The Little House (小さいおうち, Yoji Yamada, 2014)

the-little-houseIf 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)

The Fallen Angel (人間失格, Genjiro Arato, 2010)

fallen-angelThe Fallen Angel (人間失格, Ningen Shikkaku), based on one of the best known works of Japanese literary giant Osamu Dazai – No Longer Human, was the last in a series of commemorative film projects marking the 100th anniversary of the author’s birth in 2009. Like much of Dazai’s work, No Longer Human is semi-autobiographical, fixated on the idea of suicide, and charts the course of its protagonist as he becomes hopelessly lost in a life of dissipation, alcohol, drugs, and overwhelming depression.

Even when we meet him as a small child, Yozo Oba (Toma Ikuta), feels himself set apart from his peers. Unable to connect fully with the people around him, Yozo gets through life by playing the clown. As a teenager, he meets another boy, Takeichi, who can see straight through his mask and encourages him in his artistic pursuits. Eventually, Yozo moves to Tokyo where he meets another artist, Horiki (Yusuke Iseya), who introduces him to the seedier pleasures of the city including drinking and hostess bars.

Yozo still feels adrift and is unable to cement his new found friendship with true connection. After asking Horiki to die with him (which he laughingly refuses to do), Yozo begins an ill-starred romance with a melancholy bar hostess with whom he does actually attempt double suicide. She dies, he doesn’t but his life is changed when he loses access to his familial wealth and is kicked out of university because of the scandal. Yozo has another shot at conventional happiness by briefly forming a family with a single mother and her little girl before leaving them because of problems resulting from his alcoholism. Eventually marrying a kind hearted woman, Yozo kicks the booze for a while and builds a career in manga but sure enough Horiki finds him and ruins his marital bliss by setting him back on the road to dissipation.

Arato makes a few changes to Dazai’s novel, mostly streamlining the book’s tripartite structure by eliding two events into one, but perhaps because of the well known nature of the story, he feels comfortable in making abrupt cuts and wide ranging shifts in terms of time. Dazai’s novel is much more focussed on the mental condition of its protagonist, whereas Arato has opted for a more overt display of the increasingly tense political environment with soldiers lurking in the background, later occupying a train shortly before the scene turns into a surreal segment in which Yozo reacquaints himself with all those he’s wronged throughout the course of the film.

Yozo’s tragedy is his inability to connect with other people even though he leads an ostensibly successful social life. Making himself an amiable presence, Yozo keeps people around him by making himself a figure of fun – a mask which gradually becomes far too heavy to wear. This buffoonish aspect of his personality is not very much in evidence in Arato’s film which focusses much more on his underlying depression than the joviality he uses to try and prevent anyone noticing just how broken he is inside. For this reason it becomes harder to see why everybody lets Yozo get away with his extremely bad behaviour for so long. Toma Ikuta captures Yozo’s listlessness and despair but without the necessary intensity to back them up and, ironically, without his sad clown routine Yozo does not always seem like someone anyone would want to hang out with for any great length of time.

Arato has recreated the novel’s pervading sense of numbness and despair to the letter with the consequence that his film remains resolutely cold. As appropriate as that may be, it makes it harder to achieve the kind of connection forged through Yozo’s first person narrative in the book. This approach brings out Yozo’s unpleasant qualities – his selfishness, weakness, cowardice, and propensity to addiction, but fails to display his better ones which lead to him being characterised as the ruined “angel” of the title. In distancing us from Yozo, Arato encourages us to see him either as a metaphor for the political turmoil taking place in his country during his lifetime, or simply as a someone whose intense self loathing eventually destroys his sense of self. What it does not encourage us to do is see that Yozo’s struggle is our own struggle, his despair is our despair felt to a greater or lesser degree. Too obtuse to be affecting, The Fallen Angel fails to capture the overwhelming nihilism of Dazai’s novel and ironically remains far too distant to achieve true connection.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Villon’s Wife (ヴィヨンの妻 〜桜桃とタンポポ, Kichitaro Negishi, 2009)

Villon's Wife2009 marked the centenary year of Osamu Dazai, a hugely important figure in the history of Japanese literature who is known for his melancholic stories of depressed, suicidal and drunken young men in contemporary post-war Japan. Villon’s Wife (ヴィヨンの妻 〜桜桃とタンポポ, Villon no Tsuma: Oto to Tampopo) is a semi-autobiographical look at a wife’s devotion to her husband who causes her nothing but suffering thanks to his intense insecurity and seeming desire for death coupled with an inability to successfully commit suicide.

Beginning in the immediate post-war period of 1946, Sachiko (Takako Matsu) is a fairly ordinary housewife with a young son who generally waits around the house for her husband’s return. Only, she’s married to one of the most brilliant writers of the age, Joji Otani (Tadanobu Asano), whose book on the French poet François Villon is currently a best seller. Despite his obvious literary talents, Otani is a drunkard who spends most of his time (and money) in bars and with other women. When he crashes home one night only to be pursued by two bar owners who reveal that he ran off with their takings (around 5000 yen), Sachiko is not exactly surprised but still embarrassed and eventually takes matters into her own hands by volunteering to offer herself as a “hostage” by working at the bar until the debt is repaid.

“Men and women are equal now, even dogs and horses” says one customer, impressed with this sudden arrival of a beautiful woman in a low life drinking spot. To her own surprise, Sachiko actually enjoys working at the bar, it gives her purpose and proves more interesting than being stuck at home waiting to see what her drunken fool of a husband has got up to next. She’s good at it too – Sachiko is a beautiful and a fundamentally decent and kind person, in short the sort of woman that everyone falls a little bit in love with. That said, she isn’t a saint. She’s perfectly aware of the power she is able to wield over men and is unafraid to make use of it, though only when absolutely necessary.

Otani himself is a fairly pathetic figure. He may be a great artist but he’s a hollow human being. He admits the reason for all of his vices is fear – he’s a afraid to live but he’s also afraid to die. He seems to love his wife, though he’s insecure about losing her and dreads the embarrassment involved in becoming a cuckold. So afraid to face the possibility of failure, Otani satisfies himself in an underground world of drunks and easy women rather than facing his own self loathing as reflected in the faces of his unconditionally loving family.

Perhaps because Villon’s Wife is a commemorative project, the film has been given the prestige picture treatment meaning the darker sides of Dazai’s original novella have been largely excised. The chaos of the post-war city with its starving population, soldiers on the streets and generalised anxiety is all but hidden and some of the more serious travails Sachiko undergoes in devotion to her husband as well as Otani’s tuberculosis (from which Dazai also suffered in real life) have also largely been removed. What remains is the central picture of a self destructive husband and the goodly wife who’s trying to save him from himself but risks her own soul in the process.

The one spot of unseemliness of post-war life that the film lets through is in a brief scene which features a group of pan pan girls hanging around ready to try and snag some passing GIs. Sachiko buys some lipstick from them to use in attempt to convince an ex who is also a top lawyer to try and help her husband after his latest escapade lands him in jail on a possible murder charge. After visiting him, Sachiko wanders out slightly dazed to see the pan pans atop a military jeep cheerfully waving and shouting “goodbye” in English. Sachiko is confused at first but eventually shouts “goodbye” back in a way which is both excited and a little bit sad, perhaps realising she is not so different from them after all. Finally she wipes the lipstick from her face and leaves the small silver tube behind where the pan pans were sitting, hoping to bury this particular incident far in the past.

In actuality the pan pan girls are depicted in a fairly matter of fact way rather than in the negative light in which they are usually shown, just another phenomenon of occupation. At the end of the film Otani calls himself a monster whilst acknowledging that he’s a terrible father who would steal the cherries from his own son’s mouth. Sachiko replies that it’s OK to be a monster – as long as we’re alive, it’ll be alright. Oddly for someone so suicidal, this fits in quite well with Dazai’s tenet of embracing the simple gift of a dandelion. The film ends on an ambiguous note in which there seems to have been some kind of restoration but it’s far from a happy one as the couple remain locked in a perpetual battle between light and darkness albeit with the balance a little more equalised than it perhaps was before.


The R3 Hong Kong DVD release of Villon’s Wife includes English subtitles.