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

The Strangers Upstairs (二階の他人, Yoji Yamada, 1961)

strangers upstairsLate into his career, veteran Japanese director Yoji Yamada has become synonymous with a particular brand of maudlin comedies and tearjerking dramas often starring veteran actress and long standing collaborator Sayuri Yoshinaga. He is, however, most associated with the iconic long running Tora-san series which revolved around the heartwarming adventures of the titular travelling salesman. Tora-san does indeed epitomise Yamada’s general philosophy which leans towards realistic humanism, finding resolution in kindness and decency yet accepting that oftentimes the rules may need to be bent in order to accommodate them. In this respect his Shochiku debut, featuring a script written by his mentor Yoshitaro Nomura, is a good indicator of Yamada’s future career in its humorous tale of a newlywed couple filled with ambitions of social mobility in the rapidly modernising post-war economy.

Salaryman Masami (Kazuya Kosaka) has taken out a huge loan to build a new house for himself and his new wife, Akiko (Kyoko Aoi), but, to keep costs manageable, they’ve decided to do without a bathroom (there’s a bathhouse across the street) and added an extra floor with the intention of renting it out for a little extra money. So far, married life is going pretty well – Masami and Akiko are a nice, well matched young couple happy in each other’s company and committed towards forging a harmonious future.

The problem is their lodgers are a little, well, difficult. Not having anticipated any “difficulty”, Masami and Akiko are becoming worried that their upstairs neighbours are already a few months behind on the rent and seeing as their contract also includes food, they’ve been eating for free. Not really wanting to broach this difficult subject, Masami and Akiko try gentle prodding to remind their lodgers they need to pay their dues only for the couple to act embarrassed and claim they’d forgotten because they’d always lived with their parents in the past. Finding out that the central concern is that the husband, Hisao (Masaaki Hirao), is currently unemployed, Masami decides to help him find a job but quickly finds out that working is just not Hisao’s thing. Meanwhile, Hisao’s wife, Haruko (Chieko Seki), is picking up extra money working as a hostess in a bar, rolling in roaring drunk in the middle of the night and singing loudly as she does so.

With their patience wearing thin, Masami and Akiko ponder the best way to evict lodgers who refuse to leave but they have another problem on their hands in the form of Masami’s cantankerous mother, Tomi (Toyo Takahashi), who has arrived from the country without warning for an “indefinite” visit after falling out with another of her daughter-in-laws. An unsophisticated country bumpkin with a wicked tongue and serious hanafuda habit, Masami’s mum does not quite fit with the couple’s upwardly mobile aspirations and, annoyingly, immediately sides with Hisao and Haruko whose self-centred laziness is more in keeping with her backstreet ways.

If Masami and Akiko disliked Hisao and Haruko essentially for being too common, their second set of lodgers present the opposite problem. Taizo (Tatsuo Nagai) and Yoko (Reiko Hitomi) seemingly have money to burn, so why are they renting an upstairs room in an “up and coming” area of the city? Akiko is quickly taken with their small luxuries, in awe of her lodgers’ sophistication and upperclass elegance and obviously happy that they won’t be having the same kind of troubles that they had with Hisao and Haruko. When Taizo and Yoko offer to front the money to build a bathroom, Masami and Akiko are surprised but eventually grateful even if taking a “loan” from the people who are renting from you presents a definite shift in power dynamics.

The dynamic shifts even further with another crisis sparking the return of Masami’s mum who has once again been kicked out by a disgruntled relative. Masami’s older brother, who put up some of the money for the house, insists that he honour a vague promise he made that family members in need of refuge would be free to stay with him by kicking out his lodgers and letting his mother live in the upstairs room. Not really wanting to take responsibility for his troublesome mother, and feeling friendly with Taizo and Yoko, Masami refuses and promises to pay his brother back instead – ironically borrowing the money from Taizo.

As predicted Taizo and Yoko are not quite all they seem, but like Masami and Akiko, they are a fairly new couple trying to make a go of it in the often cruel post-war world. On finding out the scandalous secret about their lodgers, Masami and Akiko are torn – they like Taizo and Yoko, plus they’re massively indebted to them thanks to the loan and the money for the bathroom, but they also worry about becoming an accessory or being accused of aiding and abetting. Their first reaction is to feign politeness and carry on as normal pretending not to know whilst asking around to see if they can borrow more money from other friends to pay back Taizo and Yoko before asking them to leave quietly.

Masami and Akiko, like many of their peers, have aspirations beyond their current pay level and have put themselves at a huge disadvantage trying to live up to the salaryman dream. Yamada opens with an ironic title sequence featuring a series of “Lego” model houses – something which Masami later plays with while lamenting the seemingly small possibility of hanging on to his new home. Homeowning is unexpectedly complicated and becoming a landlord even more so. Masami and Akiko wanted their own mini castle – a status symbol (the policeman’s wife from behind is very jealous), but also a space to call their own which reflects their individual hopes, dreams, and aspirations. They’ve forgone the convenience of a bathroom for the impact of a second floor all while hoping it will pay for itself until they’re ready to use it to expand their family. Until then, they’re content to live in one room and share a kitchen, even providing communal meals if necessary.

The money, however, is a constant worry – the original debt which they accrued to build the house quickly brings its own share of troubles, shifting from one creditor to another as the couple try to invest their fortunes with “nicer” or “worthier” people. Not everyone is nice, as Akiko finds out when she asks Masami’s lecherous boss if he’d mind lending them the money only for him to hint at an extremely indecent proposal. Though Masami seems to be a decent and honest sort who wants to work hard and get on, he is still subject to the salaryman chain of command which means doing his boss’ bidding out side of work hours which turns out to entail further “alibi” duties when he discovers they’re virtually neighbours (though the boss’ house is obviously far more impressive).

Despite all their difficulties, the goodness of Masami and Akiko eventually pays off, their one and only row quickly resolving itself without rancour. Taizo and Yoko, neatly matched in kindness with their former landlords, are grateful for the brief time they spent in the upstairs room and resolved not to bring any trouble into the lives of the nice young couple from downstairs. Masami and Akiko, equally grateful for the consideration, commit themselves to moving forward with a little more temperance, saving the money to pay back Taizo and Yoko and help them in turn when they might need it. Hard work, honesty, and a kind heart, it seems, are what you need to be happy in the burgeoning post-war economy and Masami and Akiko are happy indeed.


Original promo roll (no subtitles)

Flag in the Mist (霧の旗, Yoji Yamada, 1965)

flag in the mist poster 2In theory, we’re all equal under the law, but the business of justice is anything but egalitarian. Yoji Yamada is generally known for his tearjerking melodramas or genial comedies but Flag in the Mist (霧の旗, Kiri no Hata) is a rare step away from his most representative genres, drawing inspiration from America film noir and adding a touch of typically Japanese cynical humour. Based on a novel by Japanese mystery master Seicho Matsumoto, Flag in the Mist is a tale of hopeless, mutually destructive revenge which sees a murderer walk free while the honest but selfish pay dearly for daring to ignore the poor in need of help. A powerful message in the increasing economic prosperity of 1965, but one that leaves no clear path for the successful revenger.

Kiriko (Chieko Baisho), a twenty year old typist from Kyushu, has taken an arduous train journey into Tokyo to get a meeting with a top lawyer she hopes will defend her older brother and only living relative from a trumped up murder charge. The clerk attempts to dissuade her – Mr. Otsuka (Osamu Takizawa) charges a hefty sum for his services and, in any case, his docket is too full to be travelling back and forth to Kyushu never mind the additional travel and accommodation costs. Kiriko is disappointed but undeterred – she thinks she can manage the expenses, but asks for a discount on the fee. The clerk finds this amusing and does at least ask Otsuka who finally agrees to see Kiriko seeing as she’s come all this way. She makes an impression on him but ultimately he tells her he’s just too busy and she’s better off looking for a lawyer closer to home.

Kiriko leaves disappointed but refuses to give up, missing her original train to try again by telephone but Otsuka has already gone out “to see clients” and so she finally has to accept her mission to save her brother may have stalled. While Kiriko was using the public phone, she was overheard by a reporter, Abe (Yosuke Kondo), who wants to write something on the case but his Tokyo based bosses aren’t so keen on a local interest story from halfway across the country.

A year later, Kiriko’s brother Masao (Shigeru Tsuyuguchi) has been convicted and sentenced to death. After his second appeal fails, Masao dies of illness in prison before the sentence could be carried out. Kiriko writes a bitter letter to Otsuka blaming him for her brother’s death which forces Otsuka to reconsider his decision not to take the case. He comes to the conclusion that the case was unwinable and therefore his decision not to take it made no difference but then, he spots something that no one else seems to have noticed.

A tenacious and strong willed young woman – you’d have to be to jump on a long distance train from a tiny village all the way to the big city on your own in 1965, Kiriko is determined to save her brother but finds herself facing an uphill battle against a society deliberately structured to ignore her voice and those of everyone like her. Kiriko is an orphan and so her older bother is also a kind of father figure as well as the only living relative she has left. Masao had been a primary school teacher, which is to say a respected member of society, but found himself involved with a loanshark who was later murdered after he lost some cash collected from students to pay for a school trip and borrowed money he couldn’t pay back from a ruthless old woman. Masao has made a mistake he’s going to pay for dearly – disgraced and humiliated, it was easy work to frame him for a violent crime and force him into a confession through the usual police methods. Kiriko won’t stand for it, but she’s powerless to help him.

Otsuka is, in a sense, entitled to charge what he wants for his services. He’s clearly a talented lawyer, very much in demand, and so why “should” he trek all the way out to Kyushu for a case that doesn’t interest him when he has enough clients already. He does, at least, bother to listen to Kiriko’s pitch before letting her down gently, but just when it seems he might be about to change his mind he tells his clerk to cancel all his appointments and winds up on the golf course with his girlfriend. So much for being too busy to save an innocent man’s life.

Kiriko’s “whole life has been desecrated by one incident” as she cuttingly writes later in a letter which forms a crucial part of her plot of revenge against the man who refused to save her brother’s life (half talking about something else). Forced out of her hometown where she’s the murderer’s sister, she finds work as hostess going by the club name of Rie in a Tokyo bar which has a Kyushu theme. This brings her back into contact with the reporter, Abe, and that isn’t the last of the coincidences as Kiriko finds herself swept up by circumstances which allow her to turn an unfortunate series of events into a cunning plan to ruin Otsuka by neatly echoing the precise circumstances of her brother’s case. Now it’s Otsuka forced to plead with her night after night, begging on his knees that she agree to testify and turn over key evidence that proves his client is innocent all while Kiriko adamantly sticks to her story.

Yamada conjures a tense and gloomy film noir world, following Kiriko down foggy passageways as she tries to navigate the city from the shadows, chasing the spectre of the unjust but losing herself in the process. Masao dies because he was too poor to hire a good lawyer to save him from the police who were supposed to be protecting him, but decided it was easier to stitch up someone without influence than find the real killer. His sister destroys herself to get revenge not just on lawyers more interested in fame and success than in serving justice but on an entire society which believes her existence is insufficiently important to merit full consideration. Otsuka is not a bad man, he is not corrupt or incompetent, he is merely selfish in all the ways his society encourages him to be. Originally letting himself off the hook with the excuse that his decision made no difference, he’s genuinely horrified when he realises he’s noticed a crucial clue which could have exonerated Masao even if it’s an equally selfish guilt he feels more than a recognition that he’s failed his duty to justice by letting an innocent man die while a guilty one lives to kill again. No one wins in this case, everyone emerges ruined and broken by the increasing inequalities and selfish individualism of the post-war world. Justice is blind, so they say, but perhaps she needs to open her eyes.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Nagasaki: Memories of My Son (母と暮せば, Yoji Yamada, 2015)

nagasaki-memories-of-my-sonAfter such a long and successful career, Yoji Yamada has perhaps earned the right to a little retrospection. Offering a smattering of cinematic throwbacks in homages to both Yasujiro Ozu and Kon Ichikawa, Yamada then turned his attention to the years of militarism and warfare in the tales of a struggling mother, Kabei, and a young a woman finding herself a haven from the ongoing political storm inside The Little House. Nagasaki: Memories of My Son (母と暮せば, Haha to Kuraseba) unites both of these impulses in its examination of maternal grief set amidst the mass tragedy of the atomic bomb and in the obvious reference hidden inside Japanese title (another Yamada trend) to the 2004 Kazuo Kuroki film The Face of Jizo (父と暮せば, Chichi to Kuroseba), itself based on a play by Hisashi Inoe. Whereas the young woman of Hiroshima found herself literally haunted by the image of her father to the extent that she was unable to continue living in the present, the mother at the centre of Nagasaki is approaching the end of her life but only now, three years after the bombing, is she ready to allow the idea of her son’s death to cement itself within her mind.

Nobuko’s (Sayuri Yoshinaga) son Koji (Kazunari Ninomiya) left as normal on that fateful morning, in a hurry as always, leaping onto the outside of a crowded bus that would take him to the university for a lecture on anatomy. That was three years ago and now it’s August again but in the absence of a body Nobuko has never been able to accept the death of her son, despite the picture on the altar and the two previous trips she’s made to the family grave on this date along with Koji’s girlfriend, Machiko (Haru Kuroki). Finally, Nobuko is beginning to feel it’s time to accept the inevitable, that her son is not lost somewhere and unable to find his way home but in some other world. This grudging acceptance of Koji’s death is the thing which returns him to her as the prodigal son suddenly appears one evening in spirit form to reminisce with his mother about the carefree pre-war days.

Kazunari Ninomiya’s Koji is, appropriately enough, a larger than life presence. A cheerful chatterbox, Koji blusters in to his old family home with the same kind of amusing energy he’d always lent it, laughing raucously to his mother’s polite but strange under the circumstances greeting of “have you been well?”. Reminiscences generally lean towards happier times but each time Koji becomes upset he suddenly disappears again, leaving his mother alone with all her sorrows. Nobuko lost both her sons to the war and her husband to TB and so she is quite alone now save for the kindhearted attentions of Machiko who continues to stop by and help her with house work or just keep her company.

The two women share an intense bond in their shared grief. Almost like mother and daughter Nobuko and Machiko help each other to bear the weight of their loneliness in the wake of such overwhelming tragedy. However, Nobuko is beginning to feel guilty in monopolising the life of this young woman who might have been her daughter-in-law or the mother of her grandchildren by now if things were different. Can she really ask her to sacrifice the rest of her life to a memory? Machiko swears that she has no desire to ever marry, preferring to remain loyal to her true love. “Shanghai Uncle” a black marketeer who brings Nobuko all the hard to find items not available through the normal channels, offers to set up an arranged marriage for the young woman but Nobuko is quick to turn it down on her behalf. In this new age of democracy, she says, young women ought to have the right to choose their own path whatever that may be. Nobuko respects Machiko’s choice, but after talking things over with Koji, urges her to consider letting the past go and honouring Koji’s memory by living fully while there is still time.

Interestingly enough, Machiko’s potential suitor, Kuroda – an injured war veteran and fellow teacher at the school where she teaches, is played by Tadanobu Asano who also played the shy researcher who began to reawaken the heart of the daughter at the centre of The Face of Jizo, Mitsue. Mitsue’s problem was more obviously one of survivor’s guilt, literally haunted by the friendly spirit of her genial father who continually urges her to embrace this last opportunity for happiness, to go on living even whilst others can’t. Nobuko’s journey is almost the reverse as she, essentially, attempts to cleave herself away from her life by ensuring Machiko is taken care of and knows that she has nothing to feel guilty about in seeking happiness even if it can’t be with Koji.

Despite the innovative opening sequence featuring the cockpit and targeting system of the plane which eventually dropped the bomb and the chilling effects sequence as it takes hold, Yamada then reverts to a kind of classical stateliness which is never as effective as Kuroki’s eerie magical realism. Adding in the Christian imagery associated with Nagasaki, the film takes a turn for the mawkish during the final sequence which descends into a series of heavenly cliches from fluffy white clouds to angelic choirs. Warm and melancholy, Nagasaki: Memories of My Son is a poignant exploration of life in the aftermath of preventable tragedy but one which also makes the case for moving on, honouring the legacy of the past with a life lived richly and to the full.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

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)

What a Wonderful Family! (家族はつらいよ, Yoji Yamada, 2016)

what-a-wonderful-familyProlific as he is, veteran director Yoji Yamada (or perhaps his frequent screenwriter in recent years Emiko Hiramatsu) clearly takes pleasure in selecting film titles but What a Wonderful Family! (家族はつらいよ, Kazoku wa Tsurai yo) takes things one step further by referencing Yamada’s own long running film series Otoko wa Tsurai yo (better known as Tora-san). Stepping back into the realms of comedy, Yamada brings a little of that Tora-san warmth with him for a wry look at the contemporary Japanese family with all of its classic and universal aspects both good and bad even as it finds itself undergoing number of social changes.

Once upon a time it was normal for the entire family clan to live together, sons bring their wives to their father’s house, become fathers and then grandfathers themselves passing the property on their eldest when they go. After the war everything changed, the return to prosperity brought about a greater need for mobility as well as increasing desire for privacy and individual freedom which saw the domestic environment shrinking.

The Hiratas still live the old way with “difficult” family patriarch Shuzo (Isao Hashizume) nominally in the lead but spending his retirement in the local bar flirting with the mama-san, Kayo (Jun Fubuki), who is gracious, but extremely skilled in her work which often involves deflecting the attentions of the clientele. His long suffering wife, Tomiko (Kazuko Yoshiyuki), eases her boredom with classes at the local community centre while the wife of eldest son Konosuke (Masahiko Nishimura), Fumie (Yui Natsukawa), has taken taken over the running of the household whilst also taking care of her two sons. The house is also still home to sensitive youngest son Shota (Satoshi Tsumabuki), and a point of refuge for daughter Shigeko (Tomoko Nakajima), during her inevitable fights with mild mannered husband Taizo (Shozo Hayashiya).

When Shuzo can’t really be bothered with his wife’s birthday, he asks her what she’d like as a present – as long as it’s not too expensive, he’s not made of money after all. That’s no problem she says, what I want only costs 450 yen. Shuzo’s confusion gives way to shock as he realises the bit of paper he’s just been handed is a petition for divorce….

Tomiko’s reasoning is sound, the position she’s been occupying for the last forty years is, effectively, a job. Now that the children are grown and another woman has taken over the domestic responsibilities, Tomiko wants to retire and enjoy some well earned freedom at last. The decision sends the entire family into a spiralling existential crisis as they contemplate this unexpected development and what it could mean for their previously ordinary way of life.

It would be nice to think men like Shuzo are a dying breed, so gruff and aggressive that his own daughter-in-law almost hangs up on him thinking he’s an “ore ore” scammer. Having worked hard for his family throughout his life, he feels a tremendous sense of entitlement in playing the king of his own domain. Tomiko, by side all these years putting up with his rudeness, selfishness, and inconsiderate behaviour is thoroughly sick of being taken for granted and unfavourably compared to a bar hostess whose job it is to stroke her husband’s ego.

More challenges to the domestic set up occur when youngest son Shota, still living at home into his 30s, decides to move out and get married. The polar opposite of his brash father, Shota has often been the mediator between different family factions which might well have gone to war and destroyed the household long before now were it not for his calming influence. A marriage would usually be a cause for celebration but Shota has picked exactly the wrong time to introduce his lovely new fiancée, Noriko (Yu Aoi), to the family right in the middle of this extended moment of crisis.

Divorce is still a taboo subject in Japan carrying its own degree of stigma whatever the circumstances which makes Tomiko’s sudden bid for individualistic freedom all the more difficult to understand for her family. This is thrown into sharp relief when Tomiko begins enquiring about Noriko’s family background and discovers she is actually the child of divorced parents only to have a momentary flash of distaste or perhaps mild disapproval before getting over it and trying to make her son’s future wife feel welcome even in this quite tense domestic environment. Disconnected from her own family, being suddenly thrown into the deep end with the boisterous and perhaps too closely involved Hiratas might be a little overwhelming for Hirata-in-waiting Noriko but luckily she takes to it well enough and perhaps finds the liberated frustrations of the large family unit a warm rather than intimidating experience.

It is, indeed, hard being a family. Total honesty is neither possible nor advisable and harmony is largely born of mutual compromise but the essential thing is understanding – both of everyone else’s feelings and of everyone’s unique places within the familial system. Like any good Japanese family drama things have to change so that everything can stay the same, and there’s a poignant moment towards the end where we observe the large number of vacant family homes in the neighbourhood where the elderly owners have either died or moved into residential care facilities while their children and grandchildren founded homes of their own. At the end of the day all anyone wants is a degree recognition as an individual rather than as an embodiment of a concept and if certain people are able to swallow their pride, there might still be hope for the old ways yet.


HK Trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Kabei: Our Mother (母べえ, Yoji Yamada, 2008)

KabeiYoji Yamada’s films have an almost Pavlovian effect in that they send even the most hard hearted of viewers out for tissues even before the title screen has landed. Kabei (母べえ), based on the real life memoirs of script supervisor and frequent Kurosawa collaborator Teruyo Nogami, is a scathing indictment of war, militarism and the madness of nationalist fervour masquerading as a “hahamono”. As such it is engineered to break the hearts of the world, both in its tale of a self sacrificing mother slowly losing everything through no fault of her own but still doing her best for her daughters, and in the crushing inevitably of its ever increasing tragedy.

Summer, 1940. The Nogamis are a happy family who each refer to each other by adding the cute suffix of “bei” to their names. The father, Tobei (Bando Mitsugoro X), is a writer and an intellectual opposed to Japan’s increasing militarism and consequently has found himself in both political and financial difficulties as his writing is continually rejected by the censors. Eventually, the secret police come for him, dragging him away from his home in front of his terrified wife and daughters. After Tobei is thrown into jail for his “thought crimes”, the mother, Kabei (Sayuri Yoshinaga), is left alone with her two young girls Hatsuko and Teruyo (Hatsubei and Terubei in family parlance).

Though devastated, Kabei does not give up and continues to try and visit her husband, urging his release and defending his reputation but all to no avail. Thankfully, she does receive assistance from some of her neighbours who, at this point at least, are sympathetic to her plight and even help her get a teaching job to support herself and the children in the absence of her husband. She also finds an ally in the bumbling former student, Yamazaki (Tadanobu Asano), as well as her husband’s sister Hisako (Rei Dan), and her brother (Tsurube Shofukutei) who joins them for a brief spell but ultimately proves a little too earthy for the two young middle class daughters of a dissident professor.

The time passes and life goes on. The war intensifies as do the attitudes of Kabei’s friends and neighbours though the family continues its individual struggle, sticking to their principles but also keeping their heads down. By the war’s end, Kabei has lost almost everything but managed to survive whilst also ensuring her children are fed and healthy. A voice over from the older Teryuo calmly announces the end of the conflict to us in such a matter of fact way that it’s impossible not wonder what all of this was for? All of this suffering, death and loss and what has it led to – even more suffering, death and loss. A senseless waste of lives young and old, futures ruined and families broken.

Yet for all that, and to return to the hahamono, the Nogami girls turned out OK. Successful lives built in the precarious post-war world with careers, husbands and families. Unlike many of the children in the typical mother centric movie, Hatsuko and Teruyo are perfectly aware of the degree to which their mother suffered on their behalf and they are both humbled and grateful for it. Kabei was careful and she kept moving to protect her children in uncertain times. Seen through the eyes of a child, the wartime years are ones of mounting terror as fanatical nationalism takes hold. Bowler hatted men seem to rule everything from the shadows and former friends and neighbours are primed to denounce each other for such crimes as having the audacity to wear lipstick in such austere times. In one notable scene, the neighbourhood committee begins its meeting by bowing at the Imperial Palace, until someone remembers the paper said the Emperor was in a different palace entirely and they all have to bow the other way just in case.

Though the tale is unabashedly sentimental, Yamada mitigates much of the melodrama with his firmly domestic setting. We see the soldiers massing in the background and feel the inevitable march of history but the sense of tragedies both personal and national, overwhelming as it is, is only background to a testament to the strength of ordinary people in trying times. An intense condemnation of the folly of war and the collective madness that is nationalism, Kabei is the story of three women but it’s also the story of a nation which suffered and survived. Now more than ever, the lessons of the past and the sorrow which can only be voiced on the deathbed are the ones which must be heeded, lest more death and loss and suffering will surely follow.


Original trailer (English subtitles)