora, however, and he’s still fairly naive, unaware of the dangers inherent in a life on the road which is how he gets himself into a sticky situation with a man who helped him (Takashi Sasano) after he had a bike accident but turned out to have ulterior motives. After discovering that Izumi has gone to live with her aunt (Fumi Dan) in the country and finally arriving, Mitsuo begins to have his doubts. She wrote to him that she was lonely so he jumped on his bike and came, but now he wonders if that was really an OK thing to do or if she might find it a little excessive, even creepy. Her neighbours may gossip after seeing a (slightly) older boy from Tokyo suddenly turn up on a motorbike, maybe like Tora he’s acted on impulse out of kindness but has accidentally made trouble for her?

Meanwhile, Sakura and Hiroshi are at home worried sick, aware their son has grown up and evidently has some important rite of passage stuff to do, but it would have been nice if he’d called. Everyone’s used to Tora breezing in and out of their lives and it’s not as if they don’t worry, but it’s different with Mitsuo. Luckily and through staggering coincidence Mitsuo ends up running into Tora who, perhaps ironically, gets him to phone home and then starts helping him out with his youthful romantic dilemma. Though some of the advice he gives is a little problematic, there’s a fine line when it comes to being “persistent” in love, he is nevertheless supportive and proves popular with Izumi’s mild-mannered aunt and lonely grandfather-in-law (Masao Imafuku) who subjects him to a day-long lecture about traditional ceramics which he listens to patiently because as he says, old people are happy when someone listens to them. The problems are entirely with Izumi’s extremely conservative school teacher uncle (Isao Bito) who appears to terrorise his wife and objects strongly to Mitsuo’s impulsive gesture of love, bearing out Mitsuo’s concerns in implying that he’s endangering Izumi’s reputation, though apparently more worried about how it looks for him as a school teacher if she’s caught hanging out with a motorcycle-riding “delinquent”. The final straw is his telling Mitsuo off for neglecting his studies, insisting no one so “stupid” could ever hope to go to uni.

Left behind, Tora tries to defend Mitsuo to the snooty uncle, telling him that he’s proud of his nephew for doing something kind even if others don’t see it that way, but the uncle simply replies that they obviously disagree and abruptly walks off. Perhaps there’s no talking to some people, but Tora does what he can anyway. Mitsuo gains a new appreciation for his kindhearted family, not to mention his eccentric uncle. “Trips make everyone wise”, Tora tells Hiroshi, well except for some people, he later adds before once again getting literally cut off from everyone waiting for him back in Shibamata. The signs of bubble-era prosperity are everywhere from Mitsuo’s motorbike and comparatively spacious family home to the increased mobility and the upscale interior of Izumi’s mother’s “snack” bar, but Tora is still a post-war wanderer bound for the road, drifting whichever way the wind blows him.


Tora-san, My Uncle streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Tora-san Meets the Songstress Again (男はつらいよ 寅次郎相合い傘, Yoji Yamada, 1975)

Spanning 48 films and almost 30 years from the middle of the economic miracle to the post-Bubble depression, the Tora-san series provided a certain kind of comforting stability with its well established formula that saw the titular travelling salesman alternately hit the road and return home to his wholesome family waiting and worrying in Shibamata, always glad to see him but also anxious as to what kind of trouble he’ll be causing this time around. Among the most melancholy of the series, Tora-san #15, Tora-san Meets the Songstress Again (男はつらいよ 寅次郎相合い傘, Otoko wa Tsurai yo: Torajiro Aiaigasa, AKA Tora-san’s Rise and Fall) sees him flirt with the idea of settling down while others wrestle with the costs of the salaryman dream and the contradictions of the post-war era. 

Yamada opens, however, with an exciting dream sequence in which Tora (Kiyoshi Atsumi) re-imagines himself as a heroic pirate saving his family members, and all the residents of Shibamata, from enslavement by some kind of evil capitalist villain. He wakes up and leaves the cinema, but Shibamata is perhaps on his thoughts once again acting as it does as a kind of “port” in his life of perpetual wandering. For the moment he’s travelling with a depressed salaryman, Hyodo (Eiji Funakoshi), whom he rescued at a train station fearing he may have been about to take his own life. Meanwhile, back in Shibamata, Tora’s old friend Lily (Ruriko Asaoka) has come looking for him at the dango shop apparently now divorced, tearfully explaining to Tora’s sister Sakura (Chieko Baisho) that she wasn’t well suited to being a housewife after all and is planning to head back out on the road as an itinerant singer. 

Perhaps ironically, Tora is angry with Hyodo for causing worry to his family by disappearing without notice, eventually ringing Sakura to tell her to ring Hyodo’s wife and let her know he’s alright (why he doesn’t just ring himself is a mystery, and in any case he only has the one coin for the payphone so runs out of time to explain). What we can infer is that Hyodo has in a sense achieved the “salaryman dream” but it’s left him feeling empty and unfulfilled. Mrs. Hyodo appears to be very prim and proper, their home spacious and tastefully decorated. When Sakura calls two men from her husband’s company are with her trying to figure out where Hyodo could have gone. She explains that her husband is a timid man and earnest, it’s unlikely he’s gone off with another woman and it’s out of character for him go AWOL from work so she’s at least very relieved to learn he’s alive even if Tora ran out of time to say where they were. Hyodo isn’t really sure anyone’s missing him, and as we later discover his flight is part mid-life crisis in that he’s heading to the hometown of his first love. He assumes she also will have married and has no illusions of a romantic reunion but simply wants to make sure she’s happy (as he, presumably, is not). Discovering she’s a widow gives him pause for thought, but on seeing her he realises the futility of his situation and resolves to return home to his dull and conventional salaryman life. 

It’s a huge source of irony to Tora that anyone might envy him. Indeed, Mrs. Hyodo quite snobbishly insists on asking Sakura about Tora’s company joking that “he can’t just be a pedlar” much to Sakura’s embarrassment. But that sense of freedom and the open road appears to be something Hyodo is looking for, childishly romanticising hardship, finding sleeping on park benches and helping Tora pull salesman’s scams in the street exciting rather than worrying (he could after all always just go home). Yet he also envies Tora for having such a loving and forgiving family, explaining that his now look down on him because he’s been demoted at work, as if they only value him for what he represents an embodiment of the salaryman dream. Lily too is as much in love with Tora’s family as anything else, though the complex relationship between the pair begins to scandalise the conservative local community. Sakura frames it as a joke but puts it to Lily that it would be nice if she and Tora could marry so she’d be a part of their family. Lily unexpectedly agrees, overcome with emotion, but Tora is his old insensitive, if perhaps perceptive self, declaring that they’re too alike. Like him she’s a bird meant to wander. She’d only stay until she felt ready to fly. 

Tora-san and Lily are wandering souls cast adrift in the post-war era, unable to find firm footing while Hyodo’s existential angst suggests the salaryman dream is not the answer either. Only Sakura and the Kurumas seem to be doing well enough, living their ordinary, wholesome lives in Shibamata. “She probably has problems we don’t know about” Tora’s aunt remarks watching Queen Elizabeth II waving gracefully on the television, lamenting that it must be tiring to have to stand around so long. Everyone has problems but they carry on. In Shibamata they try to be kind and especially to big-hearted men like Tora no matter what kind of trouble they may cause.


Tora-san Meets the Songstress Again streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp (男はつらいよ, Yoji Yamada, 1969)

“It’s tough being a man” according to the Japanese title of the long running series affectionately known as “Tora-san” to its many fans. Tora-san began as a TV drama broadcast in 1968-9 in which the hero died of a snakebite in the very last episode much to viewers’ disappointment. Director Yoji Yamada then resurrected the loveable travelling salesman and made him the star of a reboot movie which proved so popular that it spawned a 48-film series which lasted until the death of star Kiyoshi Atsumi at the age of 68 in 1996. 

Yamada directed all but two instalments in the series each of which broadly follow a similar pattern to that introduced in the first film following the eponymous Tora as he gets himself mixed up in some kind of trouble, returns home to visit his family in Shibamata, and falls in love with a beautiful but unobtainable woman known as the “Madonna” in the series’ “mythology”, if you can call it that. At the beginning of Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp (男はつらいよ, Otoko wa Tsurai yo), Torajiro Kuruma (Kiyoshi Atsumi) or “Tora-san”, explains that he’s been in a wistful mood thinking about his hometown while viewing the cherry blossoms and has decided to go back to Shibamata for the first time in 20 years having left swearing never to return after arguing with his father who has since passed away as has his brother. Tora-san’s only remaining family members are his younger sister Sakura (Chieko Baisho), a small child when he left but now a grown woman in her mid-20s, and an uncle (Shin Morikawa) and aunt (Chieko Misaki) who’ve been looking after her and run a small dango shop. 

Being away for 20 years necessarily means that Tora has been on the road since he was a young teenager back in 1949 when Japan was still very much in the throws of post-war chaos, in contrast to the increasingly prosperous nation it has since become. On his return to town he is relieved to discover that the local priest (Chishu Ryu), as well as his aunt, still remember and recognise him but shocks them all with an incongruous, and frankly over the top, show of politeness as he expresses gratitude and filial piety towards his uncle and aunt for having raised his sister but then immediately afterwards tries to sell them some of his tacky sales goods including some kind of electronic bracelet with supposed health benefits. Nevertheless, the family, including his sister Sakura who works as a typist at an electrical goods company, are very glad to seem him after all these years. 

Hardly in the house five minutes before peeing in the garden instead of using the bathroom like a regular person, Tora is already undercutting the image he first presented and causing trouble with the neighbours. The major drama occurs when he ends up accompanying Sakura to an omiai arranged marriage meeting set up by her boss in a fancy hotel. Sakura hadn’t been keen to go to the omiai, her uncle and aunt assume because arranged marriages are already outdated, but as we later discover she’s developed a fondness for factory worker Hiroshi (Gin Maeda) who lives in the house directly behind theirs. The uncle and aunt encourage the match because it’s an opportunity to marry up, viewing it as better than Sakura could otherwise hope for as an orphan with no dowry. Tora agrees with them, encouraging his sister not to write off tradition, but he has little understanding of the etiquette for these kinds of situations and quickly scandalises the refined, upper-class family by drinking far too much, making bawdy jokes about the composition of Chinese characters, and using vulgar language. As expected the suitors decide not to take things further, though luckily Sakura’s boss does not seem to mind or hold Tora’s behaviour against her.

On the road since he was little more than a child, perhaps it’s no wonder that Tora struggles when trying (or not) to adapt to the rules of civilised society though as he later tells us, he also had a traumatic childhood beaten by his father who resented him for being illegitimate, conceived during a drunken indiscretion with a geisha (Sakura is a half-sister born to his father’s legal wife). At one point he loses his temper completely and finds himself slapping Sakura, accidentally starting a mass brawl in their courtyard, though it’s obvious afterwards that he deeply regrets his behaviour and despite being forgiven by his ever patient sister feels as if it might be better to leave again before he makes even more trouble for his family. 

Tora is, however, perhaps good trouble in that his heart is (broadly) in the right place even if he makes a lot of mistakes. He meddles in Sakura’s love life and almost destroys her chance of romantic happiness, but it all works out in the end and he might have a point in implying that without his mistaken intervention she and Hiroshi would have just gone on in silent longing. Nevertheless, he remains a romantically naive figure, falling for the elegant daughter of the local priest (Sachiko Mitsumoto) who surprises him by expressing a fondness for low entertainment but in real terms is never going to marry a man like Tora. “Mine’s a hard world” he explains to a boatman, sadly making his way back towards the road filled with a deep sense of despair but pressing on all the same, trying his luck wherever he goes just another plucky, though no longer so young, guy, left behind by the rapid pace of the post-war economic miracle.  


Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Village (同胞, Yoji Yamada, 1975)

The Village posterBest known for the long running Tora-san series, Yoji Yamada has often been disregarded by international critics for a perceived over indulgence in sentimentality. Nevertheless, his films are often at pains to capture a Japan which is changing with a noted ambivalence towards the results of those changes. Home From the Sea had rooted itself in the difficult decision of a young couple in realising that their way of life was no longer sustainable in a rapidly modernising economy. The Village (同胞, Harakara) returns to a similar theme, once again harping on “furusato” while the conflicted younger residents of a farming village struggle with the decision to accept the life passed down to them by their parents or abandon it in favour of the bright lights of an urban future.

Narrated by Takashi (Akira Terao), a young farmer and president of the local youth club, The Village revolves around one heady spring in which the arrival of a sophisticated woman from Tokyo injects additional stimulation into the sometimes stagnant community. Takashi, in many ways a very typical resident of Matsuo and many other rapidly depopulating rural villages like it, has taken over his family dairy farm following the death of his father when he was relatively young. His brother, Hiroshi (Hisashi Igawa), took a factory job to help make ends meet and put Takashi through school but has now become embittered and resentful as the widowed father of two young girls. Trapped by circumstance he berates Takashi for his diffidence in remaining uncommitted to farm life while perhaps dreaming of something better that he is too afraid to pursue.

The arrival of Hideko Konno (Chieko Baisho) seems to give Takashi a new sense of purpose. Hideko works for an itinerant theatre company based out of Tokyo which makes a point of taking shows to remote areas which might not ordinarily get much access to the arts. The snag is that the locality will have to take the responsibility of producing the show and absorbing the shortfall should they fail to sell enough tickets to cover costs. Takashi is tempted but he’s also well aware of the risks – the investment is sizeable given the relative poverty of the rural area and the risks involved with failure extreme.

Yamada places the dilemma surrounding whether or not to produce the show at the forefront, but the questions are bigger than they might at first seem. It has to be said that farming, whatever its rewards, is an extremely hard life. As a character puts it in the emotively titled play “Furusato”, it’s disheartening when you get a bad harvest and all your work goes for nothing but it’s almost worse when the harvest is good and the value of your work drops exponentially. For Takashi and the others, the youth association is a much needed social outlet even if many of them regard it as something of a joke and rarely get around to doing very much with it. The idea of the play is attractive to them for several reasons, having something more interesting to do not the least among them, not to mention offering a valuable break in routine in what can often be an overly ordered and somewhat stagnant existence.

However, the very same reasons the play appeals to the youngsters are the ones their elders find suspicious. Having made their peace with rural life and learned to adapt to its rhythms, the older generation worry that the young ones are being swayed by outside influences and neglecting their work in favour of idle pursuits. Meanwhile, many of the youngsters have already left to try their luck in the cities, some of them returning and bringing new experiences back with them while others resolve to remain where the lights are brighter.

Setting the scene, Yamada reminds us the factories have long been encroaching on farmland and that this “ancient” way of life is becoming ever harder in a rapidly modernising economy, but through their involvement with the play and its extremely close to home themes, the members of the youth association are finally able to look at their village through new eyes, seeing not only its immense visual beauty for the first time but learning to reappreciate the value of community and friendship. Life in the city might be more glamorous but perhaps it’s no less hard and only lonely in a different way. At once a celebration of and lament for a changing rural landscape, The Village asks an accidentally profound series of questions about life and happiness but once again puts its faith in goodhearted people creating meaning from togetherness in a world that might otherwise set them apart.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Home from the Sea (故郷, Yoji Yamada, 1972)

Home from the sea still 1By the early 1970s, Japan was well on its way to an economic recovery with memories of post-war privation fading and modern consumerism rapidly taking hold in the national mindset. Contemporary cinema understandably saw this as a good thing, that brighter times were coming and soon enough everyone would be enjoying a comfortable, prosperous life. The future, however, was not always evenly distributed and modernisation brought with it problems as well as solutions. Yoji Yamada’s Home from the Sea (故郷, Kokyo/Furusato*) paints a melancholy picture of a changing Japan as an earnest young couple are forced to consider leaving their beloved hometown to seek their fortunes elsewhere.

Seiichi Ishizaki (Hisashi Igawa) owns a small transport boat he uses to ferry rocks between construction sites. He is sometimes joined by his wife, Tamiko (Chieko Baisho), who serves as the boat’s engineer. The couple live with Seiichi’s elderly father (Chishu Ryu) and their two daughters on a small island in the Inland Sea. Times are hard. Fuel costs are increasing making Seiichi’s business much less profitable while his boat is old and slow. The maintenance costs alone are difficult to contemplate and the family cannot afford to invest in one of the new steel boats which are currently sucking up most of the available work. Seiichi’s younger brother who used to work on the boat with him has already given up and moved on, taking his wife and children to another town where he works in a factory. Many people seem to think Seiichi would do well to do the same, but he is stubborn. He refuses to be pushed out of his ancestral home and occupation simply because of the unfairness of his times.

A little way into the film, a friendly fishmonger, Matsushita (Kiyoshi Atsumi), who often stops by to have dinner with the family expounds on the beauty of the town. He can’t understand why anyone would want to leave somewhere as lovely as this. Unlike the Ishizakis, Matsushita wasn’t born on the island but in Korea – his parents died during the repatriation after the war and he’s been getting by on his own ever since. He’s done many different jobs and lived in many different places but has chosen to make his home here. A fishmonger’s job is probably always safe (to an extent, at least) in a small harbour town, but Seiichi’s isn’t and he needs money to feed his family. There is no other work on the island, and so there is no way to stay without making the boat pay.

The boat, however, is already 19 years old. Transport ships are only intended to last 10. The engine is faulty and the hull is in desperate need of repair but a visit to the original shipwright reveals that to do so would not be cost effective. The best thing to do would be to buy one of the shiny new steel vessels like their neighbour’s, but that’s far out of Seiichi’s reach. All along the shoreline, you can see the charred remains of boats belonging to those like Seiichi who’ve finally come to the conclusion that their era has passed.

“Can’t beat the Big” is a local mantra. In early ‘70s Japan, counterintuitively enough, size is everything. Not just the boats themselves, but the fleets and the architecture of life. You can’t survive as your own boss anymore because the little guy alone has no power when corporations and conglomerates are extending their reach even into tiny islands. Seiichi goes to have a look at the factory in Onomichi to which he’s been recommended by a friend. It’s not as bad as he thought, but it’s huge and filled with hundreds of identically dressed faceless men. The food is awful, and they’d have no friends. Nevertheless, needs must. If you can’t fight the Big you’ll have to become a part of it or it’ll swallow you whole.

Still the sadness of leaving one’s hometown behind against one’s will with one eye always looking back towards the shoreline is difficult to bear. Seiichi’s father, who had been looking after the children and was therefore extremely close to them, will be staying behind with no one left to look after him save the community itself. Progress might be a good thing, but there are costs too and small town Japan is one of them. It’s sad, but there’s nothing you can do about it. The post-war world might not require so much “gaman” anymore, but bearing the demands of modernity just might.


*According to Shochiku’s website and the narrator in the trailer, the official title is “Kokyo” which is the Sino-Japanese reading of the kanji (故郷) but it’s also often listed under the title “Furusato” – the slightly more emotive native Japanese reading.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Downtown Heroes (ダウンタウンヒーローズ, AKA Hope and Pain, Yoji Yamada, 1988)

Downtown Heroes posterUnlike many of his contemporaries, Yoji Yamada was an infrequent visitor to the youth movie. Best remembered for his long running Tora-san series, Yamada’s later output is marked by an alternation of laughter and tears, running between raucous family comedies and poignant examinations of wartime loss. Set in the immediate postwar period, 1988’s Downtown Heroes (ダウンタウンヒーローズ, AKA Hope and Pain) adapts the autobiographical novel by Akira Hayasaka for a twin tale of endings and beginnings as a group of boys prepare to leave the Japan of their childhood behind and set out into the brand-new post-war future.

Our narrator for the tale is Hayasaka’s stand-in, Kosuke (Hashinosuke Nakamura), a sensitive young man from the mountains studying at the prestigious boys’ boarding school in town. The Matsuyama high school is one of the last to still be operating in Japan’s pre-war educational model. In fact, when the boys graduate the school will shut down in favour of the American 6-3-3 standard model of organising the educational system. Nevertheless, Kosuke and his friends enjoy what seems like a fantastically broad curriculum to modern eyes, much of which consists of classic German literature. Rather than their family names, the boys refer to each other with a series of nicknames inspired by their studies and have been heavily influenced by European left-wing political ideology. Accordingly, they are less than happy about the imposed American “reforms” and, paradoxically, the restrictions placed on their individual “freedom” by the “imperialist” occupation.

The central drama revolves around two episodes occurring one after another during the final year of high school. The first involves Kosuke’s friend Arles (Toshinori Omi) and a prostitute he helps to rescue from the red light district – Sakiko (Eri Ishida) was supposed to elope with a student from the school, but he didn’t show up and if the people from the brothel she was sold to find her she’ll be in big trouble. Her suitor turns out to be a fraud, but the boys are committed to saving her and hide Sakiko in their dorm, sharing their meagre rations with her before helping her escape to her home town. Meanwhile, the boys are also preparing for the very last culture festival the school will ever see at which they will present their adaptation of a classic German play. The snag is, the play needs a girl. Eventually the gang enlist the help of Fusako (Hiroko Yakushimaru) – a student at the girls’ school recently repatriated from Manchuria who also happens to be the young lady Kosuke had a meet cute with on the road and has been in love with ever since. Trouble brews when Gan (Tetta Sugimoto), the play’s director, falls in love with her too.

Told from the POV both of the old and the young Kosuke, the atmosphere is one of intense melancholy and inescapable nostalgia. Though these were times of hardship – rationing is fierce and intense, so much so that the school no longer serves meals at all on Sundays and the boys largely subsist on rice gruel, they were also times of joy and possibility. These are however youngsters in the best tradition of the sensitive young men of Japanese literature. They feel everything deeply, fully aware that they are living on the cusp of something new, which necessarily also means to be standing atop a grave. Their world is collapsing and the values they’ve been given (progressive though they seem to be) are about to be thrown out of the window. They have been taught that nothing is more important than their personal autonomy and that personal freedom is attained only through overcoming hardship, but their lives will increasingly be dictated by occupying forces and they feel themselves robbed of something without the right to reply.

Nevertheless their problems are also ordinary teenage ones of romantic crises and friendship dilemmas. Kosuke struggles with his love at first sight crush on Fusako but remains too diffident to say anything until it’s almost too late, while he also struggles to figure out what the most proper thing to do is when Gan reveals he is also in love with her. Gan, a sensitive writer, apparently burns with longing – so much so that he’s written a book long confession of love in apology for being unable to declare himself in person. Kosuke, a good friend, agrees to deliver the letter but both of them have neglected to consider Fusakao’s feelings so bound up are they in their own solipsistic dramas. Fusako was also struck by the love bug on her first meeting with Kosuke and has been patiently waiting for him to say something (as is the custom of the time). She is therefore doubly hurt and offended when he delivers a mini-tome on the theme of love from someone else before attempting to leave abruptly in a huff. Truth be told, there are few women who would enjoy being handed a thesis as a confession, but Fusako is really not in the mood to read one now.

Ending on a melancholy epilogue in which the old Kosuke looks on at field of young men playing American football before some others in running shorts brush past him and a young couple enjoy an evening walk, Yamada embraces the mild sense of deflation that has been building since the beginning. Young love faded and the dreams of youth were destined to come to nothing – not quite a tragedy, or perhaps only one of the ordinary kind, but food for the regrets of age all the same. The times were hard, and then they got better but somehow they were never so happy again. A youth drama indeed.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Theme song “Jidai” performed by Hiroko Yakushimaru